Vietnam, Past and Present

June 6, 2010 — The monsoon has arrived in East Asia. On Tuesday the skies over Hong Kong darkened and the rains fell. For hours the rainwater rinsed the smog out of the sky and washed off the soot and grime from every surface. When it was over, the skyline view from my flat was the clearest it has ever been. High-rise apartments gleamed like dishes straight out of the dishwasher and the mountains were more verdant and lush than I ever imagined they could be. Indeed, the monsoon can be as much a blessing to city dwellers as it is to farmers in their rice paddies or herders bringing their livestock to the watering holes.

In the US, the Memorial Day weekend signifies the official start of summer. In Asia, the arrival of the monsoon is a much more auspicious event signaling the beginning of a new season. The monsoon, or rainy season, tracks from the Western Pacific across the Philippines, South China, Southeast Asia, into the Bay of Bengal and up through the Indian subcontinent. It varies from place to place and lasts about three months overall. I experienced the monsoon years ago when I was living and traveling in India and so it has a familiar feel. Monsoon rains are not like summer thunderstorms in North America. There are no gusts of wind or whipping rains, only steady gentle showers for a few hours each day. The beginning of the monsoon season is a pretty big deal—maybe not so much in Hong Kong, but elsewhere certainly. The volume and distribution of monsoon rains can mean the difference between bountiful harvests and famine for hundreds of millions of people. Its importance in the cultures and economies of Asia cannot be overstated.

In the coming months I will begin something of a monsoon journey. Next week I return to India for the first time in over ten years. I arrive in Chennai and head southward to a college in Tiruchirapalli to conduct an educational consultation visit for the Fulbright Foundation. I am also planning side trips to Madurai, Pondicherry, and Calcutta. When I lived in India I never travelled to any of these places. In fact, I have never been to any of the locations on my upcoming itinerary so my trip to India is as much a first time adventure as any other traveling I have done during my year in Asia. I am especially excited about seeing Calcutta. For an historian of British India, visiting Calcutta is like a biblical scholar visiting Jerusalem. I will only have four days in that city and already I have a long list of sights to see. After my trip to India I will return to HK for a week and finish up work. In early July I will return to Beijing and then travel onward to Mongolia for a tour of the steppes and to attend the Naadam, the annual Mongol horsemanship and sports tournament. In late July I will head off to Bangkok and begin a three-week journey through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. I am hoping to travel by boat down the Mekong River from the Laotian border to Phnom Penh. Years ago Alexander Frater wrote a book about his travels in Asia called Chasing the Monsoon. My own wet and muddy travels may mimic this to some extent. We’ll see what happens.

Actually, my Asian travels have already begun. Last month I made a ten-day visit to Vietnam. Since I gave my final exam on the first day of the two-week exam period I decided to take advantage of this unusual commitment-free period in my calendar and experience a new part of Asia. Vietnam was a logical choice since it is right next door. I flew out of Hong Kong in the afternoon and was having dinner in Hanoi a few hours later.

Vietnam is somewhere I have always wanted to visit. Part of this is because the country casts such a long shadow over American history and our own self-image. To Americans, the very name Vietnam still conjures up the worst fears of a military and political quagmire abroad, a bitterly divided society at home, and, above all, tragic miscalculation and waste. It is our sad epic of failure. Even now, the lessons for Americans of the Vietnam conflict—if there are any—are not fully understood. For me, an added appeal of this trip was the chance to experience the preservation and presentation of this history from the perspective of our former enemies and in the place where this tragedy unfolded. I also wanted learn more about the people and culture, and to view them not just through the lens of the war. Vietnam did not disappoint.

I arrived in Hanoi but it was just for a brief evening stopover before another flight further south. My trip really began in Hué, the old imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty. Hué is the historical and cultural heart of Vietnam and is located just a few miles south of the former DMZ, the ten-mile demilitarized corridor that separated North and South Vietnam for two decades. I found Hué to be a very charming provincial city and its occupants extremely friendly. Apart from constantly dodging motor scooters whenever I crossed the street, it was a surprisingly stress-free place. The city is situated along the banks of the Perfume River and centered on the old Hué Citadel and imperial city, which the Nguyen kings occupied through most of the French colonial period until 1945. In 1968, Hué was almost completely destroyed during one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. For weeks South Vietnamese soldiers and US marines fought to drive out the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces from the city. Thousands of civilians and soldiers died during the battle which, along with the Tet Offensive, helped diminish American public support for the war.

