The War Nobody Won 18

Thousands of former refugees were also going back, mainly from the United States. Called Viet Kieu—overseas Vietnamese—they included graduates of prestigious American business and law schools. Many of them, because of their linguistic ability and knowledge of customs, were coveted as go-betweens by foreign investors. Others were themselves searching to invest, usually in small enterprises. Still others, known as “spacemen,” shuttled back and forth across the Pacific, cobbling together deals. Posing as big-time slickers, some had inveigled women into phony marriages. The Vietnamese regarded them with esteem, envy or con¬tempt, depending on their conduct.
America’s legacy in Vietnam ran deeper than Americans realized. 1 kept meeting Vietnamese who had worked for the United States during the war. In a Mekong Delta town, for instance, I was approached by a middle-aged woman. Did I, she asked in passable English, know Sergeant McNeil, the manager of the officers’ club where she had been a waitress. She was unable to prove it, since she had lost her identity card. I presumed that she had destroyed the card to avoid being branded by the Communists as an American collaborator and sent to a reeduca¬tion camp.
Every Vietnamese on both sides had lost a father, a brother or a son in the war—and even countless women and children had died or been crippled. They could not have forgotten their agony, yet I was struck by their reluctance to dwell on conflict. It may have been that, because they had fought so often throughout the centuries, rehashing the past was low on their list of priorities. Or perhaps they were too concerned with improving their living conditions. In any case, they showed little resent¬ment toward the United States. In Hanoi, trophy American tanks and aircraft stood at the entrance to the war museum—but inside, the main exhibit was a diorama of Vietnam’s rout of the Mongols in 1287.
The novels, poems and memoirs by American veterans invariably concentrated on the war’s horrors while Communist accounts celebrated it as an epic. But, by the 1990s, a few Communist veterans had begun to write about their ordeals. I spent an evening drinking beer in a Hanoi cafe with Bao Ninh, a shaggy-haired former North Vietnamese sergeant in his early forties, who was reprimanded by the regime for stressing the “utterly tragic” aspect of the struggle rather than its glories in his vivid novel, The Sorrow of War. “I fought for six years,” he said, “and would surely have been killed had it gone on much longer. It depresses me to think about our casualties. We had to win, but we should not look back on it as heroic or on ourselves as superhuman.”
Official U.S. communiques and press reports had conveyed the idea that U.S. air strikes were devastating North Vietnam. The American raids had pummeled enemy depots, .supply routes and other targets and, on my initial trip to the region, I expected to see it in ruins. Yet Hanoi, Haiphong and the nearby countryside were almost totally unscathed. I remembered General Curtis LeMay’s thunderous cry to “bomb them back to the Stone Age”—but, scanning the north, I concluded that it had been in the Stone Age for decades.
During the war, the Communists had refused me a visa to Hanoi. But, when I did get there, its population of three million seemed to me to be languishing in a time warp. One of Asia’s oldest towns, its decrepit temples and monuments testified to its grandeur as the imperial capital of Tonkin, the northernmost state of ancient Vietnam. The French had adopted the city late in the nineteenth century as the seat of their colo¬nial administration. As they had in Saigon, they paved the streets and lined them with trees, laid out squares and erected pastel villas with tiled roofs, curled eaves and spacious verandas—a hybrid style caricatured as “Norman pagoda.” They put up imposing office buildings set in lush gardens and a duplicate of the Paris opera. Now, though, the economic crisis had plunged Hanoi into misery. People spent hours foraging for a scrap of food or a stick of firewood. Peasants who had crept into the town from famine areas begged in front of hotels for foreigners, and bundled together for warmth in the streets on cold, drizzly nights. The old French villas were mildewed and decayed. Practically nothing new had been constructed for half a century except two grotesque granite edifices—one of them a museum containing Ho Chi Minh’s memora¬bilia, the other a mausoleum displaying his embalmed body, conceived by Soviet architects to imitate Lenin’s tomb in Moscow.
Ho would have been appalled. He specified in his will that his ashes be placed in three ceramic urns and buried on unmarked hilltops around the country. “Cremation,” he said, “is not only good from the point of view of hygiene, but it saves farmland.” Seeking to bask in his refracted glory, however, his successors violated his wish. The disclosure of what they had done caused a sensation when his former secretary revealed it in 1989, twenty years after his death. One official defended the trans¬gression, though, telling me, “We exhibited Uncle Ho because he belongs to the people.” He had a point. Every day masses of Vietnamese shuffled into the mausoleum, scores of them carrying infants, many weeping as they gazed at the waxen corpse of their savoir.
On that early journey I stayed at the Thong Nhat, or “Reunification Hotel,” once the sumptuous Metropole, opened by a French firm in 1911. Paint flaked from its ceilings, its bathroom fixtures leaked and rats scurried around its lobby, where outmoded European leftists exchanged fatuous revolutionary jargon with Asian, African and Latin American insurgents often trained in Vietnam. Meticulously restored by a French conglomerate in partnership with the Vietnamese tourist board, it was inaugurated in March 1992, and could have been in Paris. Though pa¬tronized mainly by foreigners who could afford its high rates, it never¬theless indicated that Hanoi, while not as frenetic as Ho Chi Minh City, was inching toward capitalism.

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