As I prepared for my trip to Vietnam this January, I found it surreal to put the words “tourist” and “Vietnam” in the same sentence. I had the psyche of an anti-war activist, steeped in ten interminable years of marches and resolutions, outrage over official lies, and the general horror of bloodshed. Just the thought of being in Hanoi felt mildly illicit, since traveling to North Vietnam was once considered tantamount to treason.
In Hanoi, our tour group stayed at the legendary Metropole Hotel, now owned by Sofitel. Built in 1901, it has been the scene of foreign intrigue for over a century, through two wars (France and the United States). It has been home to embassies and consulates, international peace delegations, including the infamous Jane Fonda visit, and even bombings, most sensationally in its courtyard during Christmas 1972. An old photograph shows a long row of one-person bomb shelters on the sidewalk in front of the block-long hotel, entered through a manhole size cover. A recently rediscovered underground bunker, where singer Joan Baez once fled during the 1972 Christmas bombings, was too jam-packed with tourists for us to visit. And, it was here at the Metropole that Graham Greene began to write The Quiet American, first published in 1955, that exposed the less savory ambitions of American aid to the French before their defeat.
The reality of Hanoi quickly pulled me out of my reminiscent mode. The second night, we were to be driven individually by bicycle-powered rickshaws to attend an evening cultural event. Although it was the dry season, it was pouring rain. Rickshaw drivers, like the owners of the three million motorbikes that clog Hanoi streets, are not deterred by rain, although whoever owns the plastic poncho franchise must be very wealthy. My driver kept stopping to adjust the plastic sheets meant to protect me from the rain but whose sagging edges funneled the rain inside. As a result, my driver lost the rest of the tour group, his only English word apparently okay, which in context I took to mean oh-oh. He pumped up and down narrow streets, weaving in and out of cars, bikes, buses, pedestrians, and other rickshaws, sometimes going with the one-way traffic, other times going directly against it. The carbon monoxide fumes were so bad at times that I had to keep my mouth covered with my scarf. A half-dozen cell phone calls later –made while trying to steer the rickshaw and as dangerous as driving and texting — he reached someone in charge and we reached our destination. This was no longer the Hanoi of my imagination. This was Hanoi at rush hour.
Our regular Vietnamese guides were fluent in English. Most were born after the war ended in 1975, and they were fond of reminding us that Vietnam is not a war but a country.
Paradoxically, the tour’s agenda emphasizes war-related excursions, whether in Hanoi, along the Mekong River or in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We visited the “Hanoi Hilton,” for example, where Senator John McCain had been held a prisoner of war. Exhibits feature pictures of his capture, his Navy uniform and helmet hang in a special display case, and videos play excerpts of him and his fellow pilots. There is nothing Hilton-ish about this long-time torture chamber: the Centrale Maison, its real name, once served the prison needs of colonial France. In one dank cell, no longer than 15 feet, two dozen or so life-size bronze sculptures depict Vietnamese held in chains and lined up cheek by jowl. In the gloom of the cell, the sculptures look eerily human and beseeching.
The day our group left Hanoi, the Metropole staff was abuzz: Secretary of State John Kerry and his entourage were arriving for a last diplomatic visit before Obama left office. Why I wondered? Tension in the South China Sea? Trade discussions? I put it out of my mind. We were on our way to Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin to sleep overnight in a (modern) Junk. The bay turned out to be even more beautiful than pictures can convey, with its 18,000 islands and imposing rock formations. To wake up in the early morning mist, anchored in the middle of the bay, and watch these formations go by is simply put, magical.
Several days later I read that Kerry made an unscheduled visit to the Mekong Delta, a visit that turned out to haunt me throughout the trip. It seems that Kerry couldn’t sleep that first night in the Hanoi Metropole, so he spent time on a Google Earth search, trying to pinpoint the location of his 1968 Swift Boat battle, the one in which he shot an enemy combatant, saved his crew, and for which he received a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. He conferred with a former crewmember who thought he had the right location.
