- Writers are the engineers of the soul.
- General Tran Van Tra
Ho Chi Minh City
June 24th, 1990
“I was born in 1949,” Le Minh Khue began quietly. “That is to say I’m one year younger than W.D. Ehrhart. In wartime, he served with a rifle in the U.S. Marines, fought in Hue, a poetic city of my country. As for me, I was then on Roads 15 and 20, not far from Hue, on a section of the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, as a member of a young volunteers’ team under the military engineering command. I never saw an American soldier in battledress. If I had met you then in your Marine “utes,” maybe I’d be scared to death, and this fear would remain with me all my life.”
Though Khue was nominally addressing her remarks to the entire nine-member U.S. delegation assembled at Hanoi’s West Lake Guest House for this first-ever Conference of U.S. and Vietnamese Veteran-Writers, she was looking directly at me; I was the one who the previous day had referred to “utes” (utilities: what the U.S. Army called fatigues). I adjusted my headset, from which the simultaneous English translation was coming, and listened intently, both pleased and curious.
“Today I meet you here, as a writer, a poet,” she continued. “We talk and find out we both have memories of the war, we both have spent our youth in the same fierce space, though on opposite sides. I’ve heard you reciting your poems, your friends speaking about my country in amiable words, and I’m extremely moved by the thought that human beings can be kind and open-hearted to their fellow human beings. I’d like to speak a little about myself, so that you can understand how soldiers of my generation—some of them are present here today—became writers.
“The day I went to the front, I left my family, my parents, brothers and sisters, this sweet home of mine shaken by the turmoil of war. My comrades and I were then students who quit high school to join in the heroic atmosphere of the moment. We had, of course, many books in our knapsacks. The ones I brought with me were by Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, two authors whose novels and short stories had been translated into Vietnamese and were much prized by my parents.
“We worked then at a crucial place on the north-south supply line. We were many times the targets of U.S. Air Force bombing. I never fired one shot, but my comrades and I defused delayed-action bombs. We were subjected to acid showers produced by thousands and thousands of silver iodine crystals dropped into the clouds. We struggled against incendiaries, mines, bombs, and other killing devices. We endured many privations almost too horrible to speak of.
“In those hard days, I read over and over again these two American authors. I learned a love of life from Jack London, as well as the courage to transcend death, to keep up hope against any odds. I liked very much the tough men in London’s stories who fought blizzard and death for survival. I cherished the anguish of Hemingway, whose wonderful short stories deal with loneliness, death, and love of life, eternal topics of literature and human thought. And my love of literature stems from these two and from that time.
“My friends fought with great courage to keep the road open to traffic, and I began to write about them. Many of them died at the age of eighteen. Others survived the war, but have lost their youth. How you returned to normal life, I don’t know, but you write poems. I prefer short stories, but just like you, I worry about the future of humanity. We have to get rid of the aftermath of war inside each of us. We have to struggle against disinterest in the face of others’ suffering, against greed and the baseness that corrodes heart and mind. We must teach each other to love, so that war will never, never happen again.”
When I left Vietnam on Jan. 2, 1986, having spent most of December 1985 there, it never occurred to me that I would ever come back. It had been a long trip, an expensive trip, a difficult trip emotionally, a once-in-a-lifetime journey. In the 18 years since I’d left Vietnam as a 19-year-old battle-weary Marine, no matter how hard I’d tried, I had never been able to see in my mind’s eye a Vietnam other than the one then in the midst of war. And all my memories were in black and white. I had wanted to see Vietnam at peace. I had wanted to see Vietnam in color. I had wanted to see once more this faraway land that had become, with the passing years, more a state of mind than a geographical location, to give it and its people substance and place and breath. And I had done that in 1985. The circle had been closed. I could finally move on.
But Vietnam has insinuated itself into my life in ways both large and small to a degree I never imagined possible even five years ago. For better or worse, I have become identified as a “Vietnam writer” and a sort of spokesperson for the American experience in Vietnam. While I dislike the label (and would rather not have had the experience), it has brought me opportunities I would never otherwise have had, among them two trips to Britain, a lecture tour of Austria, Germany, and Yugoslavia, and in January 1990 a semester’s appointment as Visiting Professor at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Like it or not, Vietnam is now a permanent fact of my life.
