MORGAN—2:30 A.M., APRIL 25, 2005, HO CHI MINH CITY (NÉE SAIGON), THI MINH KHAI STREET
Certain parts of late-night Saigon have a windy quiet that seems almost pastoral. Maybe it’s the closeness of the city, the fortress-like squatness of its blocks, the numerous trees, or the way that the nighttime pinches out the faraway headlights and brake lights of the evening’s last scooters and taxis. I don’t much care for the pastoral, typically. I like pavement and noise. But this was different. The night that lay upon this massive, malfunctioning, astonishing city was vast, starless, as warm and secret as an embryo. Unlike many cities, Saigon seemed to welcome us into its secrets, not keep them from us.
This was my second trip to Vietnam. The first had been alongside my wife, while on honeymoon last year. Here I met Tom, who was making his third trip. We shared many things: an approximate age, a New York City residency, an interest in the intersection of the literary and the political, and most importantly the war in Vietnam. Tom’s father had served with the marines in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966. My father had dodged the draft, providing me the lifelong conversation piece of having been born in Montreal. When my father had returned to the States, to take up the cudgels against President Ford’s strings-attached amnesty program for draft dodgers, he was prosecuted. The case ultimately went to the Illinois Supreme Court. My father won, and the decision became the basis for the no-strings blanket pardon President Carter granted all draft dodgers in 1977. In real ways, then, Vietnam helped make us both who we are.
We stuck to the emptier side of the street while along the opposing sidewalk a half dozen lipstick-wearing skeletons stood in their high-heel shoes and tight jeans lifting their hands half-heartedly at an occasional passerby. Behind the prostitutes, in shadows relieved only by the moving orange penlight of cigarette embers, were rough-looking men with dirty baseball caps sitting astride their Chinese scooters. Neither of us could get over the heat. Was it really nearly three in the morning? Impossible. It felt as though we were moving through oxygen chowder. The weather was clearly a subject of no complaint for the many cyclo drivers asleep or passed out along the street. Some were pouched in crudely strung-up hammocks, some were athwart doorjambs, some curled into childlike balls in the cockpit of their cyclos. The cyclo was a bicycle-wheelbarrow hybrid that carried human cargo. Their drivers tended to be some of the poorest men in urban Vietnam. Many of these men spoke English because they had been soldiers in South Vietnam’s military and, after the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, were punished by the victorious Communists and forbidden any but the most menial work.
The collapse was why we were here. Six days from now the Socialist Republic of Vietnam would celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the day the North Vietnamese Army formally accepted South Vietnam’s total surrender. South Vietnam, the most augmented, defended, and bled-over client state in the history of American foreign relations, ceased to exist on April 30, 1975. But the story of Saigon’s fall, once well known, is being forgotten—even among young Vietnamese. With the world as it is, it seemed useful to contemplate the fates of nations that fail despite foreign aid, good intentions, countless deaths, and human will.
What did the failure of an American client state ultimately mean, three decades on? Although the personnel and leaders of South Vietnam are today dismissed by the rulers of Vietnam as “puppets,” there were many in South Vietnam who resisted the Communists precisely because of their patriotism and their wish to lead lives free of Communist dogma. At the same time, the ranks of the South Vietnamese government, as well as its military, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), were thick with former French collaborators, gangsters, cowards, and buffoons. The insolvable corruption of South Vietnam was a problem throughout the entire course of the war. In this way, Nguyen Cao Ky, one of the war’s most fascinating characters, also serves as a perfect lens through which to approach the whole story.
In 1965, with American backing, Air Marshal Ky had been made premier of South Vietnam at thirty-five years of age. The months leading up to Ky’s ascendancy had been some of South Vietnam’s most difficult and bizarre. During his first ninety days in office, Lyndon Johnson had witnessed three full changes of government in coup-struck South Vietnam. One American during these days suggested changing South Vietnam’s coat of arms to a turnstile. Ky, part of a cabal of ambitious military upstarts known as the Young Turks, seemed a promising leader to spearhead the rescue of the floundering effort against South Vietnam’s insurgency. The U.S. liked Ky because of his vicious anti-Communism, his French-trained background, his brilliance as a pilot, and his neon personality. Ky’s problems had been his unpredictability and arrogance, and he eventually alienated all but a few of his supporters. In 1967, he was made vice president of South Vietnam, beneath General Nguyen Van Thieu, and then was forced out of power altogether by Thieu in 1971. For the remainder of the war Ky schemed to get back into power. He was never able to. As South Vietnam collapsed, he flew himself out in a helicopter.
Ky is the only prominent living member of South Vietnam’s benighted government. A longtime resident of California, two years ago—in a turn of events barely noted in the United States—Ky put in a request with the Vietnamese government to return to Vietnam. For the first time in Vietnam’s post-1975 history, a major figure from the South Vietnamese government appeared in public and spoke of the past on Vietnamese television. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this for the millions of Vietnamese who had supported ARVN, lost husbands and sons, and then suffered reeducation; it meant that their lives had not been, as they were told, a lie and a mistake. It meant that there was another version of the story that the Vietnamese Communists relied upon and manipulated for their prestige and authority. It also meant that the authorities were finally willing to allow the former elite of South Vietnam a place, however restricted, in contemporary Vietnam. Ky and his wife were going to be in Vietnam for the anniversary of what its Communist government has always called the Liberation of South Vietnam. After a few guarded conversations with Madame Ky, as she is known, it was agreed: we would meet General Ky—for that was what he now wished to be called—in Saigon, tomorrow, and see what happened from there.
Filled with anticipation, Tom and I couldn’t sleep, so we decided to walk instead. We saw up ahead some evidence of the celebration that would commence in a few days’ time. First was a large, circular, inflated red archway over Le Duan Street, formerly known as Thong Nhut Boulevard. Across it was written what translated as “Enthusiastically Welcoming the Thirty-Year Anniversary.” Thong Nhut Boulevard had been the street down which North Vietnamese tanks rumbled before smashing in the gates of the Presidential Palace on the morning of April 30, 1975—one of the war’s most famous images. In actual fact, the gates had been opened for the tanks. When an Australian cameraman was found waiting inside the compound, the North Vietnamese—mindful, as ever, of propaganda’s potential—asked the Australian if he would film them coming through the gates again. Tank 844 came in first. One could find Tank 844 on the grounds of Reunification Palace today. One could also find Tank 844 a few blocks away at a war museum. And one could find Tank 844 in Hanoi. Here it was not the artifact that mattered but the event the artifact commemorated. The Trinity of Tank 844 provided holy, if not entirely coherent, testament.
