Follow The Discreet Traveler by e-mail!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Advent people in a Good Friday world

We left Saigon on a high note. We climbed up several flights of stairs in an old apartment building tucked down an alley, to emerge on the roof, where there’s a lovely restaurant called The Secret Garden. Homestyle food, some of the most delicious we’ve had. Then we caught a bus across the border to Cambodia.
I was instantly happier in Cambodia. The sun came out, which it almost never did in Vietnam. Not that that was Vietnam’s fault. But I was in a new country, with a new currency. Not, as you might expect, the Cambodian riel, but the U.S. dollar! It is possible in Cambodia to make every transaction in USD, only getting small change in riels. Automatic banking machines even dispense dollars.

We arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh, and walked into a guesthouse. Well, we walked into three before we found a room we liked—$10 a night with a fan and a surprisingly nice bathroom. I will never get over how easy this is in Southeast Asia. It shows how much we’ve gotten used to that the tile and plentiful supplies marked the bathroom as “nice.” After all, it was still a wet room, where the shower sprays all over everything and just drains through the floor. But some things we have gotten used to.

Others I never will. Almost everywhere we’ve eaten in Asia, except Indian restaurants, they just bring the food out in whatever order it’s cooked. I think this is because they assume everybody shares dishes family style—which we do in Indian restaurants too—but really, rice getting cold is not a course in itself. Even in Hong Kong, our friend told us if a main course happens to be ready, they’ll bring it, never mind if the appetizer hasn’t come yet. First World issues, eh?

The first friend we made in Cambodia was our remork driver. The Cambodian version of a tuk-tuk is a kind of wooden chariot, sort of like the ones on a carousel, that is integrated with a motorcycle in front. It’s a lot stabler than it sounds! This guy called up to us on the balcony of our guesthouse and offered his services, which we negotiated while he (astonishingly) identified T. as a Mancunian. I didn’t think there was enough of an accent there, certainly not for a Cambodian to hear it, but he’s a big Manchester United fan. He also turned out to know the words to “O Canada.” 
Wat Phnom, the temple on the hill

The old and the new: Phnom Penh riverfront
When he asked us brightly, “Would you like to go to the Killing Fields tomorrow?” we had to accept. It’s not the kind of invitation that sounds, well, inviting. But we were in Cambodia and it had to be done.

For all the horrible things that human beings did to each other in the last century, it is hard to think of a worse string of luck than Cambodia’s. This is a country with a great ancient civilization, the Khmer empire, and whose colonial power (France) really did “protect” it, to some extent, from neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. When King Norodom Sihanouk declared independence in 1953, things really started to go well for Cambodia. Then the hell started.
Norodom Sihanouk monument, Phnom Penh
It is bad enough that Cambodia, ostensibly on the pro-U.S. side, was used for part of the ingenious Ho Chi Minh trail, prompting massive bombings. (It was this escalation of the war into Cambodia that students were protesting in 1970 when the Kent State killings happened.) It’s bad enough that it became the most mined country on earth, with corresponding casualties. Before Saigon even fell in 1975, Cambodia was embroiled in its own conflicts, the upshot of which was the coming to power of what Sihanouk called the Khmer Rouge. 

You could look at the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge and take it as a lesson that communist, no less than fascist, fanatics commit devastating violence. What strikes me most about it, though, was that Cambodians killed Cambodians. Most of the (depressingly not rare) genocides, intentional or unintentional, have been of one people against another whose lives they don’t value: Jews in Nazi Germany or aboriginal peoples in Australia and the Americas. But in Cambodia, almost everybody suffered.

Not the leader called Pol Pot, or his cronies, like Ieng Thirith or “Duch” (another nom de guerre). Ironically, although I’m ceasing to believe in irony in communism, they were highly educated people, the kind of people marked for death under their rule. Pol Pot was a teacher who ordered the murder of teachers. Ieng Thirith was a woman who studied Shakespeare at the Sorbonne and was the first Cambodian to earn a degree in English literature. Duch was a math teacher.

So they didn’t suffer, but everyone else did. Including the peasants, though the theory was class struggle in which the peasants were going to rule. Telling this to ignorant boys was how the Khmer Rouge got the man[sic]power to enforce their hideous regime. One of these young recruits, ordered to kill “traitors to the revolution,” recalled: “We were told that we had to catch up with the cycle of history.”

