Spring travel: Old war wounds give way to a new Vietnam

The multi-lane highway out of Hanoi into the north Vietnamese countryside narrows to two lanes before the pavement finally ends. In a cloud of dust, we arrive on the shore of Ha Long Bay. The bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin, looks like a mystic, flooded mountain range. Steep islands, thousands of them, jut up from the turquoise water. We board one of the scores of tourist junks that cruise among them.

That night, the junk drops anchor in a cove where our only neighbors are a fisherman’s family, living on a pair of houseboats lashed together and heaped with nets. On the junk’s open upper deck beneath the stars, I drift half-asleep beside my husband to the sounds of life aboard the nearby houseboats, echoing across the water.

FULL CONTENTS

FULL CONTENTS

The Washington Post Magazine: March 27, 2011

Read more from our Spring Travel Issue

Later, the crew members of our junk break out the karaoke machine in the dining cabin. They warble to syrupy Vietnamese pop tunes while we passengers clap along. One of us, a Spanish woman, selects a Gloria Gaynor girl-power anthem.

“Come, girls!” she commands.

The girls include an Irish schoolteacher, me and a shy Vietnamese vacationer from Da Nang, whom I pull, protesting, to her feet. But even she can’t resist belting out the disco chorus with us: “And I’ll survive! I will survive! Hey, hey!”

The next morning, as our junk motors out of the cove, I sit at the railing near the only other American on board. Scott’s a Midwestern paramedic, middle-age like me. We enthuse to one another about how deluxe the accommodations are in Vietnam, and how cheap.

“The reason why I chose to come to Vietnam,” Scott says, “was because of the exchange rate. I’ve spent $750 in 10 days, staying in nice hotels.”

“Yeah, and this boat trip,” I say. Two days, a plush little stateroom for two with its own bathroom, all meals, a guide — 100 bucks per person.

Scott and I go on for a while about the friendliness of the Vietnamese people, the general sense that their country is going places. Vietnam has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

I was born in 1962. I grew up with the Vietnam War. Back then, the northern half of the country was the enemy, Hanoi was the enemy capital where American POWs were tortured, and northern sights such as Ha Long Bay were off-limits. So even though I’m not the first American tourist to come here, I’ve been a little uneasy about making this trip. Neither my husband nor I have ever been to Vietnam before.

However, work has taken both of us to Afghanistan. He’s a Navy chaplain, landed in Afghanistan the first time with the Marines, just got back from his latest Afghan deployment with a NATO medical unit, MASH-style. I was in Afghanistan a couple of years ago as a reporter. So we’ve seen firsthand how decades of fighting pockmark a country with the wounds and wreckage of war, physical and emotional.

Enjoying a vacation in what used to be enemy territory may be a small, banal act, but somehow it’s restoring my faith in a larger truth: that war wounds can be healed. There on the junk with the Midwestern paramedic, I admit, “Vietnam gives me hope that maybe one day I might be able to vacation like this in Afghanistan.”

Scott grimaces.

“Why the face?” I ask.

He won’t be pinned down, but he’s clearly skeptical.

I press on. “I mean, Afghanistan was hippie heaven in the ’70s, perfectly safe for backpackers to wander around. Why can’t it be that way again?”

“Yeah but...” He’s still not convinced.

“Not an optimist on Afghanistan, huh?”

Scott shakes his head.

I have to be an optimist. My husband is one deck below us, taking pictures of the passing, dreamy bay. In Afghanistan, one of his collateral duties was taking pictures in the operating room for training and documentation: amputations, brain surgeries, exposed beating hearts. He spent his time over there in the bloody O.R. with NATO doctors, nurses and corpsmen, in the morgue with the soldiers who prepared the American dead to go home, at the bedside of dying Afghan soldiers. He listened to anyone who needed someone to talk to. He himself hasn’t talked about it much in the weeks since coming home. He’s still in the numb phase. The feelings will come later.

***

In Vietnam, all that pain seems a world away.

We fly south to the ancient town of Hoi An on the South China Sea. For centuries, Hoi An has been miraculously untouched by war. What we call the Vietnam War is called the American War here; from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 to the withdrawal of combat troops in 1973, it lasted nine long years. But before that, the Vietnamese fought the French for a century, and before that, the Chinese for a whole millennium. Yet Hoi An managed to duck it all.