And here was the palace itself. We gazed upon the building through the bars of its front metal gate. Long, splendidly terraced, and mostly eggshell-colored, the palace, awash in orange spotlight, stood about one hundred yards back from the gate. It had a Frank Lloyd Wright-ish look to it, notwithstanding the large banner of Ho Chi Minh currently flying above the balcony where Viet Cong insurgents had joyously rushed to run up their flag.
We crept away from the palace along the eastern edge of a nearby park, noting within its grounds the empty bleachers specially erected for the celebration, the scaffolds of klieg lights, the trees draped in red bunting. We passed Notre Dame Cathedral, the most peed-upon structure in Saigon; the impressively tall HSBC building; and, a few blocks later, on Hai Ba Trung Street, one of Saigon’s several Kentucky Fried Chicken (or Ga Ran Kentucky) restaurants, outside of which loomed a life-sized statue of Colonel Sanders, whose uncanny resemblance to one Ho Chi Minh was almost certainly being exploited. We were making our slow, ambling way toward the heart of foreigner’s Saigon, District 1, the only part of the city still officially called Saigon, and with excited comment walked passed Graham Greene’s old hotel, the Continental. Across the street from the Continental was an opera house, completely obscured by a massive stage littered with empty chairs and music stands for an orchestra, all of it lit by a score of ghostly, shadow-fattening low-wattage bulbs. Rolling up to the stage’s edges, weirdly, was a fringe of grassy sod, and at the base of the stage was what looked to be a modestly approximated Vietnamese village, replete with thatch huts, wheelbarrows, and carts. I wondered if, during the celebration, these huts were intended to be torched by a squad of American GIs.
* * * *
TOM AND MORGAN—8:06 A.M., CHANCERY HOTEL
“Are you awake?”
“I don’t think I ever fell asleep.”
“You did. You were snoring.”
“I don’t snore.”
“True fact: everybody snores. But you know what? The thought of talking to General Ky today is actually making me nervous.”
“We’re meeting him at eleven-thirty?”
“At the Sheraton.”
“So who do you think picks up that bill?”
“His wife, probably.”
“She nice? When you talk to her on the phone is she nice?”
“She’s nice to me.”
“That’s good. So don’t be nervous.”
“But then why wouldn’t she be nice? Think about it. We’re here to watch a ceremony that means very little in a country that’s no longer that significant while trying to talk to a man whose moment in time is long gone. Face it. No one cares about any of this today but the people who experienced it firsthand. And us. That’s why Madame Ky is so nice. We appreciate her husband’s role in history.”
“Yeah, as a nutty charismatic.”
“But when he took power he actually managed to unite the military and put an end to all the coups. He executed people for corruption. He was one of the only ARVN leaders who didn’t escape with a fortune in stolen gold.”
“He’s also been accused of having personally run heroin for the CIA out of Laos.”
“But at the end he got in his plane and fought. When all the other generals took off, Ky stayed and fought.”
“To a point.”
“Sure, to a point.”
“You admire him.”
“I do and I don’t. I doubt I would have admired him at the time.”
“I heard that the reason the regime softened up to Ky was because when China invaded Vietnam in 1979, he volunteered to fly attack runs against the Chinese.”
“Is that true?”
“I have no idea.”
“Do you think he’s watched by Vietnamese intelligence?”
“I assume so.”
“Do you think we’ll be watched if we talk to him?”
“I heartily doubt that.”
“So what do we ask him?”
“I don’t know. How about asking him about his comment as Saigon was falling that ‘I will stay here until my last blood, until I’m dying.’”
“Sure. Great. That’s a good one: ‘So why did you run away, you fucking pussy?’”
“Goddamn it—now I’m nervous.”
* * * *
TOM—11:25 A.M., SHERATON HOTEL
We walked through a near-noon heat so overwhelming it had a sort of oceanic weight. But for the green lushness of the trees the city looked scalded and colorless; I imagined I could hear the sidewalks sizzling. By the time we approached the Sheraton, in District 1, we looked as though we had showered in our clothes. The attentive Vietnamese men and women manning the Sheraton’s glass doors were decked out in strange hybridized costumes that looked part Nguyen Dynasty functionary, part Star Trek alien diplomat. A pneumonia-inducing blast of air-conditioning met us as we walked inside. Indeed, the lobby felt not unlike the world’s biggest, most handsomely decorated storage freezer. We strode across its buffed floor and took our seats upon a comfortable backless couch near the check-in desk. Soon my foot was nervously tapping out an endless string of Morse code. Morgan looked over at me and asked, “I wonder if we’ll even recognize him.”
Of that there was no danger. With a resonant ding one of the many lifts in the Sheraton’s elevator bank whooshed open, and, as though he were leaving a cryogenic chamber, out strolled General Ky. Somehow you could tell that Ky walked slowly not because of limited mobility—he was 76 years old—but because he was used to having people wait for him. He wore a peach-sherbet linen shirt, cream plaited pants, sockless loafers, sunglasses, and a black wristwatch that must have cost at least $5,000. After a tentative series of handshakes, Morgan blurted, “Wow. You look great!”
Ky smiled indulgently. “Your father was here?” he asked Morgan.
“No, it was Tom’s father—a marine. My father was a draft dodger.”
Ky’s tan, moley scalp glowed beneath a thinning black comb-over, his skin as drum-tight as that of a fifty-five-year-old soap opera star. I, too, had to admit it: the man looked terrific—spa-kissed and fabulous—exactly as he had thirty years ago. Only Ky’s famous pencil-thin wartime mustache, which numerous South Vietnamese men had once grown in imitation of him, was different, much fuller than before. General Ky motioned toward the open dining area right off the lobby and led us to a corner table. One of the waitstaff hurried over before he could seat himself. It was hard to tell if anyone else here in the Sheraton knew who he was. He produced a gold lighter, lit up the first of several Marlboro Lights, and ordered a cappuccino.
