He replied, "If you can't have fun in Vietnam, where the hell can you have fun?" But his bravado was tinged with a bit of sadness.
Although Joe's experiences with the Vietnamese have been over- whelmingly positive, he said, "I'd be a liar if I didn't say I've had negative experiences as well. The fury I've been confronted with on occasion is usually very uncharacteristic of the Vietnamese. I find it mostly comes from women, mostly old women, but never from the Vietnamese veterans them- selves, interestingly enough." And by now, Joe's met thousands of them. "On one occasion a woman threw a rock at me.
My guides wanted to report her to the authorities, but I insisted they didn't. I understood her pain. She was half crazy with grief at the sight of me, and I understood that. On another occasion, a woman shouted at me, 'How dare you come back here!' I asked her if she'd rather Americans never come back at all and she turned her back on me. I found out later that four out of her family of five had been killed by the Americans. Her husband came out of their house and said to her 'How dare you be so rude to him!'
Then he invited me into their home, gave me food, invited some of his old NVA buddies over, and we sat and drank quoc lue (rice whiskey) together for hours. A little of that stuff will loosen your tongue up pretty fast! After a couple of shots, one of them looked at me and said, 'You know, it's amazing, but twenty-five years ago I would've blown your brains out if I had the chance.' I said the same went for him. We can joke about it now."
They wanted to know if Joe had been wounded in the war and smiled when he said he'd made it through chua bi thuong, unscathed. Few Vietnamese can say that. "Chua chet!" they say, I'm not dead yet. "One guy started searching his scalp as if he was looking for head lice. Turns out he wanted to show me shrapnel wounds in his hair. Many of them are meeting an American veteran face to facen for the very first time when they meet me. I've found it's sort of a ritual among them to share their war wounds. You know, I can actually foresee joint American and Vietnamese rap groups." The meetings, he says, are the antithesis of war. "War dehumanizes the enemy. Then you come back to their turf and meet them. If you actually knew the people you were fighting during the war it would be counter-productive to war objectives. You'd think of them as human beings, difficult to kill."
Joe feels that those who insisted for so long that the embargo continue are prolongers of the war. The feeling particularly on the part of those involved in the POW/MIA issue was that if the embargo was dropped, the Vietnamese would be less likely to comply with demands to turn over the remains of the missing. Joe has found that the Vietnamese sympathize with the American desire for a return of bodies. After all, they have 300,000 of their own still missing in action. "Two young men I met were only children during the war. But they had distinct memories of their uncles hugging them goodbye before they set off for the south to fight. Their uncles never came back, and they never found their bodies." A monument, perhaps a picture, is all they have to remember them by.
I'd been in the home of an 81 year old North Vietnamese woman who'd lost a son in the war. She took the arrival of her grand-daughter, our guide Mai, and eight Americans in stride, serving the obligatory tea and coconut cookies, and inviting the neighbors over to see us. I leaned in the doorway, admiring her Tet altar decorated with peach blossom branches and offerings of fruit. Above it, in a place of honor, was a faded black and white photo- graph of a soldier. Mai told me, "That is my uncle Hung. He was an NVA soldier and died in the province of Quang Tri in 1970 during the American war." American war, I mused, fascinated by the old woman's complete lack of rancor toward a room full of her son's former enemies. Sometimes we think we're the only ones who suffer losses, or that ours are the only ones that count. It took me a while to get over being in that house, welcomed by that dead soldier's mother.
"I was in Quang Tri. I spent the night there," Joe told me. "In the morning I had breakfast with an ex-NVA soldier and he handed me a Marine dogtag. When I saw it I said, 'Oh no, not another dogtag.' But the man told me he knew for a fact that this one had come from a Marine missing in action in Quang Tri. So I said to him, 'Why are you turning it over to me? The MIA searchers have been to this area. Why didn't you give it to them?' He told me, 'The MIA people come here, they do their work, and they leave. You are the first one who's had the balls to stay in Quang Tri overnight. I give it to you.' I told him I would have to turn it over to them and there would be an investigation. He understood that. He just wanted to give it to the right person."
