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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.


Anonymous said...

We're glad that you made it to the beautiful mountains of My Son, that you remembered your grandfather when you saw the packing tape holding the double ladder together, and that you phrased your thoughts from and about Fritz (and war) so eloquently. And, to be honest, we are glad you are out of Vietnam. G & P

Anonymous said...

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