Follow The Discreet Traveler by e-mail!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The wheel of life: North to central Vietnam

For me, “The Great Mandala (The Wheel Of Life)” encapsulates the unresolvable conflict that must have been going on in the U.S.A. during the war. Peter Yarrow wrote this song in 1967 from the point of view of a father whose son refuses to fight. The father takes great offense, as it seems to him to devalue the sacrifice of his other son, who fought and died. I can just imagine this peace/war argument going on in American homes and across the country. “It’s been going on for ten thousand years!” the song reminds us.*

If young men who fought for their country thought they were doing their duty, was that so wrong? And if other young people protested and resisted, were they siding with the enemy? Whenever people say the U.S. “has never been so divided” as it is now, I think about these wartime questions, and doubt that it’s true.

Our travels south to Ninh Binh and then to Hue took us along the Gulf of Tonkin. Like many places in Vietnam, its name is familiar for a military reason. It was after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, later revealed (in a 2005 National Security Agency report) to be partly fictitious, that Congress overwhelmingly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This followed the, to my mind, indescribably dangerous precedent of authorizing U.S. presidents to do whatever they wanted (as in Korea), for as long as they wanted. Congress thereby yielded (to this day) its constitutional power to declare war. Although the conflict in Vietnam lasted many years longer than World War II, the U.S. never actually declared war on North Vietnam.

We couldn’t see the Gulf of Tonkin from the train. We set off on the French-built railroad that connects the northern capital of Vietnam with its largest city, in the south.

Aboard the train we had entertainment, on a TV that I thankfully couldn’t hear. I mentioned before the in-flight television on Vietnam Airlines; there, after the safety video, they showed a documentary about the 1968 Summer Olympics when black American athletes famously raised their fists in protest.
200m gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos in Mexico City. Silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia also wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity. All paid for this protest in their home countries.
Although I wasn’t surprised that Vietnam would want to highlight the U.S.’s racial conflicts in the ’60s, it was obviously an English-language documentary. The problem was I couldn’t get the sound to work on that one either. So I was left with the surreal experience of watching Vietnamese subtitles and marveling at Kathleen Cleaver’s hair.

The train TV continued the theme with a show about what if asteroids hit American cities. Then it abruptly switched to a Tom and Jerry cartoon. The man across the aisle, who had been very friendly with us in his limited English, began laughing out loud. Hey, I guess you don’t need language for Hanna-Barbera.

There wasn’t much to Ninh Binh, but this didn’t disappoint us. For once, no one had told us to expect anything there. The guesthouse we stopped at was closed up because the family had a wedding that weekend, but they opened it for us. I thought they meant the wedding guests were staying at the hotel, not that we would be the only guests! But they made us feel very welcome. The grandfather, who spoke English the best, turned on Christmas carols for us (whether we wanted them or not) and explained about Tet. To an American, Tet means the Tet Offensive in 1968, when the Viet Cong launched surprise offensives on towns and cities throughout South Vietnam. But of course to Vietnamese, Tet is just the lunar new year, celebrated annually. It’s like having Santa Claus on a Coke can at home.

The sole reason for staying in Ninh Binh is to visit nearby sites, including Tam Coc. We duly went there and got in a boat for two passengers, rowed by a woman with her feet!

She spoke a little French, and told us she was sixty-four years old. I don’t know if it’s sexist to feel guilty about being rowed about by a grandmother. I don't think so, as I didn’t like a guy pedaling me in a rickshaw either.

The views from this quiet little rowboat were pretty good, like Halong Bay on a river. And it wasn’t busy, which gave me lots of time to contemplate. I thought about this woman being the right age to have rounded up a U.S. pilot for the Hanoi Hilton; or maybe she was just fishing somewhere and trying to get by. I thought about our host, the grandfather, being the right age to be a veteran on the North Vietnamese side, although I will never know what he was doing during the war years.