"I have two dogtags," I told Joe. "I couldn't believe they were selling them outside the Citadel."
"Why not?" Joe countered, "War memorabilia is nothing new. When I was a kid it was a big thing to have a Nazi helmet with a bullet hole in it. They aren't doing anything that hasn't been done before."
I asked him where they'd all come from. I'd seen hundreds since the shock of the first.
"Over three million soldiers passed through Vietnam during the war. Some were killed or wounded and lost their dogtags. Some simply lost them. They were easy enough to lose, tied to a bootlace or worn on a chain around your neck as they were. Not every tag represents a dead or lost soldier. In fact, some of the Vietnamese are manufacturing them now. They're easy enough to make. They sell! When the real ones run out, they'll have plenty of replacements. They've just created their own bizarre war memorabilia industry. They're nothing if not industrious."
My instincts had been right in choosing the most corroded looking dogtags at the Citadel. But then, a little acid could achieve the same look. I wasn't a bad American, I was a naive American.
I asked Joe how seeing things like dogtags made a veteran feel. "Alot of men prepare themselves long in advance before making the trip to Vietnam. And remember, this isn't their first tour. Still, I really think there should be centers for returning vets in both Saigon and Hanoi, a place for vets to get together and discuss their feelings. In fact, I suggested that there should be a chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America here in Hanoi," Joe announced, "but they said I was crazy. Actually, I am receiving thirty percent disability from the government for being crazy from the war. I can't wait till they have to send the checks here to Hanoi!"
"Well," I replied, "at least they only think you're thirty percent crazy."
I didn't find him crazy at all. Lively, intelligent, and opinionated, yes. Maybe a bit wild. But there was an earnestness to all Joe said, and an undercurrent of feeling and emotion flowed in his presence. If that's crazy, then so be it.
The night I left Barbara's apartment in Hanoi, Danny walked me out. By then Joe had run off to meet his host's midnight curfew and Barbara was tired. It was late, almost one in the morning. Danny maneuvered down the dark steps to the street carefully on his metal crutches. A light rain misted against our faces and the wet, dark streets of Hanoi stretched like a labyrinth before us. The city was empty. I'd never seen it like that before. We were totally alone. I offered Danny a Marlboro.
"Wow," he said, "I haven't seen an American cigarette in so long!" We stopped so he could loosen the crutch that ringed his wrist. "I can't smoke and walk," he said with a grin and leaned against a wall. He looked at me. He seemed more at ease now that we were alone. Perhaps it was because my notebook had disappeared. "You wanted to know why we came back to Vietnam," he said, drawing on the cigarette. "Why did you come back?"
I grinned at him. He realized his mistake at once and laughed. "It's funny you said 'come back'," I said. "In some ways I feel like I have come back. To a place I've never been before. Isn't that strange?"
"No, it isn't strange," he replied, gripping the crutches once again. "It isn't strange at all."
I looked around for a streetlight. I didn't really know where we were. I pulled out the card the hotel clerk had given me, telling me, "Give it to the cyclo driver. He'll get you back here."
We walked about a block before we found a cyclo. I'd begun to wonder if we would. The driver wanted to charge me two dollars to get back to the hotel. The going rate was one dollar, or ten thousand dong. Danny argued with him over the price, despite my protests, talking him back down to one dollar. I didn't care what I paid, as long as I got back. Still, I felt apprehensive leaving Danny. Not for him, but for myself.
"I'm staying up the street from here. I can walk," he said, dis- missing the second cyclo that had pulled up. We said goodbye and I told him I hoped I'd see him again the next time I came to Vietnam.
I sat in the baby-buggy-like security of the cyclo, feeling elated and yet nervous. Was I crazy? I was a lone woman, out in the middle of the night, no idea where I was, and completely dependent on a foreign stranger, perhaps an ex-soldier, who could be taking me anywhere. Finally I saw a familiar, suddenly oddly comforting sight - the Hanoi Hilton prison, looming out of the darkness. Then I knew I was only a few blocks from home.