Today Hué bears very few scars of the battle. Most of the city has been rebuilt and the imperial palace has been designated a UNESCO World heritage Site. It is undergoing a major renovation to restore it to its former glory. The walls of the citadel are still badly pockmarked from the artillery bombardment. Above the main entrance of this scarred monument flies a giant flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a bright red field with a large gold star in the center. Within its walls are displayed the rusting hulks of captured Patton tanks and jeeps and the weather-beaten and faded airframes of Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopters, that ubiquitous icon of the Vietnam War.

On my second day in Hué, I took a tour of the DMZ and the ruins of the Khe Sanh marine base. It was about a three-hour drive to get to Khe Sanh, which is a remote plateau in the hills near the border with Laos. It is an amazing vantage point and one can easily see why the marines chose to build their base here. It offers an unobstructed line of sight for miles in all directions. Helicopters based there during the war were able to patrol the DMZ to the north, conduct surveillance over the Ho Chi Minh trail to the west near the Laotian border, and make quick trips to and from Hué in the South. The battle of Khe Sanh in 1968 rivaled Hué in its ferocity and although the US and South Vietnamese forces prevailed the base was eventually abandoned. After the unification of Vietnam, the government rebuilt the base and turned it into a memorial for the heroic Vietnamese who were killed fighting the Americans and their puppet collaborators (at least that is how it is presented). The museum offers a predictably one-sided view of the battle with many black and white photos of marines running for cover and conducting helicopter evacuations in the face of enemy fire. This of course did happen, but it is not the whole story as any marine who fought there can tell you. The grounds of the memorial contain the usual collection of decaying US military hardware, but the displays in the museum gallery are much more interesting. Glass cases contain personal effects left behind by both sides. These include dog tags, armed forces ID cards, cigarette lighters, sketch pads, combat boots, sandals, pamphlets of Ho Chi Minh’s sayings, magazines, group photos, portraits of loved ones, helmets, and dozens of weapons and ammunition clips. The display is all the more moving for its seeming randomness. The theme of the exhibit is the bravery, tenacity and sacrifice of the Vietnamese fighting man and woman against the foreign aggressor. Again, not untrue but also not the whole story.

After Khe Sanh my tour group headed north across the DMZ. As we cruised past the rice paddies and palm glades I was struck by how tranquil and bucolic it all seemed. Gentle hills rose up in the west and the glistening paddies reflected the mid-day sun. Peasants in their trademark conical hats crouched down planting rice or occasionally pushing a plow behind a lumbering ox. Our guide mentioned that the chemical defoliant used around the DMZ led to thousands of cases of incurable cancer and a generation of children with birth defects and severe mental retardation—children who, if they survived, are now approaching middle age. Unbelievably sad. We even saw places where farmers had turned the bomb craters from B-52s into fish ponds rather than trying to fill them up and level the ground again.

When we arrived at the northern side of the DMZ we stopped in the village of Vinh Moc to see the famous tunnels dug by the Viet Cong. This was one of the most impressive sights of the entire trip. The tunnel entrances are shored up by wooden beams and lead to a maze of subterranean corridors and chambers that stretch out for miles. The tunnels are about five feet high and shoulder-width, with dimly lit caged bulbs strung along every few feet (these would have been gas lamps during the war). Anyone who is claustrophobic or who cannot stand dampness and dirt would not last long inside. Except for electric lighting and signs, there has been little done to make them tourist-friendly (which to me increased their authenticity and appeal). Given these conditions we were told that muddy clothes and hair, scraped elbows and knees, and wet hands and feet were to be expected for those who chose to go inside.

The tunnels themselves, primitive as they may be, are an extraordinary feat of engineering. They are like a giant ant farm for humans. Our guide pointed out the chambers that formed an underground hospital, complete with a maternity ward and operating rooms. Other areas had schoolrooms for children and dorms for entire families. Throughout the complex there are numerous wells and ventilation shafts that sustained the conditions for people to survive inside. A few tunnels stretched all the way below the DMZ and led to secret openings on the southern side that were used for smuggling fighters, arms, and information back and forth. The purpose of the Vinh Moc tunnels was to enable an entire village and military support station to function along the DMZ where aerial surveillance and bombardment would have otherwise made that impossible. The fact that the entire network of tunnels was dug by hand was, to me at least, the most remarkable part of Vinh Moc. One does have to admire Charlie’s ingenuity and determination. I wonder, if Robert McNamara and Lyndon Johnson had been given the opportunity to crawl from one end of the Vinh Moc tunnels to the other would they have still been so optimistic about defeating the NVA and Viet Cong?

