DURING THE WAR we all had a short-timer’s calendar, and we’d cross off the days one by one as our return to The World—home—drew closer. The plane that would take us there was known as a Freedom Bird. “How long you been in-country?” a GI would ask. “Eleven months, two weeks, three days,” would come the reply. “Oh, man, you’re short You’ll be back in the Big PX in the Sky like in no time.” The day my short-timer’s cal¬endar ran out in 1970, I was drunk by 2 P.M. and walked unsteadily up the ramp to my Freedom Bird. It took me to Bali, where I lay alone on a beach for four days to wash away the imprint of Vietnam and the war.
This time, in the late spring of 2001,I felt no elation at the thought of leaving. I e-mailed a friend in London and said, “Four years in Hanoi gone in a flash. The gig is up.” It was about as long as a correspondent stayed in one of our bureaus, and the time had come to move on, in this case back to Washington, D.C. My friend e-mailed back, “The gig may be up but the game’s not over. You’ll find new adventures.” I hoped he was right. But discovering peacetime Vietnam would be hard to beat. Sandy and I had seen a country emerging from years of isolation. We had seen a country taking the first fitful steps from a state-run to a free-market economy. We had seen Americans as well as Vietnamese wrestling with ghosts from the past, and we had encountered a postwar generation for whom names like Khe Sanh and Hamburger Hill rang no bell of recognition.
Taking potshots at Vietnam’s Old Guard and criticizing its leadership were not difficult. But it was easy to forget how far Vietnam had come. Fifteen years ago the Vietnamese wore homemade raincoats of palm leaves, didn’t have enough to eat, and traveled by foot (or bicycle if they were middle-class). They had no individual liberties except those sanc-tioned by the state. Vietnam still had a long way to go before it met inter¬nationally acceptable standards on human rights and religious freedom. But the winds of change were stirring, and today the Vietnamese have more personal freedom than they have ever known—and arguably have as much as the South Vietnamese did in the era of U.S. sponsorship.
The question never was, Can Vietnam make it? It can. The book on how to turn an economic backwater into a developed nation has already been written—in Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and elsewhere. With its lit¬erate, entrepreneurial, proud people, all Vietnam had to do was follow the instructions. The real question is, Will it? In time, I suspect it will. But the unimaginative elderly leaders who don’t appear to know much except how to follow the rules have wasted so many years with their dithering that the goalposts—compared to the progress enjoyed among Vietnam’s regional neighbors—have grown more distant. While Singapore’s leaders wire their country for broadband, Vietnam’s grapple with how much in¬formation they can safely dish out without letting people get so well informed they might challenge the government’s legitimacy or the wis¬dom of Marx’s doctrines. In many ways, though, Vietnam has been the victim of the West’s unrealistically high expectations. When the country opened up to foreign investors and tourists in the late 1980s, we pro¬claimed the birth of a new Asian economic tiger. That was our aspiration, not the government’s. It wanted to move as Vietnam always has: cau¬tiously and deliberately. As a result of that caution, Vietnam remains closer to impoverished Laos than it does to developing Thailand. Yet the Vietnamese have always had staying power and been good at capitalizing on opportunity; their country brims with potential.
THE MOVERS CAME ON A THURSDAY. It was a springlike day, and you could see the western mountains from our ninth-floor balcony. In the nearby lake where Senator John McCain had crashed after being shot down in 1967, a lone fisherman was at work, propelling a tiny rowboat by his feet, which were placed in stirrups attached to the oars. In less than six hours the movers had packed up our memories and left our apartment empty. The place had looked warm and welcoming before. Now the bookcases were empty, and the barren walls had been stripped of the Vietnamese paintings Sandy had bought. It was no longer home.
Once again I was about to be rootless, which is both the curse and the blessing of a wandering life. Counting the war, I had spent nearly six years in Vietnam. I was comfortable with what I had learned about the country and intrigued with all that still mystified me. I had first arrived in Vietnam in 1968 to cover the war lugging only a suitcase and a cold-water Thermos that a friend in the United States had given me as a farewell gift. I left be¬hind my parents, two brothers, and a sister. My parents were now long gone, and my three siblings had died while I was far off in Vietnam. My brother Ernie had been killed in an automobile accident while I was sur¬viving the war. My surviving brother and my sister died of cancer during my last two years in peacetime Vietnam. The fact that the years had slipped by so quickly—that I, the youngest, was now the last of my fam¬ily—distressed me. Vietnam had both given to and taken from my life.
Sandy and I checked into the Metropole, with our two cats, for the fi¬nal weekend in Hanoi to await the Ministry of Culture’s clearance of my books and the tapes of a documentary Sandy was producing. I don’t know how people found out where we were, but the man who drove the motor¬cycle taxi Sandy regularly rode knocked on our door with a huge bouquet of flowers. Pham Kim Ky, the woman who had searched for years for her MIA son, arrived with a set of lacquer plates. My waiter-friend at Au Lac Cafe gave me small statues of three old Vietnamese men. One repre¬sented wisdom, one love, and one luck, he said. So many gifts piled up in our hotel room that we had to buy an extra suitcase.
Son Khanh Nguyen called to say goodbye. I had met him when he was a ten-year-old on the streets selling postcards and pirated copies of The Sorrow of War. I had helped him go to English-language classes and get a job at a restaurant that an Australian Viet Kieu had set up to get street kids into a secure environment where they could be trained as waiters and cooks. Now a French attorney had taken a liking to Son and enrolled him in the French International School. “This school is very good. But it is sooooo difficult,” Son said. “I don’t know if I can do it.” I reminded him how far he had traveled since he had first hustled me four years earlier into buying a stack of postcards I did not want. “Just keep trying, Son,” I said. “There’s no turning back.” He said he would write and let me blow how he was doing.
Finally it was time to go, to leave Indochina as I had done twice before in the bad days of war. This time my Freedom Bird was Vietnam Airlines Flight 833, Hanoi to Bangkok. I was sober. I had just turned sixty-one. I was ending my career as a foreign correspondent where it had begun more than thirty years earlier. Vietnam had been my bookends. Our French-made Airbus lifted off the runway at Noi Bai and banked west¬ward toward Laos, over a sea of rice paddies, then jungle, and finally the Truong Son Mountains and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I remembered the apprehension I felt when I had first seen Vietnam from the window of a Pan Am jet as we descended into Saigon in 1968, and I thought about the war. But only for a moment.
It seemed so long ago.