Trip to Vietnam--Part 2
Mon, 22 Jan 1996 10:48:48 -0500

So, with the extensive building, and the budding tourism market, and this
freer breathing, Vietnam is after a long gray period a place of sunshine and
optimism. It should be a period for American optimism too. It sounds
horribly chauvinistic, but it's a fact that hits you in the face every day in
country: despite our late start in entering the market, if you can put "Made
in America" on the label, you're almost automatically the market leader. Go
for it, the opportunities are incredible. The opportunities for adventure
too are incredible. Next year we hope to do the Mekong Delta, Dien Bien Phu,
and (in Thailand) the River Kwai, hence to see the setting of three wars'
end. Hope to see you there.

The Long Journey to My Lai
The original plan for Sunday January 7 was to take the bus drive from hell:
we were to drive 14 hours from Pleiku in the central highlands over to the
coast and up to Hue in cen-tral Vietnam, just south of the former DMZ. The
bus was big and comfortable and the scen-ery beautiful but driving is hard in
Vietnam and no one looked forward to the trek. To make things worse, I
suggested that, since I had directed a conference on the My Lai incident, the
group should consider a stop there. Despite the subject's darkness everyone
was fairly enthu-siastic, especially considering that I was suggesting that
on the bus drive from hell we should take a two hour detour to, well,
hell-on-earth. To make matters worse, we had to rise at 5 rather than 7AM.

We made good time and as we approached I took the bus microphone and shared
my knowledge of My Lai, how I came to know it intimately through Ron
Ridenhour's visits to my class, how much the issue of atrocity and guilt
courses through the literature of the war, what had happened at the Tulane
conference, and how trauma victims (atrocity purveyors as well as survivors)
can hope to deal with their traumatic burden.

We expected to make Quang Ngai province by 3:00 but were in the town of Quang
Ngai, just miles from the My Lai site, by lunch time. We were ushered,
honored touristic guests, into an upstairs private dining room complete with
air conditioner not quite up to the task of the coastal heat and a VCR/TV set
up equipped to entertain us with Western rock and roll, and equally loud,
sexy posters selling Tiger beer. It took us twenty minutes to get the sound
lowered enough so that we could hear one another ask for the ngoc mam. In
the midst of this garishness, facing me was a painting in dark slate blues
and grays that had to be a My Lai version of Guernica (indeed it was a knock
off of a mural at the site).

Pinkville was our misnomer for My Lai on that dark day, March 16, 1968. My
Lai is our misnomer today for Son My village. My Lai 4 is one of several
hamlets that were at-tacked that day, including My Khe, just 4 kilometers
away. Over fifty men, women and chil-dren died at My Khe. Five hundred and
four died at My Lai 4. As our Vietnamese guide, Duong Vaxn Cong, pointed out
to us on the drive in, "My Lai" means beautiful place. Go fig-ure. The gods
were laughing again.

I won't rehearse here the story of My Lai nor try to recount my feelings in
going there for the first time after experiencing the intensity of the
conference just 13 months be-fore, nor my feelings as an American in standing
before the ditch where Calley worked the tragedy that touched us all.

What I can try to express though is my sense of being humbled by our knowing
guide, Cong. For as much knowledge and feeling as I brought with me that day
to My Lai, it was Cong who knew what the proper behavior should be. I had
prepared the minds and hearts of my compatriots in the best way I could and
maybe it was because my mind was set on that that I gave so little thought to
what one does in visiting a scene of tragedy. It was Cong, rather, who knew
to bring flowers to place and incense to light at the base of the monument;
and it was Cong who knew to bring fruit to bestow on the Buddhist altar.

These knowing gestures profoundly moved me. His knowledge and my ignorance
seem to me fundamental to our cultures. Of course there are exceptions, but
it seems to me that in terms of outward forms and codes of conduct,
Westerners are fundamentally maleleve. We just don't know how things are
done, hardly believe there is a right way to do things. We go about
inventing right ways as we go along. Cong's culture by contrast begins - in
its Confucian underpinings - with the assumption that there is a right way
and a wrong way for everything. To do the former is to be harmony with the
universe, to do the latter is to fall out of harmony. To be out of harmony
with the universe is to lose the mandate of heaven. The superior man, having
the mandate of heaven, will by the nature of things do what is proper.

This after all is the culture where the following could take place. Two
districts long ago were in conflict and sent for Confucius' aid in resolving
it. Confucius made a visit and sat down at the negotiation table, facing to
the south as was proper. He said nothing. Soon the opponents realized his
tacit message: do the proper thing and all will come right. They did; it
did. Upon such incredible faith in correct behavior (and upon such tacit
understandings) the East is built. In the West we fought for two years over
the proper shape of the negotiation table.