So when the Joiner Center began working with the Writers’ Association of Vietnam to bring together this conference, and asked me if I was interested in participating, I figured, “Sure, why not?” After all, Vietnam is a fascinating place, as most foreign lands are. And it would be an honor to be part of the first official U.S. writers’ delegation to Vietnam. And besides, in 1985, I had seen only Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. I had not gotten to see any of the places in central Vietnam where I had lived and fought. I had told myself then that it didn’t really matter, but it had. This time, I could really close the circle.
The idea for the conference grew out of a 1989 visit to the Joiner Center’s annual Veteran Writers’ Workshop by Nguyen Quang Sang and Nguyen Khai of the Vietnam Writers’ Association, respectively, and Le Luu, currently Vietnam’s most popular living novelist. The three men had been given a very rough time by extremist right-wing elements of the Vietnamese immigrant community here in the U.S. After one public event, during a well-orchestrated “demonstration” in front of the Boston Public Library, they and their American companions were physically assaulted by hysterical Vietnamese émigrés, many of them too young to have anything but the vaguest memories of the land in which they were born. I came away from that night with two thoughts: where was all this Vietnamese freedom-loving piss-and-vinegar when I was slogging through the ricefields in 1967? And: if these three guys ever get back to Vietnam alive, they ain’t ever gonna wanna see any of us again.
However shaken they may have been, Sang, Khai, and Le Luu were not deterred, and nine months later, on June 13 and 14, 1990, the conference was held on the grounds of the complex where the Politburo used to take shelter during the worst of the U.S. bombing. The Vietnamese were represented by 31 writers and poets, along with several dozen unofficial delegates and observers. The American delegation consisted of, in addition to myself, Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War), Larry Heinemann (Close Quarters), Yusef Komunyakaa (Dien Cai Dau), Larry Rottmann (American Eagle), Bruce Weigl (Song of Napalm), Washington Post reporter George Wilson, and Joiner Center co-directors Kevin Bowen and David Hunt.
Vu Tu Nam, Writers’ Association general secretary, opened the conference by telling us that we would meet “open-hearted men, gentle women and unassuming war veterans who were once designated by the U.S. armed forces under the common name of Viet Cong; we can assure you that wherever you go, you’ll be welcomed by hospitable smiles.” This, it turned out, would be largely true, but there had been Viet Cong in Vietnam, and they had tried to kill me. I spent most of that first day and part of the next wondering who in Vietnam had actually done the fighting.
Khue said she hadn’t fired a shot or seen a U. S. soldier. Poet Pham Tien Duat, 49, told us: “I spent thirteen years in the army, mostly in the north and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I fired only twelve shots, and I hit no one, but the Americans still tried to kill me.” Added Xuan Thieu, 60, who also never saw a U.S. soldier: “You didn’t see the enemy, but suddenly the messengers of death came for you.” By mid-morning of the second day, I began to wonder if these folks weren’t pulling their punches.
Then novelist Cao Tien Le stood up. He gestured around the room at his colleagues. “I don’t understand all this talk about not shooting Americans,” he began, his voice hard at the edges. His eyes bored straight into the Americans sitting across from him. “I killed Americans—the equivalent of a whole platoon. It was my duty, my profession. I was very good at it.” The passion in his voice required no translation. His words snapped like rifle shots. “When I was stationed near Khe Sanh on Route 9, we thought it was very funny of the Americans to transport shower water. We used to look for the showers, and shoot the Marines when they took their showers.
“Now things are different, so I won’t shoot you,” the 51-year-old former infantry company commander managed to add with something like a smile, though I had the feeling at that moment that he would have liked to, even now, 16 years after the war. And why not? We had come half a world to wage war on him and his people. We had unleashed upon the very city in which we were now meeting the most massive aerial bombardment in history. We had spent nearly 30 years struggling mightily to keep Vietnam from its own destiny, and when we failed, like petulant children we embarked upon an economic and diplomatic war that is still underway.
