The keyboard player hammered away at a jaunty tune played in that cheesy synthesizer tone heard throughout Asia. His hands landed with uncanny accuracy, in spite of the fact that he was totally blind. I had seen other amazing musicians without sight before, but this man had obviously never even had eyeballs. The skin was stretched taut over his sockets, smooth and unblemished, making it clear they had been sealed since birth. Keeping rhythm to his left was a smaller fellow in a folding chair with some type of vertical stringed instrument, like a stand-up bass meets a gutbucket. He played with his feet, only having a couple of swollen, thumb-like digits for toes on each. He was armless, reclined in his chair, swaying his head back and forth to the beat. Orb-like eyes bulged outward and a swollen tongue protruded from between his teeth. Hung nearby was a sign that read “Victims of Agent Orange.”
After a few moments I finally broke away and trudged up the marble steps from the lobby of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, the eerily joyful tune dimming behind me. With the haunting music as an accompaniment, the museum was filled with propaganda-laden semantics, everything polarized as “proud patriots” versus “criminal imperialists.”
Four years later, as I visited the museum a second time, I found myself reminiscing about those mutant musicians. While staying with an old college buddy who was living a block from the building, I strolled past its gates and looked again at the captured tanks and planes sitting outside, rust creeping in and paint fading. Raindrops pinged off of my poncho as I continued my slog through the city’s lush, verdant streets, passing the former presidential palace immortalized via photos of Viet Cong tanks crashing through its front gates on April 30, 1975. Helicopters sat on the roof from where they once frantically airlifted Americans out as the city fell to communist forces.
Soon I was sitting in the main backpacker district, sipping on a 25-cent mug of beer with a giant chunk of ice floating in it and watching the beads of condensation trickle down the sides. The endless mugginess doesn’t just cause the vegetation to go wild; it saps the chill out of booze almost instantaneously, necessitating some unorthodox drinking practices. I watched the scooter herds zip along, groups of dozens going in different directions, somehow merging and passing through an intersection without ever stopping as rainbows of ponchos streaked behind them.
Reflecting on my previous trip, I thought of the Cu Chi tunnels, located a few hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Guides show the network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war while cheerfully demonstrating to curious tourists all the booby traps used to kill and maim American soldiers. Ever present in the jungle background is the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic weapons fire, sounding off from the on-premises shooting range. Although that experience — along with several others — was fascinating, it left an uneasy feeling in my gut, a sense of unfinished business that several years hadn’t been able to dissipate.
Those from the States who are about my age grew up in the long shadow of the war. Legless vets at traffic stops were a common sight throughout the nation, and films such as “Platoon” (1986) and “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) explored the dark psychosis that lingered, as much as some tried to ignore it. My own father had served two combat tours, and was denied a third against his wishes. The small-town boy from North Carolina returned home a radically changed person. Soon estranged from a wife and three children, he developed a penchant for hard drink and aggressive tendencies. Later marrying his second wife, my mother, his unspoken past and other family would be another symptom of the war, one that wouldn’t become clear to me until much later in life. I can count on one hand the number of times he’s spoken in any detail about his deployments. Like many who saw extended combat, he became hardened. While still glorified by some, it’s really one of the saddest things that can be said about a man.
A few days went by as my friend and I caught up on life and what was happening in the world. The headlines were dominated by ISIS, the Islamist militant group of insurgent fighters who were expanding into Syria at the time. On my prior visit to Indochina I had learned about other extreme ideologues born of a power vacuum created by America’s martial follies: the Khmer Rouge, whose traces are left in mountains of skulls and mass graves. My visit four years ago had been limited to Cambodia and southern Vietnam, and I was back to see the rest of it — the areas where my father fought and the far northern stronghold of Hanoi. It was time to experience both my national and personal graveyard of empires.
I made my way north and spent some time lounging on the idyllic yet deserted beaches of Da Nang, then moved on to Hoi An. A major stop on the tourist circuit, it has easy analogies to Disneyland — both complimentary and derisive. The original medieval structures and thousands of lanterns create an unparalleled warm ambience, but at its core it is a several-mile-long gift shop, and no place is safe from hawkers and their wares. For the history buff, however, it serves as the launching point for a day trip to ruins from the Cham Empire called My Son. Similar in style to the structures found in Angkor, they are nonetheless smaller and bombed all to hell. The heat beat down relentlessly. People tried to hide in the shrinking shadows of the midday sun, while I unabashedly used my umbrella as a parasol.
Many of these fourth-century Hindu temples stand partially in ruins, and giant craters open up higgledy-piggledy, a testimony of the wartime bombing campaign by U.S. forces that targeted suspected Viet Cong hideouts. Our guide described how his father had operated in this area as a Viet Cong soldier. I declined to mention that mine had operated here as well, but on the other side. He was reconnaissance with the 101st Airborne all through central Vietnam, and probably into territories where we weren’t “officially” operating. One of the few stories I know of my father’s combat experiences occurred while his platoon was patrolling a swamp. As he turned a corner around a cluster of trees, a young girl stood up from the water; she had been breathing through a bamboo straw, camouflaged in mud and foliage. On instinct he squeezed his trigger and the gun jammed. Time, for him, felt like it stopped as they stared at each other, motionless. Then, for no apparent reason, she nodded and handed over her AK-47. After taking her back to base camp, she was soon turned over to South Vietnamese forces, as was protocol at the time. He later said he never would have done so if he knew then what he knew now — of the probable rape, torture and violent death that awaited her at the hands of U.S. allies.