Morgan started with the obvious: How did it feel to be back?
It was General Ky’s third time back. Did we not know? General Ky liked coming back to Vietnam very much. All of Vietnam, yes. Even the North! As he began to talk, Ky puffed at his cigarette delicately. In between drags he waved the cigarette around with an artist’s extravagance, as though painting a portrait in smoke.
“They love me in the North—even though I bombed them!”
Morgan, in spite of himself, laughed warm, spontaneous laughter.
Ky went on: “My face is everywhere again. The young people here like me especially.” He described going to a Saigon clothing store and being mobbed while he shopped. He leaned toward us; some of his cigarette’s ashes flaked into the table’s sugar-packet dish. “They called me ‘Uncle Ky’—like Uncle Ho!” But then he waved this away. “Whatever the reason for the war—who’s right or wrong, who’s a puppet or a patriot—the war was the darkest time in Vietnamese history. One hundred percent of the young Vietnamese people agree with this. That’s why I’m so popular.”
Morgan took this in without affect. In fact, since arriving Morgan had been asking every young person we met if they knew who General Nguyen Cao Ky was. Most seemed to think Ky was “one of those famous California singers.” Ky’s daughter was the singer; among California’s Vietnamese expatriates—or Viet Kieu—she was famous, and her variety show, Paris by Night, which typically featured her singing in exotic locations around the world, reached Vietnam in the form of pirated videocassettes. Others had known that Ky was a famous politician from the pre-1975 years, but no one so far had connected him to the South Vietnamese government. One of the strangest things about contemporary Vietnam was the dearth of young Vietnamese who knew much of anything about the war. One young woman we spoke to shared news of a terrible documentary she had recently seen on television. It was about the war, people getting killed, really terrible, and America was involved. Can you imagine?
“How about the government?” Morgan asked. “How have they been?”
Ky puffed away at his cigarette. “I’m the unofficial expert on the United States. After all, the leaders of Vietnam are all dead now. I’m the only survivor.” Ky was referring, of course, to his military and political colleagues in South Vietnam. But he might have also been talking about the North Vietnamese. Of them only General Giap was still alive. I stopped writing for a moment, struck by the reality of General Ky. The men he had been a direct contemporary to, the men with whom Ky had spoken. Lyndon Johnson (whom he called “Lyndon”), Richard Nixon, Zhou Enlai, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, William Westmoreland, Pham Van Dong, Ngo Dinh Diem.
How, Morgan wondered, were his relations to the current regime? Ky laughed. All the Party’s young Communists today wanted to talk to General Ky, a man who personally strapped himself into a fighter plane and bombed his Northern brothers. And General Ky, who during the war had taken personal satisfaction in killing all the Communists he could get his hands on, got what you could only call a twinkle in his eye when he reflected on this strange fact.
“I can yell at the Party members,” Ky said, chuckling. “I’m older than they are, so they respect me. Leninism is stupid.” He pronounced stupid wonderfully: stewpeed. “You know, I also suggested to the Party leadership that they replace all this talk of the ‘liberation’ of Saigon with the ‘reunification’ of Saigon.” Ky plowed on, saying that “many” imprisoned religious and political activists in Vietnam had been freed because of his advice. “I said to the Party, ‘Why do you do this?’ It’s stupidity! Police cutting Buddhists’ phone lines? It’s stewpeed!”
“Why,” I piped up, “history aside, do you suppose the Communists are so eager to talk to you?”
Ky blinked. “Because they don’t have any idea what they are doing.”
“And they know that?”
“They know it. They admit it to me all the time. They know they have nothing. They want my help.”
“Have you met Prime Minister Pham Van Khai?”
“Were you impressed?”
Ky smiled. It was a remarkable state of affairs. If what General Ky was saying was true, the Party had been reduced to turning to a man who represented the government that their fathers fought and despised. The imperialist stooge! The running dog puppet!
“How,” I asked, “do you feel about this week’s festivities?”
Ky snorted. “I feel nothing! They have to do it. It’s ceremonial only. The Communists realize they are today at—what do you call it?—an impasse. Nobody here believes in the leadership of Vietnam.”
“So you think that you’ll play a role in politics again?”
“My destiny is firmly attached to Vietnam’s. I know this. My mind is still okay. People here still love me.” His biggest plan of the moment was to open an American University in Saigon for “all Asians,” not just Vietnamese.
That, for the moment, was what motivated Ky. He would be plotting until he died. It was his nature. But he was no longer plotting to defeat anyone; he was only plotting to matter. Perhaps, in an odd way, a stray bit of Confucianism was seeping in through the cracks and fissures of a moribund ideology. Ky was a link to revered fathers from an esteemed generation of heroes. It was hard to point to any heroes like that in contemporary Vietnam, whose politicians were an anonymous, uninspiring lot. Few believed the slogans anymore. They had ceased to be human language. There was something very powerful about Ky. The power of confidence, of adaptability, of patience. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the man still believed that his own personal narrative and the history of Vietnam would thread themselves together again. Perhaps it was this kind of deathless cultural optimism that allowed the Vietnamese to win the war.
“General Ky, are you watched?” Morgan asked.
Ky’s head bobbed back and forth in deliberation. “‘Watched’ is not the right word. They protect me. Some of the authorities are nervous about my presence here. Not all, but some. They realize I’m not the enemy.”
But Ky would not go out and about the city with us, for I had asked, and Ky flatly refused. He was very conscious of making the authorities nervous, or of embarrassing them. “It’s not appropriate,” he said simply. Morgan asked if General Ky would be around during Saigon’s reunification ceremony—which both he and I had been counting on—and we were crushed to learn that Ky and his wife would be spending it in Hanoi golfing. Then Ky’s face changed.
“Perhaps you could come to Hanoi.”
* * * *
TOM—2 P.M., APRIL 27, 2005, ON THE ROAD TO HANOI
We passed over the Red River upon the massive Paul Doumer Bridge, built by a French governor-general of Vietnam—and one of the most-bombed structures during the war, even though it was protected by 300 antiaircraft guns and dozens of surface-to-air missile batteries. Something about going to Hanoi, the mental anticipation of it, never ceases to electrify me. It’s purely conceptual, I know, but there is little in life more fascinating than visiting an erstwhile enemy capital.