I thought how quickly after September 11, 2001, the U.S. was calling prisoners “enemy combatants” so we could “enhance interrogation techniques” for them. Now, not for one nanosecond do I mean to mitigate the torture of prisoners, whether by Vietnamese, Japanese, Americans or anybody else. I have written categorically, and always believed, that torture is absolutely wrong in all circumstances. My point is only how tempting it is to let our moral absolutes slip when it is our people being attacked by planes. None of my observations about the war are to excuse, only to try to understand.


Even Tam Coc was marred by litter. T. had read a letter home from a soldier back in 1965, who wrote, "I do not know one G.I. over here who would trade even as much as a single teaspoon of U.S. soil for this entire country." I looked around and couldn’t agree with him more. I also understand that things looked different to strategic thinkers at the outset of the war: if “we let” Vietnam go communist, then everyone else will want to do it too. But to send so many young people to die here…

So after our rowboat we decided to hike to Bich Dong Pagoda. What actually happened was that we started up the steps to the pagoda, and then we saw some other people climbing up to what we thought was the lookout. We'd seen steps coming down from the lookout so we assumed it was a round trip. Never assume! I immediately realized that we were just going up rocks, but the surfaces were shiny so obviously people had blazed this "path" before. What's worse, we hadn't anticipated really hiking (just walking up steps) so were not wearing boots—T. only had flip flops on! Somehow, we scrambled up, only to find that the other people had no idea where they were going either; so we took a quick look and then had to scramble back down. Only at the top did T. confess that she’d seen a “Do Not Climb Up” sign, but since it was hung in a tree she’d thought it meant do not climb the tree. She loved this experience.
The view. Was it worth it?
Here’s something Vietnam does well: Signs. You can follow a map in Vietnam without any problem; none of these roads without signs as I’ve found when navigating other countries. Just be sure not to be on the street, or preferably even the sidewalk, when you stop to look at the map, as you may get run over.

The rowboat woman reminded me of another thing: Vietnamese women are tough as hell. I know this reputation exists from fifty years ago—there’s a statue of a woman in one of the museums who lost ten male descendants in the war—but it must predate communism. In the third century B.C. Trieu Thi Trinh is said to have ridden elephants into battle against the Chinese, and in A.D. 40 the Trung sisters defeated more Chinese invaders, proclaiming themselves queens of an independent Vietnam. Today, wherever you go in Vietnam, the women (and men) are very industrious: mixing cement, climbing on scaffolding, rowing with their feet.

There aren’t a lot of places to eat in Ninh Binh. We found a family restaurant with reliably good food, and stuck with it. The younger generation work “front of house” while Mom and Dad cook. On our last night there, when the hostess asked if we were leaving, she brought us a bag with biscuits, free bananas (every meal), and a business card. Together with our leftovers we had enough for a twelve-hour train journey! Trung Thuyet. Eat there if you're ever in Ninh Binh.

The all-day train journey was to Huế, in central Vietnam. On the banks of the Perfume River, Hue was lovelier than any city we’d seen in north Vietnam, even in the rain. 

Hue makes much of its history as the last imperial capital of Vietnam. Its enclosure within the Citadel housed the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 until 1945, when Ho Chi Minh, borrowing heavily from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration, declared independence. What Hue doesn’t make as much of is the more recent history of the larger Citadel. I have seen it proclaimed, in some Vietnamese museum, a “victory” for the communist side during the Tet Offensive. Other sources describe a massacre by the communists and widespread destruction of the Citadel as American forces retook it. This is the occasion when a U.S. officer is said to have asked, “Did we have to destroy the city in order to save it?”

We’ve both lived in England, so we put on our boots and raincoats, and I my Tilley hat, and braved the monsoon. The war cannot be blamed for all the damage to Hue’s imperial enclosure; most of the Forbidden Purple City (which isn’t purple) was destroyed during French reoccupation in 1947. In fact all that remains is the Emperor’s Reading Room, being fixed up so we couldn’t go in. These people have had their share of wars.

