A Visit to Vietnam--Part 1

Mon, 22 Jan 1996 10:44:26 -0500

The attached article (in two parts) attempts to capture my recent experiences
in Vietnam. I realized after writing it that this passage from Jamieson's
_Understanding Vietnam_ perhaps best expresses my intent: "We simply cannot
make sense of our experience in Vietnam by further brooding upon what we as
Americans felt, or saw, or thought we were trying to do. In isolation,
whatever our bias, this experience makes no sense. To better understand
our-selves, we must understand the Vietnam War. To understand the war, we
must understand the Vietnamese. We must learn more about Vietnamese culture
and Vietnamese paradigms in order to untangle the muddled debates about our
own" (from the Preface). My thanks to the Slow Reading Group and to Northern
Illinois University.

Randy Fertel
Tulane University

The article:

Four Revelations in Vietnam

Once the site of one of America's worst adventures, spiritual, military, and
political, Vietnam may now be one of the best sites for touristic adventures.
The accent is definitely on adventure. Not only because of the exotica you
can experience - like elephant rides in the central highlands and montagnard
tribes that seem almost untouched by modern life. Ad-venture is also the key
word because, except for the major cities, comfortable tourist hotels are not
available in abundance.

The recent group I traveled with from Northern Illinois University for
example were among the first Americans since 1975 - the fall of Saigon - to
venture back into the Cen-tral Highlands, to Buon Me Thuot and to Pleiku, the
site where the first seven American ad-visors were killed in 1962. Both
cities are exceedingly ugly, to tell the truth, and smell of diesel fuel and
red dust and sewage. This is not entirely their fault perhaps: Agent Orange
was used in abundance in this area. But in Buon Me Thuot you can see the
tank that broke through ARVN defenses on April 2, 1975 that began the rout of
South Vietnamese forces that led to the Fall of Saigon on April 30. And you
can see a badly appointed history mu-seum with some absolutely exquisite
primitive implements: woven baskets worn on the back as knapsacks and a
charming type of scarecrow qua windmill that uses the clump-clump-clump of
rotating bamboo to scare egrets out of rice paddies. The hotel there is
atrocious but the Hmong village nearby makes it worth roughing it for one
night. The marketplace sells the basket-knapsacks which are well made and
still in use locally.
The hotel was so bad in fact that it was the source of my first startling
revelation about Vietnam. Imagine a bathroom about 4 foot square where the
washstand drains openly into the floor drain. Imagine a shower that simply
is a nozzle on the wall and the bathroom is your shower stall when you turn
the nozzle on. No way you can take a shower and have dry toilet paper
afterwards. In the midst of this squalor and just about the time when the
hot water gave out (after 30 seconds), the revelation hit me. The ancient
Greeks got it right, I told myself: the gods do have a sense of humor.
Imagine to yourself that Japan and Ger-many are defeated by the US and 20
years later they are great economic powers. Now imag-ine that Vietnam, a
little country of 40 million people defeats the US and twenty years later
they are hard in the running for the most squalid place on earth. Go figure.
The mind just cannot make sense of such a disjunction, such cognitive
dissonance. Such causes aren't sup-posed to have such effects.

Pleiku too is dirty. We stayed in a Soviet built hotel which is a monument
to why we won the cold war - a very strange use of space and materials to say
the least. The hot water faucet came off in my hand - no surprise. Our
favorite feature was the soviet-style eleva-tor. A double shaft in mid lobby
that ran up the two or three stories but except for trash at the bottom was
otherwise empty. Happily someone had had sense enough to put a high
threshold so you couldn't fall in. Again there is little surprise the Viets
don't miss the Sovi-ets.

Pleiku was the setting of course for a major army base and much hard
fighting. Nearby a ethnic minority tribe will take you on an elephant ride
to a lovely waterfall. Out in the boonies - high scrub forest actually
peppered by rice paddies and fields where slash and burn farming techniques
are still employed - one can sense how out of their element our boys must
have felt. Everyone know more about the lay of the land; everyone knew
better how to live off the land with a few rice cakes; everyone knew how to
make the most of the terrain to maintain stealth and surprise. Ten steps
into the jungle and we're out of our ele-ment. Better, as Chef says in
Apocalypse Now!, never to get out of the boat. It comes home to you in such
a locale to stay out of guerrilla wars where it is impossible to get up to
speed on such matters crucial to your survival.