I had been deeply touched by the warmth of Le Minh Khue, by the irony of her carrying Hemingway and London into the war against the Americans (a phenomenon which many other Vietnamese writers were to confirm over the next few weeks). The atmosphere of cordiality that had prevailed for the first day and a half had been delightful, even uplifting—but it had also seemed a bit unreal, as though these people were politely ignoring who had been responsible for their misery. Cao Tien Le was a dose of reality, unsettling but oddly reassuring.
“I’ll tell you what I dream about,” Le continued. “Once on the trail we were bombed by B-52s. A lot of soldiers were killed, buried in the earth. But some of the dead still had arms or legs or heads sticking out. More troops were coming down the trail behind us. We didn’t have time to bury the dead properly, and we didn’t want the other troops to see them because it was too disturbing. So we had to cut off the protruding limbs, even the heads, of the dead soldiers.” As Le talked, former Marine Lieutenant Caputo leaned over and whispered, “We could have used him in the Marines.”
But even Le was not as fiercely belligerent as he seemed, and perhaps wanted to seem to us. “Once I slept in the same shelter with some captured Americans,” he said. “We were all listening to American Armed Forces Radio, and the Americans were singing along with the songs. I realized then that they were human like us—but I couldn’t allow myself to think about that. Not then. Now I work in the Youth Publishing House. I want younger generations to understand how terrible war is. I want them to have peace.”
Le’s apparently impromptu outburst seemed to strike a chord with the Americans, and with the other Vietnamese as well. “Many of my friends were burned to death,” responded Heinemann, driver of an armored personnel carrier during the war, “Their remains were no bigger than a roast chicken. Writing about the war will always be obscene because war is obscene. There’s no other way to write about it.” Added Caputo, “War is a kind of hideous laboratory for studying human nature.” And Komunyakaa told the Vietnamese that the war had so troubled him, it was 14 years before he could begin to write about it.
Huu Thinh, 48, who rose from private to lieutenant colonel during the war, spoke of his own family as a microcosm of the war: one brother killed, one brother permanently brain-damaged and institutionalized. “I am the lucky son. I survived unharmed. But those of us who survived have a debt to pay to those who didn’t. Our writing must be responsible. We must see that this never happens again.”
“Holding a pen is one thousand times more difficult than holding a rifle,” added Khuat Quang Thuy, who joined the army at 17 in 1967 and fought in the south, “for when you hold a rifle, you can easily open fire on order, but when you hold a pen, you can only write in answer to the call of your heart, of your conscience. It is for that reason, I think, that you Americans have found your way back to this country, and that this wonderful meeting has materialized.”
“The war is still the most important thing in my poetry,” added Pham Tien Duat, who spent ten years on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and is now editor of the journal Literature and Art. “I can’t get away from it. The poverty of the people has been caused by the war, so when I write about the people’s misery, I am really writing about the war.” When asked if the war had been a useful experience in terms of his poetry, Duat answered without hesitation: “No.”
Of course, the writers with whom we met are those more or less “approved” by the Vietnamese government. All are Writers’ Association members in good standing. All were on the winning side. It is impossible to gauge just how much freedom of expression is tolerated these days; doubtless it is far less than what we Americans are accustomed to. But Vietnamese writers are clearly no longer bound, as they were during and immediately after the war, to portray the war as a glorious and unstained struggle, the warriors heroic superbeings. Le Luu’s popular 1986 novel, Thoi Xa Vang, is the story of a soldier who comes home to an unhappy marriage, adultery, a bitter divorce, and emotional emptiness.
Le Luu, 47, joined the North Vietnamese army in 1959, and fought until the end of the war, taking part in the battle for Quang Tri in 1972. The father of two children, he is awaiting promotion to colonel, and is currently the editor of the army literary magazine, one of the most vital and lively literary magazines in the country. “During the war,” he said, “we were writing propaganda. We had to use every weapon at our disposal, including our pens, in order to achieve victory. But now we must write about the bitterness and the suffering. I must write honestly now because I don’t know how much longer I will live. It is not good for a genuine writer to make governments happy or angry. We are writing for the future, not for the present.”