We heard this at an excellent memorial, Choeung Ek. There were many killing fields in Cambodia, but this one is accessible from Phnom Penh. It is where many of the men, women, and children imprisoned and tortured in a former high school in the city were brought to be murdered. (You can visit Tuol Sleng too, but I hope my readers will forgive me; we just couldn't.) After 1979 mass graves were discovered at the Choeung Ek killing fields. Not much else was left.
Grave of 450 people
It’s a tough place to visit, but very well done. You get to walk around with an audio guide and your own thoughts. The narrator in English is a Cambodian survivor of the regime; his family was split up after being forcibly removed from Phnom Penh, and many did not survive. The many voices you hear at Choeung Ek make the story personal: how could Cambodians do this to millions of their own countrymen? 

One clue is that by 1975, 80% of Cambodians were living in extreme poverty. That statistic is as staggering as the estimated 25% of the population who ended up dead because of the Khmer Rouge. The country had just been wrecked by a war that wasn't even its own. When Pol Pot came along and said let’s start over…

One ghostly flip flop. Evoked the "shoes without people" at Auschwitz death camp
“Starting over” literally meant “Year Zero” for the Khmer Rouge. They wanted to wipe out any trace of civilization in Cambodia, and largely succeeded. They killed Buddhist monks and nuns and damaged or destroyed almost all the temples in the country. For reasons that are hard to grasp, they wanted everyone in Cambodia to work on collective farms, producing rice at a rate that was not humanly possible. At one point in the late 1970s, the entire country was basically one huge slave labor camp. 

Perhaps because the horror of the Khmer Rouge was contained within Cambodia, and the borders were sealed, it took time for the rest of the world to gain awareness of what had happened there. For some time after Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge, it was still considered the legitimate government of Cambodia by Western countries, including the U.K. and U.S. Perhaps some people were reluctant to recognize anyone who had been installed by communist Vietnam. 

But when the killing fields were acknowledged, here is what was found: 20,000 people murdered just at Choeung Ek. One hundred and twenty-nine mass graves. Across the country, up to three million Cambodians killed by their own people in less than four years. No wonder it was hard to believe.
A peaceful place for contemplation now
There are no buildings left from the time of the killing fields. By the end of the regime people were starving, and they took any materials they could use. All you find there now are graves, and the occasional tree.

When confronted with what had happened at this tree (“taketh and dasheth thy little ones...” as the Psalmist said), the man known as Duch broke down. Later, in the tribunal, he accepted responsibility for the murders and refused to blame his subordinates for carrying out his orders. He also said that he prayed for the souls of his victims.

Duch defected from the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s and became a Christian. He is the only member of the regime’s leadership to have admitted his crimes or expressed remorse.

Religion, being an expression of humanity, was one of many things the Khmer Rouge was bent on destroying. But for many Cambodians, their Buddhist faith was part of what got them through those terrible years. At the center of Choeung Ek is a stupa, a Buddhist site that traditionally holds holy relics. This one is a charnel house. It holds the skulls, teeth and bones of some of the eight thousand human beings whose remains were recovered for this purpose.

You can take pictures in the stupa, but I didn’t. I didn’t know what to do, in the presence of these people; I don’t know how else to describe it. I removed my shoes, of course, and thought I’d say some kind of prayer for peace for the victims. But what actually came to my lips was the prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”

I didn’t think that out consciously. The prayer that came to me was Christian, not Buddhist, because that is my tradition. It may sound naive in the face of so many horrors, but I really did come out of that place feeling that I must be a better person, or do more, or something. If faith means anything at all it can’t just be my tradition, but make some kind of difference in real life.

And this was tested right away, because as we moved into the week before Christmas, the question was raised: If God, in the person of Jesus Christ, became man and performed miracles and all that, why would he then leave the world to it? When it’s obvious that we make such an awful mess.

Now, I know that there are men, and at least one woman, who have devoted whole books to this question. Virginia Mollenkott wrote Godding based on I John 4:17: “As He is so are we in this world.” I was raised to believe that I should "always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (I Peter 3:5). But in Cambodia, in the final week of Advent, I really didn’t have an answer. Not one that would speak to the bones of Choeung Ek.