Back to the merely touristic - I recommend not wearing whites on the elephant
ride as I did, and bringing plenty of sunscreen, which I failed to do. In
January, the dry season, mosquitoes were not a problem.

Those were our greatest adventures. Meanwhile Saigon has plenty of fine
hotels, some of them, like the Rex, world class. The nightlife and energy
level in the streets is re-viving and beginning to resemble something like
that so famous during the war. There is much building here as throughout
Vietnam. An entire block is coming down opposite the fa-mous Caravelle hotel
where correspondents once watched firefights from the roof and where coups
d'etats were once planned in the bar. A major hotel will go up there. The
Caravelle itself has been gutted and big money from Hong Kong is being sunk
into a major renovation. The business of the new Vietnam is business,
apparently. It goes without saying that the dol-lars I spent there went into
the pockets of budding capitalists and that by spending my dollars I helped
buttress that growing force and not the waning forces of communism.

Joint ventures are a way of life here, no longer with the former Soviets but
now with Korea, Japan, Australia and others. One would think that the late
start America has gotten in entering this burgeoning marketplace - the newest
Asian dragon - would put us at a severe disadvantage. Paradoxically this is
not the case: despite all reasonable expectation, the Viet-namese love us.
In fact one of the most important local phrases you'll need to learn is,
"no, I'm not a Russian, I'm an American."
But it's not just to the Russians but also the French that the Vietnamese
compare us. Sitting with Le Dat, an elderly but still impish poet in Hanoi
who had the chutzpah to attach Ho Chi Minh in his poetry in 1957, I got some
insight from one of his bons mots: "Les Americans sont de grands enfants,
mais les francais sont de petits vielliards" (Americans are big babies, but
the French are little old men). Le Dat was speaking from the point of view of
an incredibly sophisticated culture - one we assumed was primitive and in
need of our mod-ernization when we sent our boys to wage war there. For this
is a culture that founded its first university, the Temple of Literature, in
1040; a culture where the word for "poet" means "he who shapes culture";
finally, a culture where even the peasants have scores of poems by heart.
Meanwhile I heard in Le Dat's generous remark an unconscious echo of the far
darker remark made by Graham Greene in, The Quiet American, his prescient
treatment of the American War in Indochina. Speaking of Alden Pyle, the
American CIA agent who has come to fight his ideological war among a people
who just want more rice, Greene's narrator states that he had never seen "a
man with better motives for all the trouble he caused." So it goes.

But with their incredible grace and sophistication, present day Vietnamese
never re-mind us of those mistakes. Instead our tour guide's every effort
was to help us understand their complex culture: the overlays of
Confucianism, Buddhism, animism and the very small and late admixture of
Christianity. Another part of the mix is an odd sect called Cao Dai which
today has a million adherents. A visit to high mass at the Cao Dai cathedral
west of Saigon and only 10 miles from the parrot's beak of Cambodia was quite
an experience. A syncretic sect that dates from the 30s, Cao Dai worships
Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Victor Hugo and other luminaries from many
cultures. Outlandishly garish, the temple looks like a joint venture
concocted by Michael Eisner and Bugsy Seigel: Mickey Mouse does Vegas. The
mass itself, teeming with monks in different colored robes, seemed
choreographed by Busby Berkeley.

Worth the trip. And you can stop at the Cu Chi tunnels on the way. The
tunnels were an incredibly complex system of hidden bunkers that dated back
to the French Indo-china war but where enlarged throughout our adventure
there. Within miles of a major American military base just outside Saigon,
the Cu Chi tunnels drove us nuts. Visiting them now is haunting. Seeing the
cramped conditions under which they were willing to live helps convey how
important freedom from foreign aggressors is to this nation that fought the
Chi-nese for a millennium and the French for 200 years. Perhaps that our war
only lasted a mere 10 years (our longest, their shortest) again helps explain
their warmth toward us.

