During Christmas 2007 I traveled back in time with my family, to Vietnam, for the first time in thirty-two years. I was feeling a deep need to see the place once more, a regret at having withdrawn from a country I had visited four times during the war. I wanted to understand the long-term lessons and, on a personal basis, track down the Vietnamese guides and translators, men and women, who assumed an ideological faith in the American “people” they escorted through ruins inflicted by the American “enemy.” They would become important diplomatic bridges between our two countries in the postwar period. Most were survivors of the French and American wars and would be in their 80s by now. Were they still alive? How had they suffered? After the exuberance at their victory and reunification after 1975, how had they adjusted to a Vietnam without war? Vietnam’s consul in San Francisco, Chau Do, said many of these old revolutionaries were alive, excited by my return and inquiring whom I wanted to see. I told him that my closest Vietnamese friend was a poet, musician and translator, Do Xuan Oanh, who was perhaps 40 in those days. “I can help you find him,” Chau replied with a smile. “He’s my dad.” My eyes filled with tears. It would be quite a trip.
Before I would reunite with these old friends and contacts, however, I plunged into the shocking contrasts between past and present in Hanoi. Between Christmas 1965 and November 1972, when I made four unauthorized visits to Hanoi, the wartime city was unlit and ghostly. Most people had been evacuated to the countryside. Air-raid sirens and public-safety broadcasts were the only urban sounds. There was no economic development beyond the construction of pontoon bridges to replace bridges bombed by the Americans. The only motorized vehicles were military ones. Most residents rode bicycles or carried their meager wares on bamboo poles across their shoulders. Water buffalo pulled the heavier loads. To outward appearances, Gen. Curtis LeMay’s plan to bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age was on track.
Finally came the Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong by 200 B-52s, from December 18 to December 28, 1972. The United States says that fifteen of the giant Stratofortresses were shot down and ninety-three American airmen went missing before the bombing ended (Hanoi says thirty-four B-52s and eighty-one fighter planes were put out of action). Estimates of civilian deaths range from 1,600 to 2,368 in those eleven days, and Hanoi listed 5,480 buildings destroyed. In the American narrative, the Christmas bombing forced Hanoi to sign the Paris peace agreement one month later. But under terms agreed to by the Nixon Administration, North Vietnamese units remained positioned in the south, and in 1975 they stormed Saigon. What is beyond dispute is that crowded Hanoi neighborhoods and the Bach Mai hospital were reduced to rubble during the Christmas B-52 raids. The last time I had seen Hanoi was in 1974, when Jane Fonda and I walked through the hospital debris and interviewed still-furious victims of the Christmas 1972 bombs.
Now, suddenly for me, it was Christmas 2007 and Vietnam was ablaze with festive holiday lights, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Though billboards of Ho Chi Minh were pervasive, the most ubiquitous bearded one this Christmas season was Santa Claus, beckoning shoppers from department store doorways, seen incongruously riding motorbikes, waving to little children. Spectacular strings of red and green lights were draped over the streets and stores, blinking at thousands of Vietnamese rolling along on bicycles and motorbikes, parting smoothly like schools of fish around pedestrians crossing the street. Restaurant-goers applauded Christmas carols sung by young Vietnamese women strapped in Heineken Girls sashes. None of this was about Jesus–Christmas is not a tradition in this Buddhist and secular-Marxist country–but all about corporate branding. The fancy Diamond department store next to Independence Palace was filled with shoppers, gawkers and Santas wandering the aisles of Lego, Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret, Nike, Converse, Estée Lauder, Ferragamo and Bally. The nearby Saigon Centre bore a billboard proclaiming, More Shops, More Life.