Letter From Vietnam

Letter From Vietnam

If Americans have done their best to forget the war, so have the Vietnamese.


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.

* * *

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.

The American expat community in Hanoi, a floating population of several hundred, includes artists, writers, businesspeople, war veterans, anthropologists, retirees and healthcare providers. A lanky, sandy-haired Georgian named Chuck Searcy runs a project to defuse landmines, bombs and mortars, mostly in the old DMZ and in Quang Tri province. “A lot still remains to be cleared out,” he said. “We dropped the daisy cutters and carpet-bombed from the China Sea to the Laotian border, essentially cutting the country in two with a swath of destruction. It’s still not safe to go to a lot of places along that line.” In 1967-68 he served in Vietnam in military intelligence (not an oxymoron in Searcy’s case), and he has most recently worked as Vietnam representative for a company called Asian Landmine Solutions. Only Vietnamese are permitted to do the actual defusing, but Searcy’s group is involved in finding the ordnance and cleaning up afterward.

One of the most prominent Americans in Vietnam is Lady Borton, the country representative for the American Friends Service Committee as well as an author. Originally from Ohio, she has lived in Vietnam most of the time since 1969. She rides around Hanoi on a bicycle, her graying hair flying, like the traffic itself, in all directions at once. She has investigated the long-term consequences of Agent Orange and landmines, and her current project is in rural development. “What really bled Vietnam white,” she told me, “was not the war itself but the economic embargo by the United States, which kept the country under siege for twenty more years until normal diplomatic relations were established.”

Lady Borton, who speaks Vietnamese, finds the atmosphere far more hospitable now than in the early years of independence. After the American war ended in 1975, the Vietnamese fought the Cambodian Khmer Rouge to the west and were attacked in the north by the Chinese. “Before about 1988,” Borton said, “I couldn’t really talk freely to people here, nor they to me. After the siege mentality finally faded in the early 1990s, everything opened up. People talked and people built.” Borton added that Hanoi is virtually a new city compared with even a decade ago. This is a little less true of Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by most of the people I spoke to, because it wasn’t bombed during the war, yet it, too, has had a building boom. “The geopolitical tragedy of Vietnam,” Borton said, “is that it is caught between two huge forces, China and the United States. If forced to choose, the Vietnamese would choose America, no question about that.”

Whenever I have visited a Communist country, either self-proclaimed or one we call Communist–the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Sandinista Nicaragua–I have found myself deep in yes-but territory. I’m constitutionally sympathetic with the socialist ideal; yes, but I live in the most capitalist country in the world and enjoy its advantages. In each of the above countries, a revolution triumphed; yes, but the people have not enjoyed freedom of expression or action. The state is stultifying and totalitarian, the very opposite of the socialist ideal it proclaims; yes, but literacy, medical care, general social equality and economic possibility are now extended to a much larger proportion of the population than before. In Vietnam, the yes-buts spin into cognitive dissonance. The Vietnamese won liberation but their government’s early attitude toward civil liberties would have pleased only a John Ashcroft. In their fight against the United States, the Vietnamese Communists lost virtually every pitched battle. Yes, but they won the war. Yes, but they lost the revolution, or to be more precise, the revolution shriveled into dictatorship, corruption, state monopolies, and has now devolved into the very force they fought against, market capitalism itself. Yes, but the Vietnamese are increasingly prosperous and, more to my own point, increasingly free.

Gerry Herman, an expat so outspoken he can become the verbal equivalent of a Roman candle, advised me to “stay away” from freedom issues regarding Vietnam. “Their poverty and political paranoia are the direct result of our ruthless and abusive treatment,” he said. “They’ve felt they get so much shit from the outside they don’t want to get it from the inside as well.” He urged me to remember Singapore, an American ally often held up as a shining example of economic progress, whose social policies are far more repressive than Vietnam’s. “As the threat from abroad has receded, so has government pressure,” Herman said. “Freedom is really here now in a practical sense. Ten years ago you had to get permission to comb your hair. Today books and movies are flowing in from around the world. Every month Vietnam is freer.”

