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David Lamb: A Reporter Returns | The Next Generation | Doing Business in Vietnam
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David Lamb

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 intensely.

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 history.

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 American history."

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.