25 February – 22 March, 2003
My image of Vietnam comes from Hollywood movies: soldiers walking across rice paddies; explosions over coconut trees; young, innocent American GIs jumping from helicopters and then ten minutes later dying in slow motion.
When Helene and I checked into our hotel in Saigon (officially called Ho Chi Minh City, but everyone still calls it Saigon), the front desk told us they’d have to keep our passports for the duration of our stay. A hotel worker called the elevator for us.
“How stupid,” said Helene in French, “they still use the old Soviet system of control.”
“Quelle ï¿½tage, Madame?” asked the hotel worker. We looked at him in surprise, taking in grey hair and stooped shoulders. Well over 60 years old, he had been around through French colonialism, Japanese occupation, the French war, the American war, reunification, communist socialism and now, one-party capitalism. No wonder he looked so tired.
In the new capitalist Vietnam, hotel rooms come with satellite TV, and on BBC we watched George Bush tell Saddam Hussein that he had “One final chance to disarm”. The commentators who followed seemed to agree: war was just around the corner.
Before hearing more about the new war, we set off to learn a bit about the old one. The first thing I had to learn was that the war is called the American War. With more and more American tourists showing up the “Museum of American War Crimes” has been renamed the “War Remnants Museum” but the message inside the museum doesn’t seem as if it’s changed as much. U.S. servicemen are monsters who torture and kill innocents. The South Vietnamese Army (SVA) and government officials are puppets. The Viet Minh, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) are martyrs and heroes. Looking at the exhibits you could be forgiven for going along with this simplistic version of things. In photographs U.S. soldiers torture farmers, kill women and children and, grinning at the camera, hold up the heads of decapitated guerrillas. Two hideously deformed infants are suspended in glass jars, victims, a sign says, of the tons of Agent Orange dumped on the country. Walking around the city afterward I had the feeling that while everyone was happy to see my money, they weren’t very happy to see me.
Tourism is booming in Vietnam but the authorities do not encourage independent travel. Subsequently it can be very expensive and quite difficult. Because of this Helene and I ended up taking a lot of tours. One of the first was to the Chu Chi tunnels where the Viet Cong literally holed up for years fighting American and SVA forces. Our guide for the day introduced himself as having worked with the Americans and also let us knows that after the war he spent some years in a “re-education facility”. “Ask me anything,” he told us, “I’ll tell you the real story”. Then he fell into a seat and started taking pulls from a flask.
At the tunnels we watched a black and white propaganda film before our tour began. In the film individual Vietnamese were praised: “Duong killed seven Americans and is a hero American killer”. Within a few minutes the only American in our tour group snorted in disgust and left the room. The Vietnamese man controlling the VCR laughed and slapped his thigh, pointing at the retreating figure. The rest of us slid down in our seats. I concentrated on not looking American. After the film our drunken guide took us on a haphazard tour of the site, walking us through tunnels enlarged for tourists and slurring the few words he managed to get out. We stopped at a firing range where, for $1 a bullet (US dollars being at least as accepted in the country as Vietnamese dong), you could fire an AK-47. Our group, already irate at the drunken guide, now unleashed a revolt. “No, no guns,” said a French woman and the American added, “What have guns got to do with this anyway?” This seemed a bit silly, but I nodded because for some reason I was feeling sorry for him. We walked past the t-shirt booth, the Ho Chi Minh posters, and the snake wine and tiger balm back to our A/C minibus. The guide passed out and snored all the way to Saigon.
Back at the hotel things on the new war front were gearing up. France let the US know that there was no way they were going to let a second resolution through the UN.
I thought that I could get a better idea about the American War through the printed page. A lot of books and movies about the war are banned in Vietnam, but this is no problem. Bootlegged works are everywhere, at a fraction of the real price. I was easily able to pick up a selection of books ï¿½ one by a Vietnamese writer who had been a soldier with the NVA, one by a Viet-Kieu (overseas Vietnamese), and one by an American journalist. Thus fortified, Helene and I cruised through the Mekong Delta on another tour, and then began moving north.
In Mui Ne we enjoyed Vietnam’s other tourist attraction (besides war that is), the beach. I poked my head out of my books to do some sightseeing in the beautiful sand dunes around the tiny village. Afterwards a middle-aged man selling photographs approached us. When he realized we weren’t in the market he settled down next to us and started to chat.
“How long do you stay in Vietnam?”
“Oh, 3 or 4 weeks.”
“You are away from home a long time!”
“Actually, we’re travelling for a year.”
“One year!” he shook his head in amazement. “I don’t work for one day I don’t eat. You? One year? Tell me, how long did it take you to save the money for this trip?”
Embarrassed by my good fortune, I lied and said ten years.
“So, why do you come to Vietnam?”
“Oh, because it is very beautiful. Also your history is very interesting. The French War, the American War…”
“You want to know about the American War? I can tell you.” And he hauled up his left pant leg to reveal a prosthesis. “I was working in the field with my parents, out in the open, you know, so the Americans would know we were not Viet Cong…Oh! Excuse me now. I must go. I see many tourists coming over there.” Gathering his photographs he climbed carefully onto his Chinese bike, and pedalled slowly toward the tour bus pulling up.