His main area of operation was centered near Hue, the old Imperial capital a few hours north of Hoi An, so I booked a ticket there. These days Hue is known mainly as the home of Huda beer, as well as the citadel and tombs of former emperors who had been reduced to mere figureheads under French colonial rule. Its close proximity to the former DMZ and its logistical importance made it the epicenter of the Vietnam War. The Battle of Hue (and its eponymous massacre) was one of the bloodiest periods of combat and the turning point of public opinion against the conflict. It was around here that my father’s best friend’s chopper was shot down. By the time his platoon found the wreckage, he had already died from wounds sustained during the crash. The responsibility later fell on my dad to inform his friend’s wife and children, with whom he already had a deep relationship.
During the late ’80s, we were living in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when a traveling edition of the Vietnam War memorial came through town as it made its way around the country. The sky was overcast as we headed up the hill dressed in our Sunday best. Pieces of paper and charcoal were made available so visitors could get rubbings of the names of loved ones from the wall. We went to track down my dad’s friend’s name on one of the indistinguishable stretches of ebony. When at last we found it, he got down on one knee for the etching, steady for a few seconds before falling forward and erupting into a heaving wail, his whole body shuddering. He tried desperately to choke back a wave of anguish, which, suppressed for too long, was finally breaking through the surface. With someone like him, the sobbing sound carries with it a strong element of shame, conveying a sense of personal failure as much as pain. I stared stunned as the man who but a moment before had seemed as indomitable as the wall in front of him lay doubled over on the ground, the paper crumpled as he grasped at clumps of turf between his fingers.
Distortion and disillusionment
Finally I made it to Hanoi. Once called the “Grand Dame of Asia,” the old quarter is strikingly similar to the French Quarter of New Orleans, sister cities built on opposite ends of the Earth during the golden age of imperialism. In one massive columned structure lies the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh himself, the modern father of the nation. He left explicit instructions that his face was not to adorn any currency and his body was not to be preserved or embalmed. Yet his visage is on every single bill and his pickled body lies in a cool central hall under dim lights. For several hours on most days an endless stream of tourists shuffles by, solemnly gaping from their human conveyor belt.
Near the mausoleum is the B-52 lake, where wreckage of an American bomber still protrudes from the water and a museum gloats endlessly about how many U.S. pilots were shot down. Sewage from local businesses seeps into it, creating a putrid stench that left me gagging in the heat. A rainbow film sits atop the surface, and lifeless fish with clouded eyes lap gently onto the edge of this patriotic cesspool.
An equally disturbing stop on the war history route was Hoa Lo Prison, or, as it’s commonly known, the Hanoi Hilton. Staged photo-ops show U.S. prisoners gleefully playing basketball, drinking beer and eating steaks. Featured among these smiling inmates is a young John McCain, who survived to become a onetime presidential candidate and one of the longer-serving current U.S. Senate members. Judging solely from the exhibits, one could assume he had a fine stay here, if you were ignorant of his scars and half-paralysis sustained from periods of regular torture within these very walls. I remember lying awake at night as a child, hearing my father’s screams reverberate through the dark, silent house. For years he suffered from recurring nightmares of being buried up to his neck while a Viet Cong soldier slowly approached, intending to decapitate him.
The endless rhetoric from the regime left a bitter taste in my mouth. I decided to get out of town on a day trip to Halong Bay, which features thousands of limestone islets jutting vertically from the tropical waters, stretching into the horizon as far as the eye can see. Wooden tourist boats sail between them, built in the fashion of old Chinese junks and puttering through the seemingly endless maze of karsts. The bay is actually part of the much larger Gulf of Tonkin, which played a pivotal role in the start of the war.
On Aug. 2, 1964, the USS Maddox had a skirmish with several North Vietnamese ships, resulting in a few Vietnamese casualties. After an alleged second incident on Aug. 4, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving him the ability to expand military operations in Southeast Asia without a formal declaration of war by Congress. Future declassification of government documents showed that the U.S. was deliberately provoking the North and that the Aug. 4 attack had in fact never happened. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said in a 2003 interview that it had indeed been a false flag operation to serve as a pretext for war.
On the way back to Hanoi in our minibus, my companions and I discussed the breaking news about a Malaysia Airlines plane being shot down over Ukraine, with Western media pointing fingers at pro-Russian separatists. No side in the disputed area was claiming responsibility, and many questions remained unanswered. Whatever the truth of the matter was, it was difficult to put much trust in the information we were being given. In a similar vein, the people behind the lies that started the Vietnam War have still never been brought to task. How many times had such a deliberate distortion of the facts been employed to serve an agenda, both then and now?
Our bus slowed down considerably and the sun glowed a deep red over the treetops. A wreck was causing the traffic buildup, and as we got closer we saw a scooter, a bicycle and a car in a twisted morass of metal. Two bodies were lying on the side of the road and a man was desperately yelling directions at the people gathered around while lifting what appeared to be a young woman up in his arms. A piece of her skull and scalp flapped open, and blood and bits of flesh spilled rapidly down his sleeve and chest. As we rolled slowly by, I heard the click of a digital shutter as someone snapped a picture.
Back in the old quarter, we once again sat around drinking cheap beer over ice, perched on plastic stools a few inches off of the ground. Besides the incident in Ukraine, the other big news was that ISIS was continuing its expansion, causing the U.S. to consider both air strikes and sending in ground troops. I watched other young tourists having a good time, most of them wearing VC red stars on hats or T-shirts, and couldn’t help but find it callous. Yes, it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, begun on fabricated pretexts. But did it mean we should turn it into tacky souvenirs to be flaunted? At home, the only visible reminders that my dad was even here are the bullet and shrapnel scars on his body and the several purple hearts that he earned from them. Those same medals sit in a desk drawer gathering dust, serving only as reminders of other scars that will never fully heal.
I’d had enough. We finished our beers, walked away from the other tourists and left Vietnam and its baggage behind — it was time to let go, get wasted and float down a river in Laos.