VIETNAM WAS NEVER PART OF THE GAME PLAN. It is one of those places that just crept into my life, like a stranger come to call, and I had no aim of ever making it more than a stop in the road. But Vietnam’s seasons drifted into years, nearly six of them in all, and one day when a bartender in Thailand saw me with a plane ticket in hand and asked where I was headed, I replied, “Home.” “You mean the United States?” he asked. “No,” I said. “Hanoi.” That was the moment, I think, I realized Indochina had captured the soul of another unwary sus¬pect. Vietnam was no longer just my mail drop. It was where I thought of home as being, and it seemed odd that I could feel so at peace in a land I once disliked so intensely.
The Vietnam I experienced was really two different countries, and nei¬ther had much to do with the other. The first was the Vietnam of the American War, as the Vietnamese call it, which I covered for United Press International in the late 1960s. It was the Vietnam of body counts and illusionary lights at the end of the tunnel. It was a Vietnam that, I now realize, I understood shamefully little about, being largely ignorant of the country’s history, culture, and people. I encountered Vietnamese people but I did not make Vietnamese friends. I joined homesick GIs singing “Danny Boy” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” over beers in lonely outposts cut from the jungle, but I never read a line of Viet-namese poetry or knew what songs the Vietnamese sang when they were melancholy. I left that Vietnam—and the war—without a shred of re¬morse and cared not if I ever saw the wretched country again. I got on with my life.
The other Vietnam is the one that wove the spell and teased me with the ghosts of a bygone Indochina, the one that will forever stir memories of quiet nights dripping with humidity, of golden rice paddies stretching to the mountains, and of an industrious people who have survived, and in some cases even prospered, against all odds. This is the postwar Vietnam, where for the first time in more than 100 years a generation has grown into adulthood not knowing foreign domination or the sound of battle. It is a country that, for me, was born in 1997, when I moved to Hanoi—the “enemy capital” as we used to call it—to open the Los Angeles Times’s first peacetime bureau in Vietnam. I stayed four years, far longer than I had in¬tended, and during all that time I found that nothing was quite as I had expected it to be.
Like most Americans, I let Vietnam fade from my radar screen after the Saigon government fell to Hanoi’s communist troops in April 1975. Vietnam was a war, not a country, and somehow it was comforting to just let the place be, to retain little of it in the mind’s eye except that black- and-white image of a CH-46 chopper lifting off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. ambassador—who had insisted to the eleventh hour and beyond that South Vietnam could be saved from communism—seat- belted and staring straight ahead, the U.S. flag folded and in his lap, while U.S. Marines fired tear gas to cover the retreat and hold a riotous mob of former allies at bay in the streets below.
So my return to Vietnam was not so much the rediscovery of a country as the discovery of a new landscape. Many of my new friends were former North Vietnamese soldiers. Some of the people who welcomed me into their homes had lost two or three sons fighting the Americans—and of¬ten, before that, a relative or two fighting the French. Not once was I re¬ceived with anything less than graciousness. I met writers and teachers and students and laborers and entrepreneurs, and almost everyone—ex¬cept the Old Guard who was scared stiff by the thought of losing its iron- tight grip on power—knew Vietnam was adrift, a communist state floun¬dering in a noncommunist world. Still, exciting changes were transforming the country. Everywhere I went, from Sapa on the Chinese border to Dien Bien Phu on Laos’s doorstep to Can Tho in the clutches of the Mekong Delta, the energy and optimism of the postwar generation were palpable.
What I have written in the pages that follow I believe to be true be¬cause it is what I saw and heard and felt. But I have my biases, and— being neither a historian nor an academic—I make no apologies. In re¬turning to Vietnam it was not my intent to spend a lot of time rehashing the war. The history, the polemics, and the U.S. role have been ably as¬sessed and reassessed by many others. I was more interested in what had happened to Vietnam and the Vietnamese people in the years since the shooting stopped. And I still am today, though I quickly learned you can¬not write about Vietnam without talking about the war any more than you can write about Saudi Arabia without talking about oil. A thousand years of conflict—against China, France, Japan, the United States, Cam¬bodia, and among one another—is what made the Vietnamese who they arc. It is what shaped their character and steeled their spirit. And the war, of course, is why Vietnam still exerts a hold on the soul of America. Just when we think we’ve buried all those damn memories, up they pop again, as though that brief chapter of our history was always there, lurking just below the surface. In the end, the war played a larger role in my discovery of Vietnam than I thought it would, as did the question of reconciliation, between North and South Vietnam and between the peoples of Vietnam and the United States.
Vietnam, with a population of 80 million, is the world’s thirteenth most populous country. Sixty percent of the Vietnamese were born after the last Americans went home in 1975. In spite of—rather than because of—communism, their standard of living has risen dramatically in the past decade, but given Vietnam’s great natural resources and its clever, persevering workforce, I know of no other country where the gap be¬tween potential and performance is so great. Vietnam remains one of the world’s poorest countries. The majority of its people get by on the equiv¬alent of a dollar a day. Most of them—living in the countryside, home to 80 percent of the population—have never been in a bank, seen an escala¬tor, or had access to a flush toilet. It was surprising they didn’t complain more. Perhaps the silence of stoicism was the offspring of long struggle and suffering.
The Vietnamese taught me many things: about patience, the value of forgiveness, the strength of community, and family. General William Westmoreland was asked in 1966 about the enormous losses North Viet¬nam was enduring: “Oh yes,” he replied, “but you must understand that they are Asians, and they don’t really think about death the way we do. They accept it very fatalistically.” That is not what I found to be true at all. But his response did strike a universal chord of truth: Understanding no culture but one’s own leads down a dangerous path. As far as I could tell, America’s military leadership never had the vaguest idea who the Viet¬namese of the North were, what motivated them, or what the limits of their endurance were. We said “so what?”—the Vietnamese were inconse¬quential except for the niche they had claimed in our wartime history.
A reader of the Times wrote after I’d been in Hanoi awhile and asked me to suggest some books on Vietnam worth reading. I offered three— books about the society and culture and history written from the Viet¬namese perspective. She went to a university bookshop in New York City and was surprised not to find a single book on Vietnam in any of the likely sections. She asked the clerk why the store didn’t carry Vietnam ti¬tles. “Oh, we do, lots of them,” the clerk replied. “They’re under Ameri¬can history.”
We claimed the history and the pain of the war as ours exclusively. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington became the symbol of all we had lost. We return to it time and again, to reflect, to mourn, to heal. The names chiseled into the black granite were the story of the war. But surely there was more to it than that. Surely one question remained to be asked: What happened on the other side of the wall?

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