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Edition 18

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Reportage

Lotus blossom dog tags

GEORGE W BUSH Snr berates Iran for newk-ya-lah ambitions. George Bush enunciated the Saddam in Hussein like he'd just lipped too much salt with his margarita. Richard Nixon pronounced Viet-Nahm like a tropical wasting disease, rhymed with harm.

Three decades after the fall of Saigon, for some the background chatter of helicopters and a Phantom jet's jungle wake of spidery tendrils of white phosphorus, and napalm plumes in day-glo orange remains. Martin Sheen's murmured, ‘Saigon, Saigon, I was still in Saigon ...' may haunt the odd scabby hotel room, but it's Ho Chi Minh City now, and the only boom is an economic one. Having won the war, the Vietnamese are winning the peace: Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are growling free-market tiger cubs, a business thriving on every corner.

Vietnam has moved on, while the United States remains in the thrall of a recidivism born of old victory and revenge movies: news reports indicate many Americans even believe they won. The Vietnamese have seen the movies too, but they know the difference between box office and history. As the Americans are discovering all over again in Iraq, history isn't bunk.

‘They say that whatever you're looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived,' Michael Caine's character Thomas Fowler declares in The Quiet American. The first hours in any new country are precious, before your senses acquire the familiarity of a third glass of wine. On the taxi ride into Ho Chi Minh City we pass designer infant clothing boutiques and a profusion of billiard rooms. Electric cables trail down main streets like thick black vines, branching off into shops and homes. The streets throng with young people on motorcycles, teenage girls text on their Vespas, all so young, products of the baby boom that followed what the Vietnamese call the ‘American War'.

The women make an immediate impression. Not just because they are beautiful. It's their apparent ease and confidence, their freedom on the streets, dressed in their pyjamas or high heels, jeans or mini-skirts. The only veil is a mask against air pollution, embroidered with a flower. Subsequent inquiries confirm an emancipation stemming from the ancient matrilineal tradition and the frontline role women played in the American War. Who would dare to tell the guerrillas of the Mekong that their place was at home cooking rice?

The initial impression is of a vigorous, increasingly prosperous nation, an economic hybrid of big state-owned enterprises and a flourishing private sector. The dollar and the dong are interchangeable. The image of the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh is on Vietnamese banknotes, Washington and other American revolutionaries on the US dollar. The last Aussie dollar in my pocket bears an English queen and a kangaroo.

In his 1955 novel The Quiet American Graham Greene foreshadows the arguments which were to come. In Pyle, the American who wasn't ‘one of those noisy bastards at the Continental', Greene embodies the ingenuousness of American foreign policy. ‘You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren't interested.'

‘They don't want Communism.'

‘They want rice ... They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what to do'.

Greene anticipates the final debacle. The origins of the intervention are not the old imperialism of pillaged riches and subject peoples but a policy cooked up by think-tanks in the McCarthy era: ‘Containment of Red China' to prevent the ‘domino effect' of Asian nations falling one by one to communism, challenging America's post-World War II Asian-Pacific imperium and menacing Australia.

The US assumed the colonial mantle of the beaten French and contrived a ‘third force' – the government of South Vietnam – always more a strategic notion than a viable entity. By the end of the whole dreadful mess, millions had fallen, but the dominoes remained upright. A century of colonialism ended, Vietnam was reunified with a social and economic carpe diem. Who killed those millions? Alden Pyle, the frighteningly quiet American who Greene's narrator, the newspaperman Fowler, cannot bring himself to hate. Pyle is wrong, not for the wrong reasons but for genuinely held ones – which makes him all the more dangerous.

 

WE LEAVE THE aircon of the rosy-hued Miss Loi Guest House bound for the first place on Belle's holiday ‘to see' list. Summer days in Ho Chi Minh City are hot, up to 40 degrees, and after a half hour walk we're grateful for the cool French colonial Museum of Fine Art. Instantly, we're impressed by the quality and diversity of work: paintings of streetscapes, bar scenes, portraits, nudes, women with children, workers in ricefields and fisherfolk dragging nets. Other canvases are war images, painted on hessian rice-bags, of women soldiers in the jungle, eating under canvas, combing each other's hair, feeding infants with a rifle slung over their shoulder. The influence of Picasso and Matisse is clear, but also traditional Chinese, in paintings of striking beauty and originality.

Although this is a major state-run museum, there are price-tags on the works we discover are all painted by one of Vietnam's modern masters, Fam Luc. We talk it over, and later buy a small canvas of brilliantly coloured flowers. The assistant asks whether we would like to meet the artist, and phones Fam Luc at his hotel. We meet and converse in hopelessly broken French. Over the next couple of days he graciously entertains us and we ask more about his work. He never points out the bullet holes in the paintings of women at war.