In many ways, the future has already arrived in Vietnam, where a majority of the people are too young to have fought in the war and nearly half the population was not even born when the war ended. After the close of the formal conference, we Americans spent several more days in Hanoi, then drove east to the port city of Haiphong in the comfort of a Toyota minibus to meet with members of the Haiphong Writers’ Association. Along the way, we heard the voice of Vietnam’s younger generation in the form of Nguyen Quang Thieu, a 32-year-old poet who traveled with us as our interpreter.
A story of Thieu’s called “To the Stars” begins with the death of a young man who had aspired to be a poet. His friends want to bury him on the mountaintop, but the village elders refuse permission, saying that he has not lived long enough or accomplished enough to be buried there; only the old and wise and great can be buried close to the stars. So the young people play a series of pranks on the elders, fooling them into thinking that the gods and ghosts are displeased with their decision, and in the end the elders relent and the young man is buried on the mountaintop. Allegorical? “Of course,” Thieu replied with a grin.
Then he told us the story of one of his poems: a woman goes to the grave of her son who has been killed in the war and prays to the gods to return the boy safely to her. Instead, the ghosts of her son’s comrades appear and tell her that her son is gone, he won’t be coming back, and she might as well go home and get on with her life. The poem won first prize from the army literary magazine in 1984, but when Thieu’s father, a retired army colonel, read the poem, he was outraged. “That’s the future,” Thieu replied, whereupon his father slapped Thieu across the face. Thieu left the house, and the two men did not speak for several years, but recently the father asked Thieu to come see him. “I am sorry I slapped you,” his father told Thieu, “You were right. The war is over now. What did I fight for if not for you to be able to make the kinds of choices you’ve made?”
“What about Le Luu?” I asked Thieu, “Where does he fit in ?”
“He is a kind of bridge,” Thieu replied. “He’s part of the generation who fought the war—but he thinks like a young person.” And indeed, Le Luu, who also traveled with us through the entire trip, was clearly popular with young and old wherever we went. An infectiously warm and playful man, with a smattering of English picked up during trips to the U.S. in 1988 and 1989, he was affectionate with Thieu yet equally at ease with Vo Nguyen Giap, the most revered living person in Vietnam. That night, a severe electrical storm knocked out the power during our meeting with the Haiphong writers. Shimmering in the glow of hastily lit candles, Le Luu told the gathering, “We were born to love each other, not to kill each other.”
We drove back to Hanoi the next day, and from there flew to Danang. This was the airfield I’d flown into as a boy-Marine more than 23 years ealier, and from which I’d flown out of 13 months later, prematurely old and exhausted both physically and emotionally. Then it was one of the busiest airports in the world. Now it was largely abandoned; row upon row of concrete aircraft revetments, built by the Americans to withstand Viet Cong rocket and mortar attacks, stood empty on either side of the landing strip. Vietnamese air force MIG’s periodically took off or landed in flights of two, but otherwise our commercial flight was the only visible activity.
I’d been an “old hand” in Hanoi, having spent nine days there in 1985, but this whole part of the trip was different. This is what I had missed in 1985, and of course, it was this part of Vietnam that held so much of my own past, that had forged me into what I have become. It wasn’t fear that I felt as the plane touched down, but a kind of nervous exhilaration, a bit like Christmas morning after a long night of sleepless anticipation: you’re pretty sure you’ve been good enough not to get coal in your stocking, but you’re not sure what you will get. As we stepped off the plane, Caputo, who had commanded a platoon of Marines just west of Danang in 1965, turned to me and shook my hand. “Welcome to Danang,” he said.
Over the next three days, I did my 13-month “tour of duty” in reverse. I’d spent my first eight months in Vietnam 20 miles southeast of Danang, near the city of Hoi An. Then my battalion had shifted north to Quang Tri and the Demilitarized Zone, and finally, in early 1968, we’d come back down to Phu Bai just in time to be the first unit sent into Hue City on the first morning of the Tet Offensive.