Meanwhile we in the West believe with Blake that to follow any man's system
is to be a slave to it. How can we reconcile our faith in the individual and
our existential commit-ment to create our truths as we go, day by day, with
our deep and urgent need for some firm understanding of how the world works
and for a community shaped in conformity with that undertanding?
Cynically, Ward Just once wrote that the lessons of the war would "be
whatever makes us think well of ourselves." That has often been the case
when we have taken our cues from Hollywood or from Cold Warriors, both bent
on refighting and winning a war already lost. Rather we should finally know
better that our centuries-long wish to be "a city on a hill" is instinct not
only with high-mindedness but also and at the same time with a dangerous
smallness of mind. The candle of democracy which we hold out to the world
must never, just as John Winthop insisted, be hid under a basket; but we
must allow those who see by its light to see the world and to imagine
democracy in their own way, according to their own cultural heritage. That a
country shaped by 2000 years of Confucianism and 1000 years of colonial
struggle must envision freedom in just our manner is sheer folly, as Barbara
Tuchman pointed out in The March of Folly:
Americans were always talking about freedom from Communism, whereas the
freedom that the mass of Vietnamese wanted was freedom from the exploiters,
both French and indigenous. The assumption that humanity at large shared the
democratic Western idea of freedom was an American delu-sion. "The freedom
we cherish and defend in Europe," stated President Eis-enhower on taking
office, "is no different from the freedom that is imperiled in Asia." He was
mistaken. Humanity may have common ground, but needs and aspirations vary
according to circumstances. (256)
Tuchman's wisdom comes from acknowledging the limits and the assumptions that
shape our vision. Our folly came from ignoring them.

The Literary Tour (A Sidebar)
The trip of a lifetime. A total blast with some wonderful folk in the tour
group. Clark and Arlene Neher, the leaders, are first rate, generous people
and fine scholars, experts in Southeast Asia. Steve Johnson the Director of
External Programming at Northern Illinois University who sponsored the
journey is an old hand both at trips such as this, and at Viet-nam and the
Vietnamese-he was married to one and has two adopted Amerasian kids. Ray, a
postal worker from LA is also married to a Vietnamese and strongly fluent in
the language. Steve and Ray know one another from their days in Saigon in
the military before '73 and as civilian after '73. Mark Kuester, a
contractor from Chicago is a Vietnam-era Vet who did not serve in-country but
whose friendships with Marines who did has given him a lifelong ob-session
with the war that has turned him into a self-taught expert. Truong Vo, is a
young, dashing Viet-Kieu (immigrant), a recent business major intrigued with
the business possibili-ties in the new Vietnam. Along with a number of
adventurous academics in mid-career and retirees who turned out to be real
troupers, these make up the group: a lean, mean, inquisitive machine.

Best of all Wayne Karlin's friend Truong Vu got me totally plugged into the
intellec-tual scene in Hanoi. Karlin, Truong Vu and Le Minh Khue together
edited the recent anthol-ogy of post-war fiction from Vietnam Veterans,
representing respectively writers from the American veteran community, the
immigrant ARVN community in America and France, and the NVA and VC who
remained in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon (The Other Side of Heaven,
Curbstone Press, 1995). An important book from all the players in the

Through Truong Vu, I met Dr. Hoang Ngoc Hie'n, a delightful old coot who
founded the Nguyen Du school of creative writing in 1979 that brought now
famous writers Duong Thu Huong and Bao Ninh up through its ranks. We
wandered the streets of old Hanoi speaking French. Once he asked me if New
Orleans (where I'm from and which shares with Hanoi a French old quarter, a
system of levees or dykes that save the city from annual floods, a hot wet
climate, and a long tradition in the arts) also had streets like this where
you walked in the street. I replied with a laugh that "yes, we did but only
one, where they have les dan-seuses." He said, "Les strip-teasers, il faut
que j'y aille." (stripteasers! I got to come). What a blast. That night
he took me to dinner with Houng, a women who was imprisoned for exporting
state secrets when she sent her novels out of country to be published, and
who is lovely and intense and poetic (and not a bad looker). Dan Duffy,
editor of Vietnam Forum for Yale, was there with his all too lovely and all
too young Vietnamese amante.