Hue’s vulnerable location is due to its being close to what became the border between North and South Vietnam. Ninety kilometers north of Hue is the former “Demilitarized Zone.” The DMZ is quite a misnomer, as with the onset of hostilities between North and South, it became probably the most heavily militarized zone in the world. T. wanted to visit.
Ruin of Long Hung church. I found a translation of the sign, part of which reads: "In 1972, the resilient fight of our soldiers and people took place against the counter-attacks by American and South Army to reoccupy Quang Tri town."

We saw black pepper trees, shrimp farms, and round fishing boats. And we saw graves. Lots and lots of Vietnamese graves. Many of the graves have no names, just liệt sĩ, “martyr.”

We crossed the Hien Luong Bridge over the Ben Hai River, which was the demarcation line between north and south.
T. with south Vietnam behind her
Finally, we reached the Vinh Moc Tunnels. The area around here had many kilometers of tunnels, dug by North Vietnamese fighters and civilians during the American bombing. At Vinh Moc, the whole village moved underground for years, emerging only at night. The tunnels have not been enlarged for tourists so it is possible to go in and feel what this claustrophobic existence was really like. Minus the cooking and cigarette smoke, and the bombs, of course.
Mannequin in the tunnel. I felt I'd gone very far down, even though we barely began.
There are places further afield in the DMZ that one can visit, such as the U.S. combat base at Khe Sanh. Maybe we didn't go there because it's in the remote highlands, or maybe because it was never overrun. I’d seen enough for one day. But even as I found it difficult to endure the propaganda film that introduced the Vinh Moc tunnels, the fact remains: These people were being bombed, and they did this to survive. It’s an impressive feat of human will.

I thought about how many wrong sides there were to go around in the war. Saying that “we” shouldn’t have been here carpet bombing and defoliating is not at all the same as saying that North Vietnam was right. I have never yet heard an American call the war a loss, but of course Vietnamese see it that way. They stood up to two great powers in the twentieth century, and won. It was a “miracle.”
Hoa Lo Prison Museum's version of the "miracle."
Of course, it was not a miracle. While five hundred Americans lost their lives at Khe Sanh, the estimate of North Vietnamese Army dead was ten thousand. The U.S. has 2,200 still listed as missing in action; Vietnam, 300,000. Four million Vietnamese civilians (in addition to guerrillas and soldiers on both sides) were killed or injured. Three million Vietnamese were poisoned by dioxin, to the second and third generation. If you can bear those types of casualties, you can have Vietnam.

Communist Vietnam was a police state for fifty years. None of the museums will tell you that history: the internal repression of dissenters from communist rule. Vietnam is somewhat different now. I wouldn’t want to live here and certainly don’t think Vietnamese people are free, but there isn’t the censorship there used to be. We had no trouble accessing Facebook, and the BBC News was on in a guesthouse. Contrast that with Laos, where the police suddenly showed up at our guesthouse and needed to see copies of everybody’s passports. (Luckily the guesthouse had copies; our originals were in the Vietnamese consulate!) This was probably normal, and I don’t even know if they were the police. In these countries, all officials look like they’re wearing military uniforms. 

I need to end on a musical note, so I go back to our host in Ninh Binh, whom we met only as a nice grandpa. When he put the Christmas carols on TV for us, they came out in a hyper-Asian-pop version that did not put me in the mood at all. However, I did appreciate this one line, with which I’ll leave you: “Good tidings we bring, wherever you are.”
*

Saturday, December 16, 2017

I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die: Hà Nội

When we left Hanoi airport, the first thing I saw was a sign for passengers with priority: “Disabled people. Decrepit people.” I stopped reading after that! It was 20 degrees C or about 68 F outside, so naturally the Vietnamese were all wearing winter jackets. 


I’ve already described what walking in Hanoi traffic is like. Being a passenger isn’t much better. As the taxi wove in and out among the motorbikes and other traffic, we noticed strange things we’d never seen before, such as barber’s chairs set up on the sidewalk. The customer sat facing away from the street, and the barber was shaving him with a straight razor. I thought, People really live on the edge here.

And that’s how I felt all the way through. Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” was on my playlist because of its acid humor about the war; but it became my theme song for Hanoi because of the traffic. The chorus (“Whoopee! We’re all gonna die”) sprang to my mind, and not infrequently to my lips, while crossing the road.

