It begins with my story, which then intertwines with the stories of vets who've returned. As a non-vet, I can only hope that I have done justice to those who return to Vietnam in writing it. I have shared this with a friend of mine, a Vietnam vet who has been back, and he urged me to share it here. It makes me nervous to do so, but here goes.
"I brought a veteran here a few months ago who fought at the Citadel when he was eighteen," Cong told me, knowing of my interest in the war and its veterans. "This man was very talkative when I met him at the hotel. He told me how he'd been wanting to come back here for years. But when we got to the Citadel he became very quiet.
I wanted to guide him around the Forbidden City, but he just sat on a bench and stared at the Citadel and said nothing for hours. I felt like I wasn't doing my job. For three hours, all I did was take a nap on a bench and wait for this veteran. Finally he got up and we went straight back to the hotel. The next day he didn't want to go with the group on a boat trip down the Perfume River. He went back to the Citadel by himself and spent the whole day there alone. I felt so bad for him, you know? He changed, just like the weather. I didn't know what to do for him. Should I leave him alone or should I try to talk to him? I just left him alone. I remember he had a tattoo on his arm. It said, "Freedom is not free."
"You did the right thing leaving him alone," I said. "He came here to do something for himself."
* * * Some enterprising your boys outside the walls of the Forbidden City in Hue had chains full of American dogtags and engraved Zippo lighters for sale. I wondered if boys like that had approached the quiet American. The sight of the dogtags had given me a jolt, even though I am not a veteran and was in fact only a child during the war. What effect would they have had on him? Would he have flipped through them looking for names he recognized or would he have turned away in disgust?
I had a bad feeling as I bought two of the dogtags. The meaning tied up in them saddened me and I was disturbed that they were being sold as souvenirs. Those men had been issued tags by the military, one for the body and one for the body bag in case the ended up at Graves Registration. Proof of their existence. Now those tags had become a grim souvenir. I tried to remember that in a country as poor as Vietnam the money I paid might make the difference between a meal and going hungry. They were just old pieces of metal to the boys. apparently the Japanese, who bought up much of the abandoned scraps of war, hadn't been interested in dogtags. Still, there was a market for them. Wasn't I there buying one? But to me the dogtags weren't souvenirs at all. No matter where the men had ended up, part of them was still lost in Vietnam. Somehow I felt I was bringing that part home to America.
I picked out the most weathered, earthworn tags I could find on the chains. Some of them looked too shiny, too new. They boys then appointed themselves my tour guides, though I wanted to be alone among the crumbling, bullet-ridden walls. The place was too powerful to experience with an entourage. But I didn't know how to tell that to the boys, especially when one of them, a badly scarred boy too small for his age of sixteen, insisted on holding my hand. They kept repeating, "You be my friend?" Of course I'd be their friend.
So I walked through a piece of Vietnamese and American history on an ominous, grey afternoon feeling like the Pied Piper as three more boys abandoned their soccer game and joined us. After spending half an hour exploring the thick, dark, scorched looking walls that used to house emperors then hide soldiers, I turned back to find my group.
The boys, still smiling, began to press close, insisting, "You be my friend - you give me money." "Oh no," I responded, "I already bought something from you. I'm not giving you more money."
Most of them shrugged, as if it was at least worth a try. But the boy who'd been so badly burned earlier in his young life pushed me backward, trying to bar my way. As I looked at him in bewilderment, suddenly all I could see was the wartime image of the naked little girl running away from her napalmed village. "Bad American," the boy scowled, "you bad American."
Suddenly I felt bad. But I also felt upset. I'd tried hard not to be the ugly American, to be respectful and patient. I wasn't a bad American and this wasn't over the war. I felt for his poverty and disfigurement, but my guilt over my relative wealth wasn't going to do anything for him. What I'd paid him for the dogtags was roughly two weeks worth of the Vietnamese income. I'd saved for over a year to get to Vietnam and with the little money I had left I had good reason not to hand out money indiscriminately. Vietnam would gain in many ways from my tourist dollars and would continue to gain from other Americans long after I left. In my mind, I had to separate the war from simple begging. I could not help them all. Still, it troubled me that the boy had called me a "bad American", as much as it had troubled me to see the dogtags.
As I left the Citadel I turned the dogtags over in my hands. They were nearly impossible to read. I put a piece of paper over them and scribbled a pencil over the indentations of the letters and numbers.
Cong shook his head at me, as if he thought I'd been ripped off. "You paid a dollar for a dogtag? You should have told me you wanted one. I have plenty at home. We find them all over the place in Danang. It looks like yours were in the ground a long time."