Cars are banned from its narrow old streets. We walk the pungent market, try to guess at mysterious fruits and fishes, watch a woman buy a live chicken and carry it off in a basket. A man on crutches offers a single dog-eared newspaper for sale to each tourist he passes. We wander through shops selling rainbows of silk and lacquer.

A pretty young lacquer box seller says to me, “I wish I have white skin like yours.”

“What?” I exclaim. “My skin is wrinkled and freckled. Your skin is beautiful.” It’s unblemished and smooth and the color of milky tea.

“No, not beautiful.” She shakes her head. “Too brown.”

I think of some of the women I’ve seen here in Vietnam: bundled up against the sun in hats, face masks, jackets and gloves, awe-inspiring in the summer heat. “Well,” I say, “in America, you would be called beautiful.”

“No, my boyfriend tell me, my skin is ugly. My boyfriend is right.”

“Your boyfriend is crazy,” my husband says, and buys a couple of her lacquer boxes. I pick out a couple myself.

Browsing bolts of silk, I ask a shop clerk for help. She seems hot, tired and reserved. With her silent assistance, I show my selections to my husband, one by one. “Yes, no, yes, yes, no,” is all he says. He’s hot and tired, too.

“Can you give me any more feedback than that?” I ask. It’s for a decorating project we’ve been talking about.

“I’m having trouble picturing it,” he growls.

I tell him okay, go sit down and relax, that I’ll pick out enough for us to work with and we’ll figure it out when we get home and can lay it all out. After he’s gone, the clerk speaks for the first time, with perfect English and a smile she can’t quite restrain: “You handle him well.”

I laugh. I’m guessing she sees a lot of hot, cranky husbands in here.

Mine recovers and rejoins us as I’m paying, asks the clerk where she learned to speak English so well.

“In school,” she says, “and Voice of America.”

They laugh about propaganda, accents on the BBC and the heat. She follows us out, urges us to wear sunscreen and carry a sun umbrella before bidding us farewell.

At lunchtime, for a few extra dollars, I get to join the cooks in the hot, well-worn kitchen of the Green Moss for a cooking lesson: cao lau Hoi An, a local specialty of noodles, sprouts, spring onions, pork, sauces and mysterious powders, all fried up on a coal stove. I take copious notes, though I’m not optimistic that the Capitol Hill Safeway stocks the mysterious powders.

In the dining room, it’s cool and shady. We linger over our noodles and pork and beer. Since my husband came home from the war, this is the most relaxed I’ve seen him. We smile at each other as if this is all we will ever need: good food, good drink, a quiet breeze from a fan. When darkness falls, the narrow, ancient streets turn miraculous, lighted by the bejeweled glow of silken lanterns.

***

“Cu Chi was a fertile garden area,” says the narrator over bucolic old black-and-white scenes. Abruptly, the film cuts to exploding bombs. “Ruthless American bombs have decided to kill and destroy the countryside thousands of miles from the U.S.A.” The narrator’s accent is Australian, but English was apparently not the first language of the scriptwriter. The film cuts to what looks like a barren moonscape.

After flying south, we hired a driver to bring us about 40 miles northwest from Ho Chi Minh City into rows of young rubber trees and a short, new forest, arriving at the entrance to a park. We walked past tour buses and an official souvenir stand selling Pepsi, conical hats, and miniature tanks and rocket launchers made from recycled brass bullet casings. We bought our tickets, received an English-language brochure, and now we’re sitting in an open-sided, thatched-roof theater between a small European family and a large South Pacific one. Beneath our feet, the ground is honeycombed with about 124 miles of tunnels.

The communists used the tunnels for fighting and to hide people and supplies. The tunnels were supposed to be destroyed by all that bombing. They weren’t. The original forest was, though. The guide tells us in his thin, high voice that the forest was destroyed by napalm and Agent Orange. That explains the current forest’s short stature — it’s new.