What is pretty clear is that the US Army and William Calley were out of
harmony with the universe that day. That day surely, March 16, 1968, and I
believe furthermore throughout the long decade of the war, we lost the
mandate of heaven.
How to regain it? Perhaps we need to start with where we are, which is to
say hum-bled. Humbled, not humiliated, a distinction Cong would understand
more easily perhaps than my readers. To be humiliated is to be shown
inadequate because of one's limitations; to be humbled is to understand one's
limitations. Accepting our limitations paradoxically can en-noble us. I know
better now that it is my instinct to approach experience though the mind and
heart when I might also look toward outward forms to know the proper
behavior. America too has been humbled. Her lesson?

The next day I met with Wayne's other buddies, Ho Anh Thai and Le Minh Khue
who took me to lunch at Vu Bao's, another old coot who wrote a novel in '57
attacking land reform, (a very brave thing to do as Marilyn Young pointed out
later). Very sweet man, and his wife laid on quite a spread. It was fun
after 2 weeks of vacation and relaxation to watch Thai and Khue's surprised
looks when they realized I had a sense of humor-for when they came here to
Tulane on their book tour for a reading I was a mess, in the thrall of a
number of proposals to write, plus I was worried the ARVN would come to the
reading, and they did, and they were loaded for bear. Now, Thai and Khue
seemed so surprised that this earnest young(?) man didn't take himself
entirely seriously and kept referring to himself, patting his stomach, as the
happy Buddha. My best bon mot that day was an elaborate compliment I paid my
host after she served Snail and Green Banana Soup as a last course. I said I
was so taken with her soup that I would return to America to make a film
called the Scent of Green Banana Soup. Unfortunately this meant she kept
spooning me more snails which were overcooked and of course the happy Buddha
had to be a good guest and become happier.

Meanwhile there was much intrigue going on because our official tour guide
for the NIU group was uncomfortable with the meeting I had set up with Thai,
Khue and the Hanoi Writer's Association. He announced the morning it was to
happen that he would probably go to jail if we attended. The Neher's felt we
had to respect his fears, however irrational. After all he did spend some
time in a reeducation camp after '75. We agreed he would put in a call to
Thai and ask if the meeting had official sanction. All this by the way in
the midst of touring Ho's exquisite house etc. Finally he comes back with a
big "no." I'm devastated: now I must either call off the meeting and lose
face or show up alone and lose face. What to do? I trudged off to find a
cyclo/pedicab to take me to my lunch with Huong and Le Dat (you still with me

So we're cycling through Hanoi and who do I see walking down the sidewalk?
The an-swer is so good I think I'll make you wait till the next paragraph.
Who's on the street, you asked? Marilyn Young, chair of NYU's History
Depart-ment, who's in town setting up a summer institute on gender studies.
I leap from my cyclo and virtually beg her once again to save my ass, for
the second time in 13 months (the first was at the My Lai conference when she
stood toe to toe with Col. Harry Summers, (USA re-tired), Cold Warrior
extraordinaire, editor of Vietnam magazine, and author of On Strategy: A
Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War). Two is a weak show but when one is
Marilyn Young, two will do. So we agree to meet later.

So we say good-bye and I look up and there is Houng and I get to introduce
them, which makes Marilyn's day. Marilyn and she have Nina McPherson, one of
Bao Ninh's translators, in common and Houng announces Nina is like a sister
to her. Then I get intro-duced to Le Dat, a wholly impish little poet who's
sitting in this makeshift cafe that's just an alleyway with some canvas
overhead and some rickety rattan chairs I'm afraid the happy Buddha will make
unhappy real quick. It's filled with intellectual types with French berets
and books. I feel like I'm as close as I'll ever be to Paris in the '20s or
'50s and this could be Gide or Sartre. I'm not actually sure who this is but
Dr. Hien told me he's real important, so I'm curious. Almost immediately he
asks me if I read Emily Dickinson. So I get to tell him the story about
visiting her house after the Vietnam Generation conference last October and
picking up leaves from her lawn. And I share my favorite quote from
Dickinson, an Ar-noldian touchstone with punch: "I know it's a good poem if
it takes the top of my head off" (easier said than translated, but I'm
beginning to feel this day is such a poem). Then Houng takes us to a truly
great French restaurant (123) and we have a great time. Le Dat's best bon
mot was this. In reply to my inquiry about how the Vietnamese could be so
generous to us Americans he says: "Les americains sont de grands enfants,
mais les francais sont de petits vielliards." This from a man who attacked
Ho in his poetry in the '50s and was pretty much made a leper (the last he
told me, the first I got from Jamieson's Understanding Vietnam back in the
hotel afterwards). I felt like I had just dined with a Vietnamese Blake.
But what I haven't conveyed is his endless impish sense of humor and good
sense (just like Blake). I told him at one point that if the government knew
he was having such a good time they'd throw him in jail. Living well is the
best revenge. But his attitude on the present temper is that "on respire
mieux" (we are breathing easier) and that he has a great deal of optimism for
the future. I heard both everywhere I went in these circles.
So as if this isn't enough intellectual excitement for one day, my last in
Hanoi, it's now time to meet Marilyn and find our way to the Hanoi Writer's
Association, and try to cover my loss of face. I had called Thai and
explained, offered to cancel and offered to bring Marilyn in their stead. He
choose the second (also explaining that our tour guide had said the thing
that was not: in fact the meeting was officially sanctioned-big surprise,
right?-commie liars in a commie country!). Marilyn and I set off to the
meeting in pedicabs, look-ing like two colonial overlords, and tickled at the
host of ironies that surround us.