Feeling out of sorts, I zipped the dogtags into a safe place in my bag, not exactly sure what I would do with them when I got home. J.L. Holley and Kenneth E. Bergstedt, Jr. Now they had names. Names of fathers, of great grandfathers. I stared out the bus window and wondered where they live today or if they live today. I wondered if their names are on the Wall in Washington or if they are middle-aged men thinking about a return to Vietnam now in peacetime. Or perhaps they'd rather never hear about or see Vietnam again.
As we left Hue and headed down the coast I considered how everything and yet nothing I encountered surprised me. I'd done my homework on Vietnam for ten years before I ever got there. I live with a vet and had listened to him talk about Vietnam for countless hours. I'd been thinking about the war more than the reality of Vietnam today, so in many ways I was unprepared for what I encountered. Still, I was perhaps far more prepared than most young G.I.'s heading over there to fight a war.
What was I doing in Vietnam? I have to admit, at times during the trip I wondered. It is a strange place to go when twenty-five years ago many Americans prayed they wouldn't end up there, and some went to extraordinary measures to avoid it. Some people said I was crazy when they heard where I was headed. The word 'Vietnam' still cannot be mentioned in America today without conjuring up images of war. And so, Vietnam has much more emotion tied up in it than other destinations. It's impact still hasn't subsided.
I wasn't there to "do" Vietnam, as tourists "do" Europe. Although I went ostensibly to photograph the country, I was really only there because of the war. There is something indescribable about walking in a land where a person special to you once was during wartime. A connection that defies explanation. I wanted to see the country where my partner and his brother fought. I wanted to learn more than I could out of books and stories and pictures. I wanted to meet the people, know the place. I walked through the country just three days after Clinton lifted the embargo and I tried to imagine just what it could have been like during the war, the loss of which had kept the U.S. in essence denying Vietnam's existence for nearly two decades. I guess I thought the coutry would have stood still in time.
In some ways it did. Vietnam takes alot of adjustment, even under the best of circumstances, and I'd never been anywhere else in the world before. It was difficult for an inexperienced traveller like me to get used to finding fresh rat droppings on a bed, to keep from slipping into open sewers, to see chickens slaughtered in the street, to get used to the distinct smell of Vietnam. Half a world from my home, I could easily see why soldiers used to refer to America as "the world" when they were in Vietnam. I might as well have been on another planet. Yet what a beautiful and intriguing planet it is. For Americans during wartime, it must have been stranger still.
Everywhere we went children waved to us, people clamored to be near us, invited us inside their homes, practiced their English on us, or were simply friendly and polite. I greatly respected the welcome the Vietnamese had given us. I'd prepared myself for much less. Until I was called a bad American, Vietnam had indeed been more welcoming then I'd ever expected. I refused to let that one incident color my entire experience.
Cong broke into my reverie as we headed over the Hai Van Pass toward Danang. "Another veteran I guided told me he was sure he'd be able to locate the site of his old bunker up here," he said, gesturing toward the vine-covered slope.
I'm sure that's true. In fact, the old bunker may very well still be standing, as many of them are. Like the numerous war dead memorials, they loom out of the rice paddies along Highway 1, the road we took from Hue to Danang. It had been U.S. 1 to the Americans and "La Rue Sans Joie", or the Street without Joy, to the French. Reminders of the war in Vietnam are everywhere for those looking for them. I was looking for them. The Vietnamese don't need to look for reminders. Some still die today when they accidentally disturb old, unexploded ordnance. They've lived with the war every day since it ended. Many American veterans have too, and they return to Vietnam to come to terms with it, look for remnants for the past, and for Vietnam's future.
In Danang I met a man named Hoe who sold firewood on the street outside the Cham Museum. He was delighted to see Americans, excited to speak English after he'd been barred from doing so for thirteen years. "I am happy to see Americans come back. Especially the veterans. I like to meet them and look for a face I know, but so far I haven't seen any." Then he reeled off names - Commander Wray, Lieutenant Commander Wilson, Captain Marano. He was proud to say he'd worked with all of them and many others, from Nha Trang to the DMZ, in the five years he'd spent as a translator for the Marines.
He waits for the Americans to return, just as the empty American embassy waits in Saigon. "Vietnamese life was better with the Americans. It has been terrible under the Communists, though it's getting better now. Not too long ago I could have gotten in trouble just for talking to you. For working with the Americans during the war, I was sentenced to ten years in a re-education camp. Even now I am still being punished. I am not allowed to hold any better job than selling firewood. Perhaps now that the Americans come back I will be able to get a better job again."
As I watched a woman pull water up out of her well with an old G.I. helmet, I thought about veterans revisiting the country where they'd lost their youth and many of their friends, where they were called upon to do things they never would have done under normal circumstances. Do things war demands. For some veterans, returning is the only way to get beyond the Vietnam they know, to make peace, to reconcile the past. Others come to search for M.I.A.'s, and still others come not only to heal themselves, but to work actively toward the healing of Vietnam. For many veterans and for many reasons, Vietnam is a magnet. * * *
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