Other high points on the tour were Da Lat, Nha Trang, Hue and Hanoi. Da Lat
is a hillside resort founded in the late 19th century by a colleague and
protege of Dr. Pasteur, Dr. Alexandre Yersin, searching for a cool retreat
from the heat of lowland Saigon. It is called the Le Petit Paris. Bao Dai,
Vietnam's last emperor, maintained one of his many palaces here. Its look
betrays his colonial ties in its fairly tacky rendition of the International
(Bauhaus) Style. It looks like something that might have been built on the
Riviera in the 30s or Miami in the 50s. Most interesting is to watch the
Vietnamese reaction to the vestige of colonial splendor: their hands are on
everything; snapshots are taken with family members posed in every manner of
nook and cranny. The Americans in my group were all put off by the colonial
excess embodied everywhere; but we were even more struck by the vengeance
these Vietnamese tourists subtly wrecked upon it. It struck me that the
distance from their subtle violence to the overt violence Diem, his "elected"
successor suffered (he was of course not elected but installed by us after
the Geneva Accords of 1954; and he died at the hands of his generals in a
coup which we supported in 1963).

Near Bao Dai's hilltop palace, the dragon-lady, Madame Nhu's villa with its
exquisite gardens can also be visited if you care to brush up against
unadulterated evil. It was she who upon leaning of the first Buddhist monk
self-immolation in Saigon said that it was "just a bar-becue." Her roses are

Nha Trang is on the coast and Asia's version of the next Cancun. Just north
of Cam Ran Bay, the deepest port in the orient and the setting of our huge
naval base during the war, Nha Trang's beach is first rate. Condos and
hotels are going up by the minute; roads are be-ing widened to handle the
tour buses; scuba is available in the harbor islands. We ate crab on the
island of Mieu during a day trip by boat. The shells were paper thin and
easy to peel. No Louisiana crab boil here, the custom is to dip crab (and
elsewhere shrimp) in a mixture of salt, pepper and lime juice. Don't miss
the ride in from your day boat in one of the thung chai, a circular boat
woven of bamboo strips covered with pitch but which leak a bit especially
under my weight. They got some extra dong for transporting the "happy

It was in Nha Trang that my second revelation hit me. I began to wonder if
perhaps General Westmoreland wasn't right after all, that perhaps in the long
run we had won the war. This insight came to me on a massage table where a
lovely Viet massaged my "happy Buddha" frame for all of $4.50 an hour. The
sentiment still irks me since it seems to ignore the horrible losses suffered
on both sides (58,000 on ours; 2-3 million on theirs). But there is no
question: capitalism is on the rise in Vietnam and communism on the wane.
It's every-where apparent.

Hue is a must see. Often called the ancient capital (a mistranslation from
the French phrase meaning former capital), Hue was founded as late as 1802 in
a civilization that dates at least to the 1st century when the Trung sisters
threw out the Chinese for the first of many time (40AD). Hue was founded by
the Nguyen dynasty, the dynasty responsible for selling their country out tot
he French. But their citadel - for which our Marines fought so hard during
Tet of '68 (150 dead) and over which the North Vietnamese flag flew for 25
days - is magnificent. Here you can see the bullet and shrapnel holes that
bear witness to the hard fighting. You will also learn of the limits placed
on imperial majesty in Vietnam throughout the ages. For as absolute as their
monarchy was, the Nguyen's throne in the central palace faced south, as
presecribed by ancient Confucian custom, in order first of all to be in
harmony with the universe, and secondly in order to give ear to his people.
The other restraint on the emperor stood until the reign of the French
playboy emperor Bao Dai, installed by the French with our backing. Before
Bao Dai the emperor's power, for millennia, ended at the village gate. Under
Bao Dai and later Diem village and provincial chiefs were chosen from above
not below. In so doing the regimes we supported lost the "mandate of
heaven," which is to say, the trust of the people. In that gesture alone the
war was lost in a sense before it began.