Of the many Cambodians’ voices we heard on our audio tour, perhaps the most moving was that of a young man who survived imprisonment to emigrate to America and, eventually, return to work on trying to heal Cambodia. This survivor, when really just a boy, was held in a prison full of adults. There was a man there who spoke up to the prison authorities, insisting that this child did not belong in an adult prison and they should let him go. Eventually they did, but the young man said he realized that by repeatedly speaking up for him, the other man had sacrificed his own life.

Was this older man “Godding”—being as God is to his fellow man in this world? Is this an answer? I don’t know, but as with every such story, it was humbling. And in this world that can seem much more like the crucifixion than the manger, it was the closest I could get. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Born in the U.S.A.*: South Vietnam

Hoi An was the last chance we were giving Vietnam. It can now be told that, up to this point, Vietnam was the dirtiest, grubbiest, ugliest, most trash-heaped country I have ever seen. We kept hearing, and reading, about this or that place that was beautiful, but what I got out of Vietnam was a history lesson. I don’t know where people went that was beautiful or where they wished they could have spent more time.

A clue came when we started talking to an older (our age) Australian man who’s been here sixteen times. Sixteen! We had to ask about the trash. He said he doesn’t notice it. Fifty years ago, he went on, people didn’t have plastic so all the trash was biodegradable, and they still throw their scraps on the floor (as in restaurants in Dien Bien Phu). I didn’t mind that so much, as someone really was picking up the tissues and the chicken bones. Here they figure “someone” is paid to pick up the trash, but it’s still there, an eyesore on every beach, in the foreground of every picture.

After Hoi An our last stop would be Ho-Chi-Minh-City-formerly-known-as-Saigon. Australian man started talking about history, and how “the Americans” kept the 1956 election from happening because they didn’t want Ho, and the communists, to win. (It is certain that the failure to hold those elections precipitated the division between South and North Vietnam, which was followed by the North’s invasion…) I always make sure at this point that the speaker knows I’m originally from the U.S. I dread this moment too, though, because then they always want to talk about Tweeter. They say they don’t, but they’re the ones who bring him up.

One thing he said I wholeheartedly agree with, though. He waved around us and said, “You can’t beat capitalism.” What he meant was that the Communist Party may be the sole source of power in Vietnam, but there’s never been a more enterprising bunch of people. Everybody and his granny, literally, are running a small business from the front of their home and/or the back of their bike.

Hoi An became a trading port first with the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, and other nationalities later settled, and—rarely for Vietnam—the city was never wrecked in war. As a result, today it is a beautifully preserved old town.

It helped that we’d arrived on the comfortable “sleeper bus,” though we weren’t on it overnight. Some backpackers travel throughout Vietnam this way. We walked into a very friendly guesthouse, with a pool! Throughout our stay, we were the only people in it, as the weather was considered “cold” for Vietnam.

Today, many of the old ironwood houses in Hoi An are shops or restaurants. We went to one of them and tried several local specialties: “white rose” shrimp dumplings, wontons, cao lau (thick noodles with sliced pork), and banh xeo (rice pancakes). Worth trying once.

The next day, we rented bicycles again, willing to brave the light traffic in Hoi An even without helmets, which were unavailable. We wanted to go to the beach, though it wasn’t beach weather. We’d seen pictures of An Bang Beach on the internet and, even though there was trash in the pictures, people still said it was beautiful. So we set off along the coast road.

I know it was December and gray, and “cold” (the woman who served us beachside drinks shivered in her coat, while we let the sea breeze cool our sweat). But there was Styrofoam and rubbish everywhere. We couldn’t bear to walk any further in search of beauty, so we biked over to Cam Nam Island. There, a friendly masseuse pointed us towards a riverside place for lunch. When we got there, we couldn’t wake the only visible worker, who was snoozing in a hammock. So we gave up!

I read in the otherwise helpful Lonely Planet guidebook that biking the back roads would show us “the real Vietnam.” But we know what the real Vietnam is. It’s waterfalls and buffalo, like Laos. I loved Laos and for whatever reason, fewer people or greater awareness, the parts we visited were not spoiled. So we decided to concentrate on what Hoi An is best at: the UNESCO World Heritage Site structures.

