“I’m not bitter at all,” he said. “I could have left as a political or eco¬nomic refugee, but self-respect never would have let me think of myself as a refugee, though I have no quarrel with friends who decided to go. We all have to make our own decisions. But I stayed because I wanted to. Generally, things are getting better in Vietnam. And for my son’s genera¬tion, life is improved, very much improved. You just have to learn to ac¬cept things as they are.”
That’s what the Southerners like Cu who didn’t support the Viet Cong have done. This isn’t the Vietnam they wanted or expected, and commu¬nism isn’t an ideology they have embraced. But the spirit to question and criticize has left them. They decided not to walk away, so what was the choice but to play the hand they were dealt? Life had gotten better. They no longer have to fear their government as long as they aren’t interested in making a political statement—which describes the overwhelming ma¬jority of Vietnamese—and reconciliation between North and South has been achieved on a personal level. No one cares which side his neighbor fought for. After the war all the plum jobs and positions of power went to Northerners and Southern revolutionaries. Cu could even accept that fact, as long as his now-grown children were given the equality of oppor¬tunity that his own generation was denied.
NGUYEN Due BAO WAS ON Saigon’s northern perimeter at midmorn¬ing on April 30,1975, locked in mortal combat against the last organized resistance the South Vietnamese would offer. Nine years earlier he had said goodbye to his wife and two children in Hanoi and started the long, dangerous trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail with 5,000 men of the NVA’s 141st regiment. “The jungle was nothing new to me,” he said. “I’d been fighting in it better than half my life.” His right forearm bore the jagged outline of the Vietnamese flag he had tattooed into his skin with a sewing needle and ink after joining the Viet Minh and fighting the French as a teenager.
“I really had no idea that we were fighting the last battle of the war,” the seventy-year-old retired colonel said. “We had been fighting so long it was hard to believe the war would not go on forever. That morning the enemy fought well. The fighting was very heavy. There were dead on both sides. Then just like that”—he snapped his fingers—“the firing stopped and the war was over. That night, for the first time in months, we got to sit quietly and talk about our comrades who died, to write letters to our families in the North. It was strange having the time to do that and not having to worry if patrols would see the lights of our campfires. I was so happy I couldn’t sleep. I had not seen my wife and children in almost ten years. Ten years. That was several lifetimes in those days.”
Bao had made notes about his military career in preparation for my visit, and sometimes when he dwelt on some minor happening with painfully exact detail I’d try to push him along a bit. He always seemed disappointed but would turn the page. We sipped Cokes. His daughter, a teacher, stood behind him, occasionally supplying missing words when his memory slipped. At my request he brought out his NVA uniform. He put it on as he does each April 30 and on other national holidays. His daughter helped him line up the buttons with the proper buttonholes. “Now that looks better,” she said, straightening the collar.
I asked him what he had done after the war. “I was in charge of a re¬education camp,” he said. “We had 40,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, including twenty-three generals.”
“How did you treat them?”
“In a very humanitarian way. We didn’t kill them or knock them down. I always thought of them as victims of the war. But they were not broth¬ers. They had been brainwashed by the puppet regime in Saigon. Our job was to teach them how to make progress and become good persons. If they were good at studying and good at laboring, they got to go back to their families early. Each time I came to visit them on work details, they were happy. They treated me with respect. In the fields they worked with¬out shirts. They’d put their shirts on when I came and they’d call me ‘Mr. Colonel.’”
He made it sound as though the inmates were at summer camp and had a pretty good time being remodeled into citizens of the new Viet¬nam. I doubted his interpretation yet accepted that history sometimes plays tricks; we all tend to remember events long past in a way that is fa¬vorable to our actions. I liked Colonel Bao. However vile the reeducation camps were, they were no more vile than the tiger cages South Vietnam had used for some of its political prisoners. I could not judge what Colonel Bao had been, but I believed the man I met was a good man. He was spending his retirement working on health and veterans committees for the Communist Party, and on several occasions he hosted groups of returning U.S. vets asking to meet their former enemy.