CLOSURE 3

“If you’re going to catch up with the rest of Southeast Asia, you need high-speed Internet access,” one executive said. “My company can do that. We’ll wire Vietnam for broadband. The entire country. For free.” Government officials listened politely, thanked their guests, and said they’d consider the offer. And so it went with each offer. The business-men went home, mumbling that the Vietnamese were ingrates, arrogant, out of touch. They just don’t get it. They’ve got their heads in the sand. There were moments when I agreed. But the bottom line was that it was about priorities, not money. And broadband wasn’t high on their list of immedi¬ate priorities. Political stability was. Education was. And better roads, more plentiful rice harvests, increased employment opportunities, a higher standard of living. Everything, though, was undertaken with cau¬tion and much deliberation. They looked around at their neighbors who had embraced democracy and Western models of development: Indone¬sia was a political shambles, the Philippines an economic wreck, Thailand a social disgrace with its flourishing sex industry. Even the most liberal Vietnamese didn’t want that. Most were content to move with vigilance and patience, characteristics that had served Vietnam well in the past.
I asked a thirty-year-old Viet Kieu who had returned to Vietnam for his first visit since fleeing as a child of war what three adjectives he would use to describe his homeland. He said “nostalgic,” “sad,” “inspiring.” Strangely, it is all those things. It is nostalgic, for me anyway, because my generation—even those who never set foot in Vietnam—came of age in this faraway land and lost an innocence here that can never be reclaimed. It is sad because Vietnam could have been much more prosperous and healthy if its entrenched, aging leadership had sought reconciliation be¬tween North and South and understood that nationalism can mean chal¬lenging the failures of one’s government as well as applauding its accom¬plishments. Given the dangers of challenging, most Vietnamese opted for safe passage. Trinh Cong Son—the antiwar balladeer known as the Bob Dylan of Vietnam—forsook social protest and turned to writing love songs before he died of cancer in the spring of 2001. Bao Ninh—whose internationally acclaimed book The Sorrow of War had been criticized by Vietnam’s generals as insufficiently celebratory of the communist vic¬tory—took to writing short stories for newspapers. They had surrendered their creative voices. And Vietnam is inspiring because a proud, industri¬ous people endured terrible times, both during and after the war, and were strong enough to bury the past, to capitalize on the peace, and to reach out to people like me who were once their enemy.
Perhaps the graciousness and warmth Americans receive in Vietnam reflect a universal mentality that is not unique to the Vietnamese: Those who have suffered—even if they have brought the suffering upon each other—share a bond. “You have your pain,” said economist Ngo Duc Ngo, who served in North Vietnam’s army and lost two brothers in the American War. “We have our pain. So we understand you.” The irony is that the Vietnamese understand us better than we understand them. We became so self-obsessed with our pain that we never thought much about theirs. Theirs was a pain rooted in a stunning statistic: One of every ten Vietnamese was killed or wounded in the war. If the United States had suffered as many casualties as Vietnam did, our dead, on a per capita ba¬sis, would have numbered 27 million.
An hour’s drive northwest of Hanoi lies the Thuan Thanh Rehabilita¬tion Center for military veterans. One hundred thirty-six men live there. All are paralyzed; most were soldiers of the American War. Sometimes in the night Be Van Nhop hears a voice that calls out from the next room, “Rush forward, comrades! The enemy’s everywhere,” and Nhop will an¬swer softly, “Be still, Tran. You are having a bad dream. Be still.”
Tran falls silent, and the next morning he has forgotten his nightmare. By lunchtime he has joined Nhop to watch a pickup badminton match among the staff. Nhop moves the wheelchair, which he calls a “flying dragon,” through the center’s paved yard with dexterity, his forearms muscled, his hands callused from years of self-propulsion.
“In a way we are lucky because we live as a family here,” Nhop said. “We have sympathy for each other and love each other—and anyone who knows what it is to suffer in war. Some time ago an American soldier from the war came to visit us. He had lost both legs. When we saw his condition we cried and hugged him. We considered him one of us. The fact we were enemies on the battlefield didn’t matter. Here at Thuan Thanh we were friends.”
One of the doctors, Dinh Van San, showed me around the center. It didn’t remind me at all of the cheerless, antiseptic VA hospitals I’d seen in the United States. Thuan Thanh was just a cluster of one-story buildings constructed around the yard. It looked more like a school or a rural hotel than a hospital. Around the facility a village had grown. Families had moved into the village to be near crippled loved ones. Village children adopted uncles from among the vets who were without families. The vets were free to come and go as they pleased, and you’d pass them cruising down the road in their flying dragons or hanging out at the shop near the front gate, drinking Coke and smoking 555s.

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