I arrive in Hanoi wondering what I’ll find. I mean, my country bombed the hell out of these people 45 years ago, in a war that most, including Robert McNamara, admit was a horrific mistake. Hanoi. From the time I was 7 years old until, really, 17, the Vietnam war was always on our mind. Walter Cronkite reporting body counts nightly. War protests in Ann Arbor down on campus. Vietnam. In 1965, when I was just a little kid, a 20 yr old who lived just 3 houses down, David McKenzie, was killed in Vietnam after jumping on a hand grenade to protect his friends. I had dreams of the Viet Cong in black pajamas coming for me. And as the war kept going, and I approached 18, the fact that the draft was a lottery didn’t help my fear of having to go myself. I remember vividly one day, I guess I was about 10, sitting alone in my bathroom, terrified that I would have to go to Vietnam. Eventually, movies like Platoon, Red Line, Apocolypse Now, even Good Morning, Vietnam, brought visualizations of what that war was. And all of this was supposed to be coming from the evil Communists led by Ho Chi Minh, and backed by the equally evil Soviets.
So when do I happen to arrive in Hanoi? Why during their national holiday, of course, celebrating their independence from the French, and Ho Chi Minh’s historical speech declaring the establishment of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Vietnam! The red flag with the yellow star in the middle, that I remember anti-war demonstrators waving on campus during the protests, the same flag that for many instilled fear of the inevitable march of Communism through the “Domino Theory”….these flags are out every where I go today, like we put up our American flag on July 4.
So with this as psychological baggage, I walked up to the passport control at Hanoi airport, truly nervous. I know….I’m not ignorant (well, with this sort of thing). I’ve read enough and talked with friends and people who have been here recently. Their reports: Since 1995 and Bill Clinton’s visit, Vietnam has moved on, they truly want to develop their society, and nearly all see most of us Americans as helpful in that. The war was a couple generations ago. Yet, memories are sticky things, and mine, from the musty recesses of my child’s brain, was that Americans came to Vietnam to die. But the woman at the passport window simply looked at my USA passport, smiled (okay, it was more of a bureaucratic perfunctory grimace), checked my visa, handed it back, and said thank you. In English. Thus began the unraveling of my musty memories of Hanoi.
Today I went straight to it. Visited the Hoa Lo prison, the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” that tortured US pilots, including John McCain. Walked up to the ticket booth, paid 20,000 dong (<$1) and just walked in. Remember a few posts ago where I talked about being in an historical place and connecting to it? I did that here too. Most of the prison museum is about how the French imprisoned Vietnamese dissidents (patriots, as presented in the museum posters). And it wasn’t pretty. Even have on display the guillotine they used on some of them. I learned that most of the prison where the American POWs were kept had been torn down for a new shiny shopping mall. But I found two rooms dedicated to the Vietnam War time. Now whether or not the display was propaganda depends on which side you’re on. All I can say is that there is no mention of torture, but plenty of mention of the destruction the 1972 Christmas bombing program (Operation Linebacker II ) did to Hanoi and its residents. And, while being a POW wasn’t great, as the tour guide I was eavesdropping in on explained to the couple from Missouri, the prisoners “were treated well, and could do things like read books, play cards, play basketball, decorate their rooms, ….”. The stories of torture are pretty well documented elsewhere. Anyway, I’ve seen the movie Hanoi Hilton, and it was strange being in that same place. What I left with was a feeling of how badly we humans treat each other. Sobering.
I took more pictures, and may post them eventually, but they’re kind of depressing. If you’re interested, search here.
[A fascinating story of resolve and ingenuity, that I have learned since I wrote this, is that of one particular POW, Jeremiah Denton (who later became a US Senator). During a 1966 TV interview that the North Vietnamese intended to use a propaganda, he blinked out, in Morse Code, “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” without his captors knowing it. A Navy intelligence officer watching the interview noticed it, and that’s how he communicated the real story of what was happening in that prison to American POWs. See clip here. And story here.
After the prison, I needed a break. It was lunch time, so I wandered around and thought I’d found something new and adventurous, but it turned out to the be the same great restaurant I’d been to the day before with Forest, my new Chinese truck sales man buddy (who I’d met in the hotel over breakfast). Decided that I wanted to branch out and try something different so ordered up Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup), not so different, aaaaannndddd…. Green Papaya Salad with Sparrow. That’s right, I ate sparrow. It did NOT taste like chicken , because it was WAY crunchier than chicken. I declined eating the head and beak. But the taste was very nice, rich and slightly gamey, in a good way. As you can imagine, there wasn’t much. I think I got one sparrow, not a flock. Anyway, tasty meal for less than $10, including beer.
Next stop today was the Army Museum, which I heard had a lot of Vietnam War era weapons but not much description. And that pretty much turned out to be true. They had lots of captured materiel. Tanks, jets, howitzers, and plenty of smaller weapons and equipment captured at various times. All of the signs on the US weapons talked about the damage they had done, while all of the Vietnamese weapons talked about the victorious battles they had helped win. Fair enough, it’s their museum. What was odd was seeing specific weapons (like anti-aircraft guns) with the stories about which planes they had shot down, piloted by which US servicemen. With names. I don’t know what to say about this, except it felt odd reading the other side of the story. There is a bust of an old woman, who was quite famous, I guess, for having lost 9 brothers and sons to the wars against the French and US. Can’t imagine losing that many brothers and sons.
Across the street from the museum was a big old Cold War statue of yours and my favorite social engineer, straight from 1919, none other than…….one V. I. Lenin himself! I think this must be one the last remaining public statues of him in the world.
In 2014, when even the Russians don’t have many statues of him any more, as I’ve read, yet his presence in a place of honor just struck me as anachronistic.
My last stop today was Thuc Bach Lake, where Hanoi residents and soldiers hauled John McCain out of, after shooting him down as he was bombing Hanoi . Again, a weird place to be. I mean, a future US Presidential candidate had been pulled out of this lake in front of me, body broken, and near death. Then put in the Hanoi Hilton.
So that was my day of connecting to the Vietnam War in Hanoi. And what it did for me was resolve and reset the decades long mental images and beliefs I’ve carried of this place. This, I think, is how we get over any obsolete and purely invented emotions and thoughts. Get in touch with the reality, and get out of our Shadow thinking. The stark contrast between these images, seen in person, to the experience I’ve had with today’s Hanoi and Vietnam, did the trick.
So next post, TODAY’S Hanoi, and Vietnam! And I think I’ll start off with the fascinating, crazy, almost unbelievable until you see it world of traffic, and scootering!