Joe McDonald wasn’t anti-military. Before his obscene tirade against the war at Woodstock, he’d served in the U.S. Navy. The song is written from the point of view of soldiers who don’t know why they’re here, and it seems to have resonated with soldiers in real life. He even heard this appreciation from a veteran of the “Hanoi Hilton.” 

The Hanoi Hilton, or what remains of the Hoa Lo Prison, was our first stop in Hanoi. Most of the museum at Hoa Lo is devoted to the Vietnamese prisoners who were held there by the French, who built the prison. 
As in Dien Bien Phu, the French captions were matter-of-fact, while the English versions contained many additional words and phrases of emotive emphasis. 
More mannequins
There are many displays about the brutal treatment of Vietnamese political prisoners, including a guillotine. There is no reason for me to doubt that Vietnamese prisoners were mistreated and executed here, but of course the story can’t stop at believability. The prisoners “always” kept their spirits up, “to their last breath.” 

Having seen all these rooms and memorials to the bravery of badly treated people, one thing is clear: The people organizing this museum know what bad treatment is. They aren’t confused about whether it is wrong or not. If they were, they’d have no reason to conceal it, or deny that it happened.

But they do. The part of the museum dedicated to U.S. prisoners of war is just a couple rooms at the back, plus some display signs that were being stacked up even as I was looking at them—so I didn’t get the full picture. They show items belonging to POWs including Everett Alvarez, Jr., the first to be shot down over North Vietnam. 
The purported personal effects of Everett Alvarez, who was a POW longer than almost anyone in American history

And, there are pictures of John McCain, though not being tortured, obviously. Senator McCain has been here and acknowledges that the display about him is false. Yet, he came repeatedly to Hanoi, to normalize relations.

I had to wonder what McCain and others see, so I looked it up later. But trying to find out what veterans think when they come here just led me down a rabbit hole of different perspectives. There are lots of pictures in the “Hanoi Hilton” of U.S. POWs appearing to enjoy themselves—which is all they did do according to the propaganda. One veteran wrote of his anger at coming here, and seeing someone in the picture playing chess, and saying he was a traitor, because he cooperated with the North Vietnamese for better treatment. 

But that led me to another veteran who excoriated John McCain as a traitor, and compared him (unfavorably) to Jane Fonda! And to another veteran who stood up for McCain, and every POW, when a certain man who is now president put him down for being captured. I suspect that point of view is the more common one, but the deeper I went, the fewer answers I had about how one could heal, or be reconciled, by coming back to Vietnam.

I know that some of the pilots bombing North Vietnam must have questioned what they were bombing, even while they followed orders. I know that the week I was born really did see the heaviest carpet bombing of the entire war in Vietnam and Cambodia. This picture is said to show a hospital bombed on 22 December 1972.
There was so much bullshit on display in these museums that I question everything; nevertheless, I know that hospitals and other civilian places were bombed. And if I had been those people, I would have wanted those planes shot down too.

I could think those things, yet still be angry at the preposterous way in which the “Hanoi Hilton” is presented, without any acknowledgment of what American prisoners really went through there. In the gift shop, ironically, there were Western newspapers on sale; I picked up a New York Times. And there, I read that Tweeter, the aforementioned president, had claimed that U.S. missile defense systems could shoot North Korean missiles out of the sky “97% of the time.”

The Times called this patently false, citing most arms control experts. The immediate calling out of a patent falsehood by Tweeter, which happens several times a day, is part of the job of a free press. This is what is missing in Hanoi. But it struck me as ironic, reading this claim on the very day I’d been angered by all the propaganda at Hoa Lo Prison. What kind of leader claims “97%” about anything, much less something as dangerous as the North Korea arms situation? Only the kind of leader we would expect North Korea—or Vietnam—to have.