The night before, Joe, our photographer, had arrived in Saigon and was noticeably worse for the transoceanic wear. When he was not photographing the sopping jade countryside of penumbral Hanoi he was fighting off sleep. When we picked him up at the airport Joe had been wearing an MIA/POW T-shirt under his sweatshirt, which I suggested may not have been such a smart idea. Joe had looked down at his shirt and said, “Oh, yeah,” with such sweet surprise that I burst out laughing. It was Joe’s first trip to Asia since being born in South Korea. So these are my people, he had thought, while waiting for his connection in Seoul. Then he went off to find the smoking room.
While Joe photographed, Morgan and I discussed the many famous instances of Western writers and artists visiting Hanoi during wartime. Mary McCarthy, for instance, who was completely gulled by the North Vietnamese. Susan Sontag, who was more reticent during her trip but still mainly positive. Finally, there was the slippery old linguist Noam Chomsky, whose book At War with Asia, recently reissued without one whit of circumspect revision, I was currently reading.
I flipped through and found a passage I wanted to read to Morgan: “The most striking difference between Hanoi and the countryside is, of course, the destruction and ruin caused by the ‘air war of destruction.’ Hanoi itself, so far as I could see, was not badly hit, except near the Red River, where the bridge and surrounding areas must have been heavily bombed. But as soon as one leaves the city limits, the destruction is enormous.” I asked, “Did you know that only seven percent of the bombs used in Vietnam fell upon the North?”
Morgan shrugged. “Seven percent of a lot of bombs is a lot of bombs.”
I looked out on the rice paddies. Some conical-hatted farmers were out working them. I had once spent half a day poking around in a rice paddy with a Vietnamese friend. It was insanely difficult work. I imagined the conical-hatted men and women being blown to pieces. Morgan was, of course, right. Seven percent of hell was still hell.
We had left for Hanoi in such a hurry that we had not thought, until too late, to call ahead to reserve a hotel room. A friend of mine in Saigon had recommended a small new hotel near St. Joseph’s Cathedral, but when we arrived we found the hotel was full. We stood outside and looked down the street. The air smelled of gas fumes but also of pollen and chlorophyll. Hanoi was a great city for trees and greenery, far more than Saigon, and over many of its low, dingily pretty buildings hung a leafy ceiling of branch and vine, which, combined with Hanoi’s cooler weather, made for a city that rewarded exploration. But it was never a comfortable thing to be a Westerner hauling huge amounts of luggage—Joe’s equipment alone took two of us to carry—through an unfamiliar city with no place to stay, and we quickly ducked into another smallish, new-seeming hotel called the Golden Buffalo. The two young men manning the desk enthusiastically welcomed us. It appeared we were the hotel’s only current guests.
After checking in, we took a cab to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The mausoleum, which Ho did not want (he had asked in his will to be cremated, though the Party edited that request out of the published version of Ho’s will), was centered within a great complex of French-colonial-era buildings. All the old French buildings shared the same Cheez Whiz color. The last time I had visited the mausoleum its endless concrete plaza had been crowded with tourists, Western and Vietnamese, but today it was so postapocalyptically empty that you half expected a tumbleweed to blow by. In designing Ho’s mausoleum Soviet and Vietnamese architects looked at everything from the Pyramids to the Lincoln Memorial to Lenin’s Tomb and ended up with a massively boxy marble eyesore. Nonetheless, Joe marched off into a nearby park to get a better angle.
Moments later I began to undergo gastrointestinal Chernobyl. I had my day-to-day problems in this area, it was true. I had thanked Imodium ID in the acknowledgments of my first book, after all. Nothing that could be deemed a true solid had passed through me since the Clinton administration, but the rifling pain I felt now was of a different caliber altogether. My stomach burbled out some many-syllabled sound that was loud enough for Morgan to hear, my eyes filled with stunned tears, and I began walking toward the bathrooms around the mausoleum’s corner.
Morgan kept pace beside me. “Hey—are you okay?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Is it your stomach?”
“Right now it’s my whole body.”
“What about Joe? I don’t know if he saw us leave.”
When I, drained in every sense of that word, stepped out of the restroom half an hour later, Joe and Morgan were sitting on a nearby strip of grass. Morgan suggested the restorative power of some more sightseeing.
“I have to go back to the Golden Buffalo,” I said.
* * * *
MORGAN—11 A.M., APRIL 28, HANOI
Tom soon developed a fever and spent the rest of the day in bed, in the bathroom, or somewhere within the twenty feet of space that separated them. The next day was no better. Joe and I realized that we had best figure out something to do until he grew well. Ky, after inviting us here, was inexplicably unavailable, but a friend in New York had provided me with the contact information of a Vietnamese artist named Nguyen who lived in Hanoi. In the past Nguyen had gotten into trouble with the authorities over simple matters, such as not consistently vetting his work through the proper censors. He was not notably political, but he was unwilling to complete the various moral and ethical summersaults expected of Vietnamese artists during the course of their careers. In whatever ways Vietnam had opened up in the last decade, and they were many, I knew, the government was still nervous about civil society, nervous about art and literature, nervous about popular expression. Thus, they were nervous about Nguyen. And Nguyen was nervous about the authorities, but in the indulgent, wearied way of a man who knew he was right and recognized his opponents as philistines and morons. I called Nguyen, and he seemed willing to talk. “Come by,” he said. “We’ll have tea.”
Nguyen was sitting in his living room when we arrived. His apartment had an interesting green tinge to it, and for unknown reasons his living room smelled vaguely of dirt. As we talked—about art, about the government, about the government’s interference with art, about the clandestine exhibits he was forced to engage in—Nguyen got up and sat down a hundred times, pacing his living room and grabbing at various objects, pictures, and documents in order to illustrate his points. I envied him. All the American artists I know, men and women, worry about grants and reviews and attracting the right gallery owner’s attentions. I couldn’t help wondering if Vietnamese artists were not somehow more emotionally invested in their work than my American friends. When the consequences were so huge, the spiritual payoffs had to be equally gargantuan. The things Nguyen was doing were important for the sheer reason that they were being resisted. It meant that his work stood for freedom, and it gave him an aura of importance.