Outside the War Remnants Museum there are US tanks and helicopters and fighter planes, still menacing three decades on. There are bombs and rockets, cluster bombs and napalm canisters: a nation's identity expressed in legions of military might, and all to no avail. Inside is far worse: galleries of photographs of napalmed children, farmers being led away and shot, dead families with throats cut by US soldiers. There are testaments to the spraying of the defoliant Agent Orange, jars of deformed foetuses in formaldehyde which demand you to look even though so much in you begs you not to, and photographs of people with ‘Elephant Man' faces, gnarled and twisted bodies. A US serviceman smiles for the lens as he pumps Agent Orange from a drum daubed ‘The Purple People Eater' into the tanks of a plane. It seems too monstrous, inhuman, a heinous felony. How could one nation do this to another: deform its children for generations? ‘Come home America. Come home from your dark country of racism, from your tragic, reckless adventure in Vietnam,' Dr Martin Luther King had pleaded not long before he was shot in 1968.

There are other galleries featuring photographs of US forces under fire, mired in mud, wounded and dying, a horizon of Huey Valkyries across the sky, crimson flashes of shell-blasts, and American grunts in the field, young faces mingling fear, pain, fatigue, anger, contempt and bewilderment.

Despite the horrors, there is scant abiding bitterness from the Vietnamese who created the exhibition, or in those streaming by outside the museum gates. There is profound sorrow, but also the hope of reconciliation, typified by one of the final exhibits, the military decorations of an American serviceman and his letter of apology.

The former presidential residence, now called Reunification Palace, is a '60s modernist block-pile, but inside it is cool, calm and spacious. The guidebooks jibe about lavish kitsch, but the cabinet rooms and meeting halls are beyond kitsch, captivating to the last outrageous chandelier. There's a map room, with colour-coded phones; a gambling room with wine barrel bar; a movie room with red plush swivel chairs; and, in the basement, banks of ancient telex machines and single presidential ‘combat bed' for nights when it got too hot upstairs. There's a closed security section with rows of dungeons, and a shooting gallery where President Thieu peppered targets with his favourite handgun.

We emerge to the gates two North Vietnamese tanks crashed through on April 30, 1975, the final act of decades of war. I ask whether the tank driver is famous. ‘Well-known yes, but famous, no. He lives like an ordinary man, with not much money. We are all proud of him and what he did, but he is one of us, nothing more.'

 

WAR HAD BLITZED Into Huê´ during the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces taking the entire city except for a couple of US adviser compounds. What followed was a Stalingrad set-piece battle, which they lost after nearly a month's horrendous fighting pitted against the best part of a marine division and two regiments of air cavalry,' photographer Tim Page wrote in Derailed in Uncle Ho's Victory Garden. According to Page – said to be an inspiration for the Conradian photo-jock in Apocalypse Now – the old imperial capital Huê´ is where ‘the women are prettiest, the food most delicious, the temples most interesting'. Huê´ lies on the Perfume River, named for the blossoms that drift down it. Outdoor cafes and beer gardens line its banks, but the bullet scars in the citadel walls tell another story, as do the street vendors hawking American dog tags: name, number, blood group, religion.

The speed and ferociousness of the Tet Offensive stunned the Americans, who had not detected its planning and preparation. The North Vietnamese held out for more than three weeks in Huê´. Even the holy of holies in Saigon, the US Embassy, was hit. American confidence was shattered, with only a drawn-out endgame of epic destructiveness to come. ‘By May 1968, US military-political strategies in Vietnam had been driven into bankruptcy ... To fail against armed forces developed from peasant guerrillas, with an army of well over a million superbly armed troops at your disposal, plus the world's most modern air force and unlimited artillery, is a failure of monumental proportions,' Wilfred Burchett wrote.

We travel up Highway 1 on a bus headed for the old Demilitarised Zone and Quang Tri province where some of the heaviest fighting and bombing occured – literally razing the town of Quang Tri – and then on to the equally contested Highway 9, Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the former US base at Khe Sanh.

‘Who besides the Americans fought at Khe Sanh?' I ask the tour guide, Tien.

‘Jimmy Barnes,' he deadpans. Though obviously a set-piece crack for DMZ tourists, it underscores the fiction of the Cold Chisel pub-rock anthem, and the macho Vietnam vet anti-hero who ‘left my heart to the sappers round Khe Sanh'.

President Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with Khe Sanh and made his commanders swear to hold it, declaring he didn't want no ‘Dinbinfoo' – an allusion to the battle in 1954 of Dien Bien Phu, where the French had made a decisive stand, also at an airstrip surrounded by mountain ranges providing ready cover for artillery, and were defeated.

