The cemetery was deserted. The pagoda for family prayers was empty, its roof in a state of advanced decay. Weeds ran wild among the graves, and everywhere I looked headstones were chipped and cracked, some¬times toppled as though struck by a blunt instrument or rifle butt. A gen¬eration earlier, when these boy-soldiers died, bereaved mothers encased their photographs and attached them to the stone markers. Surprisingly, many of the pictures had not faded, and the faces I saw—clear-eyed, clean-shaven, proud soldiers—looked exactly like those of the young men I now passed on the streets of Hanoi. Their names were the same as those I might have seen in the Dong Ha cemetery: Nguyen Van Hung, Do Van Son, Pham Van Tien, all buried as teenagers. There was, of course, one big difference: These were the faces and the names of the vanquished. What they had felt about the war I do not know, but they fought for the Republic of South Vietnam, and for answering their government’s call to duty—as nobly as Northern soldiers had answered Hanoi’s—they had been dishonored by victors who desecrated their headstones and let the crabgrass run wild over their graves. In a country whose pride and dignity and sense of nationalism I had come to greatly admire, the cemetery stood as a symbol of national shame.
My translator and I wandered through the eerie stillness, populated only by the ghosts of the wartime past. Then my eye caught sight of a bi¬cyclist approaching from the nearby village. He pedaled along the dirt road that had once been lined with handsome trees but was now barren, the trees having been cut for firewood. He passed a sprawling water-bot¬tling plant, recently built on the western section of the hallowed grounds, and came up toward us on the gravel path. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I thought he was a government security man who had come to shoo us away. But Nguyen Tan Trung, who was twenty-five, said he was unem¬ployed and was one of a handful of volunteers in the village who came once a year, usually on the lunar new year, to cut knee-high grass entan¬gling the tombstones. Once in a while, he said, the villagers got letters from Vietnamese families in North America or Australia, asking them to search for the grave of a loved one. Usually they couldn’t find it, but if they did, they would place incense and a flower on the grave.
I asked Trung why the cemetery had been forsaken, and he replied: “Who cares about this place? It belongs to the time before 1975.”
The families of those buried in the cemetery, Trung said, never came to visit because they didn’t want to admit to their former association with the South. Their attitude was a hangover from long ago, but there was no longer cause for fear. Over the years Vietnam has loosened up, gotten more relaxed and forgiving. People talk freely on most matters except those involving criticism of communism or the government. The offi¬cially articulated policy was always that all Vietnamese were equal; it’s just that it didn’t turn out that way. Ironically the communist leadership found it easier to reach out to its former enemy in Washington than to its own brethren in the South, and in the contrast between the cemeteries in Dong Fla and Bien Hoa one saw the seeds of an unspoken conflict: rec¬onciling North and South on a political level.
Normally things don’t rattle me much. Years ago I witnessed an execu¬tion in San Quentin and went home and slept soundly. I was thrown into one of Idi Amin’s Uganda jails at a time when he was killing a lot of peo¬ple, and I fell asleep on the stone floor while awaiting my interrogators. I came within an inch of getting my head blown off in Beirut—the bullet, fired from two feet away, lodged in my car-door jamb—and was fine by the time I ordered a drink at the Commodore Hotel’s bar. I attribute this not to insensitivity or the absence of fear but to some gene that drops a curtain between my personal and professional lives, helping me separate past from present, the personal from the political. Yet I was steamed about the desecration of the Bien Hoa cemetery. I would have been just as angered had Saigon’s soldiers shown the same disrespect for the burial grounds in Dong Ha. I went to see the Communist Party’s vice director for ideology in Ho Chi Minh City. He opened a notebook and began reading a long list of accomplishments—1,135 new schools, the Party’s youth league swollen with 200,000 members, a robust city economy. . . . It took a while before he ran out of breath and I could ask: “Why hasn’t someone made the respectful gesture of cleaning up the cemetery?”
“Even before 1975,” Trung Minh Nhai replied, “we considered the young soldiers who fought for the puppet Saigon regime victims of war. We understand they were forced to take up arms. We think it is the same for the American soldiers—they were forced to come here against their will. Our policy has always been to treat all Vietnamese who suffered equally. But it is natural to pay more attention to those who died for their country.”
Hold on. If Vietnam were one country, as Ho Chi Minh said, whose country did the Southerners fight for? Was it possible South Vietnam’s entire million-man military fought against its will? And what were South Vietnam and its 20 million people being liberated from? The Americans? The Saigon regime? Oppression? Poverty? Democracy? The right to honor their dead? I started to raise those questions but didn’t make any headway. All the Southerners were puppets, Nhai said. With ideologues, I’d found, you didn’t get common sense, just ideology. After a while I put away my notebook. Our interpretations of history were too different to be reconciled.

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