And herein lies a clue, I think: Democracy, to the extent that it works, contains built-in safeguards, and one of these is a free press. The media make mistakes, but they are there to question, to call the government to account and point out lies. If a president (Nixon, say) hates the media, they are probably doing their job right. Democracies contain these vaccines against authoritarianism that authoritarian regimes have lost. (There’s a warning there.)

The one thing Hanoi had going for it was the temperatures. If it had also been hot, I don’t know how we’d have coped with the traffic. The only moments of peace were when we unexpectedly stepped into one of the French-era buildings—Our Lady of Hanoi R. C. Church, or La Badiane for a two-course lunch. A splurge, in a villa with wine, but far less than we’d have paid in France.

Some of the sights in Hanoi’s Old Quarter include Hoan Kiem Lake, which has a temple on an islet in it:
Bridge to Ngoc Son Temple
and St. Joseph Cathedral.

We were more interested in getting haircuts, as the situation had become desperate. Our last haircuts were in Mauritius, where we hadn't needed French (in fact, the women looked bewildered when we tried to speak it). In Hanoi, we found a barbershop and ten minutes later, we were out of there. I can’t speak for T., but the woman cutting my hair said only “Madame” and “Okay,” which was the only word I needed to say to her. I think it cost a dollar and a half. Not the most subtle styling ever! I'm happy though that my hair is looking a lot redder these days. People in England don't realize my hair is red, but that's their climate, not my hair.

That was something else that surprised me about Vietnam: the lack of languages. In Laos, we had a Hmong guide who spoke his native language along with Lao, English, and at least one other tribal language. In Vietnam, even in heavily traveled areas, many people know only “Hello.” I tried to speak with one of the hotel guys but he could only communicate with gestures—he noticed that I have one ear pierced once and the other twice, just like his. “Same same” was all the English that he knew! This was not the last time I observed that what Vietnamese people lack, they make up for in friendliness and helpfulness. 

We had lots more to see in Hanoi. We started with the Confucian Temple of Literature. A lot of it is reconstruction, but it was originally built in 1070. It was nice to see a reminder that Vietnam has many centuries of history, not just the last one.
Grounds of Vietnam's oldest national university
We then made our way to Lenin Park. Not because we were interested in that particular cult of personality, but because opposite it, on a street called Điện Biên Phủ (there are lots in Vietnam), is the Military History Museum. It stands out because of all the planes, helicopters, tanks, etc., many of them American or French and displayed as trophies of war.

There are halls devoted to the whole history of war in Vietnam, back to ancient times. And possibly future: the country is currently clashing with China over who “owns” certain islands in the South China Sea, or as it’s called in Vietnam, the East Sea.

Ngo Dinh Diem, first ruler of South Vietnam, with President Eisenhower
But the displays we were interested in were about the war. There were implications of torture by the “puppet regime” (“puppet” is always used in these museums to refer to the South Vietnam regime, or before that, the French colonial regime). There was also a whole hall of solidarity from the rest of the world. Most of the examples were from communist countries, but antiwar demonstrations in Canada and Australia (a belligerent) were also shown. I am sure there were people at the time, on the U.S. side, who would have agreed that protesting the war was equivalent to siding with North Vietnam. I think that’s nonsense.

By the time we reached our last stop of the day, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, all I could think about was how bizarre it is for communism to treat its heroes this way, whether Ho or Lenin. Whatever else Ho did or thought, he lived in a stilt house and wanted a simple cremation. Not that I feel sorry for Ho Chi Minh, but this grotesque honour seems more of an ongoing indignity to a human body.
We deliberately went after the mausoleum had closed for the day.

Perhaps Canada and Australia were on our minds as we set out for The Moose & Roo, a pub promising comfort foods from those two countries. It was, after all, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., where my family was celebrating. We missed them and thought we might get something reliably Western and delicious for a treat. Imagine our consternation when we saw that The Moose & Roo was observing American Thanksgiving (as they had Canadian the previous month) and reservations were recommended. Imagine, further, our delight when the hostess scared up two Thanksgiving dinners to spare! 