The guide is as diminutive as the forest, young and bowed like a whippet. He wears sandals, a boonie hat, a green park ranger uniform and a name tag that reads “Nguyen.” We follow Mr. Nguyen through new trees to a small, rectangular hole in the ground. He lowers himself in as far as his chest. He raises a leaf-covered piece of wood about the size of a yearbook above his head. Then, silently, he sinks downward until the leaf-covered wood snugs into the leaf-covered ground. A chill slips over me, despite the heat. Gunfire from a shooting range cracks in the distance.

Next Mr. Nguyen leads us to a display of booby traps that bristle with six-inch spikes. He leads us with stoic intensity. “The purpose of the traps,” he tells us, “was not to kill. Just to injure. Then the other soldiers had to stop and help. That made them a target. Easy to shoot them from behind.”

Using a long stick, he demonstrates how the spiked traps spin, swing, clamp like jaws, “and my favorite,” he says, pointing to a framework of spikes shaped like a fish trap. Once your foot went in, you couldn’t pull it out without ripping your leg apart. But it was portable — when your buddies carried you away, it went with you. “A souvenir trap,” he says without smiling.

He leads us to the carcass of an American tank and mannequins of Vietnamese fighters armed to the teeth. The gunfire is closer now. He stands back while the rest of our tour group grins for photo ops. They ham it up, posing on the tank, throwing an arm around the mannequins.

“This bothers me,” my husband murmurs.

I’m feeling a little uncomfortable myself. Later, in a quiet moment, I ask Mr. Nguyen, “Does it bother you when people joke around here?”

He’s confused. “What do you mean?”

“Like back at the tank, when people were taking pictures. To me, this all seems very serious, and the joking bothers me. I wonder if it bothers you.”

“Different tourists.” He shrugs diplomatically. “Different joking style.”

He leads us on through the forest, and I fall into step beside him. “How long have you been working here?”

“Seven years,” he says.

“Are you from here? From Cu Chi?”

“Yes.” He anticipates my next question. “But my father fought in the Liberation Army. Not here.”

We arrive at the shooting range that is the source of the gunfire. For a small fee, you can blast away with an AK-47.

Mr. Nguyen leads us down into an actual tunnel. For a few minutes, we wait while the European father, a big man, decides whether to risk getting stuck. My husband is up at the front of the line by Mr. Nguyen. They’re talking about how hot it is here compared with how cold it is in a place like, say, Canada.

“In the winter,” my husband is saying, “the ice on the lakes gets so thick you can drive on it.” Then he mimics the sound of ice cracking, his fingers wiggling.

A sudden grin splits the guide’s face. It’s a surprisingly sunny grin.

The European father decides not to risk it. The rest of us squeeze through while duck walking, a slow and arduous trip. Only Mr. Nguyen breezes through, though my husband manages to keep up with some huffing and puffing. When I emerge out the other end, my thighs are burning. I’m huffing and puffing, too. So are all the others.

“Whew!” I gasp. “You’d have to be in really good shape to do that for long!” For some reason, Mr. Nguyen finds this as amusing as my husband’s imitation of cracking ice. We walk on, the dark tunnel behind us, the green of new growth all around.

***

Hanoi, in the north, is still crowded with the charming architecture of Vietnam’s French colonial past: scruffy rows of beanpole buildings one room wide and three or more stories high, richly textured with arches, pediments, balustrades, wrought iron and wall-size French doors that yawn open to catch the humid breeze. Hanoi has the face of an aging Old World comtesse whose wealth ran out long ago, yet she brims with the hustle of an optimistic teenager.

To the south, Ho Chi Minh City is that teenager all grown up.

After touring the tunnels, we’re back in Ho Chi Minh City, a.k.a. Saigon. This city is Vietnam’s economic heart, and its rhythm is thoroughly capitalist. We walk for miles, past rising skyscrapers and a curbside motorcycle repairman, through clouds of aromatic stir-fry from a vendor’s cart, past the narrow noodle shop where Viet Cong plotted the Tet Offensive. It’s still serving noodles today. We stop a lot while my husband peers through his camera’s viewfinder. We don’t talk much. After so many months apart during his deployments, there’s more to say than either of us has words for. Vietnam gives us the luxury to just walk side by side, to just be.