When I questioned the journalist Tran Viet Hung, who writes for the Vietnamese newspaper Bao Thanh Nien, about what he could and could not publish, he was both direct and somewhat ambivalent. “There is no censoring agency in Vietnam,” he wrote in an e-mail. On the other hand, he continued, “Editors-in-chief and reporters are responsible to the law for the contents they publish. They could be blamed, disciplined or even sued if the information is proved false.” In other words, a writer can write what he wants, but he doesn’t have the right to be wrong, as wrong is officially defined. I asked Hung if a Vietnamese publication could call for the resignation of a government official, or could disagree with a major foreign policy initiative. In both cases the answer is no. In addition, Hung said, government approval is needed for plays to be performed and movies to be shown. Permission is also necessary in order to hold a public meeting. In practice, these strictures are often ignored–public meetings occur daily that have not been procedurally sanctioned–but they still remain official policy. A one-party government can always reverse a thaw.

It is certainly no problem for foreigners to go anywhere in Hanoi as long as they remember that traffic lights, as Alicia observed, are treated only as suggestions. These days Vietnamese are so busy you find people doing calisthenics around Hanoi’s lakes by 4:30 am, at work by 5, and the work–construction, repairing, making things, carrying goods on shoulder poles, shopkeeping–continues until after 10 pm. On a Sunday stroll, I saw families taking a few hours off crowded around small tables eating eight- and ten-course dinners on open porches. Dishes looked and smelled as delicious as they were, to my eyes, unidentifiable. A friendly grandmother offered me tastes from an array of small platters while I, Westernly wary of germs, gestured to indicate I was full and tried to be polite as I backed away. No one seemed to mind my wandering into their street-level homes to ask directions when I found myself utterly lost on the narrow streets of the old quarter.

Ironies abound. In a city where B-52s wreaked havoc a generation ago, several Hanoi restaurants offer the drink “B-52 Bomber,” which one menu promises will “explode in your mouth” (they wish?), while a few blocks away the emasculated remains of a plane shot down during the Nixon-Kissinger Christmas bombing of 1972 protrudes from a tiny lake near a sign praising the air defense regiment for shooting down the “US Imperialist B-52.” One day at the US Embassy, we sat in a waiting room with a dozen Vietnamese men, all dressed in suits and ties, who were watching an embassy TV tuned to HBO, showing a Vietnam War movie. A lot of combat, the Americans valiant, the Vietnamese shifty, diabolical. As we sat there embarrassed, the Vietnamese men looked at the screen, occasionally shrugged, exchanged a few words with each other, chuckled. Were they saying, “Yeah, fine, but we won,” or were they horrified, amused, or simply didn’t care? An American told us they were most likely at the embassy trying to get visas to come to the United States.

If Americans have done their best to forget the war in Vietnam, so have the Vietnamese. Many young Vietnamese told me they have very little concept of the war at all, preferring to think instead of the future they are making and of friendly relations with the United States. An undercurrent among Vietnamese journalists and intellectuals, however, is directed toward keeping memories alive. One morning Gerry Herman showed me two documentary films made recently by Vietnamese filmmakers.

The first film, dealing with Agent Orange, was titled Where War Has Passed: The Legacy of Agent Orange. A mother is onscreen telling of being in a field sprayed with Agent Orange and giving birth, long after the war, to five children, who are filmed with her. Not one of them can see. Three of the children are not only blind but have no eyes at all; flaps of skin are on their foreheads where eyes are supposed to be. According to the film, 2 million Vietnamese are victims of Agent Orange, half a million of them children. The second film, called Deadly Debris, was about landmines. The narrator says 15 million tons of explosives were either dropped on Vietnam or placed in its soil. Children are shown without limbs, lost when they stepped on landmines or previously unexploded bombs. As recently as 1997, seven children were killed when one of them touched a bomb and it exploded. The living children shown have shrapnel in their chests, heads, abdomen, eyes and lungs. All of them, the narrator says, “were born when the war had been over” for ten to fifteen years. These films are not marginal, anti-American diatribes; they were supported by Catholic Relief, Oxfam, the Quakers and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

That evening, my own film about the war, Hearts and Minds, was screened for several dozen people, including eight Vietnamese, in a large office. According to members of the film community in Hanoi, the documentary had never been shown in their country. It was my turn to be ambivalent. I wanted the film shown yet was afraid the Vietnamese wouldn’t like it. Every time a Vietnamese was shown, I worried whether he or she would be seen only as a victim. A coffin maker, a Catholic priest and a Buddhist monk–each defiant, proclaiming Vietnamese independence–were reassuring, but then there were children and the elderly made homeless by our bombing, sometimes running from a new attack, all those refugees, all the wounded, the dead.

