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City on the Bend in the River
Hanoi is a great name to drop at cocktail parties. I couldn't resist doing it on my occasional trips back to the United States. I'd just let it slip out casually: I was biking to work in Hanoi the other day and.... The reaction was always the same. The conversation would stop and people would cock their heads and raise their eyebrows. You could hear them thinking, Hanoi? Hanoi? That Hanoi? I might as well have said I lived on Mars. They'd say they were surprised that Americans lived in Hanoi. They'd ask if the city had been rebuilt after the war, and they'd wonder aloud what it was like to live in a place where Americans surely were hated. Even my editors at the Los Angeles Times were decent enough to compensate me for perceived hardship, with two week-long R&R's a year in Bangkok to tend to medical needs and find a bookstore that offered more than an account of France's defeat at Dien Bien Phu or the writings of Ho Chi Minh. I enjoyed being an object of curiosity. It made me feel unordinary. Back in Washington, I knew I'd be just another working stiff riding the subway to work and worrying about my mortgage.
But in Hanoi I'd stumbled into a life that was beyond the grasp of friends and strangers alike, and there is something to be said for being a big frog in small pond. So for four years I more or less kept my secret. Yes, I'd say, Hanoi is difficult. Not a shopping mall or a supermarket in the entire city. Chaotic, noisy two-wheel traffic jams that will drive you batty. If you need a root canal, it'sbest to catch one of the daily flights to Singapore or Bangkok. But the truth is that life was good without stores that sell forty brands of toothpaste. What I discovered was a magical city, steeped in beauty and seductive charm, the last capital left possessing the romance of a bygone Indochina. Were Graham Greene alive today to explore the niches of remembered places, I have no doubt that Hanoi is where he would head in a heartbeat.
There were many moments in those first weeks in Hanoi when my past and present, separated by a generation, mingled as one. What I saw and learned, initially at least, was situated in the context of what I had experienced in the war and what I perceived Hanoi to be. Everything seemed out of place. I felt disconnected awakening some mornings and realizing I lived in a city whose bombing I had once cheered, believing its destruction was the road to peace. I was reticent to ask Vietnamese what their lives had been like during the war and its aftermath, until I discovered they had the same curiosity about me; they wondered what had brought me to wartime Vietnam in the first place.
I was twenty-eight years old and working the graveyard shift in San Francisco for United Press International in 1968, expending a lot of energy covering antiwar demonstrations. I more or less supported the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, not because of any deeply held political convictions but because I thought that whenever and wherever America went to war, the honorable thing was to jump on the bandwagon. My military obligations had been fulfilled—two years in the peacetime army in Okinawa—so I was off the hook on Vietnam, at least as a soldier. But I couldn't imagine why any journalist wouldn't want to go there. I had quit my job at the Oakland Tribune and joined UPI across the bay because the wire services offered a better shot at getting to Vietnam. When I told my older brother Ernie in Boston that I'd asked UPI to send me to Vietnam, he said: "You dumb shit! They'll do it." Months went by with no encouragement and no word from UPI's foreign desk in New York. Then one morning the San Francisco bureau chief called me at home. He said, "I've got a telex for you from Cactus Jack, the foreign editor. It says, 'Tell Lamb his number is up for Vietnam. We want him there in two weeks. Ask him to write a 200-word bio so when he wins a prize, we can give him his due.'" I was savvy enough to realize he was asking me to write my own obituary.
My pay in wartime Vietnam was $135 per week, no days off, no overtime, no hazardous-duty pay. For most of my two years covering the war, I worked out of Danang, where the U.S. Marine Corps had taken over an old French riverside brothel and turned it into a press camp, with a dozen austere rooms, flush toilets, a bar, a restaurant, and a colonel who could put the American spin on the vicissitudes of war. Like most of the wire guys, I was a grunt reporter, not one of the stars. My job was to get into the field, find out what was happening, and call Bert Oakley in Saigon to pass on news for his daily lead. "Don't forget who told you this," I'd say to Oakley, hoping he'd give me a byline.
Covering the war made me happy in an unhappy sort of way. I hated everything about it yet loved the exhilarating adrenaline rush that engulfed me. I thought a lot about death and dying. I felt fulfilled and empty at the same time, lonely even though sharing the life and death of war is intensely intimate. I really didn't think much about the rightness or wrongness of the war, and I never agreed with U.S. troop commander General Creighton Abrams's dismissive assessment of reporters: "They're all a bunch of shits," he said. The relative handful of war correspondents I knew—5,000 reporters and photographers from sixty countries covered the decade-long war at various times—were honorable, spirited men and women whose company I enjoyed. They accepted risk, liked adventure, and had no agenda other than to report accurately. General William Westmoreland referred to Vietnam in his memoirs as "the first war in history lost in the columns of the New York Times." But reporters didn't lose the war any more than they won the 1968 presidential election. We were only messengers.
