Return to Vietnam

IT was the worst New Year's Eve of my life. Huddled in a muddy bunker near Cu Chi, I was exchanging small-arms fire with Viet Cong who were probing our defenses in preparation for the '68 Tet Offensive. I was scared and angry and Vietnam'd to the max, and all I wanted was to catch that Freedom Bird, fly back to the Land of the Big PX, and forget Indochina forever. But even though I made it back, it turned out that neither I nor America could forget the war. With the passage of time, its impact, instead of diminishing, increased. The harder I tried to forget Vietnam, the more it intruded upon my consciousness. I began examining, then speaking openly about, my military experience. I eventually published some poems and stories and a novel about Southeast Asia. And now I'm teaching a college course on the literature of the war to students not even born at the time I so gratefully fled Indochina.

AND thus, on Dec. 31, 1987, exactly 20 years after that awful evening on the Cu Chi perimeter, I found myself in a Hanoi disco, listening to a live band playing Beatles music, and watching a new generation of Vietnamese in Reeboks and designer jeans celebrating the arrival of the Year of the Dragon.

I had returned to Southeast Asia voluntarily; as a veteran trying to put old ghosts to rest, as a teacher searching for some personal and professional answers, as a father who desperately needed to know if the children of Vietnam were OK, as an American grown as interested in Vietnam's future as its past.

Traveling with a small group of scholars from the US-Indochina Reconciliation Project, I spent nearly a month exploring in detail a country I'd never seen before, meeting a population I'd never known. I traveled by plane, bus, car, boat, bicycle, and foot touring from Hanoi to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, to visit schools, factories, farms, offices, museums, libraries, marketplaces, theaters, and private homes.

Yes, the country has terrible troubles. A collapsed economy. An ineffective distribution system. A cumbersome and heavy-handed Marxist regime. A 20-year lag in technology. But I hadn't returned to Vietnam to catalog its well-known problems. I had enough bad memories from '67 and '68 to last a lifetime.

My aim was to meet people. For despite having spent an entire year in the war, I couldn't remember the name of a single Vietnamese I served with. This time I was determined to establish some real friendships if at all possible. And I did. The people whose eyes I'd never been able to look into before, those people were as curious about me as I was about them.

Initially, as I wandered the streets of Hanoi or the rural footpaths of nearby Yen Phu, I couldn't shake the feeling that there were booby traps cleverly concealed under the sidewalks, or sniperscopes trained on the back of my head. But those apprehensions soon faded. Folks, instead of hiding, watched me openly, nodded, and smiled. Wanted to shake hands. Small kids, instead of fleeing in fear, ran up to me laughing. Hi, they said. Who are you? Welcome to Vietnam. What do you think of our country? Come and meet the family. Have some tea. Do you play chess?

Everywhere people were busy. Building houses. Farming. Raising children. Starting little businesses. Going to school. The human energy was palpable. They're poor - desperately so by Western (or the newly affluent Asian) standards. Clothing is often worn and patched. Homes are small and crude, but the tiny yards have blooming flowers and neat gardens. Plumbing is antiquated or entirely absent, but the people are clean and well groomed.

In Hanoi, I spent the afternoon with the family of a young female university student, Long, who is studying English and Russian, in order to become an interpreter. I also met her fianc'e, Han, an architect who is designing apartments for the government. In Hue, Nguyen and I swapped stories, and he showed me how he built kites. On China Beach near Da Nang, fellow vet Tung leaned on his crutches, and we talked of the old days when he could still take a fishing boat out through the surf.

In Dalat, I celebrated a late Christmas in a small room above Dinh's welding shop. At the Saigon Zoo, Sua and I drank warm lemonade, and she talked about an American boyfriend who's never written to her. And at Cu Chi, I sat on the front porch with the Senh family, watching a warm January sun sink slowly over the rice paddies, the spot that used to be the 25th Infantry Division base camp where I was stationed 20 years ago.

THE legacy of the war was not always obviously visible, because for the most part, damaged buildings and bombed fields have been repaired. But missing limbs and napalm scars were readily apparent, and when I looked closer, I saw a lot of US military hardware being used for peaceful purposes: defused bombs made into flower pots; jet-plane wing tanks turned into bathtubs; aircraft aluminum transformed into roofs, boats, and even a merry-go-round.

But the fighting itself was never much a topic of conversation. Talk instead was of the future: weddings, children, schooling, family plans, possible reunions with far-flung relatives, and dreams. Eyes met. Hands were shaken and held. There were lots of hugs and laughs and eloquent silences. Gifts, photos, and addresses were exchanged. Promises of continued correspondence were made (and kept).

And too quickly the time came to leave. I was enjoying my second visit. Starting to feel comfortable. Just beginning to find some of the answers I'd been looking for. Once I never wanted to go back to Vietnam. Now, I'm sure I will return again. And soon.

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