He subsequently came to the Mekong Delta and took a boat up the Bay Hap River. He met with a former Viet Cong soldier who survived the battle, and learned – for the first time – the name and age of the person he had killed. I was riveted. How did it feel to revisit an experience that must have included the terror of battle, the relief of survival, the guilt of taking a life, and a stew of emotions I couldn’t begin to fathom? I thought about the battle’s long term effect on Kerry’s life, how it must have shaped his views as leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the damage done to his 2004 presidential campaign when an attack ad used his medals against him, a phenomenon now known as “swift boating” your opponent. In an especially vicious claim, attackers said Kerry had shot a teenager, implying a kind of recklessness. Now he learned for sure that he did not; the soldier, armed with a rocket launcher, was twenty-four. The battle itself began, according to the survivor, Bo Van Tam, when the Vietnamese communists deliberately tried to lure the Americans into the rocket’s range.
A few days later, we made our own riverboat excursion down the Mekong River. Gradually a new picture of Vietnam was forming in my mind, one that combined the old and the new in unexpected ways. One day, while anchored in the middle of the Mekong, we boarded a smaller boat to visit a Vietnamese village. In order to reach it, we stopped alongside a riverbank and climbed up makeshift dirt-packed steps. We then followed a rutted path through the village, passed jumbled huts and houses and rice paddies, and stopped to visit an old woman selling fish and vegetables. We jumped aside for motorbikes that bumped their way over tree roots and ruts, transporting everything from produce to spare tires. As we exchanged greetings with local Vietnamese, young children followed us pied piper style, driven by both curiosity and the possibility of candy. I tried to imagine an American soldier tasked with identifying Viet Cong sympathizers among such close-knit villagers. Just impossible, I thought.
On another occasion, we took small boats that puttered passed floating villages on the Mekong where Vietnamese families live on houseboats clustered together and fish to make a living. “Poor but not starving” our guide offered. Here, Vietnam seemed a timeless country. Yet, we were surprised to find a smattering of modern solar panels mounted on the tin roofs of some of the poorest, most ramshackle boats. Evenings, by contrast, returned us to the ageless culture of Vietnam as performers entertained us with traditional dances and musical instruments.
The last leg of our tour took us to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as everyone still calls it), a thriving modern city of skyscrapers and high-rise apartments. In the old Post Office, a large Ho Chi Minh portrait hovers over visitors. Outside in the plaza Vietnamese models parade in traditional Vietnamese dresses, ao dai, in dazzling colors of magenta, gold, and emerald green. A few blocks away, high-end stores, Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton, compete for customers. Tourist books advise visitors to use dong while in Vietnam but everywhere we went, American dollars were snapped up. We encountered not a whiff of hostility toward Americans–the first question I am usually asked.
Perhaps, inevitably, since we were in Saigon, the daytime trips returned to war themes. I chose to forego the chance to crawl through a typical Viet Cong tunnel in Cu Chi. In preparation for a visit to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, we were not so subtly reminded that we would learn about the American War, as it is known among the Vietnamese. With the exception of a few obvious editorial comments, such as the term henchman, the exhibit texts seemed largely factual.
One panel features a quote from former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the war’s architects: “We were wrong, terribly wrong about the war. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” My traveling companion, who doesn’t share my political background, gasped upon reading the quote, and whispered, is that true? Yes, I whispered back, grateful once again that McNamara had lived to write his memoir and put his mea culpa on the record. Later, I realized the question was revelatory: there must be scores of people in the U.S. and elsewhere unaware of McNamara’s damning conclusion. So much for learning the lessons of Vietnam.
It wasn’t until I had returned home that I understood why the Kerry encounter continued to haunt me. I have long been fascinated by the interplay of history and memory, and especially by the experience of revisiting history and its effect on memory. I found myself wondering if Kerry had experienced any kind of reconciliation. In the moment, he told the press the experience was “weird” and “surreal.” Once the word reconciliation jumped into my mind, I knew it aptly summed up my own struggle, albeit on a far less dramatic, far smaller scale. Throughout the trip I had been engaged in trying to reconcile my experience of Vietnam then and now. I had come to Vietnam with the psyche of an anti-war activist, but I returned home with the recognition that, as the guides had averred, Vietnam is a country, not just a war.
— Karen M Paget