Vietnam – The Phoenix, the Turtle, the Dragon and the Unicorn

In which the Vietnamese try to destroy my prejudice and I search for the war that, as a young soldier, I could not support.It is easy to generalize on how rude and impolite the Vietnamese are; how you have to argue every price before you buy because they will systematically double, triple and quadruple it and more. If I had to define a Vietnamese, he is the guy that when you are walking out the door, rather than wait until you pass, he will barge in as if you are not there; the man who will talk loudly on his phone, play his radio in the train while you’re trying to relax, briefly, pretend nobody else exists. When you brave a street and try to cross, the scooter could go behind you but they will systematically cut in front of you, just as they will do to park on the sidewalk if you find one clear of soup cooking and parked scooters to walk on.

Then there are people like Wang from Vinh Long who is tender and smiling and points out all the little wonders of the Mekong Delta you would miss. Even the snakes have beauty in her eyes and how she curled up in a ball of fear when I told her of the deceased friends and relatives who come to visit me in my dreams. You would take her in your arms immediately and adopt her without hesitation. Wang seemed so fragile but like all Vietnamese women, she is strong as an ox.

Or Fawnzi, the ethnic Khmer guide who referred to us as “my family” and broke-down in tears of heartbreak when a stupid Italian girl accused him of pocketing money because he had to bribe the Vietnamese border police who refused to let her cross with her badly water damaged passport. Fawnzi explained to us with compassion how the fish farmers are getting it from both sides due to corruption. Although a Buddhist, he led us through the Muslim Cham village with nothing but warmth for the people there.

Or the stars of pride which lit the eyes of the Cham woman who was amazed to sell us her wonderful coconut and honey buns at 10 000 dongs a piece (50 cents) without us haggling over the price.

Tin, the receptionist in Hue, who was caught between our justified anger and his loyalty to the boss and never lost control, nor made us feel abused. The young girl at Phong Nha farm-stay who, when I tried to prevent her from carrying my heavy bag, said :“We Vietnamese are strong. We beat the Americans.”

And of course Mai, the Black Hmong, who although married at fifteen and never spent a day in school, is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. Her knowledge and insights will stay with me for ever and her smile is the warmest thing that happened to me in Vietnam, which is, obviously, a very hot country.

Vietnam is a country of wonderful individuals who deliberately tried to take my hard worked up prejudices apart stone by stone.

Vietnam is a country of diversity, beauty and contradictions. Although I was not reporting and lack a lot of the deep background to make an informed assessment of the state of its economy or labor force, I have noted many of my experiences and what I saw which, I hope, will walk you through an incredible land.

The Invisible War

Vietnam is a country, not a war. Most tourists probably get by without noticing the few traces of the wars the Vietnamese have not yet been able to erase. It was that Vietnam, in part, I was looking for and when you are looking, it is not hard to find.

My very close friend since I was 19, T. is a hero. He put his whole life on the line, took the risk of never returning home and to live in a foreign country where he did not speak the language with no qualifications to make a living because he refused to be part of an Army carrying out crimes on a scale few had ever reached. T. deserted the US Army in early 1973.

He wrote me an email when I was in Hanoi in which he said: “Tell them they owe us.” Sure, we could feel that way. I even saw old propaganda posters thanking Americans who protested the war with a drawing of an angry blond woman up front.

But then, every town, village and city you cross from north to south has its war cemetery with row upon row of graves; a million young men and women fighters who never got the chance to grow up because they refused to be occupied by the most powerful army in the world. I am certain most foreigners do not see them. They are off a ways from the main road and the guides don’t point them out. The war graves are the best kept places in the country and anybody entering one can only be overcome with the grief of waste and the admiration for sacrifice.

But where are the four to six million noncombatant Vietnamese who died in the “American War”? Most of the dead were in the South. Peter Arnett quoted an American officer speaking of the wasting of the Mekong Delta village of Ben Tre in 1968 as saying: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The US tried to “save” Vietnam by killing off ten percent of its population. You would not know that to see the country today. They were roughly forty million during the war. Four decades later they are pushing ninety million and Ben Tre is a thriving bee-hive of agricultural and economic activity.

It is easy to not see the war because most Vietnamese have no memory of it at all and have only known a booming economy and a country constantly building. Seventy-two percent of the Vietnamese are under 30. They have not seen the destruction. They did not lose their loved ones nor did they see their farms and villages erased from the earth. Few visit the Vinh Moc tunnels, just north of the Ben Hai River on the seventeenth parallel, the DMZ, where an entire village braved unnecessary and fruitless US bombing. Seventeen babies were born in the underground city. Even fewer will visit Troung Son National Cemetery, just a few miles from what was US Marine base Khe San in Quang Tri . As a matter of fact, our Vietnamese driver could not even find it, let alone understand why I wanted to go there.

