Saigon: "Love and the American War"
July 30, 2003
Dear Family and Friends,
My dear readers. You must be wondering, "Jan has traveled the length of Vietnam. He has extolled the physical beauty of the country and the wonderful people he has met. But nowhere has he mentioned the unmentionable." Stand by.
My tour outside of HCMC made two stops. The first was the Caodai Temple in Tay Ninh. The second was the Cu Chi Tunnels.
The Cu Chi Tunnels formed a network of military strongholds which held up to 16,000 Viet Cong for months at a time. Only 6000 survived the relentless bombing. Thousands of civilians died in the vicinity.
At Cu Chi, tourists crawl around the tunnels and then visit the adjacent museum. I politely declined. Instead, I sat at the nearby cafe and started to gather my thoughts for this letter.
I really cannot explain my reasoning; I cannot account for my emotions. Sometimes, I just "decline."
I chose not to see the movie Sophie's Choice and recently, The Pianist.
I expect that I will never visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The most powerful image I need is the name Lisabeth Tausigova that I found carved into the wall of the Pinkus Synagogue in Prague. My Grandmother's mother's name is forever engraved in black lettering on a white stone wall amongst the thousands of other "disappeared" Czechoslovakian, Jewish citizens. Many of the names are her neighbors and friends and the more than two-dozen other members of my father's extended family.
As for the Vietnam War, I have read many books and seen the movies. What is most sad for me now is to remember the name Henry Caballero, my young student at Haaren High School in New York. Henry's name appeared in a newspaper one day along with others killed in action in 1972. Henry is also on a wall.
When I decided to visit Vietnam last month, I did so with a bit of apprehension. Tales abound of pickpockets, touts and con artists of both the male and female variety. I am sure they are somewhere. I never met one. Are there no pickpockets in Madrid, touts in Paris or con artists in Amsterdam? Have they cleared Broadway of the three card Monte dealers?
I was reluctant to visit Vietnam for another reason. I am an American of that certain age. Perhaps I would be treated with hostility.
So, I flew from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City thinking that I would see the sights but decline to see the obvious reminders of those terrible events of the 1960's and 1970's. Now, how foolish can I be? How naïve?
If I visit London, do I avoid Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square? Heroic Admiral Horatio Nelson who is credited with defeating England's enemies at sea. Defeating, of course, is the sinking of ships and the drowning of enemy sailors.
When I drive to Le Mont Saint-Michel near Normandy, do I shield my eyes from the American Cemetery nearby?
When I arrive in Paris, do I not climb the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile, that grand monument to Napoleon's avarice and brutality?
And in Rome, beautiful Rome, can I avoid Trajan's Column depicting in gruesome detail the calamitous slaughter of the Dacians (ancient Romanians) and the killing of their king? And the Arch of Titus. The Arch of Titus, erected to celebrate and illustrate the defeat of the Israeli Army and the razing and pillaging of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.
In Washington, D.C., did I not walk among the freezing, bronze "soldiers" slogging through the mud and snow of Korea?
And finally, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the most visited monument in our Capital, a city of many extraordinary monuments. "The Wall" with its 58,000 names carved into the soul of my country.
How can I travel from Saigon to Hanoi and hope to avoid the reminders of events just thirty years ago?
Well, I tried. I missed the War Remnants Museum in Saigon with its depictions of French and American atrocities. I nixed the DMZ tour, the Vinh Moc Tunnels, and the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The Rockpile? No.
But on that very first tour of the temple and the tunnels, the young guide quite dispassionately pointed out the locations of bomb craters and bullet-ridden walls, and the town, the very spot of "The Girl in the Picture."
One driver told me he had been an enlisted man in the South Vietnamese Navy. When the communist government took control in 1975, he was sent away to a "reeducation camp" for "only three years." Other higher-ranking soldiers and officers were "reeducated" for six or eight or ten or twelve years.