After two days in Hué, I returned to Hanoi. The next morning I took a bus down to Halong City to board a boat for Cat Ba Island. The boat journey took a leisurely eight hours to sail through Halong Bay and it was the most relaxing and beautiful part of my journey in Vietnam. Scattered across the length of the bay are hundreds of karst peaks that stick up out of the water. Like giant serrated stone knives coated in vegetation some of these formations rise over a hundred feet from the surface. Nestled among these rock formations are floating fishing villages, entire communities who live in wooden huts perched on pontoon platforms. My boat was one of dozens of junks and fishing vessels plying these gentle waters (see below). This idyllic setting is world famous and is without a doubt Vietnam’s biggest tourist draw. The most well-known image among westerners of Halong Bay probably comes from the French movie Indochine, which was filmed there. Having lived in East Africa last year, I am very much reminded of the similar effect that Out of Africa had in Kenya. Both films created a highly romanticized version of life in a troubled colonial enclave. Yet while the scripts may have taken liberties the camera doesn’t lie, and in each case the movies captured quite well the breathtaking beauty of the locations in which they were filmed. Out of Africa single-handedly gave Kenya a boost in its tourism industry that has continued to the present. Vietnam tourism seems to be enjoying the same residuals, so to speak, from Indochine.

In the evening my boat arrived in Cat Ba Island and I settled in at a nicely appointed beachside hotel. The next morning I signed up for an 18-kilometer trek through Cat Ba National Park. There were four of us in my group and it was an enjoyable though arduous hike. We managed to see several endangered species of monkeys and stopped for lunch in a village that was situated in the middle of a patchwork of rice paddies surrounded by green karst peaks on all sides. It was like a paradise. As we hiked out of the park, our guide showed us a large cavern that was used by the NVA as a hospital and munitions storage area during the bombing of North Vietnam. Even in this idyllic setting, traces of the war could still be uncovered. After a few days on Cat Ba Island, I took the hydrofoil to Haiphong and then a bus back to Hanoi. I remained in Hanoi for the rest of my trip and was able at last to explore the capital and see what it had to offer.

The first thing that struck me about Hanoi was how beautiful a city it is. Some of the neighborhoods are like a tropical version of Paris, although more humid, crowded and chaotic (see below). Grand, tree-lined boulevards crisscross the city at all angles and there are parks and open plazas every few blocks. The opera house and some of the old colonial hotels and government offices are stunningly ornate and beautiful. They rival anything I have seen in Europe. The mix of French and Asian culture is everywhere to be seen. Trendy bistros serve classic French cuisine while delivery girls with conical hats on bicycles pedal along with enormous sacks of freshly baked baguettes slung over their backs. Along the streets and alleyways food stalls dish up steaming bowls of phơ noodles which are consumed while crouching on plastic stools along the sidewalk.

Yet despite the colonial French splendor and charm of Hanoi, the evidence in this city of the war is never hard to spot. There are monuments all over town commemorating the “martyrs” of the nation, civilians and soldiers killed between 1954 and 1975. Some statistics place this number as high as two million, one out of every ten people in the country. By comparison, US casualties were slightly higher than 58,000, though the agony of Americans who lost loved ones was no less acute. Much of the city has been rebuilt after the devastating bombing that it experienced along with Haiphong during “Operation Linebacker” in the early 1970s in the run-up to the Paris peace negotiations.

While in Hanoi, I visited the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. “Uncle Ho,” who died in 1969, is still revered by the Vietnamese. Like Chairman Mao, his remains are available for viewing in the morning hours. I stood outside in a very slow moving line along with hundreds of Vietnamese school children waiting my turn to file past the embalmed body of Ho. I must admit, it was a bit of a letdown after having seen dead Mao in Beijing back in February—perhaps even more so considering that Ho had clearly communicated that he did not want his remains made into such a memorial and had preferred a simple cremation. (Nehru had made a similar request and it seems that the Indians respected their leader enough to honor his final wishes.) While I had mixed reactions to the mausoleum, I did like the nearby museum dedicated to Ho and the restoration of the house in which he lived. After independence, Ho refused to move into the opulent French governor’s residence. It was re-designated the presidential palace but it remained empty while Ho moved into more modest quarters nearby. In the summer months he even stayed in a small wooden house on stilts that he had specially built. For postcolonial leaders this sort of thing was not unheard of. Nehru had similarly refused to occupy the viceroy’s house after becoming the first prime minister of India and opted for a more subdued government residence in Delhi. Such gestures of humility went a long way to endear these leaders to their impoverished countrymen.