A Vietnamese man with stern features walked out, wordless, at the end of the screening. A 50-year-old Vietnamese woman rose from her seat, crying. “Seeing your movie,” she sobbed, “I hate Americans again. I was a child running, one of those children running from your bombs. My sister and my mother and I all ran, and I got away. My sister and my mother were killed.” But when the woman composed herself and went on speaking, she addressed everyone at the screening. “No, I don’t hate Americans, all of you in this room are my friends, friends to the Vietnamese people.” She turned to me. “Being American you have the freedom to do what you want,” she said, “so do you think you could get President Bush to give two hours to watch this film and then he would think again about what he is doing and stop his war ways?”

As if.

Some days later, Tran Dac Loi, secretary general of the Vietnamese Union of Friendship Organizations (VUFO), the stern-faced man who had left the screening, asked if I would come to see him. With an almost severe concentration, he spoke to me as though he were trying to reach everyone in the United States. It turned out that despite his speedy exit he hadn’t been offended by my film, but he did want to talk about Vietnam today. “See us with our achievements and also our problems,” he said. “We think it’s possible to have socialism within a market economy, but we are not there yet. Here is our biggest problem–how to find a model for development not dictated by business, which means also how to have elections not influenced by money, to find solutions to our social problems without elevating part of the population over everyone else. We don’t have enough democratization in Vietnam and we want more, yet we also can’t afford to create chaos. Our political system is not satisfactory yet, but we’re working on it. We’re in a truly dynamic process of development.”

What Loi said confirmed what I’d been able to observe and hear elsewhere. This is not a country looking for its soul–it has had that for a long time–but searching instead for a way to be its best self and for the most congenial method of living in a world dominated by the United States. “We tried the model of the Soviet Union,” Loi said, “and it didn’t work. Education and medical care were free, but so little was achieved. We had to start over, and everything was costly. Now we have succeeded in making primary education free, but secondary education is not yet completely free even though the fees are small, and we have to improve that. Medical care is better, but it is still not guaranteed for the poor, and we’re working on that, too.”

The last place I visited in Hanoi was the Temple of Literature, a famous compound dedicated to learning in the middle of the city yet protected from it, and quiet. Literally, a retreat. It was a relief to be reminded that contemplation is perhaps the most beautiful of human endeavors, the paradox being that it is also invisible, like peace.

I had been tracking a group of traveling Americans who were not exactly tourists yet not quite a delegation, and I caught up with them in Hue. Sons and Daughters in Touch, as they are known, had approximately sixty-five out of their total membership of more than 2,000 fanning out in teams around Vietnam to the exact spots where their fathers had died during the Vietnam War. Some would call this a morbid errand, but to the Sons and Daughters, most of whom were very young when their fathers went to Vietnam, the journey had taken on the mystique of a mission.

On the terrace of her hotel overlooking the Perfume River, Cindy Rheinheimer, a 38-year-old public school teacher and divorced mother of twin teenage girls, told me about her visit. The previous day she had been to the site where her father, Cpl. Richard Sanders, a 22-year-old medic from California, had been killed in 1967. Rheinheimer was 3 at the time, so in a sense she was looking for a father she’d never really known. “I just have a vague memory of my father sitting in a Naugahyde chair flicking a cigarette lighter shaped like a cannon,” she said. “He’d been a cowboy growing up around Santa Maria, spending a lot of time on a cattle ranch, and he had guns. He was working in a factory that manufactured Columbia records, still trying to figure out what to do with his life, when he was drafted.”

Though he’d hunted as a teenager, Sanders chose to be a medic rather than a rifleman. Rheinheimer showed me a picture of her father kissing her as a toddler, another of her father in uniform looking straight ahead, and a very pretty one of herself at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. “The night before I was to go to my dad’s site,” she said, “I called home and told my boyfriend I couldn’t bear this, I just didn’t think I could do it. He said, ‘Take a deep breath, this is what you went to do.'” She left her hotel the next morning nervous, her stomach in knots. Having the radio operator’s diary from her father’s unit, she knew where to go. “My dad had flown in on a chopper to a ridge they called Hill 82,” she continued. “His company was on a search-and-destroy mission northeast of Saigon, part of the Ninth Infantry Division. A couple of guys were hit and my dad went and got them out to safety. Then another man was hit and my dad went to get him, and somebody threw a grenade that killed both my dad and the wounded guy.