I’ve come down pretty hard on Hanoi, so I’d like to end on a high note. An overnight trip took us to Halong Bay. Like other places in Vietnam, it’s hyped to the skies, but unlike them we really did find it beautiful. We spent the night and much of the 24 hours on board the Dang Tam, a junk with an appropriate name, since our guide’s name was Tam. As in: “That dang Tam, he took us to a boring cave.”

Caves are big in this part of the world. We don't really like caves so we've avoided most of them, but back in Nong Khiaw, there was a cave in which villagers and Pathet Lao fighters (the faction that ended up in power in a communist Laos) hid out during the war. Another cave actually contained the region's bank from 1965-74.

Like inland Vietnam, the bay is in some places marred by litter, but at least not enough to spoil the view of the thousand islands. 
We spent an hour or so kayaking and then relaxed on the top deck, watching the silhouettes of the “karsts” fade next to a bright moon. 

We were with a nice international group of people, too, including a Spanish guy who spoke English with a Scottish accent! Turns out his mother is from Scotland. I’m always glad to meet people like this, with more than one passport and less than a simple answer to “Where are you from?”

We climbed to the lookout point on Ti Top Island, named for a Soviet cosmonaut. When Ghermann Titov visited the island with Ho Chi Minh in 1962, Ho decided it should be named after him, since the Soviet Union was his ally. There’s no escaping wartime history, even on the beautiful beaches of Halong Bay.



Saw a video of this song playing in a bar in Laos. Really evocative to hear in Southeast Asia 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Traveling through this part of you: Vietnam 1

The U.S. singer Nanci Griffith has toured Vietnam and Cambodia with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.* On her first visit, she wrote the song “Traveling Through This Part Of You.” She started writing it for her ex-husband, who is a Vietnam veteran, but then realized that it was in thanks for the service of all the veterans.


I expected to think about the U.S.A.’s undeclared war in Indochina while traveling here. After all, to someone who grew up in America, “Vietnam” means a war, not a country. What I didn’t expect was to spend so much of our Vietnam travels thinking about that recent period of history. It has been a journey through my own  conflicting feelings, as I try to imagine the perspective of first one, and then another person who lived through that time. All my observations are historical imagination and I don’t think that any of them, or the sum of them, is “the truth” about the war. Wars are always complicated, this one more than most.

I’ve been listening to some of the songs, too, which is why I start with Nanci Griffith’s. Sometimes a song tells a story in a way we couldn’t otherwise cope with.

The mountain road from Phongsali Province, Laos, had striking views. When we crossed into Vietnam at Tay Trang, the road got surprisingly bad. Surprisingly, because as an economy Vietnam is substantially more developed than Laos, more at the level of Thailand. I started observing that development in the mounds of trash that seemed to be strewn everywhere in Vietnam. In poor countries, people just don’t have much to throw away.

I also noticed that motorcyclists, who are ubiquitous in Vietnam as well, were wearing helmets. In Laos hardly anyone had. The helmets, as we soon discovered, embolden Vietnamese to ride like utter maniacs. A third difference I noticed was in the language: Vietnamese is the only one in this part of the world that doesn’t have its own written script. Thanks to a French missionary, it uses a phonetic version of the Roman alphabet, which was easier to educate the masses with. So while I don’t know any Vietnamese, it was strangely comforting to see it written in letters I recognize, and be able to sound out words. Like cà phê.

Everywhere we go, the coffee gets stronger. Lao coffee was lovely, but it needed that condensed milk to make it drinkable. Vietnamese coffee is off the charts. They brew it on top of the cup and it drips down, slowly infusing the sweetened condensed milk, which is “downstairs” as one of our hosts told us. T. said it looked like upside-down Guinness. If you don’t like sugar in coffee, you need to find a French place.

And so to Dien Bien Phu, our first stop in Vietnam. Because it was at that siege, in 1954, that the First Indochina War turned in favor of the Vietnamese and led to the end of French colonial rule. If you know nothing else about Dien Bien Phu, that’s good. There is nothing else to know.

