Along the way they dug up forty-five unmarked graves, hoping one would be Dung’s or hold a clue to his fate. When Ky would declare, “We must dig here!” the soldiers would ask: “Mother, how could you recognize your son even if we find something? Bones are only bones.” Ky would re¬ply: “1 will recognize Dung by his teeth. He had such beautiful teeth.”
Ky never did find her boy. “Yes, I have been discouraged to search so long and still not have the answer,” she told me one day in Hanoi after re¬turning from another journey to the distant Highlands. “There were times I thought I could not climb another mountain or dig up another grave. But I found the strength. Just as any mother would find the strength.”
At each battlefield she visited, Ky scooped up a handful of dirt and pebbles and placed them in a plastic bag. Eventually she had man)’ bags, and one day she mixed all the dirt together and poured it into a ceramic urn. She choose a handsome headstone and on it had the words cut Ho VIET DUNG, 1952-1972, LOVED ALWAYS. An engraved portrait of Dung was mounted on the marker. Then, in a military cemetery in Hanoi, she buried the urn and placed fruit and flowers and incense on the grave. It was not what she had hoped for, but she comforted herself in thinking that maybe in the dirt she had brought home were slivers of Dung’s bones, and in so believing, Dung’s soul had been reclaimed from the eternal wandering of the lost.
IN 1992 NGUYEN NGOC HUNG, a university English professor in Hanoi, became the first former NVA soldier to go to the United States to meet groups of U.S. Vietnam vets. Although Vietnam was still on Wash¬ington’s enemy list at the time, Hung was allowed to travel freely throughout the country, and from his reconciliation mission grew a bond of kinship between veterans groups of former enemies. Two years later the Vietnam Veterans of America and other organizations began assisting the Vietnamese’s search for MI As—one of whom was Hung’s brother, a twenty-year-old private who died fighting U.S. troops near Danang. Since 1994, thousands of GIs have turned over to the Vietnamese em¬bassy in Washington and to their local service organizations souvenirs and photographs and letters and wallets taken from dead soldiers. They have passed on scores of maps showing unexplored battle sites and places where bulldozers dug trenches for mass graves. Their efforts have helped locate thousands of Vietnamese MIAs.
But for innumerable families, the search goes on. The army provides soldiers to escort families to battlefields and to help dig up unmarked graves. Local People’s Committees provide financial assistance—$1.75 per day for guides and 80 cents per day, for no more than four days, to cover a family’s food costs. The state-run TV network broadcasts a thirty-minute show each week showing pictures of MIAs and reporting what informa¬tion is known about their final days; it is the most-watched program in Vietnam.
Like most Asians, Vietnamese are superstitious. They would not con¬sider making an important decision or picking a date to start construction on a home or getting married without consulting an astrologer. They won’t pose as a trio for a photograph because the person in the middle is apt to be struck by ill fortune. The communist government frowns on su¬perstition and mysticism; in the 1970s and 1980s it banned fortune-telling and even ordered a village in Vinh Phu Province to stop worshipping Ho Chi Minh as the eighteenth king in the Hung Dynasty. But as Vietnam began lightening up in the 1990s, the ban on fortune-tellers was lifted, and psychics and seers returned in strength. Some have become special¬ists in locating MIAs.
I climbed the stairs to the second-story Hanoi home of Nguyen Van Lien, an MIA psychic whose fame had spread throughout Vietnam. Thirty or more pairs of shoes were arranged neatly on his doorstep. In the sparsely furnished living room there was a gold bust of Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese flag, and an altar overflowing with red and white flowers, rice, fruits, small amounts of money, burning incense, several roasted chickens, and a bowl of candy. Lien’s visitors sat barefoot on the tile floor, packed shoulder to shoulder, each hoping that he or she would be sum¬moned by the great seer to unlock the mystery of a relative long listed as missing in action. Lien was a thin, wiry man of thirty-seven. He had a soft, high-pitched voice and a steady, steely stare. Like some other clair¬voyants who had had success in locating unmarked graves, his work was sanctioned by the government’s Science Technology Union. Lien could not explain his gift, other than to say, “I had two serious fevers as a young man, and when I survived I found I had the ability of a fortune-teller.”
An elderly man and his wife were called forward. They pulled up chairs in front of the wooden table where Lien sat. On the table were a desk phone, a portable phone, a tape recorder, a large pad of white paper, and five colored felt-tip markers. Lien only wanted a single piece of in- formation from his visitors: their family name (it was Tran). Wordlessly Lien began to sketch. The old man leaned forward to watch. His wife be¬gan to pray. Lien’s fingers swept over the blank sheet of paper as though propelled by exotic forces. Rivers took form. Then from the green marker, mountains. Towns were filled in as series of short vertical lines. Bit by bit a detailed map emerged: roads, forests, paddies, a cemetery, then black dashes for individual graves. His pen stopped in midstroke. He fixed the Trans with a smile. The room was hushed. Lien took a drag on his water- pipe and slapped at a mosquito.
“Here,” Lien said, tapping a black dash with his pen. ‘‘This is where you must dig. You must leave as soon as you have money from the harvest to travel. Your son died May fifth of the moon calendar. His grave is in the fifth zone, Quang Nam Province, Que Phong district, Que Son commune. There are 300 graves in the cemetery. Your son’s is the second of the third row. There is only one-quarter of a skull, two leg bones, and one hand bone. Not much, but that will be enough to end your search.”