“When I got near the top of Hill 82, I was so surprised. I thought it would be darker, closed in, a jungle. I didn’t expect it to be so beautiful and peaceful and light. I was looking out over a river. I just lost it entirely. As soon as I cried and started to actually look around I felt so much better. We all imagine death as dark, and I found this place just filled with light–if there’s an afterlife I hope that’s it.” Rheinheimer took a sip of her Coke and looked away, out over the Perfume River where several little fishing boats went by carrying Vietnamese families who live in them. “I had asked my daughters–we’re Catholics–to find some Scripture. They’d e-mailed me three passages from the Bible and said, ‘Tell grandpa hi for us.’ I lit some incense and laid down flowers and choked my way through the Scriptures. Then I left a little note for my dad, just telling him my girls and I are fine and we’ll try to make you proud of us until we’re all together again. That was it, really, that was my pilgrimage.”

It’s a commonplace that when you return to a location you once spent important time in–a childhood home, a school, a lake in the woods where you first fell in love–what you’re looking for is not the location itself but the old, which is to say the young, you. I had no interest in that, given how miserable I’d been the first time in Vietnam and how glad I was to be there now in the midst of such national optimism. Yet from time to time I was pulled back to the war. In our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, there was a twilight moment as we approached Tan Son Nhut Airport and saw gun emplacements around the perimeter. Holdovers, precautionary defense, warning, declaration: Don’t fuck with us. Whichever, the reminder would not be lost on anyone with designs other than friendly. From the Caravelle Hotel in 1972 I became accustomed to flares in the distance as mortars and other night firing began; the nocturnal action at the Caravelle now is in the hotel’s own noisy, yuppified bar, Saigon Saigon.

Old Saigon has become a bustling Los Angeles sprawl, a commercial churn much larger than the cultural and political capital of Hanoi. We went to dinner at the home of a businesswoman named Jocelyn Tran, whom I had met in Hanoi. Both she and her husband, Toan Nguyen, left Saigon as children and grew up in Southern California, where they met in their early 30s. Jocelyn’s father was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, and Toan’s parents had a prospering pharmaceutical company. “My parents got out just in time in ’75,” Jocelyn said. “They were very bitter and vowed never to return, but then my father came back in 1999 for a short visit before he died. My mother returned briefly this year, but she made the whole trip just to say two words to me, ‘come home,’ by which she meant California.”

Toan’s parents, on the other hand, chose to retire in Saigon, living far more modestly than they once did but nonetheless in their native land. They could not return to their former home, a mansion now occupied by their old servant, who is permitted to stay there until she dies, at which point the estate will belong to the government. “This is still a police state,” said Toan, who designs computer software, “though the government’s heavy hand is lighter than it was a few years ago. I don’t go past my childhood home because it is too painful, and my father refuses even to go into the neighborhood.” I could wince a little for Toan’s family, but what I really regretted was not having the time to look up the family servant and see how she was enjoying the old proprietor’s digs, lounging in the rooms she used to mop. Is there a just god somewhere who would mandate that destiny for all servants, all masters?

Jocelyn and Toan live very well, with servants themselves, and Jocelyn is the country representative of a firm that manufactures women’s clothing for labels such as Victoria’s Secret and Henri Bendel, a globalized effort employing local workers. A trade union does exist in Vietnam, but it is an umbrella organization belonging more to the government than to the labor force, which means its independence is compromised. Factory workers, according to a regional specialist named Kate Jellema, who teaches Vietnamese history and culture at Marlboro College, make much more than they would as peasant farmers, but they often have to work far from their families, whom they may see only once a month or less. Meanwhile, their rather toothless union, typical of the Third World, cannot press for minimum wages or maximum hours. “Opening up markets gives jobs to people who wouldn’t otherwise have jobs at all,” Jellema told me, “and it provides entrepreneurial opportunities for the middle class, but conditions are substandard and there is no structure for improving them. Those who work for multinational companies like Coca-Cola or Victoria’s Secret or Nike do better than those in small Vietnamese businesses, because the foreigners are at least susceptible to outside pressures.”

Jocelyn Tran and Toan Nguyen are raising their young son Matthew in Vietnam and are as conflicted as their son’s name implies. “I am bicultural,” Jocelyn said, “and it’s not easy. I want to be Vietnamese, yet I’m accustomed to American physical comforts. I had no hardships growing up in America, and I’m embarrassed now at how people live here compared to how I live. I’m too American, too Vietnamese.”

