Let Saigons Be Bygones
Thirty-five years ago, I refused to let my government send me to Vietnam. So why did I finally go? Because my kid sister asked me to.
WHY DID I GO TO VIETNAM recently when I refused to 35 years ago? The answer is that this time I was going to visit my sister, Marcie. Another answer to that good question is that Vietnam was a bad war. In the late sixties I’d been in the Peace Corps in Borneo helping people who wore conical hats and worked with water buffalo in rice paddies. When I returned to the good ol’ USA, I found myself in the basement thinkin’ ’bout the government. They wanted to send me back over to Asia to kill the same people. It was unconscionable, I told them. It wasn’t even cost-effective. Neither argument, however, seemed to cut much ice with the draft board. I had to trot out a phalanx of rabbis and shrinks to confirm my insanity and thereby, perhaps quite literally, dodge the bullet.
But that was then and this is now. People in both the East and the West long ago decided to let Saigons be bygones. My own kid sister is currently, in fact, the head of the American Red Cross in Vietnam. Marcie has been based in Hanoi for several years and is in love with the culture and the people. “You won’t believe it,” she told me. “It’s a country of eighty million people with no Christians, no Jews, no Muslims, no Starbucks, no McDonald’s, and no Burger Kings. It’s paradise!” So a few months ago I went to Vietnam to visit her. And guess what? She wasn’t wrong.
Vietnam is halfway around the world from the sign in front of the Kerrville church that used to read “Jesus Is Our Quarterback.” If you travel west you can get to the East in roughly 24 hours. That gave me a lot of time to think about Marcie, who’s sixteen years younger than I, though we’ve always been close. I’ve watched with pride as she’s developed into what she humorously refers to as a “professional do-gooder.” She grew up in Austin, attended Yale and Berkeley, and came within a tadpole of being a Ph.D. in biology before jumping species and deciding to devote her efforts to that most troublesome and needy of all living creatures, the human being.
Soon Marcie was heading up disaster-relief teams in Nicaragua, after torrential flooding; in Kauai, after Hurricane Iniki; and in Turkey, after a series of devastating earthquakes. She has traveled and lived in places like China, Mexico, Australia, and Easter Island. Marcie also spent several years in Washington as a senior program manager at the Red Cross and seven summers directing our family’s summer camp, Echo Hill Ranch, with our father. By the time I visited her in Hanoi, she already had a large, colorful group of friends and colleagues. I didn’t have to make new friends; I just borrowed hers.
One friend, Professor Nguyen Trong Nhan, a former Vietnamese minister of health, grew up watching old Hollywood cowboy movies. He said it had broken his heart to know that the American cowboy was fighting on the other side. Another friend, Larry Holtzman, had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia when JFK was assassinated and was now busy dispensing contraceptives throughout Vietnam. I told him it was probably an easier gig than it would be in the States. “One nation under what’s-his-name?” he said. Dr. Le Cao Dai had been a legendary Viet Cong hospital commander. His name has many meanings, depending on inflection and tonality; thus it was that a Swedish social worker followed the revered man around for seven years calling him Dr. Urine. Mr. Phan Thanh Hai works for the Danang Red Cross. When Marcie and I saw signs everywhere that read “March 29,” we asked Mr. Hai what was up. Merely stating historical fact, he said, “That’s the day we defeated the running dogs of American imperialism.” Then there was Marcie’s friend who owned a sugar factory and named his small boy Ice Cream.
The children of Vietnam are among the most attractive and charming in the world. They are bright, friendly, and inquisitive, and they often call out to American strangers like shy little birds singing, “Hen-no,” which, of course, is how they pronounce “hello.” Marcie has a special bond with these children: She recently helped procure, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an $8 million soy milk program for the country’s schools—the largest American Red Cross package of its kind in Southeast Asia.
Hanoi itself is a magical, ancient city currently inhabited by three million people, three million cell phones, and three million motorbikes. Throw some cars, bicycles, and rickshaws into the soup, and crossing the street becomes a Zen exercise. There are almost no traffic lights, signals, or lanes, so you must walk very slowly and confidently, allowing the motorbikes to zip by from both directions on either side of you. Whatever you do, once you’ve committed to crossing the street, you mustn’t stop. If you freeze in the middle, they can’t tell which way you’re going to jump.
The Vietnamese people are intelligent, kindhearted, and industrious and, as Marcie says, “the very last people on earth with whom we should have gone to war.” The Vietnamese like Americans; we are merely a footnote in their long history. They don’t seem to carry grudges, even when perhaps they should—e.g. Agent Orange. I walked with Marcie on China Beach, in Danang, a long, lovely, nearly deserted stretch of sandy, scenic shoreline. It was hard to believe that the 300,000 American GI’s who had once been garrisoned here had left almost no footprints in the sand. (For a brief time, Marcie thought about putting a message on the answering machine at her office saying, “Welcome to the American Red Cross office in Hanoi. We apologize for our thirty-year disruption in service.”)
As I left Vietnam, oddly enough, I thought of the cheerful taxi driver who’d taken me to the Honolulu airport for the flight over. She’d been born in Saigon, and she’d never been to Hanoi. But her father had spent twenty years there in a re-education camp after the war. As a child she’d drifted with the boat people on a horrifying journey to Malaysia, the Philippines, and finally, Hawaii. Did she like it here? I asked. “I love America,” she said.
So it is with all wars: Some will die, some will be heroes, some will be liberated, and some are still not free. The only thing we can be sure of is that nobody ever really wins.