The phone rang. Nguyen went upstairs. We could hear him speak in growingly agitated Vietnamese, then he came down in a state of even greater agitation. “You’re being watched,” he told us. “Followed.”
Joe and I looked at each other. For some reason Joe was smiling, and then, even as the word followed stabbed at me with a little shiv of fear, I was smiling. There was a sense of converse accomplishment that the things we were doing here could matter enough for government tails to be dispatched, papers filed, operatives consulted. This feeling did not last long. Minutes later, eight Vietnamese men—five in drab olive uniforms that looked shipped from Leningrad in 1974, three in plainclothes, looking like anyone you might pass in the street—burst into Nguyen’s house and rushed into his living room. One man was videotaping the whole thing. They ordered Joe to stand back from his mounted camera and began questioning us. In an instant, the room was rich with the faintly stupefying air of bureaucratic wheels turning. God only knew what button of paranoia had been pushed, what man at what Party level in what city in what office had decided that some unknowable line had been crossed.
I tried to stand up and make the transition from feeling I had been caught doing something wrong to projecting a sense of outrage and indignation at a plainly absurd state of affairs, but the fact is Joe and I were terrified. These officials were the kind of officials who were good at being officials. They exuded officialness. They had a cool stance of authority, conducting themselves with an air of simultaneous annoyance and triumph. As it quickly became clear, their goal was to intimidate us into revealing our purpose, CIA- or Viet Kieu-dissident-related or otherwise. I looked over at Nguyen, an expert in affairs of stormtrooper management, and noticed a distinct glaze of concern on his face. Was Nguyen scared too?
“What are you doing here?” one of the stormtroopers asked. It was the fifth time he had asked this question. Not waiting for an answer, he asked another.
“How do you know Nguyen?”
“Through a friend in New York.”
I was utterly in the thrall of saving myself; I suddenly understood why captured revolutionaries ratted out their fellow insurrectionists, however beloved they might have once been. “Sam Henderson,” I said, and felt the disgrace in my throat.
“Where are your passports?”
My passport was in my pocket. But I had an idea. “At the hotel,” I said.
* * * *
TOM—12:30 P.M., FEVERED, GOLDEN BUFFALO HOTEL
I was in bed when Morgan entered, panic-eyed and fidgety. I sat up. “Listen,” Morgan whispered, “the Vietnamese secret police or something has said they’re going to take us downtown—it’s possible they’re arresting us.” I laughed and returned my head to the pillow. “And, Tom, you have to fucking listen to me when I say I’ll need you to call the embassy if we’re not back in two hours.”
I looked at Morgan for a moment. Then I sat up again. “You’re serious?”
“Wait. What?” I was whispering now too. “Who is downstairs?”
Heavy, sinister footsteps clomped up the stairway. Morgan’s eyes widened, and then he was walking out of the room—furiously. It was the fastest I had ever seen him move. “They said I could come up here!” I heard him complain the moment he pulled the door shut behind him.
I did not go downstairs until I was certain all of the Golden Buffalo’s mysterious visitors were gone. I wandered down the stairs in my T-shirt and boxer shorts, both still damp from the day’s fever. The two hotel attendants were standing in the front doorway, shaking their heads and looking down the street.
I approached them. “What the fuck happened?”
The younger of the two spoke: “I don’t know.”
“Who took my friends away?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was it the police?”
“I don’t know.”
“What should I do?”
“I don’t know.”
* * * *
TOM—3:30 P.M., CONVERSATION WITH ANONYMOUS FRIEND, GOLDEN BUFFALO HOTEL PHONE
“The important thing is for them to smile a lot and not act guilty. I mean, you guys have done nothing wrong, right?”
“Well, I think they were seeing a dissident painter.”
“Do you know which one?”
“I don’t, actually. Morgan has the name with him.”
“It would help if you knew the name of the painter.”
“I imagine it would.”
“And then there’s the whole General Ky thing.”
“You’ve been pretty visibly meeting with a man history knows as one of the most strident anti-Communists South Vietnam ever produced.”
“Looked at from that perspective, I guess that’s true.”
“But when I think it over, my mind goes in the general direction that everything will be fine.”
“Okay. So what do I do?”
“All the advice I really have concerns their behavior, not yours. Let me think. You guys came on journalists’ visas, right?”
“We didn’t. We came on tourists’ visas.”
“Why didn’t you come on journalists’ visas?”
“I admit that this is a good question.”
“That right there could be a huge problem. They could be asked to leave.”
“You mean they could be forced to leave.”
“And you too. And they’d have a leg to stand on, technically.”
“For seeing a painter?”
“Call me if you haven’t heard from them by 5:30.”
* * * *
TOM—5 P.M., CONVERSATION WITH U.S. EMBASSY OFFICIAL, GOLDEN BUFFALO HOTEL
“You should be aware that, in the eyes of Vietnamese law, what you’ve all done is illegal. They could hold Morgan and Joe for days.”
“For as long as they like, actually, but I don’t think that will happen.”
“I’d also recommend that, if you want a good night’s sleep, you check into another hotel.”
“You’re saying the authorities could come back here and rustle me up?”
“I don’t think anything will come to physical force.”
“Not rough me up. Rustle me up.”
“In the eyes of Vietnamese law, yes, they could. And there’d be nothing we could do about it other than make phone calls.”
* * * *
MORGAN—TIME UNKNOWN, PLACE UNKNOWN
We were taken to a nondescript room somewhere in a pinkish nondescript government building on a not-too-noticeable street in centralish Hanoi. Outside the room, in a concrete courtyard, were eight or nine people, intelligence officers of some kind, playing badminton in the lazy leftover of a hazy day.
A three-star general was led into the room. Everyone sat down on knock-off imperial Chinese armchairs. The general and his staff and a number of other unidentified people began to question us about everything. Why were we here, what had we done, where had we gone, what were we doing, who had we met with? Why, if we were so innocent, was our friend Tom at this very moment checking into another hotel? An old fan swung around in a meaningless loop on the ceiling. Joe kept repeating that he was simply a tourist, simply a tourist, sir. I just fed them the facts. The facts will save us, I thought, because the facts are so simple, so utterly dumb.