Japanese covered bridge that once linked Japanese and Chinese neighborhoods
We visited a couple of houses that have been in the same Vietnamese family for seven or eight generations.
There was fair-trade shopping, traditional music, people watching, and simple but good food. 
Interior, temple of the Fujian Chinese community
Hoi An is good at food. Every day we could have great coffee and pastries thanks to a French-named bakery across the road. One morning, we started chatting to a Belgian couple there, who seemed a little shell-shocked. They’d just come from Saigon and the woman told us the traffic was “worse than Hanoi.” Oh, goody!

Before the development of the trading port, from the second century, this region of central Vietnam was a Hindu kingdom, Champa. Ultimately the Cham were squeezed between the Vietnamese to the north and the mighty Khmer Empire to the south, but their legacy remains in two ways. We had some of the best Indian food of our travels at Omar’s Namaste Restaurant.
And, we spent a half day visiting another UNESCO World Heritage site: the temple ruins at My Son.

These Cham ruins are atmospheric, but our real reason for going was to get into the shadow of the mountains and see, we hoped, some relatively unspoiled scenery. We were not disappointed in this. We set off walking on our own rather than follow our guide. He told us, “There used to be ruins of seventy temples but now there are only twenty. Can you guess why?” Well, I didn’t even bother to put my hand up. There is only one answer around here: “American bombs.”

My Son means “beautiful mountains, and they were. We came back to Hoi An partly via boat on the Thu Bon River. It helped immensely that that day, we saw the sun for the first time since Hong Kong!

And so we left for the last leg of our Vietnam journey: a flight from Da Nang to Sai Gon. On the drive to the airport, T. observed someone working and remarked, “If your ladder’s not long enough just tie it to another ladder!” The two bamboo ladders, strapped together with packing tape, reminded me of something my Grandpa would have jerry-rigged. 

In the Danang airport I noticed, once again, that there are no newspapers in Vietnam. There is, however, a Burger King. “Since 1954!” the sign proclaims, a year I now know (but was told most Vietnamese don’t) as the date France’s colonial rule came to an end. I was embarrassingly glad to get a burger.

I listened to the strains of a jazzy “Let It Snow” and wondered what, if anything, Vietnamese people read. There had been a bookstore in Hoi An, and the South China Morning Post was, interestingly, available on Vietnam Airlines. How much is censorship and how much is the worldwide scourge of ignorance?

Hoi An had redeemed itself and, in part, Vietnam. Saigon continued the trend. (It is sometimes and officially called Ho Chi Minh City, but Saigon seems to be the preferred name, even among Vietnamese people.) There are parks, wide (if crazy) streets, and some beautiful French-era buildings. 
Notre Dame Cathedral

The Central Post Office was designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Opcra House

Continental Hotel
Nonetheless, when people say Saigon, I first think “the fall of.” And so we made our way to Independence Palace, on the site of what was once the French governor’s residence. This was the presidential office building through whose gates North Vietnamese tanks smashed in 1975. The building, complete with bunker, is weirdly frozen in its 1960s design.
Cabinet room

We emerged from Reconciliation Palace, as it’s now called, to the strains of “Mary’s Boy Child” coming from a nearby coffeeshop. “There is hope for all to find peace,” sang Boney M.

A similarly jarring Christmastime experience occurred at the coffeeshop outside the War Remnants Museum. There, they were playing “Silent Night.” It made me think of “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night,” recorded by Simon & Garfunkel in 1966. For the War Remnants Museum was the most harrowing, and necessary, stop in our Vietnam travels.

It used to be called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, but it’s not as one-sided today. It can’t be, because the star of the show is a display from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. You may have seen it in book form: Requiem. It features photographs from many journalists who died in the Indochina wars. Some are well-known Americans, like Robert Capa and Larry Burrows; others are French, Japanese…and Vietnamese.
Photograph by Larry Burrows at Khe Sanh
Dickey Chapelle, another of the many press photographers who died in Vietnam
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis wrote that a healthy patriotism involves (among other things) knowing the difference between heroes and martyrs. In other words, we are not to confuse our country’s cause with God’s. As far as I can tell from translations into English, Vietnam officialdom does not know the difference. In the introduction to Requiem, only Vietnamese are presented as “martyr-journalists.”

