When I was a boy, I knew that one day I would go to Vietnam. It was a sure thing: when you reached a certain age, there was something called “the draft” and through it you would become a soldier and go to Vietnam to fight the communists and stop them from taking over California. My friends’ big brothers went, as did some of their younger uncles. Most of them came back, but they didn’t talk about it.
When I was a kid, it didn’t occur to me that the war would, or even could, end. It had always been there; we watched it on TV every night. My grandfather had gone off to stop the Germans from taking over his adopted homeland (he immigrated from Sicily), and I would go stop the commies. In the meantime, we played with our plastic guns and tried to train up as best we could.
I was perhaps 8 when my grandfather, who generally displayed the kind of ardent, grateful patriotism that only immigrants demonstrate, reacted strongly one night to a discussion about my inevitable tour of duty in Vietnam (I suppose he, too, figured the war would never end) by saying, “No, you’ll go to Canada.” I was shocked, and somewhat disappointed, but he was adamant. (My grandfather, who was a man of few words, made proclamations with the moral authority of Moses.) His face took on a hardened expression, and unspoken wartime memories flashed in his eyes. “You will never know war,” he said. And that was that.
By the time I reached the age of 18, the war had been over for nearly seven years, and I had become an ardent anti-militarist, anyway. However, come to Vietnam I did, albeit only now, at 43—not to fight but to teach a graduate class.
Not that it wasn’t dangerous. Don’t misunderstand: Ho Chi Minh City (as Saigon is now known) has very little crime; the danger comes from crossing the street.
While on a trip to Singapore a few weeks before my Vietnam foray, a friend of mine who had lived in the country for several years gave me some pointers about how to cross the street: “What you have to do,” he explained, “is walk slowly, and don’t vary your speed. Just keep walking and they’ll adjust, in all probability missing you.” It was the “in all probability” that stuck in my mind, but, when it comes right down to it, you don’t have much of a choice, unless you want to restrict your movements to the one square block on which your hotel is located.
It’s not the cars, of which there are relatively few. It’s the motorbikes, which swarm around like frenzied locusts, ridden by helmetless individuals, or even entire helmetless families, in a pattern reminiscent of India. (Incidentally, if you ever do want to get your family of four on a small motorbike, there is an invariable technique to it: the smallest child sits in front, his chin over the handlebars; next comes the man, who drives the contraption and tries to make sure the littlest child doesn’t fall off; next comes the second child; then comes the woman, who tries to make sure the second child doesn’t fall off.) The difference is that here they probably will miss you if you walk slowly and steadily across the street. The same cannot be said for India. Still, it’s best to keep your eye on the traffic and vary your pace a little as you wade through the oncoming wheeled death.
And you’ll want to walk. Most of what you’d like to see in Saigon (I’ll keep calling it that, as it’s more practical and more poetic than Ho Chi Minh City, and the locals call it that, anyway) is within walking distance. And the city, despite the pollution constantly being spewed by all those motorbikes, is pleasant enough. Lots of trees.
Which brings us to the War Remnants Museum. (Actually, it doesn’t, but I’m at a loss for a segue here.) Until a few years ago, this was called the War Crimes Museum, but Vietnam has changed a lot over the last few years, and the museum was recently repositioned and redesigned.
Here, I got to see what I missed by not being born a few years earlier. Here, I saw just a little of why my grandfather had wanted to send me to Canada.
This is no balanced view of the atrocities committed during that sad conflict. It is propaganda, to be sure. But it was far less blatant than I had expected. There are tanks and planes and guns outside, almost all of them captured American equipment, and there are various objects in display cases, but the museum’s real impact is in its photo gallery. I certainly expected to see pictures of Americans doing horrible things, and some of the things are too horrible to imagine, but there were also a lot of pictures, taken by Western correspondents, of Americans just trying to survive: American medics trying to help their compatriots; American soldiers writing letters, or smoking cigarettes, or sheltering from enemy fire, or just staring at some distant point, stubble on their chins and incomprehension in their eyes. You feel for these guys, they are all too human, and it’s good that the Vietnamese have put these photos here.
Still, it’s the photos of the Vietnamese that hurt the most. I don’t know what expression I wore as I looked at them. I sat down near a bunch of photos showing napalm victims, all civilians. I won’t describe these photos to you. After a few moments, I sat nearby and considered the faces of the people who came to look at the pictures.
The Vietnamese stared at them with no expression, then they moved on. The Westerners all stopped, and almost all of them took on the expression of someone looking into the sun—squinting, trying to keep out the light. A young woman put her hand to her mouth. Her hand trembled. A tall man, perhaps 20 years my senior, wearing a checked shirt and a white baseball cap, came up to the wall with the pictures on it. He was accompanied by his wife and a young Vietnamese woman with a nametag, who appeared to be their guide. The man stopped. He slowly took off his hat and stared at the pictures. His wife said something, but he seemed not to have heard. Eventually, the two women backed away and left him there alone.
He was American, of that I am sure. (Trust me: after a few years of living abroad, you can tell Americans.) I couldn’t shake the conviction that he had fought in that war. Perhaps he had been a pilot. Perhaps he had dropped bombs. I was briefly tempted to try to interview him, but luckily I was overcome with a sense of reason and common decency. He took a few steps to his left, to look at a fragment of a bomb casing displayed under the famous Pulitzer Prize–winning picture of a naked young girl who had been napalmed. He bent over and touched the bomb casing, then he stood up and looked at the picture. He stayed there for a long while, then moved on slowly.
The war museum is an emotionally taxing experience, one that requires a good long walk afterward. The fine-arts museum can be emotional, too, in a much more subdued way. Here, in a refurbished colonial building, are paintings and sculptures by various Vietnamese artists, and here you get a look, beyond the propaganda, at the impact that a thousand years of conflict can have upon a nation. So many of the paintings and sculptures touch on war and loss, even if it’s only in the eyes of a young girl.
One of the young girls in question was painted by Nguyen Dang Khoat, a 55-year-old artist based in Saigon. The girl in the painting sits in white mist holding a lotus flower. The painting was on the ground floor, where the museum was holding an exhibition of work by four artists from the south of the country, with some of the work available for purchase. I found the painting beautiful, and it was on sale for a reasonable amount of money. Although I’m not prone to impulse buying (except in matters pertaining to music or literature), I suddenly decided to leave with Girl With Lotus Flower.
It turns out that I could only pay with cash, and I didn’t have that much cash on me. The woman at the entrance to the museum explained via a mix of English and sign language that I should go with her colleague, an elderly Vietnamese man wearing a floral-print shirt. I assumed that in some other part of the museum they had some kind of facility for paying with credit cards, but it turned out that the facility in question was across town. The old man took me out to the parking lot (where there were only motorbikes parked) and gestured for me to get on the back of his bike.
What the hell.
And so I found myself careening through Saigon, helmetless, behind the Vietnamese gentleman. I comforted myself by thinking that if he had managed to reach his evidently advanced age, then he had so far avoided any major accidents and must therefore be possessed of a high level of skill in these matters. I adopted my usual mad-ride-in-a-motor-vehicle defense mechanism, which is to close my eyes. With eyes closed, the gentle (actually, not so gentle) swaying, starting, stopping, and honking can actually be relaxing, in a high-adrenaline kind of way.
So I acquired Girl With Lotus Flower and walked it back to my hotel in a makeshift cardboard container. It was not easy getting her from there back to Paris, but after a few more adventures we both made it home, where she now adorns my wall, forever contemplating her flower and whatever she sacrificed to find it.