FOR A NATION THAT HAS SO often experienced war, Vietnam’s appearance is peculiarly unmilitaristic. Its armed forces—which report directly to the Communist Party, not the prime minister or president—have been trimmed to 600,000, and I seldom saw soldiers in uniform, much less soldiers carrying weapons. In Washington, D.C., where I’d lived before moving to Vietnam, malls and parks and even street corners all seemed to be adorned with marble statues of generals on rearing horses, their swords raised high. Such reminders of American vic¬tories were everywhere. But Vietnam has little of that. There are no mon¬uments to General Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary hero of the wars against France and the United States. Neither did I see any symbols com¬memorating the sacrifices of the Viet Cong. The few statues that memo¬rialize battle in the cities usually depict peasants, their expressions reflecting defiance and perseverance, not victory. Perhaps the reason is that the Vietnamese, once Ho Chi Minh died, shunned the cult of personality. They celebrated the struggle of the faceless masses, not the achievement of individuals.
The United States spared most of Hanoi in its blitzkrieg from the air, despite the claims of antiwar activists who visited the capital in the 1970s and reported it had been nearly leveled. Bombs didn’t fall around Hoan Kiem lake or in the Old Quarter. So Hanoi’s nonmilitary areas survived the war remarkably intact, its French-influenced architecture—villas with tall, narrow windows, high-ceilinged rooms, small balconies, and wrought-iron gates—still form as pleasing a sight today as a century ago. Down an alleyway off Doi Can Street I happened upon a pond in a work-ing-class neighborhood, and from its murky waters protruded a B-52 bomber, aged with rust and neglect. It had become part of the landscape, and no one paid it much notice. I asked a vendor in the outdoor market that wraps around the pond why the plane hadn’t been removed, like other remnants of war in Hanoi. “Oh,” she said, “more important things to do, I guess.”
To the south a couple miles away, Bach Mai Hospital had barely sur¬vived the Christmas bombings of 1972, during which the B-52 had been shot down. The hospital, now Hanoi’s largest, is fully operational again, its war scars covered under fresh mortar and brick, its orthopedic clinic supported in part by a grant from a U.S. veterans group. Flowers lie on a statue’s pedestal of clustered figures, representing the thirty patients and staff killed by a bomb the Pentagon said was mistakenly dropped that holiday season. The director of the clinic is Nguyen Xuan Nghien, Viet¬nam’s top rehabilitation specialist and a member of the Communist Party.
I had gone to see him, with a government interpreter, to talk about the rehabilitation of Vietnamese with wartime disabilities. I had to wait in his office for nearly an hour while a procession of people streamed in to seek his advice—young doctors carrying envelopes of x-rays, nurses with pre¬scriptions to sign, patients wanting reassurance of relief from pain. He hurried no one and did not seem impatient when another person would burst in unannounced just as he thought his office had been cleared and he could turn his attention to me.
Dr. Nghien was sixty years old. He wore Coke-bottle glasses and was chunkier than most Vietnamese. He spoke some English but often turned to my interpreter for the specific word or phrase he was looking for. He mentioned how grateful he was for the support Americans were providing his clinic and never mentioned that Americans had nearly lev¬eled the place a generation earlier. In our exchange of niceties and in¬quiries about the well-being of each other’s families—an exchange that forms the foundation of every conversation with a Vietnamese—he men¬tioned that his mother was ninety-three years old; he planned to visit her the next week in her village home near the old Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). His two brothers, who had fought for the Saigon regime and still lived in what had been South Vietnam during the American War, would also be at the family reunion. I was still new to peacetime Vietnam at that point and was apprehensive about how I’d be received by the war- battered peasants of the countryside. But I asked if my presence at the re¬union would be an imposition.
“Not an imposition, an honor,” he replied.
FIVE DAYS LATER I took a Vietnam Airlines flight to Danang, hired a driver for the two-hour drive to Dong Ha, and, after making the required courtesy call at the People’s Committee headquarters, followed a dirt road to a small village. It was monsoon season, and the river had swelled above its banks. The road soon became impassable. I got out of the car and walked along a path, my notebook and a newspaper shielding my face from the rain. At the edge of the bamboo thicket a clearing had been cut. Dr. Nghien told me his mother’s house would be the second on the right. The house had a tiled courtyard in front, two rooms, and a narrow, covered porch, on which Mrs. Nguyen Thi Nhien sat in a wooden armchair. She nodded and smiled when I greeted her but said nothing. I could not tell if she could see or hear me distinctly.
The old lady had done a lot of waiting for her sons over the years, and now she was waiting again. Her sons had not arrived. She fidgeted, smoothing the pleats of her purple dress, and peered out into the rain. The bamboo saplings moaned with each gust of wind. Maybe she had the wrong day, she worried. Or maybe it was the rain. How could anyone travel, even to a family reunion, in such weather?