But they cannot do anything about the truth of the photographs, even those on another floor of the museum, about U.S. atrocities and Agent Orange. The My Lai Massacre really did happen. U.S. (and allied) soldiers were also poisoned by dioxin. Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary, really did write in his memoirs, “We were wrong.”

“Wrong” has so many faces in this war. It was wrong to throw stones or shout “baby killers” at soldiers who came home from Vietnam. It was wrong to treat any human beings as those at My Lai or Thanh Phong were treated. Worse, these massacres made the world doubt that the U.S. was here for the people of South Vietnam. It is bad enough to do this to your enemy; but to the people you are supposed to be helping?

It was wrong, in international law, to drop napalm and phosphorus bombs and toxic chemicals, on a scale unseen in human history. It was wrong for American veterans not to receive any compensation for twenty-five years. 
American war veterans who were injured by Agent Orange
And it was in this museum that I again saw a clue to the self-defense of democracy. For we know about these wrongs because of Western sources. Many of the photographs and reports were from American journalists. People began to question, then to protest, the conduct of the war because of what they were hearing from a free press.
We know about the My Lai Massacre because of U. S. sources.
I will never forget a World War II copy of Life magazine that I somehow saw as a young person. There was a picture of a Japanese soldier about to do something, no doubt something barbaric to Americans. "The face of the Jap" was characterized with words I won't quote because I can't remember them exactly, but I know I was shocked by the dehumanization. 

Yet I understood where the caption came from. The writer was remembering the Pearl Harbor attack, something only savages would do. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese did not seem like people to Americans; and yet we know this type of thinking also led to the internment of Japanese-Americans. Some of them had family members fighting on the U.S. side.

“Perhaps to the soldier the civilian is the man who employs him to kill, who includes the guilt of murder in the pay-envelope and escapes responsibility.” —Graham Greene, The Quiet American

When we got to Saigon it was steamier than it had been anywhere else in Vietnam. We found a family restaurant down an alley off Pham Ngu Lao, backpacker row, and I ordered vegetable fried rice and broccoli with garlic sauce. These were the dishes my friend Fritz and I would always order, when we met for Chinese food back in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

Of all the men and women who fought for the United States in Vietnam, only one was a good friend of mine with whom I talked about the subject. Although Fritz has been gone for twenty-four years I still think about him often. But especially these past few weeks.

Major Fritz Bernshausen was Airborne
Fritz was older than a lot of the men in Vietnam, because he wasn’t drafted; he was a career soldier. He was in the Army Special Forces and as patriotic an American as I’ve ever known, but he wasn’t born in the U.S.A. He was born in Germany in 1928. I never knew exactly when his family immigrated to America; all he ever told me about the World War II period was “My mother was a Nazi and my father was not.”

I’ve written about Fritz before (he liked my versions of his stories) and I’m sure I will write more. His perspective, though unique, came to me with the assurance of someone who had lived through battle and respected the art of war. For his part, Fritz never referred to himself as a “veteran,” always as a soldier. (“Old soldiers never die.") And he knew enough about soldiering both to be critical of decision making on his country’s side, and to respect the abilities of others—Erwin Rommel or the Viet Cong—no matter how much he deplored them in other ways.

Fritz would say, probably with an obscenity thrown in, that his enemy in Vietnam were fighting on and for their own land, while Americans were not. You fight differently if someone is actually attacking your country. Most of us would not blame someone for defending their own home with force. It was difficult, even at the time, for many Americans to see how Vietnam was a threat to their own country. 

Fritz was proud of his profession and considered himself a good soldier, but if anything that made him more protective of his comrades’ lives, and more critical of politicians who might throw them away. “Those boys are going to die for a barrel of oil!” he told me during the Gulf war, with tears in his eyes. To Fritz, human lives were precious, and supporting the troops meant being very, very careful of how we use them.

Like Fritz, I wholeheartedly embraced a country that I emigrated to. I travel on my Canadian passport and have a prime minister, not a president. But I could never deny where I’m from. Here’s to Fritz, his compatriots, and the end of our adventure in Vietnam.

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.”