We left the airport almost immediately, driving north by bus over the spectacular Hai Van Pass toward Hue City. From the top of the pass, where the Annamese Cordillera moves in from the west to cut the coastal plain in two, one can see perhaps 40 miles of wildly beautiful coastline: wide white beaches rimming barrier islands broken by rivers meandering down from the mountains through farming and fishing villages and ricefields green with new plantings. One small fishing village perched on a scenic spit of sand at the mouth of a river, and it is not hard to imagine a Club Med sitting on that very spot in the not-too-distant future. Vietnam needs and wants such foreign investment—though the people of that village may be hard-pressed to call it progress.
As we passed a forlorn cluster of abandoned buildings, now nothing but walls without floors or roofs or windows, Le Luu told us that this was all that remains of the once-vast Marine base of Phu Bai. From here to Hue, I would be traveling the same road we’d traveled in the predawn hours of Jan. 31, 1968, oblivious to the fact that we were about to be sucked into the biggest battle of the Vietnam war. When our bus reached the south edge of the city, I asked the driver to stop, and I walked into the city alone, up the same street I’d fought my way up on that first terrible morning of Tet, all the way to the River of Perfumes.
I’d had no idea what to expect this time around, but there were no ghosts waiting for me, and my memory turned out to be pretty solid. I found the building I’d been in when I’d been wounded by shrapnel from a B-40 rocket, and the old MACV compound which had been used variously as our battalion headquarters, first aid station, and supply dump, and the university that had become a haven for civilian refugees caught in the fighting. The streets were narrower than I remembered, and full of bustling activity. People noticed me because Westerners are still an unfamiliar sight, but they projected only mild disinterest or friendly curiosity.
When I finally reached our hotel two hours later, David Hunt, with some concern, took me by the arm and asked, “How was it?”
“Fine,” I said. I was high as a kite, actually, though I couldn’t have explained why, and still can’t. That night, on Heinemann’s sage advice, I bagged the meeting with the Thua Thien Province Writers’ Association and wandered through the city for several hours, still in a state of inexplicable euphoria. I fully expected to awaken at two a.m., crying and shaking and remembering all the noise and fear and confusion and blood that have stayed so vividly in my mind all these years. But it didn’t happen. Instead, I awoke the next morning to the realization that whatever might have hurt me in this place was long gone and far away, safely out of reach, just history.
The next morning, we set off by bus for the DMZ. Quang Tri City, a lively place in 1967, was leveled in 1972 and never rebuilt. The airfield I’d watched the Seabees build at a place called Ai Tu in the fall of 1967 is now abandoned, just a level strip of earth with nothing standing. Dong Ha, where we stopped for lunch, is as tawdry as ever, but nothing marks the American presence except the stripped-down hulk of a U.S. tank sitting by a flagpole in the center of town. Farther up the road toward Con Thien, a farmer has built his house next to the hulk of another U.S. tank; the tank is the farmer’s pig sty.
We could not get closer than several thousand meters to Con Thien, where I had spent 33 days living in the mud while North Vietnamese gunners shelled us with heavy artillery, because the area is still heavily mined and dangerous, but we went all the way to the Ben Hai River, which once marked the boundary between northern and southern Vietnam, where we visited a national cemetary containing the remains of 10,300 Vietnamese who died on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The rows and rows of low concrete slabs are sobering. Heinemann placed his Army Combat Infantryman’s Badge on the grave of a soldier who had been born the same year as himself, and who had been killed the year Heinemann had been in Vietnam. “He probably deserved it more than I do,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes.
Enchanted is an overworked word, but that night we spent an enchanted evening aboard a sampan on the River of Perfumes, which bisects Hue east-and-west. Five young singers in traditional ao dais serenaded us to the accompaniment of five musicians playing traditional instruments. In between songs, we recited poems to each other in English and Vietnamese. Thieu’s on-the-spot translation of my love poem “Channel Fever” was twice as long as the English version I’d just recited, and sounded twice as beautiful.
“How did you do that?” I asked incredulously.
“Oh, I only understood about half of what you were saying,” he replied, “But I could feel your passion. I just translated the passion.”
The next day, we returned to Danang, checked into our hotel, then set off immediately for Marble Mountain, China Beach and Hoi An. I had asked to go to Hoi An, knowing that the only road to the city would have to pass right by my old battalion command post, where I’d spent my first eight months during the war. What I hadn’t counted on was that the Vietnamese might have built a new road in the ensuing 23 years.