It ceased being a real interrogation at all soon after I, in a moment of inspiration or desperation or both, said, “I just want the General to know that my father left the United States so that he didn’t have to fight an unjust war. The war was, you know, a crime against your country.” This was something that I believed, though it came out essentially as shameless pandering. The general loved it; the military men nodded and smiled.
“Very interesting. But why do you care about this artist Nguyen? He makes art that the people have rejected.”
“His art is appreciated around the world.”
“But the people reject it.”
That was the aesthetics portion of the interrogation. Next, the officials watched all of Joe’s video footage, but it was mostly Tom and me sitting around in different hotels yammering endlessly about the Vietnam War, Communism, and Tom’s diarrhea. The footage did not exactly constitute a smoking gun. By this point, several people in the room had drifted to watching the events in the badminton game still going on outside. One of the secret policemen had a pretty devastating serve that included a little two-step approach and then a jumping whacking motion that sent the shuttlecock into a crazy, spinning dive over the net.
Two young women were brought in from the travel agency that sponsored our visas. They were not pleased to be in this situation, but they were now responsible for making sure that we were out of Vietnam within 24 hours. The general made jokes about how one of the young women was very pretty and Joe was single. She smiled obligingly. Joe smiled obligingly. Everyone was chuckling knowingly as if all this statecraft had come down to making sure Joe got laid before sundown tomorrow. I wished them all a happy reunification ceremony. But an air of menace lingered. It was clear that there would be unpleasant consequences for the women and their travel agency, and some dire, unnamed penalty for us, if the 24-hour deadline were missed.
* * * *
MORGAN—4 A.M., APRIL 29, EN ROUTE TO HO CHI MINH CITY FROM HANOI
It was a strange and melancholy predawn. Dark and quiet, too early even for the activity of the group exercises and games that animate Vietnam’s mornings. And it was cold. A car was waiting downstairs with the young women from the travel agency and an unidentified plainclothes official. We drove to the Hanoi airport in silence. Being in Vietnam had ceased to be fun. The adrenaline from the day before was gone. All that remained was a dull sense of urgency that came from the deadline and from being surrounded by people who were clearly taking that deadline extremely seriously.
A few hours later we were landing back in Saigon, where we were met by another group of officials charged with the solemn duty of getting us the fuck out of Vietnam for good. It’s a strange thing to be an object of concern to large groups of men in military uniform. They told us where to go and when to go there. When we were hungry they brought, fittingly, some bread and some water. The head of airport security informed us that the only sure way to make it out on time was to take an available flight to Singapore. Doing this would force us to finance our own expulsion. I brought up the idea of waiting and using the tickets we already had for a later flight to Tokyo. The security chief looked at us in disbelief, then his jaw hardened. “You’ll go to Singapore,” he said.
And so we waited to do exactly that. We were held until the plane had been fully boarded by all the other passengers. We were then marched through the airport with a full phalanx of military guards surrounding us on all sides. Conversation died as we passed. Who were these international men of intrigue and danger? We were marched that way all the way to the mouth of the plane. We turned and bowed slightly to our unrequested escorts and entered. A few minutes later, Vietnam was little more than a rapidly receding swath of green through an ovular window.
* * * *
TOM—9:30 A.M., HANOI
I rode on the back of a moped, flying along Hanoi’s majestic embassy row. Small brown leaves were falling from the trees overhead, the whole street shade-dimmed. I had received a call from the U.S. embassy asking me to “come in.” Last night’s good-bye with Morgan and Joe had been rushed and comic, heartbroken and frightened. I wondered where they were now.
I was expecting the U.S. embassy to be handsomely located here among these gray and gated mansions, but when the canopied street ended we turned off onto another, far less grand street. The U.S. embassy was housed within a tall building along a row of taller buildings and had the assailed dignity of an insurance company headquarters in downtown Omaha. I had heard that, when the U.S. moved in ten years ago, theirs was the tallest building on this street. The U.S. had wanted to swap embassies for several years now, but the Vietnamese were resistant. After all, they had worked out all the best nests and nooks from which to spy on this embassy and did not much feel like scrapping a decade of work.
I was greeted by an official and quickly taken to an embassy break room. He was surprised to learn that Morgan and Joe were meeting with a painter when they were detained; he had assumed they were nabbed for talking to a writer. It was all a big misunderstanding, I explained. My embassy friend nodded sympathetically. He described the dilemma of Vietnam’s security services: the intelligence branch had some rough customers in it, some beaters and disappearers, but it was mostly staffed with holdovers from the Soviet-influenced period. So the intelligence service in Vietnam was addicted to information. They did not necessarily ever act on it; they just wanted it. The Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, was filled with many young men and women of purer motive, more worldly perspective, and more nuanced understandings. Our problem was that, by not registering as journalists, we had become an intelligence problem, not a Foreign Ministry problem. I needed to watch my step. Soon I was again hurtling toward my hotel on the back of another moped.
My flight out of Hanoi left at 4:00 p.m. It was now just after eleven. I checked out, stored my bag, and decided that if I indeed had a tail then this tail of mine was going to get a fucking workout. He would walk around Hanoi’s Lake of the Returned Sword again and again and again. The Lake of the Returned Sword was where the fifteenth-century patriot Le Loi was given a Vietnamese Excalibur that he shortly used to chase the Chinese out of Vietnam. The provider of this sword was not some watery Vietnamese sylph but a turtle. The turtle, and its sword, were still waiting at the bottom of the lake. Or so it was said. It was also said that the day Ho Chi Minh died, Ho’s spirit, which had taken the form of a large turtle, crawled out of the lake, basked in the sun for a few minutes, and then returned to its depths. I loved the Lake of the Returned Sword. How could one not? It was the prettiest part of Hanoi. Perhaps I would even see a turtle. The Vietnamese government was said to dump a few of the beasts in the lake from time to time, to keep hope in its vision alive. Which was either beautiful or insane. Vietnam was either beautiful or insane.