Actually, that’s me being sarcastic. It was worth visiting this small town, just to get our feet wet in a new culture—and get used to crossing the road. The motorcyclists, pedestrians, pretty much everyone who saw us shouted “Hello!” It’s their go-to English word, and that was another thing that surprised me: how little English people know. Often, they have nowhere to go after “Hello,” but they keep saying it, gamely. Or sometimes “ça va.”

I’ve made fun (I hope gently) of some Americans before for our tendency to be the loudest people in the room. Well, henceforth I am handing that baton over to the Vietnamese. They shout everything. They aren’t being rude or aggressive. It’s just that they have to be heard over the constant, and I do mean constant, cacophony of honking horns and all the other noise in their streets. You might not believe this without a picture, but in Hanoi we actually came across a large group of little kids on tiny motorized bicycles, riding around a city square. Each was equipped with a horn, and they honked these regularly, just part of turning the handlebars. Start ’em young.

You can’t go far in Dien Bien Phu without seeing this monument. It overlooks the town and the two airplanes per day that leave the airport fly right past it.

We’ve been seeing a lot of communist symbolism, in both Laos and Vietnam. I know how bad this system has been for millions of people. But before I go on, I just want to offer one thought about the hammer and sickle. Not the police states that this flag came to represent, but the original idea behind it.

That idea is the dignifying of labor. It’s a good idea, and one that has been present in capitalist societies. From the 1930s to the 1970s, in the U.S. for example, the reckless excesses of capitalism were fresh in the minds of those who lived through the Great Depression. Both Republican and Democratic administrations presided over the lessening of inequality. The prevailing idea was that ordinary working families should share in the growing prosperity of a society.

Since around the end of the Vietnam war, perhaps coincidentally, a different ideology has prevailed. The income of ordinary working men and women has become decoupled from the economic growth of a nation, and most of the gains have gone to a few people at the top. This has happened whether the president was a Republican or a Democrat. As Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have pointed out (The Spirit Level), massive inequality is bad for societies in many ways, because it is linked to so many problems and our inability to address those problems. When inequality is not addressed, people may turn to socialism, or they may turn to Brexit and Trumpism. 

I just wanted to mention this, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since the 2016 presidential primaries. Communism has offered the world some big lies, but it is also a lie that the only other possible basis for organizing human society is pure greed. There are ways of organizing our societies that reduce inequality, and we have got to find them, for the whole planet’s sake.

So much for the hammer and sickle. The other image we’ve been seeing a lot of is Ho Chi Minh.

Ho, as he’s best known by this nom de guerre, is everywhere in Vietnam. Like the king in Thailand. He’s on every bill of money, and there’s a cult of personality that I find ironic, given how communism is supposed to be about no one bowing to any superior man. We were told this, unironically, by our guide in Laos when we asked about the king. “We used to have” a king, but more than six centuries of Lao monarchy were ended in 1975. 

Before Ho Chi Minh co-founded the French communist party back in 1920, he was an admirer of the U.S., and petitioned several administrations for help in resisting colonial rule, starting with Woodrow Wilson’s. “Self-determination” of nations was an ideal of Wilson’s, and the precursor of the C.I.A. seems to have agreed, as during the Second World War it provided Ho’s Viet Minh with weapons and training. I find this fascinating, because we tend to forget that the U.S. was not always the superpower of the late twentieth century. For most of its history, it was the underdog, the colony that had stood up to the British Empire and won. 

It therefore makes sense that Ho would admire the U.S. (he lived and worked there for a while) and that the U.S. was okay with Ho as long as he was more nationalist than communist. Alas, he turned out to be quite committed to communism, so things were never going to work out. In the Cold War era priorities shifted, and Ho's letters to President Truman got the same response as from Wilson. The U.S. opposed the dire regimes of communism, but as we know, was sometimes guilty of backing dire regimes of other kinds. It is doubtful that the military dictators of Thailand would have been around long enough to commit the 1973 massacre, had they not been useful in the struggle against North Vietnam.