Actually, it turned out to have been the Koreans who had built the new road not long after my battalion had shifted north, but that didn’t really matter. What mattered was that, the moment we began heading south from China Beach, I knew we were going to miss the spot I was looking for. I tried to get Hai Hoc, general secretary of the Danang Writers’ Association, to understand what I wanted. The discussion got rather heated. Hai Hoc, in fact, must have thought I was a crazy. It was clear that he thought I didn’t know what I was talking about. Our afternoon in Hoi An was strained, and for me interminable, but after another brief and heated discussion, he ordered the bus driver to take a different road north to Danang.
And there it was—or there it should have been. I knew from the locations of a mountain, a river, a stream, and a bridge that the front gate of the old CP had to be right here, and behind that gate, surrounded by a high sand perimeter topped with hundreds of coils of barbed concertina wire, should have been several areas of bare sand where nothing grew or ever would grow. But where the old CP had stood, there was now a thriving village of several thousand people, all living in brick and tile homes surrounded by palm trees and banana trees and all manner of living, green things. For a moment I was uncomfortably unsure, wondering in a panic if I’d just made a fool of myself. But I couldn’t be wrong. I’d spent too much time sitting on that berm, staring west at the river and the mountain beyond it. Too much had happened here.
As soon as we stopped the bus, a crowd of villagers gathered around to see the strange foreigners who’d come to visit them. I asked an old man if there were two concrete French bunkers nearby. His face lighting up, he pointed back over his shoulder and gestured for me to follow him. Fifty meters off the road, obscured by trees and the densely packed houses, stood the two bunkers. One had a house built right on top of it. The other had a house built around two sides of it. Hai Hoc smiled broadly and shook my hand. This American wasn’t crazy, after all.
Twenty-three years ago, the front entrance to the old CP had passed right between those two bunkers. No other evidence remained to indicate that we Americans had ever been there—and even the bunkers had been built not by the Americans, but by the French before us. It was all gone. Every trace of our presence.
I was prepared for abandoned ruins like I’d seen at Phu Bai, or a vast expanse of barren sand, but I had not anticipated this, and so I was startled almost beyond words. The old man was still standing next to me. “Nice village you’ve got here,” I managed to stammer after a long moment. “A lovely village indeed. It makes me happy to see it.” And then it was I who was wiping the tears from my eyes. When I left, he was still standing there surrounded by several dozen children and young people, no doubt all of them wondering who I was.
That night we met with the Danang Writers’ Association in a cramped upstairs room decorated only with a drawing of Leo Tolstoy. (In 1985, no official gathering would have been without a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, more often than not flanked by Marx and Lenin, but life in Vietnam is changing rapidly.) “Our hair is gray,” Ngan Vin Le began, “but in writing, forty is the age of youth. I am glad we did not meet as soldiers. Each of us was threatened by the war, but each of us survived. Now it is our duty as writers to arouse the conscience of the people of the world in the cause of peace.”
A special rapport rapidly and visibly developed between Le and Caputo. Both men had been platoon commanders in the Danang area, had perhaps even been direct adversaries. And when Le described a poem he had once written about sheltering a dying comrade from the rain, novelist Caputo blurted out, “I’ve only written three poems in my entire life, but one of them was about an incident exactly like that!”
“I was an army medic,” said Thai Ba Loi, 45, who had been a member of Le’s platoon. “But that doesn’t mean I didn’t use a weapon. I wasn’t a very good marksman, but once I actually managed to bring down an American helicopter with a lucky shot. One crewman survived, but he was wounded in the stomach. He asked for water, but I couldn’t give it to him because of his stomach wound. I myself performed the surgery. He was still alive when we turned him over to a unit west of here. I don’t know what happened to him after that.”
Then Tran Thi My Nhung recited a poem he had written only the previous year called “A Vietnamese Bidding Farewell to the Remains of an American”:
As the meeting ended, Le and Caputo embraced. “He really hugged me,” Caputo said as we were leaving. “I don’t think he was faking that. He really meant it.”
Was your plane on fire, or did you die
of bullet wounds, or fall down exhausted?