One young man told me that his parents were in the Viet Cong and that he himself was born in the jungle and lived there for three years. Another driver proudly showed me a bullet hole in his belly. He was forced, at gunpoint, to fight the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He went to war with his buddy. He showed me a picture of them together. His buddy didn't make it home.
Remember the ruins of the ancient Cham Temples at My Son? They are in ruins mostly because the North Vietnamese Army used them as hideouts, and the American bombers did what they had to do.
Nah Trang Beach? American soldiers liked the beach there. Surfboarding and water skiing come to mind.
Marble Mountain, the awesome caves? A Viet Cong hospital.
Hoi Van Pass, that splendid mountain region along Highway 1? At the very top is a bunker built by the French and later used by the Americans.
Remember the famous Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue? Here is what the guidebook says: "Behind the main sanctuary of the pagoda is the Austin motorcar, which transported the monk Thich Quang Duc to the site of his 1963 self-immolation."
Ha Long Bay? Ha Long is at the western end of The Gulf of Tonkin.
And Hanoi? New buildings, roadways and bridges. The old ones are, well, mostly gone.
As I made my way up country on my happy, peaceful, safe, and delightful tour of Vietnam, writing my cheerful letters, I tried to imagine the reactions of those of you who had been here before me. I do want you to know, Mike R., Bob K., David A., and Henry Caballero, wherever you may be. I want you all to know that every day I was thinking about you and your service here.
I am going to close this summer's correspondence with one poignant story. But before I do and despite the subject and tone of this letter, I want you to know that I love Vietnam. And when you visit Vietnam, you will love the country, too.
The Vietnamese love us. More than half of the population is under thirty; they have no memory of "The American War." Those who are older have mostly put those events behind them and moved on. They are reaching out to us.
I was always warmly welcomed with genuine hospitality and yes, affection.
When I first arrived, I thought I should see as much as possible because this would be my only trip here. Now, I can't wait to return.
I thought that I would lead a tour and call it "Exotic Vietnam" or "Totally Awesome Vietnam."
Maybe we can all go together? Hey, you never know!
A Special Moment
The most emotional moment of the summer came unexpectedly on my very first day in Ho Chi Minh City. I wander over to the Municipal Theatre, a typically elegant French style building with white exterior, yellow trim, and musical carvings on the walls. Flower gardens and fountains surround the building. Several loving young couples dressed in white gown and tuxedo pose for formal wedding pictures amongst the trees and flowers.
I notice busloads of young children milling about and charging in and out of the theatre. They are wearing white and blue headbands, which I surmise, indicate different schools or locations. All the headbands have the same logo.
I walk up the steps, enter the auditorium and watch as groups of youngsters pose for pictures. I try to question the teachers, "What is happening?" I can't find out. I assume there is some sort of school field trip. I exit along with dozens of swarming kids.
Then it happens. On the steps in front of the theatre stands a group of about twenty Western men, also posing for a group shot. They all look to be of that certain age, some a little older than me, some a little younger. A couple of them have gray beards; one of them a long gray ponytail. Several wear American flag ties. I know who they are. Have you guessed yet?
I approach the group of American men who had served in Vietnam more than thirty years ago. I turn on my best New Yawk accent, "Hey guys. What's happenin'?"
These happy, smiling veterans are representatives of American charity groups who are distributing scholarship money to needy Vietnamese children, some of whom are now children of boys and girls left behind by American servicemen. The Vietnamese government originally shunned these Amerasians and their mothers. Some of the kids are handicapped. These kids need all the help they can get. And many Americans, including these soldiers who fought here, are helping on a full time basis.
The American men are mostly from Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and places like that. We joke a little about how Oklahoma is a suburb of Texas and how Miami is a suburb of New York. Yet they are totally serious as they explain the motivation for their new altruistic mission in Vietnam. My own emotions start to take hold.
Tears well up in my eyes and I nearly break down as our conversation draws to a close. One former serviceman, awkwardly, but with his marvelously genuine Midwestern sincerity, simply says, "We do this because of love."