What strikes one looking closely at the culture of Vietnam is the interplay -
call it yin and yang if you will - of vertical and horizontal forces.
Confucianism, imported by the Chinese during their millennium-long
colonization, is built on respect for hierarchical struc-tures: emperor,
mandarin, father, elder son, and so on, each respected implicitly by all who
owe him respect. Each has his place (though note the pronoun is here
appropriate: there is almost no respect paid to women in the Confucian
system). But Buddhism, the other great spiritual force in Vietnam (85% of its
people are adherents) goes even deeper in the spirit of Vietnam.. And
Buddhism by contrast is a great leveler: we are all doomed to a life of
illusion and dismay and frustrated desire unless we achieve that enlightment,
that nirvana that frees us from passion and illusion. Buddha's first
reincarnation included a visit to his mother, an event which with one stroke
improved the lot and status of women in the orient, at least on a spiritual
level. The other great equalizer in Vietnamese life is the village where
until the modern era 85% of the people lived a largely communal existence.
The point is in part the tragic irony that America went to fight a war which
perhaps least needed to be fought. Of all southeast Asia, the Viets were
from the get go most like us: energetic, optimistic, forward-looking,
fundamentally egalitarian and commercial-minded. Not only did their 1000
years of war beating back the Chinese again and again suggest that their
form of communism was not a chip off the monolithic block made up of Moscow
and Beijing (itself a monolith with cracks in it we could not see). It's
just fundamentally not in their character to suffer either colonists or
ideologues gladly. And their 200 years of fighting off the French suggests
it was not after all the communist insurgency we went to fight, but the last
episode in a long colonial war that we (under Wilson and under Roosevelt)
said we would not participate it or support. We had other good reasons for
what we did, perhaps, but then so did Greene's Pyle and so does the road to
hell, as they say.

This is not to say that the government is not in the hands of ideologues, but
even they seem to be learning that freedom will go further toward fulfilling
the goals of their 5 year plans than the plans themselves. With the Party
Congress impending in June as it does every 5 years, things are tightening
down for the time being in intellectual circles. But eve-ryone I spoke to
had the same thing to say: "on respire mieux" (we are breathing easier). I
heard this from such distinguished voices Dr. Hoang Ngoc Hie'n, the founder
of the Nguyen Du school of Creative Writing and the teacher of such
distinguished writers as Doung Thu Houng and Bao Ninh. I heard it from Houng
herself whose Novel Without a Name got her a prison term (for releasing state
secrets - she published it abroad) and I heard it from Le Dat and Vu Bao
whose dissidence dates back to the 50s (the first attacked Ho in his poetry
and the latter attacked the land reform movement as early as 1957). If the
Viets have proved themselves anything it is patient, patient of oppressors
both internal and external-until the time is right to get rid of them.

What finally convinces me that ideologues must one day become a thing of the
past in Vietnam stems from the third intuitive revelation I experienced
during my journey. This came to me not in a squalid bathroom in the central
highlands nor on a massage table in Nha Trang. This one came while riding,
white-knuckled, on the back of a motorcycle through the crowded streets of
Hanoi. First you must know that traffic throughout Vietnam is the first
mystery that confronts Western eyes in this country, and it is as mysterious
as it is busy. It is the first thing a tourist must learn to deal with and
it works in exactly contrary fashion from ours. In the west, he (the pronoun
here seems appropriate) with the most steel and horsepower to throw around
has a certain fundamental right to the right of way. In Vietnam just the
opposite holds true. Our bus driver would kill us all to stop for a chicken.
How this plays itself out in traffic is this: a truck will always brake and
move out of the way for a car, or a motorcycle, or a bicycle, or a
pedestrian. That hierarchy holds all the way down the line at each of its
rungs: hence a moto will brake for a bicycle and bicycle for a pedestrian.
Thus the tourist's rule of thumb in crossing the streets in Saigon and Hanoi
is not to wait for a light (in Hanoi, a city of 3 million, for example there
are only 38 lights). Rather you simply start slowly walking across the
street making sure that your progress is slow and steady and, most of all,
visible. If they see you, traffic will simply flow around you like fish
school or birds flock. It makes perfect sense; it's just not a sense that
we make in the west: s/he who can do the most harm must offer the most
caution. For me, this was further evidence of the yang of egalitarianism
noted above.

