Vietnam Now: A Reporter Returns
Vietnam was never part of the game plan. It is
one of those places that just crept into my life,
like a stranger come to call, and I had no aim
of ever making it more than a stop in the road.
But Vietnam's seasons drifted into years, nearly
six of them in all, and one day when a bartender
in Thailand saw me with a plane ticket in hand
and asked where I was headed, I replied, "Home."
"You mean the U.S.?" he asked. "No,"
I said. "Hanoi." That was the moment,
I think, I realized Indochina had captured the
soul of another unwary suspect. Vietnam was no
longer just my mail drop. It was where I thought
of home as being and it seemed odd that I could
feel so at peace in a land I once disliked so
The Vietnam I experienced was really two different
countries and neither had much to do with the
other. The first was the Vietnam of the American
War, as the Vietnamese call it, which I covered
for United Press International in the late 1960s.
It was the Vietnam of body counts and illusionary
lights at the end of the tunnel. It was a Vietnam
that, I now realize, I understood shamefully little
about. I encountered Vietnamese people but I did
not make Vietnamese friends. I joined homesick
GIs singing "Danny Boy" and "I
Left My Heart in San Francisco." But I never
read a line of Vietnamese poetry or knew what
songs the Vietnamese sang when they were melancholy.
I left that Vietnam and cared not if I ever saw
the wretched country again. I got on with my life.
The other Vietnam is the one that wove the spell
and teased me with the ghosts of a bygone Indochina,
the one that will forever stir memories of quiet
nights dripping with humidity, of golden rice
paddies stretching to the mountains, and of an
industrious people who have survived, and in some
cases even prospered, against all odds. This is
the post-war Vietnam, where for the first time
in more than a hundred years a generation has
grown into adulthood not knowing foreign domination
or the sound of battle. It is a country that,
for me, was born in 1997 when I moved to Hanoi,
to open the Los Angeles Times first peacetime
bureau in Vietnam. I stayed four years, far longer
than I had intended, and during all that time
I found that nothing was quite as I had expected
it to be.
So my return to Vietnam was not so much the rediscovery
of a county as the discovery of one. Many of my
new friends were former North Vietnamese soldiers.
Some of the people who welcomed me into their
homes had lost two or three sons fighting the
Americans. Not once was I received with anything
less than graciousness. I met writers and teachers
and students and laborers and entrepreneurs. Everywhere
I went, the energy and optimism of the post-war
generation were palpable.
Vietnam, with a population of 80 million, is
the world's twelfth most populous country. Sixty
percent of the Vietnamese were born after the
last Americans went home in 1975. In spite of
rather than because of communism, their standard
of living has risen dramatically in the past decade,
but, given Vietnam's great natural resources and
its clever, persevering work force, I know of
no other country where the gap between potential
and performance is so great. Vietnam remains one
of the world's poorest countries. The majority
of its people get by on the equivalent of a dollar
a day. Most, in the countryside, which holds 80
percent of the population, have never been in
a bank, seen an escalator or had access to a flush
toilet. It was surprising they didn't complain
more. Perhaps the silence of stoicism was the
offspring of long struggle and suffering.
The Vietnamese taught me many things: about patience,
the value of forgiveness, the strength of community
and family. General William Westmoreland was asked
in 1966 about the enormous losses North Vietnam
was enduring: "Oh yes," he replied,
"but you must understand that they are Asians,
and they don't really think about death the way
we do. They accept it very fatalistically."
That is not what I found to be true at all. But
his response did strike a universal chord of truth:
Understanding no culture but one's own leads down
a dangerous path. As far as I could tell, America's
military leadership never had the vaguest idea
who the Vietnamese of the North were, what motivated
them or what the limits of their endurance were.
So what? we said; the Vietnamese were inconsequential
except for the niche they had claimed in our wartime
A reader of The Los Angeles Times asked
me to suggest some books on Vietnam worth reading.
I offered three -- books about the society and
culture and history written from the Vietnamese
perspective. She went to a university bookshop
in New York City and was surprised not to find
a single book on Vietnam in any of the likely
sections. She asked the clerk why the store didn't
carry Vietnam titles. "Oh, we do, lots of
them," the clerk replied. "They're under
We claimed the history and the pain of the war
as ours exclusively. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
wall became the symbol of all we had lost. We
returned to it time and again, to reflect, to
mourn, to heal. The names chiseled into the black
granite were the story of the war. But surely
there was more to it than that. Surely one haunting
question remained to be asked: What happened on
the other side of the wall?
Vietnam Now: A Reporter Returns is published
by Public Affairs, New York, and is available
in bookstores nationwide.