Eight Days in Vietnam


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I just came back from eight days in Vietnam. Like all vacations, I spent more money than I thought I would, even though prices were comparable to those in Thailand, where I live.

What amazed me is how happy a lot of the people seemed to be. The Vietnamese spent an entire generation fighting for the freedom to choose their own form of government, a battle which they eventually won, and now they are justifiably proud of themselves. But they’re also very poor. A lot of people seem unemployed.

The people who approached us on the street to try to sell us something or other weren’t fooling around. In Thailand, nobody seems especially driven or hungry. Here they do.

Vietnamese men and women of my age remember the war years, but most of the people you see on the street are much, much younger. They probably don’t think of the war as anymore than a story told in school or by their grandparents. The dead were buried long ago. True, certain parts of the countryside are still pockmarked with bomb craters and in some remote places landmines and unexploded ordnance are a problem, but essentially the Vietnamese people have moved on. When we arrived at the airport in Saigon we ate at Burger King.

People still ride around on bicycles and wear those canonical hats. Old women wear what look like pajamas in clashing colored patterns. They carry heavy loads on bamboo pole with two baskets or buckets at either end.

At the war museum in Saigon, I saw a video in which they had assembled a group of four pilots, two Vietnamese and two Americans. The interviewer asked the Vietnamese pilots if they had been at a disadvantage. “Yes,” they agreed, “the Americans had much better equipment and there were many more of them. But we were fighting for our country.”

“We were fighting for our country, too.” said one of the American pilots. He looked sad and tired and not terribly happy to be there.

In my present circumstance, it was all I could do not to guffaw out loud. Here I had just come from the museum’s Agent Orange room, where they had plenty of photographs of horribly deformed Vietnamese children on display. They had captured U.S tanks, helicopters, artillery, bombs and planes on display in the museum’s courtyard. Right after I paid my admission charge, a man who had lost his forearms and one eye introduced himself and sold me a book about the little girl who had been photographed running naked down the road, crying after napalm had burned all her clothes off and scarred her for life.

But the guy probably really believed he was defending America, in some way that I find hard to understand from this vantage point. The air force pilot’s comment reminded me of the time I saw the documentary film “Hearts and Minds,” which came to our theater in my Missouri college town. The week before I had been to that same theater to see “Fantasia,” the Disney cartoon that had just been re-released. We were all stoned and agreed that Walt must have been high when he made that film. Our student deferments had allowed us not to fly to Southeast Asia and kill or be killed.

But this week, to watch the documentary about what was going on as far away as one could get from Missouri and still be on the planet, we were stone cold sober. The movie was about as depressing as any you could hope to see. They showed G.I.’s cavorting happily with Saigon prostitutes. We saw Vietnamese families scrambling to hide in tunnels to protect themselves from air raids. In a scene I’ll never forget, a Vietnamese man was showing the camera where his family had been the moment the bomb hit their house. Only he had survived. His wife had been there, his oldest daughter there, and his youngest daughter here, where the kitchen used to be, washing the dishes. Oh look, here’s a scrap of her dress. This was my daughter’s dress! Why don’t you show this to Nixon and tell him about my daughter? Choked by grief, he stared dumbly at the fabric.

Then they cut to a funeral of a Vietnamese soldier where the man’s wife tried to climb on top of his funeral pyre and immolate herself.

They then cut to General William Westmoreland, who laconically informed viewers with a twinkle in his eye “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” A gasp went up from the audience. It was as if somebody had kicked all of us in the gut at the same time.

The problem with evil, is that it often simply resembles stupidity. But there is a difference between a lack of information or intelligence and policies and the actions that kill millions of people. Three million died in Vietnam. Millions died in Korea after we napalmed whole cities and blew up dams, guaranteeing starvation. These things just didn’t happen by accident, or from bad information. They came about through deliberate effort, through the plans and actions of real people.

When the little girl was napalmed and then photographed running down the road, the Press was quick to point out that we hadn’t napalmed her, but the South Vietnamese army had. With napalm and planes we had given them. Now when Saudi Arabia uses white phosphorous on Yemeni civilians, or Israel on the residents of Gaza, we gave it to them. Does that lesson our culpability? Wasn’t me, it was that guy over there.

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You’re a Better Man Than I Am, Ho Chi Minh


I’m in Udon Thani, Thailand, the first city in Isaan you get to heading east from Chiang Mai. It would have been a twelve hour drive, but we flew for exactly an hour. Udon is oddly prosperous, and belies the general attitude toward Isaan one find in the rest of Thailand, which portrays Isaan as Dogpatch, the place where nothing happens more exciting than rice farming, and all the young women take the bus to the resort cities of Pattaya and Phuket in order to snag aging foreign husbands.

From the few hours I’ve spent on the streets and the gleaming new mall, there does indeed seem to be a surfeit of old Caucasian men being led around by much younger Thai women. The girls sitting in front of massage shops are not the least bit shy about grabbing a tottering geezer has he hobbles down the uneven sidewalk and steering him towards a massage with a happy ending. But Udon is also where a man who was already hooked in Pattaya goes with her back home to be near her family. Maybe that partly explains much of the apparent prosperity of this city, which only twenty years ago was quite a backwards place. As we flew in I saw many subdivisions with American-style newer homes, perfect for a retired foreign husband and his young Thai wife.

But there must be more to this place than simply that, because there are huge, modern condos springing up. I smell industry and private enterprise, those two paths to real prosperity that Vietnam seems so comfortable with and which Thailand has just started to embrace.

We rented a motor scooter and took off looking for something that would be different than the downtown, with its many massage parlors and bars. After driving into the setting sun for about twenty minutes we saw a sign “Ho Chi Minh historical site, 6 kilometers.” Ho Chi Minh? As in Uncle Ho? As in “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win!” which we chanted as we Vietnam war protesters circled the White House in 1969 to yell the name of a dead serviceman at Nixon, who had wisely decided to not be at home.

Sure enough, they had built some old-timey buildings on a piece of land in the middle of nowhere, and even though we arrived after the place was officially closed, we were able to enter through the closed but not yet locked gate and look around. Apparently Ho had found the time to spend a year or two in northeastern Thailand with a young Thai wife, in between his travels to more spectacular locations, like New York, Boston, Moscow, London, Paris and China. Born in 1890 to a family of school teachers, he traveled the world first as a cook’s assistant on ships, and then as a rising star in the Communist party. He spoke six languages fluently, and some Thai.

By the time the United States got our boots on the ground stuck in the quagmire, Ho had already defeated the French and was ready to retire, but he had to stay on a bit longer, although in a more symbolic role than training troops for battle. Heck, he was my age in 1955, and still terribly active, whereas I am most definitely out to pasture. You’re a better man that I am, Ho Chi Minh.

A couple of years ago when we toured Vietnam, we stopped at a marble factory in Danang, and I got dangerously close to buying a life-sized marble statue of Uncle Ho. They promised to ship it to Thailand for no extra charge. I thought “where else could I buy such a thing? And what a conversation piece!”

My little journeys have impressed upon me that Indochina really is a place of its own, sort of like the American Midwest is neither the East nor West Coast, and even though the countries of Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia don’t share a common language, nor do the citizens of those countries resemble or trust each other much, Indochina is not China and it’s not India. To strain my metaphor a bit farther, the distance from Udon Thani to Hanoi is about the same as from Chicago to Memphis. Even a hundred years ago a determined traveler could make the journey in two or three weeks.  And Ho did just that.

 

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a recording of the author reading this essay can be found by clicking the link below