Just so you died in the forest, alone.
Only the two of us, a woodcutter and his wife,
dug this grave for you, burned joss sticks,
prayed for you to rest in peace.
How could we know there’d be such a meeting,
you and I, once separated by an ocean,
by the color of our skin, by language?
But destiny bound our lives together.
And today, by destiny’s grace,
you are finally going home.
I believe your American sky
is as blue as the sky above this country
where you’ve rested twenty years.
Is it too late to love each other?
Between us now, the ocean seems so small.
How close are our two continents.
I wish a tranquil heaven for your soul,
gemmed with twinkling stars and shining moon.
May you rest forever in the soil of your home.
All sorts of tensions had been flowing beneath the surface of this entire trip. Vietnam is still trying to find its way to the future, and there is keen competition among the so-called reformers, loosely centered around Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, who want to liberalize Vietnam’s political and economic systems, and the hard-line ideologues, centered around the Interior Ministry, who want to stick strictly to the revolutionary vision that sustained them through three decades of war.
Our first night in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, we went to a private screening of filmmaker Quang’s newest production, The Singing River. It is the story of an American journalist who inadvertantly falls into the hands of the Viet Cong, sees the war from the other side, and comes away sympathetic to the revolution, all of which is layered over several interwoven love stories. Vietnamese film production is extremely crude by U.S. standards; the Vietnamese lack sophisticated equipment, technical expertise, and money. And their films, like the people themselves, are overtly and unabashedly sentimental.
Still, the central character in this Vietnamese film is an American (played by a French-Vietnamese actor named Robert Hai, 51), and, though he is not quite convincing, Quang has made a serious attempt to portray Americans as real people with depth and substance, something I have yet to see Americans do with Vietnamese in our films about the war. (During Quang’s 1989 visit to the U.S., he spent many hours interviewing U.S. veterans, attempting to understand them so that he could portray them as something more than “cogs in the U.S. war machine.”)
On the way back to the guest house, children’s writer Ly Lan, 33, another member of the younger generation, told me about herself: “I was just eighteen in 1975, a student in Saigon. I didn’t know about the bombing and the suffering until after the war ended. During the war, all it had meant to me was foreign soldiers in my city. I didn’t like them very much, so I was happy when peace came, but I was afraid of the new government. I didn’t know what to expect. Still, I am Vietnamese, and I wanted to help rebuild my country.” When I asked if she liked the new regime these days, she made a mildly sour face and shrugged, as if to say, “It could be better.”
The next day, we drove to Tay Ninh Province for a meeting with the Tay Ninh Writers’ Association. By this time, having kept to a truly grueling schedule for nearly two weeks, I was physically exhausted. The thought of yet another meeting where everyone has time to say only a sentence or two between introductions and toasts to the eternal friendship of former enemies made my eyes glaze over and my brain turn to mush. Even the cold milk sipped directly from unhusked coconuts did little to revive me, and I have little recollection of what was said at the meeting.
But I do remember lunch, as always an elaborate affair with multiple courses, because I sat next to Minh Thu, 40, a correspondent for Television Ho Chi Minh City, and “Mi Ti,” as she calls herself, told me a remarkable story. Her father went north as a soldier in 1952, and she, her mother and brother never heard from him again, though her mother kept insisting that he would come back. In the late 1960’s, her mother was arrested by the regime of Nguyen Van Thieu and imprisoned for four years because her husband “was a Communist.” During this time, she and her brother lived with relatives who told the children repeatedly that their father was dead. But on the day the war ended in 1975, there was a knock on the door, and Mi Ti answered it. There stood a man in uniform. “You are Mi Ti, aren’t you?” he said. “I am your father.” And then he gathered her into his arms and “cried like a baby.” Pointing to her chin, Mi Ti told me, “He recognized me by this birthmark. My parents have been together ever since. They are very happy.”