My return to Vietnam in 1997 came twenty-nine years to the week of my first landing at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport. Back then a sign in the terminal had warned: "In case of mortar attack don't panic, don't run. Lay on the floor and cover your head with your hands." Now the walls of Hanoi's Noi Bai Airport were covered with posters advertising a new casino and serviced lakeside luxury apartments. A Hong Kong research company had ranked Vietnam as the most economically secure (low-crime) and politically stable of the fourteen Asian countries it had studied.
As before, this time I arrived during the heat of summer. Puddles of rainwater sizzled on the tarmac. I recognized, from long ago, the sweet fragrance that drifted out of the rice paddies. A pig the size of a Volkswagen ambled across the runway. My wife, Sandy, and I went to claim our two cats that had traveled with us, and a passenger confided in a hushed voice, "They eat cats here, you know." The customs man seemed bored. He sat at an empty desk with no phone or paperwork and was in no hurry to release our jet-lagged cats. He wanted to know what we intended to do with them. Sandy said we were just going to let them hang out in the apartment and keep us company. The man looked puzzled. We negotiated at length. Some money changed hands. An hour later, baggage and pets in hand, we were crammed into an old taxi. We bumped along the road that leads from Noi Bai Airport, creeping through villages clogged with bicycles and past fields where peasants stood knee-deep in muck, tossing buckets of water onto their crops. Forty-five minutes ahead lay Hanoi, where we had no office, no home, no telephone, and no friends. Together we stood at the threshold of a new life.
* * *
Every year a magazine called Asiaweek rates the livability of Asia's top forty cities; Hanoi tied for seventeenth place, but I think it deserves a better ranking. One criterion the publication uses is TV sets per 1,000 residents. Hanoi ranks number two in all of Asia on that score, with 765 (three times more than Tokyo). I'm not sure the saturation of television has much to do with quality of life, but it does indicate how dramatically living standards in Vietnam have risen in recent years—and that most Vietnamese don't have a lot of free-time diversions other than to turn up their TVs full blast and sit mesmerized by a soccer game or romantic soap opera. In another Asiaweek category, hospital beds per 1,000 people, Hanoi ranks near the bottom with 1.6. The magazine left blank the ranking for vehicles per kilometer of city road because, I presume, it doesn't count motor scooters as vehicles and Hanoi's narrow streets are still relatively empty of cars. Many of the motorcycles are smuggled in from China, anyway, and there wouldn't be any accurate way to count them.
If Asiaweek had a category for likability of people—surely a legitimate measure of a city's livability—Hanoi would have topped the survey hands down. Within a week of our arrival, Sandy and I had been invited to dine at the home of a former North Vietnamese soldier, taken by a journalist to a sidewalk stall for a fifty-cent bowl of pho, a noodle soup the Vietnamese eat as regularly as Americans do hamburgers, and befriended by a miniplatoon of college students who wanted to practice English and learn more about the world. During my first peacetime encounters with the Vietnamese, what struck me was the smile. Faces aglow, their smiles seemed natural and spontaneous, not a forced, mechanical flash of politeness but rather an expression straight from the heart. A European businessman told me he had rejected a posting in China for one in Vietnam because "in China people are distant and somber. They frown all the time. In Vietnam, I walk out my door in the morning, and people are smiling. They make you feel welcome. They're approachable. They act as though life's pretty good. That's a big plus at the end of the day."
Sandy and I found an apartment overlooking Truc Bach (White Bamboo), the smallest of Hanoi's eleven lakes, in a neighborhood called Ngu Xa. The neighborhood felt like a village, built on a small peninsula that jutted into the water. Starting in the sixteenth century, bronze casters from five villages northeast of Hanoi started making their way to Ngu Xa, and for the next 300 years the finest bells, Buddha statues, and incense urns adorning the pagodas and royal palaces were made in the alleyways outside my doorstep. "Even fireflies have to enjoy the kindling fire of the bronze-casting furnaces," the poet Nguyen Huy Lyong wrote in 1801 in a salute to Ngu Xa's bustling activity.
Over the years the lanes became streets that crisscrossed like rows on a checkerboard, and most of the bronze-casting families turned their attention to working in silver and making aluminum pots and pans and plaster busts of Ho Chi Minh. But Ngu Xa never lost its Vietnamese flavor or became, even during French colonial times, home to more than a handful of foreigners. Only a few families still cast bronze Buddhas in Ngu Xa today, and the tap, tap, tap of their tools is a reassuring sound, reminding me that much remains as it was even though Hanoi is gripped by great change.