But what hit me on the back of the moto was this: how this thick traffic
succeeded in moving along at such a pace and with so few accidents (that I
saw-I hear that many do in fact take place) was not just out of this sense of
respect for the less powerful. It was also by the principle of what I chose
to call "small adjustments." If the pedestrian is close on this side, says
the principle, move a little that way. If the moto is close on that side,
move a lit-tle this way. And so - through a million little adjustments but
all spun out of that simple algorithm - roll forward the vast tides of
Vietnamese traffic.

My point is this: such behavior cannot be legislated; if it exists it is
native to the vi-sion of the people. A people who prefer to act in such a
manner, or who act in such a man-ner naturally, without thought, are a people
who will see all the gray tones in life and in poli-tics and not just the
blacks and whites. Such a people will not let ideologues, whose vision is
gray-blind, rule their lives long. Ideologues thrive on black and white,
good and evil, us versus them. Paradoxically it was ideology that took
America to Vietnam's shores to wage war, for we could see their nationalism
only as communism, not some gray-toned admixture of the two. Paradoxically
and tragically, it seems to me, we waged war where we perhaps least needed
to. No doubt fanatic ideologues have done much damage in this country over
the last 5 decades. War and colonial oppression make fanatics, there can be
no doubt of that. But the truth that Americans cherish most closely in their
hearts is the truth that the spirit of the people will eventually win the
day. I admit it's an odd place to find it, but I find hope in the streets of
Vietnam. They tell me that the day of the ideologue too will pass.

Still, in the meantime are the people, especially their point men, the
intellectuals, suppressed in Vietnam? This is a question we asked
continually and the answers we got were complicated. Although I recently
reported in a Times Picayune book review that Bao Ninh's book, The Sorrow of
War, had been repressed, it is in fact for sale in English throughout Ha-noi.
Is it for sale in Vietnamese? Perhaps not but this might be because all
books get only a run of 1000 copies in Vietnam. This no doubt is a form of
intellectual repression or censor-ship of a sort, effectively limiting a
writer's reach.

The situation is not only complicated but quite foreign to us. For one
thing, almost all writers are government functionaries. Again, perhaps to
some degree this effectively holds the reins in to some degree. Furthermore
if they publish something the government decides not to like, scathing,
doctrinaire reviews will be published in government journals and reviews.
This no doubt is more chilling in its effect than being panned by the New
York Times in one sense, because it's your government not just some critic
doing the attacking. In another sense it's a lot easier: with only a 1000
copies to sell in the first place, there's little danger of losing sales.
Nor do they go to jail anymore since the government seemed to have learned
from the uproar their imprisoning Huong caused worldwide. Nor did I hear of
anyone losing their government jobs. Might advancement be slowed? Surely it
might. No doubt the effects of criticizing post-war society are byzantine
but they are well short of draconian. As Dan Duffy, executive editor of
Yale's Vietnam Forum who is living at present in Hanoi, told me: there are
31 publishing houses in Hanoi with 31 executives who each makes his/her own
decisions on what to publish. There is no central censorship office.
Pressures are no doubt applied but they are subtler than we would expect to
find in a communist state.

Perhaps the bottom line is this: Vietnam is one of the most literary
cultures the world has ever known and writers have always been both respected
and feared.
Another option open to writers tired of such heat is to enter the kitchen.
At least that is what Nguyen Huy Thiep, the acknowledged genius among the
post-war writers, has done. He has quit publishing and opened two
restaurants. One, built on stilts, he says is tour-istic. The other, where I
met him, has superb food. Even better news that his good business sense is
the response he gave me when I extended his anthology, The General Retires
and Other Stories (Oxford, 1992), hoping for an autograph. He complied but
affirmed these were mere trifles, there was much else yet unpublished and
untranslated. Thiep is a great artist and a quiet man not given to boasting.
He shares with such great European masters as Kafka an incredible simple
surface under which great complexities seethe. That more of this awaits us
is cause for great optimism indeed.