HANOI IS A GREAT NAME TO DROP AT COCKTAIL PARTIES.
I couldn’t resist doing it on my occasional trips back to the United States. I’d just let it slip out casually: I was biking to work in Hanoi the other day and. . . . The reaction was always the same. The conversation would stop and people would cock their heads and raise their eyebrows. You could hear them thinking, Hanoi? Hanoi? That Hanoi? I might as well have said I lived on Mars. They’d say they were surprised that Americans lived in Hanoi. They’d ask if the city had been rebuilt after the war, and they’d wonder aloud what it was like to live in a place where Americans surely were hated. Even my editors at the Los An¬geles Times were decent enough to compensate me for perceived hardship, with two week-long R&R’s a year in Bangkok to tend to medical needs and find a bookstore that offered more than an account of France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu or the writings of Ho Chi Minh. I enjoyed being an object of curiosity. It made me feel unordinary. Back in Washington, I knew I’d be just another working stiff riding the subway to work and wor¬rying about my mortgage.
But in Hanoi I’d stumbled into a life that was beyond the grasp of friends and strangers alike, and there is something to be said for being a big frog in small pond. So for four years I more or less kept my secret. Yes, I’d say, Hanoi is difficult. Not a shopping mall or a supermarket in the entire city. Chaotic, noisy two-wheel traffic jams that will drive you batty. If you need a root canal, it’s best to catch one of the daily flights to Singapore or Bangkok. But the truth is that life was good without stores that sell forty brands of toothpaste. What I discovered was a magical city, steeped in beauty and seductive charm, the last capital left possessing the romance of a bygone Indochina. Were Graham Greene alive today to ex¬plore the niches of remembered places, I have no doubt that Hanoi is where he would head in a heartbeat.
There were many moments in those first weeks in Hanoi when my past and present, separated by a generation, mingled as one. What I saw and learned, initially at least, was situated in the context of what I had ex¬perienced in the war and what I perceived Hanoi to be. Everything seemed out of place. I felt disconnected awakening some mornings and realizing I lived in a city whose bombing I had once cheered, believing its destruction was the road to peace. I was reticent to ask Vietnamese what their lives had been like during the war and its aftermath, until I discov¬ered they had the same curiosity about me; they wondered what had brought me to wartime Vietnam in the first place.
I was twenty-eight years old and working the graveyard shift in San Francisco for United Press International in 1968, expending a lot of en¬ergy covering antiwar demonstrations. I more or less supported the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, not because of any deeply held political convic¬tions but because I thought that whenever and wherever America went to war, the honorable thing was to jump on the bandwagon. My military ob¬ligations had been fulfilled—two years in the peacetime army in Oki¬nawa—so I was off the hook on Vietnam, at least as a soldier. But I couldn’t imagine why any journalist wouldn’t want to go there. I had quit my job at the Oakland Tribune and joined UPI across the bay because the wire services offered a better shot at getting to Vietnam. When I told my older brother Ernie in Boston that I’d asked UPI to send me to Vietnam, he said: “You dumb shit! They’ll do it.” Months went by with no encour¬agement and no word from UPI’s foreign desk in New York. Then one morning the San Francisco bureau chief called me at home. He said, “I’ve got a telex for you from Cactus Jack, the foreign editor. It says, ‘Tell Lamb his number is up for Vietnam. We want him there in two weeks. Ask him to write a 200-word bio so when he wins a prize, we can give him his due.’” I was savvy enough to realize he was asking me to write my own obituary.
My pay in wartime Vietnam was $135 per week, no days off, no over¬time, no hazardous-duty pay. For most of my two years covering the war, I worked out of Danang, where the U.S. Marine Corps had taken over an old French riverside brothel and turned it into a press camp, with a dozen austere rooms, flush toilets, a bar, a restaurant, and a colonel who could put the American spin on the vicissitudes of war. Like most of the wire guys, I was a grunt reporter, not one of the stars. My job was to get into the field, find out what was happening, and call Bert Oakley in Saigon to pass on news for his daily lead. “Don’t forget who told you this,” I’d say to Oakley, hoping he’d give me a byline.
Covering the war made me happy in an unhappy sort of way. I hated everything about it yet loved the exhilarating adrenaline rush that en¬gulfed me. I thought a lot about death and dying. I felt fulfilled and empty at the same time, lonely even though sharing the life and death of war is intensely intimate. I really didn’t think much about the rightness or wrongness of the war, and I never agreed with U.S. troop commander General Creighton Abrams’s dismissive assessment of reporters: “They’re all a bunch of shits,” he said. The relative handful of war correspondents I knew—5,000 reporters and photographers from sixty countries covered the decade-long war at various times—were honorable, spirited men and women whose company I enjoyed. They accepted risk, liked adventure, and had no agenda other than to report accurately. General William Westmoreland referred to Vietnam in his memoirs as “the first war in history lost in the columns of the New York Times.” But reporters didn’t lose the war any more than they won the 1968 presidential election. We were only messengers.
HANOI IS A GREAT NAME TO DROP AT COCKTAIL PARTIES.