Five thousand Americans endured a ten-week siege at Khe Sanh in 1968, as US aircraft dropped tens of thousands of tonnes of bombs on the surrounding mountains, but the feared North Vietnamese ground assault never came: the siege was a diversionary action for the Tet Offensive. ‘Khe Sanh was a very bad place to be then, but the airstrip was the worst place in the world ... If you were waiting there to be taken out, there was nothing you could do but curl up in the trench and try to make yourself small, and if you were coming in on the plane, there was nothing you could do, nothing at all,' Michael Herr wrote in his war classicDispatches.

Some people speak of a feeling in the DMZ still, of hurt from the war. And there is something of that, but my first impression is of a countryside that looks almost as if the war never happened. It's hard to believe that just three decades ago Agent Orange and carpet bombing transformed this fertile region into the surface of Mars. ‘I lost my friends, my house, my village, all gone,' Tien reflects on the bus microphone. ‘The Americans thought they came here to protect us, but my people died like dogs. People around here still hate Americans.'

Highway 9 passes rebuilt towns and villages. There are forests of eucalypts and bamboo, vegetable gardens and fields of rice, and pretty houses in a green-clad mountain landscape much like South-East Queensland. The Ho Chi Minh Trail has been sealed and trucks in the new prosperity, while Khe Sanh is a coffee plantation, robusta beans from the blood red earth. It has a small museum, bunkers and a couple of old helicopters. The rest, nature has reclaimed. ‘When we returned to our land after the war we had to search out mines with bamboo sticks,' Tien says later. ‘So many mines, no one helped us, we did it ourselves. The mines are still around here. Last year a lady died in the ricefields. Two weeks ago a little boy lost both legs.' He looks out as we wind down through hills of forest regrowth, heading back to Huê´. ‘Fiftyeight thousand US dead. We lost three million.'

 

THE RICH RICEFIELDS of the Red River delta in the north long made the region tempting to the Chinese. They ruled for around a thousand years until the Vietnamese, under Ngo Quyen, won a decisive victory in 938, luring the junks of the Chinese fleet into the estuary of the Bach Dang River, before forcing them back at low tide onto huge wooden stakes set into the river bed. It is a quirk of history that the tactics were repeated more than three centuries later, when in 1288, Vietnamese leader Tran Hung Dao enticed the fleet of Mongol invader Kublai Khan into the same river estuary, and again beat the enemy ships back onto stakes set into the river bed: those who fail to learn the lessons of history are destined to perish.

Seven hundred years later, pointed stakes were again used, to kill US troops. The technological difference could not have been clearer. The US threatened to bomb the Vietnamese ‘back into the Stone Age' using everything short of nuclear weaponry to impose its will on a poor nation of twenty million, mainly rice farmers. Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, who reported from the North Vietnamese side during the war, expressed it succinctly: ‘Never in the history of any nation had so many with so much been arrayed against so few with so little.' Richard Nixon himself later concurred, and US Secretary of State Robert McNamara admitted the defeat reflected a basic lack of understanding of the history and culture of the Vietnamese. ‘Even the most detailed maps didn't reveal much any more; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind,' Michael Herr wrote.

 

HANOI IS AN attractive city of lakes and boulevards, of twisting, tamarind-shaded alleys in the old city, the opera and elegant Metro-pole Hotel in the French quarter. As in Ho Chi Minh City there is evident rising affluence and a profusion of fancy shops. Wartime propaganda posters sell for up to US $200 – often to American collectors. We purchase a reproduction of women guerrillas moving with rifles at the ready through a lake of pink lotus blossomsTheir unabashed beauty, and that of the lotuses, belies a deadly purpose. The title translates as The Southern Guerrilla Women are Full of Guts. We ask the sales assistant, dressed in fashionable clothes and trendy spectacles, to see a poster of Ho Chi Minh, and she places several before us. As we look, her manner changes. ‘He is our uncle,' she says quietly. Women like her fought on the battlefields, petite women who had once worn make-up and fashionable clothes. If needed, no doubt they would fight again.

‘The sorrow of war inside a soldier's heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love. It was a kind of nostalgia, like the immense sadness of a world at dusk. It was a sadness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past,' North Vietnamese army veteran Bao Ninh wrote in his famous novelThe Sorrow of War, which rewinds the life of Kien, a foot-soldier who survives only to contend with the peace. The jump-cut narrative evokes profound horror and pathos, ghosts of a dreamscape jungle and subliminal eroticism, building to an overwhelmingly powerful climax. Critics place it among war classics; some argue it may be the finest war novel. Its hunted depths make it a unique work, echoing the extremes of the conflict. It is also a book about lost love, about writing; and about Hanoi, and its people. ‘At this moment the city was so calm he could practically hear the clouds blow over the rooftops. He thought of them as part of his own life being blown away in wispy sections, leaving vast, open areas of complete emptiness, as in his own life.'