In their split allegiance between East and West, Jocelyn and Toan reminded me of a couple I met in Danang during the war. The husband was the Vietnamese director of Mobil Oil, the wife a professor of philosophy at the University of Danang. Although she was a staunch anti-Communist who loved going to New York and Paris, she provided the clearest reason I’d ever heard why the United States should not intervene in a society it does not understand. Praising Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnamese president who had been assassinated in 1963 when our government withdrew its support from him, she discoursed on his skill as a statesman, how he’d have made peace with the North Vietnamese, and how splendid a patriot he was, the last piece of praise catching in her throat so that she doubled back on it to declare, “In fact, I think Ngo Dinh Diem was without doubt the second-greatest patriot in the entire history of my country.”

I bit on that one and gullibly asked who was the first greatest.

“Oh, Ho Chi Minh of course.”

At that moment it was clear that if this philosopher’s two seemingly irreconcilable assertions were true–according to the American left Diem was a puppet who was dropped when he proved both too corrupt and too independent, while Ho was George Washington and Abraham Lincoln combined; according to the right Ho was Stalinist and Diem was fine until he betrayed the cause–then the United States had no rational purpose sticking its nose, much less 2.15 million bodies, into what was taking place in Vietnam, regardless of whether the dispute was a revolution, civil war, insurgency against foreign invaders, anticolonialist struggle, reunification drive, or some of all of these. From today’s perspective, what will we do if and when Iraq is partitioned and one of the parts, let’s say an anti-American one, decides to reunite the others? We lost 58,000 Americans trying to maintain two Vietnams; Vietnam lost fifty times that many, almost 3 million, yet today there is one Vietnam.

Though a war in which one side is financed by a foreign country isn’t properly a civil one, there is an aspect in the psychology of the north-south relationship in Vietnam that bears comparison with the American South after our Civil War. The Vietnamese southerners who sided with Americans are to a substantial degree a defeated people and have the attitudes and resentments of losers. They don’t refer to Ho Chi Minh City as anything but Saigon, they smirk about northerners who run things, they take a Schadenfreude pleasure in pointing out police corruption and government failure, and they have still–a quarter-century after the war ended–not been able to get jobs equal to their preparation and abilities.

Truong, a middle-aged man who was our guide in the Mekong Delta, had been a teacher and school administrator before the war. In the war itself he was a low-ranking South Vietnamese officer. Like several other southerners we met, his job was well below his former status. When he smiled he showed gold-tipped teeth, an emblem of class, but Truong’s smiles were rueful. “As soon as the war was over,” he said, “I was sent to a re-education camp to change from capitalist to Communist.” He paused and laughed, “But now we’re all capitalists again because that’s what the government wants.”

In 1972 we had filmed a passionately independent Catholic priest in Saigon named Chan Tin, who was in hiding from the South Vietnamese government. I remembered him as coiled and intense, with dark hair and a visage radiating anger at both the South Vietnamese government and the American intruders. At 83 he no longer conducts all the services at his large church in Ho Chi Minh City, but he holds masses regularly and gives occasional sermons. His dark hair has vanished into gossamer wisps of white at the back of his head, and what he radiates today is a serenity that occasionally gives way to his pride at having a relationship with the Hanoi authorities not dissimilar to the one he had with the Saigon government. “The South Vietnamese gave me five years at hard labor,” he said, “and after the North won in 1975, for a short time the Communists thought I was with them because I was part of the patriotic front opposed to the Saigon regime and the Americans. They soon saw I was for human rights above all. I spoke against the detainment of political prisoners, so they detained me and made me a political prisoner.” These days Chan Tin preaches when he wants to and has no fear of the government. “I want another regime,” he said, “but I want it by evolution, not revolution. Now there is amelioration. There is more democracy, some liberty, more freedom of the press. The economy is open, but for progress we need full political liberty.”

Back in Hanoi, we saw a capital with the vitality of the country surrounding it. When the Vietnamese did not finish their work during the day, they took it home at night. Buoyancy was the national mood, the tone of Vietnam’s intercourse with foreigners. I have to admit I did not want to go home.

As for the Americans, we ran into the West Virginia Trade Mission, holding what they called a Country Team Briefing before heading into the provinces. Doctors Without Borders was in town to help contain the SARS epidemic by setting up an isolation wing at Bach Mai Hospital, which had been leveled in the 1972 Christmas bombing. Connecticut College students were having a street-level lesson in the history and culture of Vietnam. A nimbus of contrition hung over the expeditions. “How I wished,” Graham Greene concluded in The Quiet American, “there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.” It was impossible to be in Vietnam without wondering whether, perhaps in far fewer than thirty years, we will be saying that about Iraq.

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