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.|
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.
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|
|Mannequin in the tunnel. I felt I'd gone very far down, even though we barely began.|
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."|
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.”*