The next day, we visited the American Transit Center, where Amerasian children await final clearance to leave for the U.S. It was positively eerie: several hundred teenagers and young adults, a disproportionate number of them black Amerasian, stared at us as if we were their fathers. Some of them even laughlingly shouted, “Daddy!” But it wasn’t funny, and one could almost touch the desperation in their voices. One boy, when asked by Caputo to describe the happiest and saddest days of his life, replied, “I have never had a happy day.” Another girl, a young woman of 20 named Tran Thanh Huong who is illiterate, told us that she had been too poor to go to school, and had worked all her life as a helper on a family farm. “I want to go to America to learn English and earn money for a better life,” she said, “but I don’t know if I will find what I want.”
All of them are hoping for a better life in the U. S. Most of them will not find it. Out of place as they have been in Vietnam, most will be even more displaced in the U.S. With no knowledge of English or of American culture, with no support network of family or friends, with doubtful prospects for being accepted either by American society at large or by the smaller society of the Vietnamese-American community, most will find menial work or no work at all, ending up at the very bottom of the heap, perhaps homeless, perhaps drawn into petty crime, drugs, and the thousand other pitfalls that await the truly helpless. What could we say to these children, who gazed at us with penetrating eyes, as if trying to see their own futures? I have seldom felt so uncomfortable in all my life. I have seldom hated the war more than I did that afternoon.
On our last night in Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh City Writers Association treated us to a farewell banquet aboard the Cosevina 2, a floating restaurant cum riverboat. For several hours, we cruised the Saigon River in the quiet darkness, eating crab’s legs, stuffed snails, chicken, fish and rice while drinking 33 Export beer, Coca Cola, brandy and lua moi, a potent Vietnamese rice vodka. A television sat on a chair at the bow of the boat, tuned to a World Cup soccer match, and though the reception was poor, a cluster of Vietnamese—both men and women—gathered around the set to find out what had happened every time the crowd let out a roar.
“Do you have a copy in English of that poem you gave to General Giap?” asked Colonel Le Kim, a writer from Hanoi who had reappeared in Ho Chi Minh City. (I had given Giap a Vietnamese version of “Making the Children Behave.”)
“Yes I do,” I said, “Would you like to have it?”
“It’s not for me. It’s for General Giap.”
“Does he read English?” I asked. Giap had spoken only Vietnamese during our two-hour meeting in Hanoi.
“Oh, yes,” Le Kim replied with a twinkle, “very well. He liked your poem in Vietnamese, but he would like to know what it really says.”
In all my life, I have met only two American generals: one pinned a medal on me; the other said, “Carry on, Corporal. Sergeant! Excuse me, my eyesight must be going.” Now in these two weeks, I’d met seven generals. One of the greatest generals of the 20th century actually liked a poem of mine enough to send Le Kim a thousand miles to find me. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but I have a very hard time imagining General William Westmoreland reading my poetry.
It did my heart good to walk the streets of Hue without coming under a murderous crossfire. It did my heart good to see people working the once-desolate earth along the road to Con Thien. It did my heart good to see that thriving village where once had stood a wasteland of barbed wire, sand, and canvas. It did my heart good to meet men and women from the other side who survived a war and have dedicated their lives to making sense of their experience through the written word.
And for perhaps the first time in my life, I was not made to feel like the odd man out because I am a “Vietnam writer.” In the U.S., I get invited to read at conferences called “Tet Plus Twenty” and “Vietnam Reconsidered,” but I’ve never been invited to read at the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference or the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. My poems are taught in college history courses on the Vietnam war, but not in classes on contemporary American poetry. And even some of my closest and dearest friends have wondered aloud when I’m going to write a book “that isn’t about Vietnam,” their genuine concern for my psychological well-being irritatingly evident in their tone of voice.
But in Vietnam, everybody over the age of 35 is a “Vietnam writer,” and for once I could feel like just one of the gang. No one thinks it odd to be writing about the war, much less its painful and lingering legacies. No one looks at you as if you are emotionally retarded. What I’ve done with my life and my writing makes perfectly good sense to them. They see it, as I do, as a duty and an obligation, a way of turning disaster into hope. All of us learned things that are too important to be ignored or forgotten or left behind.
And if I have failed, in the words of Ngan Vin Le, “to rouse the conscience of the people of the world in the cause of peace” (and it seems fairly certain that I have)—well, there are worse things one might fail at. And even worse ways to succeed.