Plus, times have changed. Vietnam now seeks U.S. investment and as¬sistance, technology and expertise. Americans are a welcome sight. Their presence is confirmation that better days lie ahead—and evidence that Vietnam’s international isolation, engineered by the United States in the postwar years, is over. What consumes the people’s energies now is eco¬nomic development. To achieve it, they know they have to look forward, not backward.
Although I searched for explanations, I never doubted that the Viet¬namese affability was sincere. Just as they didn’t much take to the gruff and somber Soviets who overran Vietnam after the American War, they genuinely liked the gregarious and curious Americans who traded jokes with them, asked them about the war, and knew the value of a smile. And I think they were just as aware as I was that Americans and Vietnamese share an almost inexplicable bond. It is not the bond of natural friendship that Americans might feel for, say, Australians, or a bond of cultural link¬age as some Americans feel for Africa or Great Britain. Rather, it is some¬thing deeper and more mysterious. It is a liaison woven in tragedy and common suffering, a tie strengthened by the flight of hundreds of thou¬sands of Vietnamese to the United States, who, having generally pros¬pered in their new home, now return to the land of their birth in large numbers each year, as visitors and businesspeople, to showcase the Amer¬ican Dream. Perhaps as much as anything, the bond is rooted in the real¬ization that the war changed the United States as much as it did Vietnam.
MY FIRST SPRING IN PEACETIME VIETNAM arrived and, with it, my fifty-eighth birthday. I remembered that when I’d gone off to cover the war, shortly after my twenty-eighth birthday, my friends considered me a wise-guy, always joking and full of mischief. I was a night owl who could party and drink until dawn. I came home more serious and, perhaps for the first time, sensitive to pain in the world around me. So I guess Viet¬nam had changed me, too. Or maybe the passing years would have done that anyway. Sandy and I had dinner at the Press Club in Hanoi, where I ordered Australian wine and a black Angus steak imported from the United States. I had insisted on no birthday cake, but, as I knew would happen, one still arrived at the end of dinner, a single candle burning on top. Then a few days later I headed off to Vinh, a drab port city 190 miles south of Hanoi. Vinh isn’t much of a place—it’s known as the ugliest city in Vietnam—but the real miracle of Vinh is that it survived at all. To the Northern communists, Vinh was “the throat that fed the stomach,” the main supply point for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, whose network of paths and roads carried Hanoi’s soldiers and equipment to the southern battle¬fields. The French started bombing Vinh in 1931 and didn’t stop until 1952. Then, a decade later, the Americans took over. By the time they had finished, all that still stood in the oncc-proud city were a provincial guest¬house and two college dormitories. Vinh had entered history as the only Vietnamese city totally destroyed by the United States. Except for a de¬tachment of antiaircraft gunners, its population in 1972 was zero.
“I can tell you exactly when the first American planes came,” said a seventy-one-year-old veteran, Nguyen Van Ngoc, who was showing me around and, despite all conventional wisdom, talking up Vinh’s potential as a tourist destination. “It was August 5,1964.1 was bicycling back from the port. This place was alive then. We had enough supplies coming through Vinh by rail and sea to equip 100 armies. We’d been bombed on and off by the French for twenty years so we knew what bad times were but we thought they were over. Then on that day, August 5, in the morn¬ing, I caught a glimpse of six or seven planes, American planes it turned out, headed for us and I said, ‘Uh-oh, here we go again.’”
Ngoc and I piled into a four-wheel-drive vehicle driven by a member of the People’s Committee and drove over to sec the two abandoned col¬lege dormitories. They seemed in danger of collapsing. Trees and vines flung to crumbling brick walls, branches slithered in and out of shattered windows. The outside walls were studded with gaping holes. I peered in a ground-floor window, at what I imagined had been a bedroom. Its ceiling had disappeared and plaster littered the floor. There was a door frame leading to a long corridor but no door. I wondered what had become of the students who had once lived there. Had they ever returned to remem¬ber what university life had been like before the war? How many had gone off to war? How many had died?
I asked Ngoc if he knew and he said, no, he had no idea. Those were questions, he said, best addressed to the provincial People’s Committee. He said all he could be sure of was that Vinh was nothing but a pile of bricks after the war. “We had to rebuild the city from the ground up, from zero,” he said. But he had great hopes for Vinh. The population now topped 200,000. A bank had opened; the Huu Nghi (Friendship) Hotel had been renovated and expanded to seventy-four rooms; the port was being upgraded, boosted by the trade of smuggled goods, from timber to cigarettes, that flowed out of Laos on Highway 9 and ended up in Vinh for transshipment. And then there was tourism: Once foreigners learned there was a good hotel in Vinh and that Ho Chi Minh had been born in 1890 in a three-room thatched-roof house a few miles away, the city would be hard-pressed to handle all the visitors, he boasted.