After the French departed in defeat in 1954, China sent thousands of laborers and several hundred engineer troops to Vietnam to upgrade the line and help Hanoi prepare for its war against South Vietnam. By the mid-1960s, Eastern-bloc military supplies were pouring through China into Lang Son and Lao Cai on North Vietnam’s side of the border and into the port of Haiphong. From there the trick was to dodge relentless U.S. bombing and get the munitions and equipment by rail to the redis¬tribution hub at Vinh. For seven years the route I now traveled, bouncing along in the Romanian-made coach, was the deadliest stretch of track in the world. Hanoi authorities say the U.S. aerial attacks on the railroad be¬tween 1965 and 1972 killed 758 people, wounded 1,721, and destroyed 430 bridges.
A QUESTION FROM ACROSS THE AISLE STARTLED ME “How old are you?” I had been chatting casually with the young man only for a few moments, and it seemed an odd way to start a conversation. He had laid out bean curds and rice with noodles on a paper napkin. The train was shaking and making a holy mess of his meal. I told him I was almost sixty, and he asked, “How many children do you have?” I told him I didn’t have any. “Then you’re not married,” he said. “You must be lonely.” No, I told him, I’d been happily married for a long time, and Sandy and I just didn’t happen to have kids. A look of sadness swept his face. “I am very sorry for you. That’s terrible. What happened?”
Ho Van Trinh offered me some bean curd, which I declined. I was new enough to Vietnam to be taken aback by his directness but would learn there are three questions Vietnamese constantly throw out of the blue at every stranger. The one he had missed—Where are you from?—he had probably answered on his own because I was reading a month-old copy of the Los Angeles Times. His first question made perfect sense, because the Vietnamese language has more than twenty words for “I” and doesn’t have a simple word for “you”; age and status defines one’s relationship and how people address each other. Trinh was merely being respectful in wanting to use the proper noun. If I were about his age, I would be older brother, ank, if younger, I’d be younger brother, em: if I were about his father’s age, I’d be uncle, chu, and if I were older than his father or of high status, I’d be senior uncle, bac, if I were his Grandfather’s age, ong.
And inquiring about the size of one’s family is a form of respect as well, for the Vietnamese attach sorrow—and sometimes bad luck—to anyone bereft of children. I think it has something to do with loneliness. Vietnamese hate the idea of being alone, living alone, even eating alone. Perhaps because of this or because they lost so many sons in the wars, they shower children with more outward affection than I’ve seen in any society. Fathers dote on children with unabashed love. Big brothers carry around young siblings, hugging them and swapping baby talk, like they’re holding something they themselves created. Grandfathers coddle babies, in sidewalk cafes and on street corners, with a tenderness that seems al¬most motherly. As a childless husband, I was afforded so many expres¬sions of sympathy, followed by so many probing queries—my explanation of shooting blanks never seemed to clear up the issue—that I eventually adopted a fictional family. I had two children, a boy Sebastian and a girl Aileen (names that, conveniently, the Vietnamese found difficult to pro¬nounce), and they were back in the United States, recently married and about to start their own families. This response would elicit beaming ap¬proval from my inquisitors. “Ah,” they’d say. “A boy and a girl. Perfect. You are very lucky.”
Trinh was twenty-six and didn’t yet have a girlfriend. He was em to me; mercifully, he determined I was chu, not ong. He had a degree in En¬glish from Hanoi University but, having had no luck finding a job, was unsure whether to pursue another degree or look for a job in the hotel in¬dustry. Marriage was out of the question until he had secured his future and built up a nest egg, he said. Trinh had been to Saigon twice and not been impressed.
“The Southerners are different,” he said. “Money, money, money. That’s all they care about. Sometimes you can’t always trust them. They talk more than we do in the North but they think less. In Ho Chi Minh you look at the people and they’re fatter than we are. They’ve had an eas¬ier life. I mean, we’re all Vietnamese, but they’re just, well, just different.”
The Vietnamese share a language, culture, and national identity, but the differences between North and South are as distinct as those in the United States between, say, New England and the Deep South. The Vietnamese of the North are more conservative, calculating and cocky proud; those of the South louder, more laid back, and at ease with for¬eigners. Busts of Ho Chi Minh are everywhere in the North; in the South you seldom see one outside a government office. The regional accents are so different that Vietnamese often have difficulty understanding one an¬other. In the North, for instance, Giap, as in General Vo Nguyen Giap, is pronounced Zap, with a soft a. In the South, it has a j sound as in “Japan.” The Northerners speak in a clipped, precise manner, the Southerners with a drawl that drags words out and lets vowels run together.
“My father would kill me if I came back to California with a Northern accent,” said a Vietnamese American who works in Hanoi and whose parents—boat people from the 1975 exodus—remain disdainful of any¬thing that smacks of Northern communism.