We visited the Museum of Dien Bien Phu Historical Victory. The ground floor was given over to a display on Võ Nguyên Giáp, the general whose name is almost as familiar as Ho’s. Giap made his name by defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu. I found the museum interesting not so much on the level of the displays as on the level of propaganda. What are these displays trying to tell us?
General Giap waiting for a train. Really
Museums in Vietnam are dreary collections of mannequins that reminded us of the fake Maasai village in Tanzania, but the story Dien Bien Phu tries to convey is that there was a single Indochina War, running from the First (when the French lost their colonies in 1954) through the Second (which ended in 1975). At every opportunity, connections between the two imperial powers—France and the U.S.A.—are made. Thus, there are pictures of tanks that we are told the U.S. supplied to the French, and pictures of Vice President Nixon who, we are told, was in Dien Bien Phu to encourage the French colonialists.
Now, I know that’s a picture of Richard Nixon, but I automatically question whether the caption is accurate, and not just because I was taught that communism was all lies. Here’s the problem with communist storytelling: They never know when to stop. You can’t blame Vietnamese communists for being proud of resisting the Japanese invasion during World War II, and resenting the French for coming back after the war and reoccupying. So far, my sympathies are with them. But then they caption everything with all these emotive words. No one in the museum ever just did something; he (or often she) was a “joyful” conscript, or “cheerful” receiving the news about Land Renovation. Really? That’s what they’re excited about?

Intriguingly, there are French captions along with the English, and they don’t match. I’m not good at French and have no idea what the Vietnamese captions say, but I can tell when words and whole phrases aren’t there. The French captions said things like “Vietnamese soldiers received reeducation in the countryside.” The English would say “Our soldiers liberate…” The our, constantly present in the English captions, was absent in French. I began to wonder who translated these and why this proprietary, emotive version was particularly being aimed at English readers.

The other message of the Dien Bien Phu Museum is that the French were fops. There are displays of wine bottles and of the French commander’s bathtub, found in a trench. The implication is clearly that the Vietnamese were men of the people, hardily bathing in cold streams, as Southeast Asians do. Again, like other parts of the story, it’s true as far as it goes.
General Christian de Castries's tub
I wonder what French visitors make of this museum. On the way, one of them started speaking to me; he saw my Kilimanjaro T-shirt and asked about my climb. Turns out he climbed it too. I told him I almost made it and he credited me with reaching Stella Point, although I had to admit it was only 5,200 meters. I was just glad to be able to have the conversation in French!

We returned to our guesthouse to the constant accompaniment of honks and “Hello!” A gal in a grocery store, who spoke no more English than that, gave us bananas for free (this happens a lot in Vietnam). A little boy in a pho shop played with a butcher knife while we ate the noodle soup. Then back at the guesthouse, the proprietor’s toddler kept offering T. his favorite toy to play with. “Lovely,” she said, “a full box of matches.” 

We’d originally intended to travel overland the whole time we were in Asia, but we couldn’t face more than eleven hours in a bus to Hanoi. So we took the midday flight on Vietnam Airlines.
Crew in conical hats, Dien Bien Phu airport
That was where I discovered that the emotive “joyfully” thing is not just propaganda. The safety video on the plane showed passengers looking over the safety instruction card in the seat pocket in front of them, like all airlines’ safety videos do. But in the Vietnamese one, the passengers are exclaiming to one another in ecstasy, while the flight attendant looks on with, er, attendant joy. You have never seen anyone do anything with more enthusiasm than actors reading a safety card in the Vietnam Airlines video.

So yes, there are moments of humor, and discovery, such as the brown robes on Vietnamese monks (a different form of Buddhism from the one in which orange robes are worn). And there are moments, like when I was walking in Laotian jungle or missing my American family at Thanksgiving, that I couldn’t help but think about those young men who were sent over here. Boys, really, the age of my cousin who is a freshman. Treated, then and thereafter, as if their lives were expendable. 

More from Hanoi.

*“Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) is dedicated to global security through programs that support and promote justice and freedom, as well as reduce the worldwide threat posed by war and conflict. Their Campaign for a Landmine Free World is VVAF’s public outreach program that addresses the international landmine tragedy.”