 

WE MAKE CONTACT with Fam Luc and meet up at his house in Hanoi. Three of his collectors join us. One speaks excellent English and translates as we catch up with all the things half understood and left unsaid back in Ho Chi Minh City. We learn that Luc is a descendant of the famous poet Nguyen Du. Following his years as an artist in the North Vietnamese Army, his marriage broke up. He met a Frenchwoman who loved his paintings and collected many; their trysts conducted in secret to avoid the eyes of the then-disapproving officialdom. One day Luc returned to his room and found an envelope. It contained a key to a substantial Hanoi villa as payment for his works. The couple married and she took him to live in Paris, but he returned alone after only a month. Now the house is not quite as large. When the the road to the airport was widened the authorities cut off the fronts of houses in the way, including Luc's.

We go on to a restaurant by the lake, a massive earth-floored industrial shed with a row of woks in a far corner. The lake is moonlit, literally alive with catfish. Luc orders and large bowls of boiled river snails are brought out followed by freshwater shrimp, and a deep-fried whole catfish. The coup de grace is a basket of tiny birds, deep-fried whole. I do my best to pick off a miniscule wing, trying not to offend. Luc bites a head and chews, and Belle bites in as well. I keep my eyes down and reach for the prawns. Our fellow diners, Luc's collectors, are typical of the new Vietnam. One is a millionaire, another a professor of literature and Party official, the third a Hanoi real estate agent. They eat, chat and joke together. We down beers and start toasting the republic, the people and Ho Chi Minh. I have a copy of his Prison Diary, bought that day at the Temple of Literature, and read out ‘Moonlight', as requested by the professor, pausing for each line to be translated:

In jail is neither flower nor wine.

What could one do when the night is so exquisite?

To the window I go and look at the moonshine.

Through the bars the moon gazes at the poet.

Later a street hawker sells me a small book called Christmas Bombing: Dien Bien Phu in the Air. It is a forensically detached account of the saturation bombing of Hanoi by B52s in the closing days of 1972. The Paris Peace Talks had almost delivered an American withdrawal, but under pressure from the South Vietnamese over conditions, Nixon ordered the now infamous Christmas bombing. Before his death in 1969, Ho Chi Minh had warned: ‘US armed forces are set to be defeated but they will only admit defeat after their loss in the skies of Hanoi.' Massive raids by nearly two hundred B52s were intended to bludgeon the North Vietnamese into accepting terms: Nixon's ordering of them was denounced as a criminal act around the world. On 18 December 1972 they started raining down high explosives from ten kilo-metres up, and by the time Nixon ended it eleven days later, the people of Hanoi had been subjected to some of the most intense bombing ever conducted, killing and maiming thousands, with severe damage to homes, hospitals and schools. But US losses were significant too – more than thirty B52s the Vietnamese claim. They say it was the losses, and not the global protests, which forced Nixon to stop bombing.

Our last day in Hanoi is very still and humid. As night falls a thunderstorm breaks over the city, the thunderclaps close overhead and very intense. One can only wonder how it must have felt when they were the bursts of bombs. The rain comes sheeting down. Below our window in Ma May Street I see people everywhere running for cover. I am reminded of something Bao Ninh wrote: ‘The spirit of Hanoi is strongest by night, even stronger in the rain.'

 

IN HO CHI MINH city there's a clutch of hotels down near the Saigon River famous from books and old news footage: the Continental, the Caravelle and the Rex, and further down, the Grand and the Majestic. They have roof garden bars which were popular with war correspondents, who could keep an eye on the city but stay out of range of tossed grenades. Now you can choose from cocktails including a B52, a Good Morning Vietnam, a Saigon Saigon and even a Hemingway (Bacardi, Maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice – whatever would Papa have said?)

On our last evening before returning home we sit at a table at the Rex overlooking Lam Son Square in the middle of Ho Chi Minh Ciy. Above the frenetic traffic, small birds sweep around the square in swirling spirals, much like the swifts in the same hypnotic circuits above the piazzas of Europe. The Aussies downing beers at the next table are vets on a tour. What must they make of Vietnam now, with its shopping malls, fashions and youth culture? What was it they fought here for again? Something about stopping communism, tumbling dominoes? What was it for that five hundred of their mates died? What was it all about?

The question hangs unspoken in the air as the birds sweep past on their silent rounds.


From Griffith Review Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review