Troung Son is the final resting place for 10, 300 Vietnamese souls who died defending the Ho Chi Minh trail. Each province of the country, from north to south, has its own semi-circular section. I walked several sections of the empty cemetery, save a few workers building a shrine, a young woman praying and two kids climbing a tree. Finally, in the center, at the Hanoi section, I stood at attention and saluted in several directions. “Du muss gegen den Krieg sein!” Sonja scolded me in horror. As a former soldier, one who supported their, the “enemy’s”, cause, I needed to salute the martyrs. That is why I came to Troung Son. That is in great part, why I came.

Although few visit the national cemetery, everybody with a business wanted to make sure they donated concrete benches with their company names on them. So many benches. They are piled on top of each and pushed uselessly into corners and basically just get in the way of those who want to pay their respects and reflect on their sacrifice. The businesses ‘advertised’ on the benches are doing fine.

“We did this to them.”

Our mini-bus stopped at one of the many roadside souvenir centers on the highway to Haiphong from Hanoi. These are places where you can buy giant marble sculptures that they will ship home for peanuts, or embroideries, ink and oil paintings or have a suit made. At the cash register was a man my age with both arms amputated below the elbows. On what remained of his left forearm he wore a big black rubber-band with a bic pen stuck in it which he used to punch the calculator and write out the price. My heart was heavy and I looked at Sonja and said “We did that to him.”

In Saigon a man with both legs amputated rolled up to me on a board with four wheels screwed to the bottom. He used two of those ten-inch plastic stools eateries use for seating to push himself along. His face was tight and bitter but he sat straight and even when I gave him a peddling 1000 dong, he kept his dignity. As he had obviously been on the wrong side, he was left to fend for himself, begging in abject poverty, probably ignored by his family who feared retribution if they helped someone who fought with the Americans. I wanted to take his photo but he saw me and the pain in his eyes and the dignity of the way he sat on his board pierced my heart. I looked at Sonja and said “We just left him behind to suffer.”

Dong Hoi is a port 40 miles North of the DMZ where there is a resort which caters to wealthy Vietnamese vacationers at $150 a night. Even though it has white sand beaches few foreigners visit Dong Hoi, yet it is one of the only cities I saw which left a vestige of American destruction as testimony to the crime. All that is left of the Tam Toa Catholic church is the front door, bell tower and a column. It was one of the first buildings targeted in 1965. There is a sign reminding us who did this. Dong Hoi was a city US pilots were allowed to use to drop their unexpended ordnance. No specific target was needed. Just the city. Because it was there.

Our small hotel was a hundred meters up the road from the church which I could see from the balcony. Below me workers were digging a trench and laying pipe along the river road. Every morning a man came with a mine detector checking the work area, now and then bending over, digging out some shrapnel with a short-handled pick-ax. He threw the pieces in his backpack and continued looking for unexploded ordnance before the workers could move on … 40 years after the last bomb was dropped on Dong Hoi, then a city of 16,000, today home to more than 100 thousand people.

American bombs leveled Dong Hoi, then buried it, then dug it up to bury it again in a cycle which lasted seven long years.

The bridges in Dong Hoi, as everywhere, have been rebuilt. The new 460 meter bridge linking both banks of Nhât Lê river has a light show along its sides each evening where blue, green, gold and violet lights chase each other from one end to the other. A kilometer further up is the unglamorously rebuilt 150 meter long Highway One bridge.

In the small shop where we bought water and cookies the old couple proudly hang a photo of them as young people standing with Uncle Ho in 1969. The old man was exuberant as he explained with sign language and in Vietnamese that he was an anti-aircraft gunner. Unless you look, it is easy not to see the war but the war is everywhere when you open your eyes and your ears.

Coming out of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park near the Laotian border and the Ho Chi Min Trail water filled the bomb craters in a field which has not been farmed since the war. You are constantly reminded not to leave the marked trails because of the danger of unexploded ordnance or UXO. Since 1975, some 40 000 people have died from explosions and 66 000 have been seriously injured. There is an estimated 300 000 tons of UXO in the country, most of it in the south which the US claimed to be defending.

Ben is a hefty Australian who used to work construction but now runs a cult over-priced farm-stay for young backpackers with his Vietnamese wife Bich not far from the national park. On the wall in the back hangs an unexploded and deactivated 500 pound US bomb and they drive an old jeep with USMC stenciled on it. “The Americans promised to bomb this country back to the stone age.” Ben says. “And they did.”

True, but you would not know it to see the country today. One can only wonder where they would be had the Americans accepted to work with Uncle Ho in 1956. The Vietnamese have moved on. And now I can too.  But I will not forget that we Americans owe them more than we could possibly pay.