We headed further north through places with names that were familiar from movies: Nha Trang, Da Nang, Hoi An, China Beach, Hue. The scenery was stunning, dark forests, green paddy fields dotted with grass houses, white beaches and blue sky stretching forever. Stuck in Apocalypse Now I found that if I concentrated I could dress my bus driver as a Viet Cong, the guy in the seat across from me as a Marine. I could hear the helicopters beating their way across the ocean.
The DMZ, or demilitarised zone, is one of Vietnam’s prime spots for tours. This area that ostensibly divided north and south actually saw some of the most brutal fighting of the American war. We stopped at a church that was pocked with bullet marks, the site of huge battle between NVA and SVA troops. “Boring,” said an Austrian. “Can we see a bomb crater?” asked someone at the front of the bus. Later, a local guide explained that Vietnamese farmers had filled in those holes long ago. They had scoured the earth looking for scrap metals, which they sold to survive in the difficult times after the war. Our guide had been a young boy and then a teenager during the American war. Even as he talked about the helicopter-landing pad that used to be on top of the mountain, or the way napalm bombs looked when they dropped from planes, people were losing interest and wandering away. We looked at hills, a road, a field, a mountain ï¿½ important strategic sites during the war, but now, countryside.
At Khe Sahn we stopped for perhaps ten minutes. From my reading I knew that this area was the turning point of the war, the battles that had convinced the American public that they had been misled and enough was enough. While Marines and NVA had fought and died around here, the Tet offensive had been launched. The site was now marked by a field and some sandbags. A couple of old tanks inspired a few people to pose for photographs. A small shack held a few photos and on a table, a guestbook with dozens of entries, many of them from returning US veterans who knew a lot more than we did. “My second trip to Vietnam. First was in 1968. Lost my best friend here. He was a good man. I wish for peace for all of us.” There was no time to linger. It was back to Hue, and a two-dollar tip from Helene and I to our guide. We probably doubled his wage for the day.
Ho Chi Minh’s face is on billboards in Hue and in every other city, town and village from South to North. To see the man in the flesh though, you have to go to Hanoi. Here, against his wishes, his body is on public display. Helene and I shuffled in with a group of female villagers, one of the few times in my life when (at 5’4″) I have towered over a crowd. Ho’s body is waxy, pale and harshly lit. Despite, or perhaps because of, the brutal way he won his wars (while over 50,000 Americans died in the war, well over 1,000,000 Vietnamese are estimated to have died in the fight for independence) I felt sorry that he didn’t live to see his country reunited. For many years Ho was portrayed as the embodiment of evil. Yet in one of my books I learned that during the Second World War, Ho Chi Minh received help from the US in fighting Japanese occupation of Vietnam. After the war he wrote Harry Truman, asking support in declaring independence from France. Truman didn’t bother to answer the letter, and the French were back in Vietnam shortly afterwards.
Having been warned about the numerous crappy tour agencies in Hanoi, Helene and I bought tickets for a Halong Bay tour from a recommended outfit. We then found ourselves thrown out of our hotel room for having booked our tour elsewhere. We tried to persuade our hoteliers that this was unreasonable and that they wouldn’t be in business long with this kind of behaviour. They didn’t seem to care much and after some argument it was necessary for us to concede defeat (they were throwing our bags out). As I negotiated the return of our passports for the money we owed them Helene insulted the manager in as many ways as she could come up with. Having learned from our guidebook that showing anger in Vietnam is inadvisable, she managed to do this with a relatively calm demeanour, driving the manager into a frenzy. “F**king Americans!” he screamed, as we got our passports back. “Actually, we’re Canadians,” I said. Not surprisingly, the distinction seemed lost on him.
Halong Bay was as spectacular as all the guidebooks suggested. We spent the first night on a boat, and the second on CaBa Island. I headed out for a drink with a group of new friends and we found ourselves in a karaoke bar, several drinks behind the other tables. Lousy renditions of “Hotel California” and “Billie Jean” were belted out, and I was drinking my beer and laughing with everyone else. Then Bob Dylan came on, and a group of drunken Australians shouted their way through “Blowing in the Wind” backed up by tourists from a dozen other countries. At the bar, several Vietnamese men smoked Marlboros and looked on. Suddenly, listening to the lyrics and realizing what was happening, my beer didn’t taste as good. I went back to the hotel. Helene had the short-wave radio on, and George W. had given a 24-hour deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq.
It was raining as we cruised back to the mainland the next day, and a group of us huddled around the radio, listening to voices tell us that the new war had finally started. “Maybe in twenty years we’ll all be taking trips to Iraq and looking at old bomb sites,” said Helene.
Within days US marines were being interviewed on the radio, shocked that their comrades were dead and dying. “I didn’t think it would be like this,” one said. A US missile hit a market in Baghdad and killed civilians. Peace marches were held all around the world. US and British forces declared a city secure. Then not secure. Then secure. Funny names became commonplace: Nasiriya, Basra, Umm Qasr. Why pay attention to history? Why care about the mistakes of Vietnam? I’m getting the war in real time, in real life, 24 hours a day. It’s almost as entertaining as the movies.