Letter From Vietnam
Recently, with considerable misgiving, I returned to Vietnam for the first time since 1972, when I was there to make a documentary film about the war. My memories were unpromising. I had been scared and homesick, hated being around war, and was so focused on the documentary that I edited out everything that wasn't something I wanted to film. A war film by definition is concerned with mankind's most toxic activity.
Frightened every day, I didn't notice whether the country was beautiful or the people hospitable. It never occurred to me to go back. Gloria Emerson, who won a National Book Award for her recollections of the war, told me why she couldn't return. "I'd see dead soldiers at night in my hotel," she said. "I couldn't rise above the level of memory." I was coaxed into a different frame of mind by my fiancée, Alicia Anstead, an arts writer fascinated by the connection, in peace and war, between the United States and Vietnam.
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The future contends with the past: It is still the Vietnam that seduced Graham Greene, our posthumous host on this journey, a half-century ago. To go there today is to see a country build itself before your eyes. On every hand you'll find bounties of nature and humanity--art, music, mountains, waterways, food as enticing as jewels, the glorious lake-studded collection of villages known as Hanoi, the modern reconstructed sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. Most of all, you'll find the Vietnamese. They like us. Against all powers of reason and history, they really do like Americans. Why? Well, they won. They don't have to resent us as conquerors but can appreciate individual acts of kindness that go back all the way to the war itself.
In recent years our NGOs--such as the American Friends Service Committee and the US-Vietnam Trade Council, to name two very different organizations--have made an exemplary record helping heal wounds as well as bringing in commercially minded Americans who have, so far, been given more to enterprising investment that provides employment than to rapacity that depletes natural resources. From the numerous expats I met, I gather there is an element of atonement present, even if this is being undertaken by those US citizens who have considerably less to atone for than some others we could all name. They are the right ambassadors for the more positive aspects of our country. There is also the real ambassador, Raymond Burghardt, who, despite a background that includes working for Oliver North, has impressed the Vietnamese as a friendly, pragmatic, culturally interested diplomat.
Western influences blend more easily with indigenous customs and practices than in most parts of Asia. Our hotel's night manager spent four years in the former Czechoslovakia and speaks Russian. What he hopes for Vietnam, however, is that it becomes what he calls "a business nation." This sounded a theme we heard many times not only in Hanoi but throughout the country. The family of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who masterminded the wars against both the French and the Americans, includes an executive who controls one of Vietnam's Internet services and proudly describes himself on his business card as "Venture Capitalist." The disagreements in Vietnam are not over socialism versus capitalism or a directed versus a market economy. The disagreements are only over how fast and in what way to do the most business with the most countries and get the United States into Vietnamese economic life as fully as possible.
We made contact in Hanoi with a paradoxically socialist entrepreneur named Gerald Herman. He has been an expatriate for a generation and in Vietnam ten years, running and promoting a variety of small and medium-sized businesses. Herman's impulses--and he is a man of impulse--are economically and politically progressive. He deals frequently with the Vietnamese government, both marveling at and dismayed by its embrace of capitalistic behavior. "The country still calls itself socialist," he said, "but when I go to see government officials I'm talking Ho Chi Minh and they're talking Milton Friedman."
Herman introduced me to an artist named Tran Luong who is well known in Hanoi and was about to leave for New York, where he was to attend an exhibit of Vietnamese art at the Museum of Natural History. Luong is an eagle-eyed man just old enough to have been sent as a child to relatives in the countryside in order to escape American bombing. "I wasn't taught to hate Americans," he said. "I was only taught to hide. Even as kids running from bombs, sent away from our parents, my friends and I knew about the US peace movement. We knew there were Americans we could like. We felt you had bad leaders." According to Luong, the peace movement did give aid and comfort to the Vietnamese, just as its opponents charged, and did help sustain them under our bombardment. Two weeks later, after the invasion of Iraq began, I again heard from Vietnamese the excuse that Americans were good people who happened to have bad leaders. I wondered how long we can get away with that one.