Why don’t you hate us? How don’t you hate us?
I never could ask.
Mr Chien was eating chicken off the bone and telling me about My Son: the deep jungle; the tigers that had been there a millennia ago; the construction without mortar. It was a mystery, he told me, a wonder of the world. A thousand years old.
“The VC hid there during the war,” he said. He gestured to the flat plain around us, “all here was a big American base. So the VC go to My Son. They thought no one would bomb a temple.”
I picked up some morning glory and dunked it into the hot pot, watching it wilt in the broth. “Did it protect them?” I asked.
Mr Chien got the last bit of meat on a bone, and threw it to the ground, where a dog was eating our remains. “Oh no,” he said, wiping his fingers, “you bombed it.”
Why don’t you hate us?
But I didn’t have the guts to ask.
Leaving the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh I was shaken. Inside were photographs of the American War, gallery after gallery of tired soldiers, broken bodies, napalmed villages. One room showed only the victims of Agent Orange, generations on – babies with giant foreheads, children with one large finger, women with no hands.
At the entrance to the Requiem Gallery, a collection of photos from American, Japanese, British and Vietnamese – both Nationalist and VC – photojournalists there was a giant plaque on the wall. On it was written, both in Vietnamese and English, the following: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Next to it was a shot of a village, burned to the ground, a woman weeping in the foreground.
I know propaganda when I see it. I know that when the State of Kentucky donated the Requiem photos to Vietnam they probably didn’t mean them to be housed in a gallery named Crimes of Aggression in the American War. I know what happened to American soldiers in the Hanoi Hilton, and why John McCain can’t raise his arms. For that matter, I know that no matter what the museum says, there were men and women – men like Mr Chien – who fought for the South not by force but by choice. It was more complicated than the room entitled “Historical Facts” made clear.
But across from the Declaration of Independence was a six foot segment of cement sewer, theoretically the very segment from which Bob Kerrey and his men dragged screaming, unarmed women in Thanh Phong and killed them. Maybe it was that sewer. Maybe it wasn’t. But whether this was one, there were sewers, there were soldiers, there were shots in the night and there were villages burned.
Outside the museum the sun was punishingly hot. I felt dizzy, and a little sick. The man who sold me water had no hands, his arms ended just after the elbow. He asked where I was from and I told him. He reached out one arm for me to shake, and I took his elbow in my hand. “Welcome to Vietnam,” he said.
Why don’t you hate us?
I didn’t ask.
The war isn’t everywhere in Vietnam. The history professors, told a story before we docked. His daughter had lived in Vietnam in the late 90s. When she got home, she would hear his friends tell her about the country they knew from their service, and she would lose patience with them. “You don’t know Vietnam,” she said, “you know a war.”
Vietnam has been conquered again and again, and they have gained independence again and again. They were possessed by the Chinese long before the French. They have had colonial overlords and imperialist partners. But Vietnam has remained.
For most of the time, I forgot about the war entirely. In Hanoi, after a day of visiting temples and drinking thick, sweet coffee on rooftops, I realized that I had left it too late to visit the Hanoi Hilton before I got on the overnight train. I had a beer instead, watched the sunset and caught the 10pm Reunification Express headed South.
In Hoi An, a magical little city of yellow walls and glowing lanterns and rooftop cafes overlooking a river, I took a cooking class. We bought vegetables and beef and shrimp at a market and climbed into a boat. For forty-five minutes we puttered through lush coconut groves, past fishing boats and families eating lunch by the river. At an outdoor kitchen with a cool breeze blowing past we made spring rolls and pancakes and spicy, fragrant pho.
In the afternoon, my belly full, I wandered the streets, visiting temples and communal houses and buying trinkets. The streets were covered in banners for Tet, the New Year (a side note: since most of our decorations are made in SE Asia anyway, they are used locally for New Years celebrations, leading to hundreds of signs, hung over kumquat trees covered in red good luck banners, that say “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” with pictures of santa and tinsel trim in mid-February). Towards dusk the day cooled and a warm breeze picked up, catching scarves and robes twisting them in the wind. Thousands of lanterns lit up, strings of them were swinging gently over the roads, glowing yellow and red and blue. Blissfully calm, I ducked into a trinket shop to look at marble and inlaid wooden plates. Towards the back was a table with toy planes and cars. I looked closer – they were all made of bullet shells.
Why, God, why don’t you hate us?
I never found out. I have no answer. I certainly never had the guts to ask.
I live in the South (well, the sort of South) and if I drive an hour or so out from my pinko commie town, I’ll see Confederate flags and banners telling me the South With Rise Again. They are signs of a Civil War, a hundred and fifty years old – and still not forgiven.
But Mr Chien spoke no ill of the VC. He fought for Saigon, but bowed his head in respect at VC graves, and spoke admiringly of their tenacity, digging tunnels under American bases. When he told me a shovel was used for digging fox holes, or that the machine for grinding rice was made of melted down munitions, it was with a detached air, knowing that these facts might be if particular interest to a visiting American. He’s guided vets for years, putting them in touch with schools that might need help, “When they go back to America,” he told me, “they go crazy. They want to do something good for Vietnam.”
The vets on the ship held a seminar a few nights before landing. They talked about their experiences in Vietnam, their memories, their losses and disappointments and wounds. As we travelled up the Saigon river, one of them told me he woke up at five to see a landscape he hadn’t returned to for almost fifty years, since his navy ship pulled away. He spent the morning on the top deck watching the MV Explorer motor deeper and deeper into Vietnam. “I was saying sorry,” he told me.
Myself? I’ve got nothing. Of course I don’t. I’m twenty-nine, dumb and I was there five days. I spent at least two of those days dedicated solely with determined tenacity to the task of comparative noodle tasting and critical cross-broth analysis, plus a heroic attempt to see how much iced coffee I could consume without having a breakdown.
All I do know is this: there were bombs and shots and grenades and land mines and chemicals rained from the sky. There are men from Hanoi without arms and men from Des Moines without legs. There was a war. And somehow, against all odds, they don’t hate us.