Although the banks of the Red River have been inhabited for thousands of years, Hanoi's history dates back only to 1010, when the emperor Le Thai Lo moved the capital sixty miles from Hoa Lu to a site not far from our apartment. He named the town Thang Long (Soaring Dragon) and ordered the building of dikes and artificial hills to protect his dynasty from invading Chinese. The dikes held the floods at bay but not the Mongols, who sacked the city in the late thirteenth century. Emperor Le Loi pushed the Chinese out in 1428 and renamed the capital Dong Kinh, which the French later corrupted to Tonkin.
Western traders—Dutch, Portuguese, French—began arriving in the early seventeenth century, and hot on their heels came Jesuit missionaries followed by the Paris Foreign Missions. The town fell into decline and the imperial court was moved to Hue. In 1831, Emperor Tu Duc renamed the old capital Hanoi, or "City on the Bend in the River"—ha means "river" and noi means "inside"—and set about restoring some of the old splendors. His timing was bad, for France was looking for alternate trade routes to ship goods from China to the Mekong, and Hanoi's location on the right bank of the Red River—at a wide, sweeping bend—offered strategic control of the entire northern delta. Paris sent Francis Garnier and a small expeditionary force to Hanoi in 1873 to reconnoiter. They did their evaluations and then—offering the unlikely explanation that they feared attack—destroyed the Hanoi Citadel. Tu Duc, stunned at how much Garnier had accomplished with so few men, acceded to French demands. Nine years later Hanoi became the capital of France's new protectorate, Tonkin. Vietnam would remain under foreign domination for nine decades, that is, until the Americans fled Saigon in 1975.
The expatriate community I found in Hanoi numbered only a few thousand, small for a capital with 3 million residents. But unlike other places in the developing world I'd lived, I didn't hear much complaining. The Westerners lived in Vietnam by choice. Their lives were more exotic and unpredictable—and, I suspect, interesting—than they would have been back in New York or Sydney. In Cairo and Nairobi, where I once lived, longtime expats used to lament the state of decay and yearn for a past era. "You should have seen the place back then," they'd say wistfully. In Hanoi, foreign residents talked about the present as being the good days. They had encountered Hanoi at the perfect moment—after the long, dark years of isolation that followed the Vietnam War and before the city succumbed to the inevitable rush of bulldozed development that had already stripped other Southeast Asia capitals of their charm.
The first change that Hanoi wrought in me was making life simpler. Back in the States, my key chain bulged with a dozen keys to double-bolted house doors, two cars, alarm systems, padlocked windows, a bike lock, a security door to the office. Now it held only two, one to our apartment, the other to the Times bureau. I didn't make notes at night on what I had to do the next day, and my office answering machine didn't blink with a score of voicemails if I left for a few hours. I owned a bicycle but no car. And I could safely walk any street at any hour of the day or night. Because civilians didn't own guns and the military didn't abuse guns, the crime rate was negligible, even by the standard of the tamest U.S. city. That, too, made life simpler, giving me an unfamiliar sense of freedom and well-being.
I had never lived in a communist country before, and although everything was new, nothing felt so alien as to be unsettling. There were no soldiers on the streets and few policemen. No one paid much attention to the red banners with revolutionary slogans that the Communist Party occasionally hung across a street, and the man from the People's Committee who used to wander my neighborhood, keeping an eye on foreigners, never caused me any trouble.
Busts of Ho Chi Minh—"Uncle Ho," as the Vietnamese call him—were everywhere, in shops and homes and offices, and every day thousands of Vietnamese lined up outside his mausoleum in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square, the place where he had declared Vietnam's short-lived independence in 1945. Inside they would file solemnly past the open coffin containing the eerie corpse of Ho, waxen-looking, not a hair of his stringy beard out of place. They carried children and whispered not a word. Many wept quietly.
Ho had asked that no monuments be built in his honor and that he be cremated, with his ashes sprinkled on three unmarked hilltops around the country. He wanted trees planted where his ashes lay because they would "multiply with the passage of time and form forests." If he died before the end of the war against the United States, he said, it would please him if some of his ashes were sent to the "compatriots in the South."
But Party leaders had no intention of allowing their most important symbol of struggle and nationalism to slip from public consciousness. When Ho died in 1969, at the age of seventy-nine, with the war still raging, his body was secretly whisked to a farming town thirty miles from Hanoi. He was embalmed by Russian technicians and the town was placed off-limits. He was not seen by the public again until 1975, the year the war ended, when the Party put him on display in the recently completed mausoleum, modeled after Lenin's Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square. No doubt Ho, an unpretentious man who lived modestly and never cared about wealth or pomp, would have been appalled by the ornate marble-and-granite edifice. But it is impossible to look at this small, fragile man who lies under glass, his brown suit without a crease, his pale face relaxed as though in sleep, without remembering how much he influenced the lives of those of us who lived through the Vietnam War era.
Excerpted from VIETNAM, NOW by David Lamb. Copyright © 2002 by David Lamb. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.