I walked, cherishing the loneliness of wandering aimlessly and alone around a lake in this city in which I knew no one. I circled the lake several times. At various stations around the lake were inviting little tents that advertised trips to Sapa in the high north, trips to Nam Dinh (one of the poorest parts of Vietnam, and one that had been virtually destroyed during the war), trips to Nha Trang, trips even to India. I hoped that this circling of the lake, its sheer mind-numbing repetitiveness, had discouraged my tail.
On my eighth or ninth time around the lake, a Vietnamese man wearing a gray suit and noticeably well-combed hair approached me and introduced himself. He said he hoped I still planned on leaving Hanoi today at 4 p.m. He said he hoped I would not practice any more journalism while I was here. Then he bid me good day. I in return thanked him and said I hoped the man would enjoy the reunification ceremonies. At this the man smiled. Various things may have happened next. I may have sat down on a bench and held my leaden head in my hands. I may have tried talking to a pretty young Japanese woman, frightened her, and stood there reaching out into the air after nothing. I may have found an isolated corner of the lake, knelt beside it, and believed, in my heart, to have seen the flash of a turtle shell discus through the water.
* * * *
TOM, WITH HIS ANONYMOUS FRIEND—NEARING MIDNIGHT, APRIL 29, HO CHI MINH CITY
Q Bar looked busy, and a chatty and photogenic assemblage of Vietnamese swans and Western wolves had spilled out onto the patio, ten-dollar drinks in hand. It looked like a swell party at Q Bar. Just before leaving my friend’s apartment, he had pulled from his pocket a tiny Ziploc bag of Ecstasy. Within minutes we had ingested the first bits of the stash, the little yellow pills, about the size and texture (but not the taste) of a yellow Flintstones vitamin, bitten in half and chased with Tiger beer, the other half swallowed moments after that.
We wended through the palm trees wrapped in Christmas lights and sat at an outside table with a stunning young Vietnamese woman dressed in spidery black and sporting a scorpion tattoo on her shoulder. I recognized her instantly as Viet Kieu. She was an acquaintance of my friend. Sitting with her were Mike and Sean, a writer and photographer, respectively, working in Vietnam. Journalists—real journalists! I was introduced, first as who I was, then as what had happened to me—that I was, in other words, part of the contingent that was thrown out of Vietnam this morning. Mike, who was shaven-headed and mutton-chopped, looked at me disbelievingly before blurting, “I just wrote a story about you guys!”
I took this in. My thoughts were not making much sense to me. “How,” I finally managed, “do you know what happened?”
“There were plenty of whispers about it last night at a diplomatic cocktail party. Respect!” Mike suddenly thrust out his hand. I shook it, smiling, feeling how nice it was to smile, how interestingly flesh changed its mold. But Mike’s story, as it turned out, was far from complete. He had to work with only last night’s rumor, a near no-comment from the U.S. Embassy, and the confirmation of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry that American journalists on tourists’ visas had been expelled from the country. Mike had assumed (though did not write) that these Americans were “Viet Kieu muckers” troublemaking in Hanoi, not American journalists. Now that he had learned the truth, Mike admitted, “You kind of fucked up things for us here. They’re clamping down. It’s total lockdown.”
It took various forms, apparently. All foreign journalists in Vietnam had to live in Hanoi, for instance, though many had dummy apartments there and spent their time in Saigon. They were watched, and sometimes bugged. Mike went on to explain that he had been trying to interview a dissident Buddhist leader for months and nearly got himself in serious trouble scraping around in the Central Highlands a few months ago, where unrest still exists. There had been a brief, ill-planned, and speedily crushed attempt to overthrow the Vietnamese government in the Central Highlands as recently as the late 1980s. Much of the resistance was run, Mike said, out of North Carolina by a Viet Kieu with the unfortunate name of Kok Ksor. But everyone had been talking about the expelled journalists. Mike’s news service had reported it, Time’s Vietnam correspondent was gabbing about it. This suggested to me several things, none of them good: that this was actually a bigger deal than I knew, that I was almost certainly being watched right now, and that the expatriate community in Vietnam desperately needed TiVo.
Someone handed me a salty, olivey martini, and I heard my friend discussing the possibility of staying up all night and attending the reunification ceremony while still stoned. The idea, I have to admit, made a weird kind of sense. I am Michael Herr, I thought to myself. The beautiful raccoon-eyed Viet Kieu woman cunningly asked what I was on. I told her. “The X here is cut with a lot of speed,” she said, and she looked like she would know.
“How do you feel?” asked Sean, the photojournalist.
I sat there, thinking. The night breeze was so cool. “I feel,” I said, “a weird mix of euphoria and paranoia.”
Sean nodded. “That sounds like life.”
And then, because it was late, and more drinks had been sent for, emptied, and replaced, and because they were journalists talking to journalists in a place that was magical, Mike had the idea to sneak me into the ceremony tomorrow morning.
“Is that wise?” I asked.
“No!” Mike said joyfully. “It could be a complete fucking disaster! So, do you want to do it?”
I nodded, enjoying how it felt to nod.
“Meet me outside the ceremony,” Mike was saying, “at 5:40 a.m. You can’t be late.”
It was now just past two. Not a problem, I thought, and we shook on it.
* * * *
TOM—5:45 A.M., APRIL 30, HAI BA TRUNG STREET
The morning sky was some color between black and orange. The sky was Neapolitan ice cream, I thought. White, black, pink. I walked past Vietnamese families sitting in lawn chairs blocks and blocks away from the celebration. They were just going to sit here and enjoy their independence. I passed through a fish market, its washtubs filled with penny-colored carp. Nearby a woman was peddling fish and cow innards, including a plate of shiny brown calf livers. There was an aquarium of eels, as shiny as wet rubber, all squirming around one another. I was clearly still too high to be in a fish market.
It soon became equally clear that not only was I late in meeting Mike, but I was on the opposite side of the festivities that I needed to be. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing. Last night I had thought it was a great idea to sneak in with Mike, but if I was being watched—and I was certain I was—then those watching me knew I had no journalist visa. Walking into the restricted parade area with a journalist who had already had minor but persistent troubles with the authorities was to beg for expulsion for both of us. Mike had been so excited, but it didn’t matter. I was now well aware that I was not getting into the festivities, I was too far away, I had not navigated this well at all, I had not gotten authorized. I had completely fucked everything up.