A summer storm washes over the city. We duck into a tailor shop; it seems like a good time to order some clothes. Outside the rain crashes down.

The season’s first storm hit while we were still up north in Hanoi. On that morning, as a waterfall of rain pounded the windshield, we made our way to a small compound on the outskirts of Hanoi called Friendship Village. The wounds of war are still raw in Friendship Village — about 150 Vietnamese people live there, most of them children, all of them suffering from the effects of Agent Orange.

For nine years, starting the year I was born, the American military sprayed South Vietnam with more than 20 million gallons of herbicides, mostly Agent Orange. Agent Orange contains dioxin, one of the most toxic pollutants in the world. The goal was to strip away the jungle that communist fighters were using as cover. A series of American military memos concluded that Agent Orange wasn’t having much military effect.

It had an effect, though, on the people exposed to it, Vietnamese and American alike, who suffered from skin rashes, cancers and more. Other effects were passed on to some of their children, who were born with birth defects. Agent Orange continues to affect Vietnamese living in a dozen or so toxic hot spots identified by recent studies, such as the old American air base at Da Nang. There, the U.S. government is just now beginning work to remediate the contamination, even though Veterans Affairs has long recognized Agent Orange’s effects on American veterans and their children.

In Vietnam, Friendship Village is one of the few places where Agent Orange sufferers can access rehabilitation, education and vocational training. It was created by American, Vietnamese and French combat veterans, former enemies healing each other. A visit to Friendship Village felt like the right thing to do, a guilty American obligation. And we’d been told that, with a little advance arrangement, visitors were welcome to join in the daily life there, just as we were welcome to join the exercisers who rise at dawn to circle Hoan Kiem Lake in old Hanoi. But sitting beside my husband as we drove through the gate, I worried that a facility full of the collateral damage of an old war might not be the most uplifting place for a man who had recently been up to his neck in the damage of a new one.

Sure enough, one of the first volunteers we met told us about children who’d been brought here with “box syndrome” — arms and legs they couldn’t extend because they’d been born with so many disabilities that their families, not knowing what else to do, had kept them in a box. Another volunteer’s handwritten notes described whole families afflicted with disabilities.

It should have been a depressing place. And yet, in a sewing studio, as a young woman with stumps instead of hands deftly laid out fabric and marked it with a pattern, her quiet satisfaction was infectious. She’d learned how to do that here, and with skills like that, she could live her own life.

In the clinic, Vietnamese army doctors and nurses were running a one-day checkup. One of the doctors was making a ticklish child with twisted limbs laugh. Children come here for a year or more. Vietnamese veterans of the war come here for treatment, too, a few months at a time. A wiry vet with a lined face smiled at us as he shuffled past clutching his medical paperwork.

In a colorful classroom, the children were excited about my husband’s camera. A volunteer from Switzerland helped a smiling, birdlike girl named Lien form her fingers into that universal “V” that signifies both victory and peace as the camera clicked. Outside, the rain slowed to a drizzle.

Friendship Village is always in need of donations of money and time. The Swiss volunteer was here for the summer. An American family from Chicago was here for a week, the teenage daughter working with Lien in the classroom, the son outside with a group of Vietnamese children who laughed as they swept up debris from the storm and flung water at each other.

The streets, which seemed to have been constructed without storm drains, had flooded spectacularly. We were wading to our SUV when the bus carrying the Vietnamese army doctors and nurses pulled out. They waved from the windows. We waved back. “I want to come back here,” my husband said. “For more than a morning.”

Our driver navigated his SUV in the bus’s wake. Traffic slowed to a crawl. Before the rain, massive swarms of motorcycles — called cyclos — had coursed around our vehicle like graceful schools of small, glittery fish. Now, the cyclo drivers were pushing their bikes through knee-high water alongside our creeping SUV. Our driver kept apologizing, but we just kept saying, “Wow!” and leaning out with our cameras. It was like witnessing a biblical event, a divine promise of hope: the cyclo drivers, swathed in colorful plastic ponchos, jammed the street from one end to the other like an earth-bound rainbow.

Kristin Henderson is a contributor to The Washington Post Magazine. She last wrote about USAID in Afghanistan. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

 
Read what others are saying