THERE WERE MOMENTS WHEN I THOUGHT I really had Viet¬nam figured out, but they were rare. Trying to understand Vietnam was like peeling the skin of an onion: You went deeper, layer by layer, but never got to the core. When I lived in Africa, once I had come to grips with slavery, colonialism, and tribalism, I possessed a foundation for making some sense of the continent. In the Middle East, it was Islam, oil, and the Arab-Israeli dispute. In Vietnam, war, national¬ism, and poverty had shaped the national character, but putting each in its place still didn’t get you close to knowing the heart of the country.
Vietnam was a pragmatic place yet it—or at least the leadership— clung to the twentieth century’s greatest failed social and economic experiment: communism. To what could they point and say, “See, I told you this works”? Certainly not Cuba, Laos, North Korea. China? Maybe. But the Vietnamese had hated the Chinese for centuries. Party bosses presided over one of the world’s poorest countries: Ninety percent of the roads were unpaved; farmers in the most impoverished provinces got by on the equivalent of perhaps $5 per month; nationally, bicycles outnum¬bered cars forty-to-one. But—and I am quite certain—the leadership still believed Vietnam was at the center of the universe, as it had been briefly during the war. These contradictions surfaced on a personal level, too. People were stunningly direct in asking how much money you earned or how old you were yet so concerned with being polite and avoiding con-frontation that “yes” often meant “maybe” and “no” didn’t always mean “no.” Contradictions were many. The Vietnamese poetry and music spoke of loss and melancholy, but the contemporary, brightly colored pastoral scenes that artists painted reflected none of the anger and darkness that surely must have dwelled in Vietnam’s war-torn soul. All the men and none of the women smoked. Everyone I met seemed to carry the family name of the Nguyen, Le, or Tran Dynasties. On my desk was a Who’s Who in Vietnam directory that covered 147 pages; fifty-nine pages were filled with people named Nguyen, Lc, or Tran.
Even the language—basically monosyllabic with romanized script- looked invitingly accessible yet was devilishly difficult. For instance, in the unlikely event you wanted to say in Vietnamese that three busy friends were selling four dirty tables, it would be, with diacritical mark¬ings to indicate tonal differences: ha ban ban bin ban bon ban ban. If your voice didn’t tweeter like a bird’s, if it soared when it should have dipped, forget it. The word would take on an entirely different meaning than what you intended or would have no meaning at all. The Vietnamese would smile politely but have no idea what you were talking about. And the language basically was written and spoken in the present tense, mak¬ing little distinction between “walk,” “walking,” and “walked.” It was pretty much left to the reader-listener to figure out if past or future was intended.
My Vietnamese language skills did not proceed far, particularly given limitations imposed by my Boston accent, but I took solace in the fact I had improved on my wartime efforts. Like most journalists, then, my vo¬cabulary was restricted to didi man, an abrupt way of telling kids to scram; bao chi, or “newspaper,” which we thought meant “journalist” and might save us if stopped by the Viet Cong; and mamasan, or “older woman,” a Japanese term we must have taken from World War II movies but wasn’t used in Vietnam. I don’t think I knew the words for “thank you,” cam on.
Although some words were of Chinese origin, the language that Viet¬nam developed was unique, with a script originally based on Chinese ideograms. In the seventeenth century, European missionaries, led by Fa¬ther Alexandre de Rhodes, created the system of romanized writing, do¬ing me a huge favor in that I could read the street signs but, I’m afraid, not advancing my progress as a linguist. Depending, for instance, on where you placed the markings and what you did with your voice, le could mean a tear, a kind of bird, margin, a pearlike fruit, or fast. If you use a falling tone, binh means peace; with no tone, it means soldier. Robert McNamara made the mistake of trying to say a few words of Vietnamese when he spoke at the National Cathedral in Saigon during the war. He wanted to say “Long live South Vietnam.” But he missed all the tones. It came out as “The Southern duck wants to lie down.”
So I came to accept that I was always to be the interloper. I could chip away at Vietnam, but I would never reach the inner sanctum. Time passed quickly, pleasurably. Winter returned to Hanoi. The temperature dipped into the sixties, and Hanoians started shivering. They donned motorcycle helmets, which they wore on the commute to work not be-cause of the appalling death toll on the nation’s roads but to keep warm. They zipped up parkas thicker than any I’d seen since Alaska. The darker the December skies got, the brighter seemed the fresh flowers that women from the countryside pedaled into Hanoi each morning. A dozen chrysanthemums cost seventy-five cents. I would sit on my balcony with a cup of Vietnamese coffee and watch the clouds and rain sweep in across West Lake. Sometimes I’d jot down notes about people I’d met or things I’d seen that day.
One of them was about a young bartender whose name was, of course, Nguyen (pronounced “n’whin”). He had asked me, “How would you de¬scribe the Vietnamese people?” It was a question I’d heard before. I said I could think of many adjectives. One of the first that came to mind was industrious.
“Everyone says that about us. That we’re industrious,” said Nguyen Van Hoa, who worked two service jobs and had an engineering degree. “But if we’re so industrious, why are we so poor?”

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