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.
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|
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|
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|
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.”