My next stop in Hanoi was to Hoa Lo Prison, a colonial French compound in the middle of the city that was used for decades to incarcerate, interrogate, and execute Vietnamese nationalists and communists. The prison was later used briefly to hold American POWs, mostly pilots shot down during the bombing of North Vietnam, and is known to most Americans by the nickname “The Hanoi Hilton.” Incidentally, the new Hilton hotel in Hanoi is located next to the opera house and is called the “Hanoi Opera Hilton.” There is no real reason not to call it the Hanoi Hilton but that name has acquired such notoriety that the Hilton chain wisely decided to go with something different. Most of the Hoa Lo prison compound was later torn down to build a glass and steel office tower, but the section that remains is a national museum and heritage site. A tour of the prison leads through cellblocks and interrogation chambers. The shackles and torture instruments used by the French jailers are displayed as is the guillotine used to execute prisoners. It is a ghastly exhibit that leaves little to the imagination. There are also photos of communist and Viet Minh prisoners and displays showing the tools used in successful prison breaks (similar to the display in Alcatraz, I suppose).

Toward the end of the museum tour is a gallery dedicated to the incarceration of US POWs. The display shows clothes, letters, and personal effects of the prisoners. The flight suit and parachute belonging to Lt.Cdr. John McCain are prominently displayed in a glass case. Along with these items are photos of the prisoners playing volleyball, having Christmas dinner, and receiving packages from home. Not surprisingly there is no mention of the years of solitary confinement and torture (“enhanced interrogation techniques”?) inflicted on these men. What is even more interesting is that the US POW section also displays unexploded bombs dropped by US aircraft and numerous photos showing the terrible damage done to Hanoi during these raids along with appalling statistics of the death toll. Pictures of bombed out schools and hospitals are especially prominent. The museum spares no effort to communicate to its visitors exactly why the pilots were imprisoned there and for so long.

What was most eye-opening about these and other exhibits was not that they were so one-sided. This to be expected and, really, it is only fair. Winners write the history, at least in their own country. The surprising part was how familiar the Vietnamese remembrance of this war might seem to Americans if only another war were substituted. They understand the history of the final Vietnam conflict (there were many others before) just as Americans remember World War II or the American Revolution. It is a triumphalist story pure and simple: good vs. evil, national freedom vs. foreign tyranny, David vs. Goliath. In these museums and battle sites it appears as if a Vietnamese Stephen Ambrose has written the narrative and packaged this historical cheerleading for public consumption. What is offered is a tale of the unwavering bravery of the common soldier and civilian alike, of a united people’s determination to achieve righteous victory whatever the cost, with the unassailable leadership of Ho and Giap filling in for FDR and Macarthur. Moreover, the Vietnamese take special pride in their role of technological underdog, in some cases using stone-aged weaponry (booby traps made from sharpened bamboo spikes and animal tendons) against an enemy armed with laser-guided bombs and helicopter gunships. For them there is none of the tragic complexity, moral ambiguity, historical second-guessing, or unhealed wounds that we associate with conflicts like Vietnam or the Civil War. None whatsoever. The Bombing of Hanoi was their Battle of Britain and London Blitz, the Tet Offensive was their Guadalcanal, the entering of Saigon their Liberation of Paris. In fact, this sentiment expressed at the museums and battle sites in Vietnam is uncannily similar to that of the American World War II memorials I visited in the Philippines in December. For the Vietnamese, the war against the Americans was merely the last chapter in an age-old struggle for independence from foreign occupation. Before the Americans were the French, the Japanese (briefly), the French again, and, for centuries before that, the Chinese. Each was defeated and driven out in its time and in 1975 the people of Vietnam achieved final victory.

While I was in Hanoi I noticed hundreds of banners celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of national unification and liberation (April 30th, 1975, known more commonly by Americans as “the fall of Saigon”). The celebrations lasted for a week and were marked by concerts, parades, and veterans reunions. While walking across Hoan Kiem Park I regularly encountered groups of men in late middle age who had donned their old, saggy, and thread-bare uniforms with rows of medals. They looked tired and prematurely old. One can only imagine what they lived through. I wonder if the Vietnamese born after 1975 (the large majority of the population) appreciate the suffering and sacrifices that their elders had to endure. Vietnam is an emerging economy and a place that nowadays exudes youthful brashness and self-confidence. Investment is flowing into the country and construction in Hanoi and around the country is going at a nonstop pace. The future is bright and the past is not. These are the ideal conditions for the forgetting of history. Vietnam’s older generation seems intent on not allowing this to happen. One can only hope they are successful, and that we in America are as well.

Fishing boats at anchor near Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay, Vietnam, 8 May 2010

Street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, 11 May 2010