So we go to this big room with a big oval table and the president of the HWA
gives a formal speech about reconciliation and about their interest in
American lit. Now it's my turn. Pardon me for giving you my speech verbatim
(I wish I could include the ever widening grin that appeared on Marilyn's

I am grateful for your warm reception here at the HWA. I have had a
mar-velous experience in my visit to Vietnam. In fact I had a marvelous
experi-ence yesterday at the home of your honored member, Vu Bao, where I
espe-cially enjoyed watching the surprised looks from Khue and Thai when they
realized this over-serious professor of Literature whom they had met in the
United States actually had a sense of humor and could make the Vietnamese
laugh. It is in that spirit that I must relate to you the very difficult
morning that I have had, which I'm sure you have heard something about. For
you see, when I told my group that we were going to meet with Ho Anh Thai,
these crazy American's thought I meant Bac Ho (Uncle Ho Chi Minh), and they
all went off to the mausoleum. (This gets a big laugh). But, I added, the
last laugh is on them, because I hear the mausoleum is closed today. (It

I then went into an elaborate and formal gift giving (I presented Jamieson's
Understanding Vietnam which I had inscribed "Better late than never") and a
very fine bottle of Cognac. I told them that America blundered into war here
because we didn't understand Vietnam and because, worse, of our arrogance in
believing we didn't need to. I told them that bringing a book with such a
title to Vietnam was rather like "coals to Newcastle" and offered that
per-haps that should be translated "rice to Vietnam" but at least I wanted
them to know the ef-fort was finally being made on our side. (Thai replied
that there phrase was "wood to the forest.") But Madame Hoang Ngoc Ha's
reply gave us all frissons: she said, that she heard me refer to coal and
she remembered that after much time diamonds came from coal, and I was once
again impressed my the incredible depth and sophistication of this culture.

So again, as if this wasn't enough, finally at the end of the day I met the
genius of the post war era, Nguyen Huy Thiep. That was an incredible thrill.
We sat in his restaurant where his manager made sure we ordered something.
The scotch I ordered came out as a full pint of Johnnie Walker Black rather
than a glassful, which I know seems to be a licensing phenomenon over there,
but in any case it was money well spent. Thiep is a humble and quiet guy. He
brushed off my crude attempts to pay him homage until he said "I'm just a
simple man who puts simple words together." I replied that so was Kafka but
there was much com-plexity underneath (I've always made this connection
between them and since he has a story with a character named K., I've
wondered if the connection wasn't self-conscious.) I didn't ask, but he did
seem pleased by the riposte. What really warmed him to me was my Bac Ho and
the crazy Americans story which I used here to explain why I hadn't turned up
with the crowd I had led him and his manager to expect. Humor goes a long
way in Vietnam. Would we had found ours sooner.

Here conversation was through his restaurant manager, a Viet Kieu (emigre)
from Sai-gon recently repatriated from Australia (in itself an interesting
mix). Anyway, we talked of this and that and he impressed me with his
simplicity and his profundity of feeling and thought, just like his stories.
I shared with him that I read "Salt of the Jungle" as a story not just about
a man but a story about the war. He agreed. I told him if so, then the
gesture at the end of letting Dieu experience this good fortune of seeing the
salt of the jungle - that this gesture is a very generous one toward the
Americans who ventured into your jungle and treated you like sub-humans (just
as Dieu does the monkeys). He replied yes, but generous too toward the
Vietnamese, a remark that threw me then, but which I think I'm getting to the
bottom of. (Dieu's name, by the way, I learned from Dr. Hien suggests "common
sense"-something the character is much in need of). By the way, too, the
food was excellent, second only to the restaurant ("123") Houng chose for us
at lunch. It's called Hung Thinh Restau-rant (formerly Ung Tien) - 1 Lang Ha
Street 563-104.

My only disappointment amidst all this is that I had a meeting set too with
Bao Ninh but he didn't show.