At last I reached good old Thi Minh Khai Street, where the crowd was thickening like batter as more people were poured into it from feeder streets. I came to their first group of celebration-bound Vietnamese: about 100 children in white shirts, white ball caps, blue trousers, holding little red Vietnam flags. They marched in a gentle way, as though they were not taking this too seriously. It was already so hot. The euphoria of Q Bar was gone. I was trying not to take notes, because I did not want to be noticed. I was being followed. I was in the kingdom of paranoia now, but the feeling of my pen in my hand was exquisite. I passed the marchers and saw they were not children at all but fully grown adults. These small people, this small country. They beat us. They beat us.
The first blocked-off street I happened upon was near the French Consulate, the building where thousands were turned away the night of the U.S. evacuation thirty years ago. Each roadblock was a series of angled metal gates striped barbershop red-and-white and manned by ten Vietnamese in felt-green uniforms and red-striped green caps. Meanwhile, patrolling the streets were hundreds of Vietnamese in cigarette-filter-brown uniforms and red-striped caps. I looked in vain for an unblocked street, some place I could slip inside. Once-familiar blocks were now utterly alien with floats, single-file crowds of choreographed marchers, and surprisingly few soldiers. In fact, there were no soldiers I could see. I was exhausted. My legs were tingly saplings. I had not slept for close to 40 hours.
Down Thi Minh Khai Street I went, the same street I wandered with Morgan on my first night in the country. Roadblock, roadblock, roadblock. There was something so outlandish about celebrating the liberation of a people that the people could not take part in. Many Vietnamese were sitting along the curbs. The morning haze hovered above the pavement like . . . serpent’s breath, I thought. Yes. I wrote that down. Serpent’s breath. I was sweating so much I could have, and probably should have, wrung out my clothes. I was wide-eyed, breathing audibly out with each exhalation, not because I was physically tired but because the mere act of forcing air out of my lungs felt orgasmically good. I was strolling beneath the same red hammer-and-sickle banners that days ago Morgan and I had laughed at. Who was laughing now?
A trumpet blast from inside the sealed area. Children were singing what were invariably referred to in Vietnam as “patriotic songs.” I finally could not hold it anymore—the wrongness of my situation, my morning, my trip, my life—and waited until I came across a blockade manned by officers who looked to be roughly my age. “Toi la nha van,” I said to one of the officers. I am a writer. Let me inside. The man scanned my body for a pass, which was white and laminated, and which had emblazoned upon it Tank 844 (one of them), and which it suddenly seemed everyone but me was wearing. When he found no pass the man’s demeanor darkened.
“Where is your pass?” he asked in English.
“I lost it,” I said.
The man looked over to someone else, and there was something beckoning and consulting about this, something frightening, and I apologized and quickly rushed away. I was expecting footfalls behind me, hands around my arms, breath sweetened by Vietnamese coffee upon my cheek. But nothing. I had escaped. Desperate, I lingered longingly at each roadblock, making notes, putting my notebook away, storming to the next roadblock, making notes. If I was being followed I was fairly certain that word was going back to Communist Party headquarters about now that I was insane. The circling-the-lake business was one thing, but now he had completely lost it.
Approaching were more single-file lines of smiling, marching Vietnamese on their way into the parade. All were grouped together by, to say the least, oddly arbitrary-seeming distinctions: here was the group dressed like judo masters, here were the young men in the same shade of collared blue shirt and black baseball cap, here were the women in red T-shirts emblazoned with a yellow star, here were the robots. I stopped. Yes, there really were robots approaching. Or men dressed as robots. They wore shiny silver pants and some strange Tin Man–type hat. I ran across the street, away from the celebration. I was near my hotel, but when I got there I didn’t go in.
I could not stop thinking about this city, what had happened here. The people who had died in these streets. I felt magnified. I was not where I needed to be, where I should be. The sky was slate blue. I had promised I would get into the ceremony, and I failed. Mission failure. I was a failure. Within the hour I was far away from the celebration, walking down streets I had never seen before. Mechanics squatted beside half-pulled-apart scooters, women boiled soup on the sidewalk, these routines unchanged. And here I was to see them.
Had I been only a few blocks away, I could have seen former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet wave to the crowd. I could have seen General Vo Nguyen Giap and Cuba’s Vice President Raul Castro, like some time capsule mailed from 1959 to 2005, shake and raise their joined hand-mass to the cheering crowd, near a banner that read, “Long live the Vietnamese Communist Party!” I could have seen the expected sight of marching Vietnamese soldiers—the twenty-fifth anniversary parade had been nothing but soldiers and hardware—but then seen the marching electricity workers, the marching teachers, the marching factory workers, the marching youth union, the doddering old veterans of the North Vietnamese Army. But I would have seen no tanks. No missiles. The Vietnamese Communist Party had apparently realized that their countrymen no longer cared if they had missiles and tanks. I could have then seen the float that triumphalized “Saigon’s port facilities.” I could have seen the float shaped like an ATM, sponsored by Vietbank, draped with the national flags of Visa, Mastercard, and American Express. I could have seen the men and women dressed up as fruit, marching on behalf of the agricultural workers of Vietnam. I could have seen the marchers pushing shopping carts. I could have seen Vietnam’s Motorbike Club of Liberation. And, yes, I could have seen the robots. Marching in the parade were several dozen robots. The long, sad story of Vietnam’s revolution had begun with Ho Chi Minh’s “Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence.” It had apparently, drifted into its strangest and probably terminal stage, for nothing now was more precious than fruit and robots.
But I was too far away from the celebration to be thinking of any of this. I had been taking every turn, not wanting to walk straight anymore. It was too difficult to go straight. It was too difficult to walk toward what I expected. Had I really watched Nguyen Cao Ky sip cappuccino? The heat came down on me like a curse. The city I thought I knew well was alive; it was breathing on me. The people I thought myself comfortable with eyed me with no motive I could name. I thought about Vietnam, and I thought about how truly far away from home I was. My friends had left me. I did not know what I was doing, or where I should go. As helpless as an army, I no longer had any idea even where I was.