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Vietnam Redo (part 4): War Paint

At one time, in the last century, Americans dabbed charcoal-tinted war paint on their faces and attempted to subdue a combined imperial and civil conflict in Vietnam. The fight was ideological mostly, as wars usually are, and the Americans got lost in the jungle. With the help of helicopters and other devices, the US troops were found and returned home. A demilitarized zone (the DMZ) eventually dissolved and a north Vietnam combined with a south Vietnam.


A legacy of that era is preserved and recounted at various locations within the Socialist Republic of Vietnam today. Interestingly, in 2018 while visiting both halves of the country, and the one-time DMZ in-between, I did not detect excessive exuberance of the victor, but a more subdued presentation of resignation to the duplicitous rewards of war. Other visitors to the country may disagree. Some celebration of bravery and sacrifices made is understandable, given the odds against success fighting China, then France and the US, but today’s youth in Vietnam have moved on and even forgotten the details of former battles. The museums, memorials and historical sites are probably as thought-provoking to visitors from the US, France, and other places as they are to the inhabitants of this young nation.

During two visits to Vietnam (2008, 2018) I was both saddened and astonished at the same time by the good will of Vietnam’s citizens. Some of my fellow travelers confessed to the same conflicting sentiments. The futility of war seems evident here, without the many lost lives to witness the consequences. I raise my camera and see only smiles and laughter. Sometimes the subject of my prying viewfinder hustles up and begs me to join in a frame. Emails are exchanged.

Poverty and wealth live side by side, but even the farmer and field workers and grain harvesters and rice cultivators labor in relative peace today. No more crawling into dark tunnels, such as those preserved along the coast near Quang Tri and Da Nang.

The head-dispatcher, a guillotine used widely by the French, is a museum piece at the old Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo) prison; and yet it looms over a metal bucket, still menacing even the tourists wandering the dark rooms of the jail. The blade looks sharpened and ready to deliver.

Some Americans may only recall the Vietnam conflict as John McCain’s war. One photo display section at the “Hilton” today gives McCain — the airman, who captured and then freed, became a US senator from Arizona (now deceased) — a treatment as “guest” of the Republic, along with several other Americans captured during the old war. Such "guests" probably did not award stars for the accommodations. The Hilton’s memorial wall, inhabited by chained humans larger than life, was especially moving to me and my pacifist inclinations.

A few key memorials and artifacts of the country’s independence and merger wars remain. Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh) of coarse gets the leadership credit, claiming the ultimate victory and unification of North and South under a communist-style socialism. There is little visible evidence of the 20th century wars except for the occasional unrestored ruin and ground depressions scattered across jungle and orchards, a lingering reminder that bombs rained down often without distinguishing combatants from mere residents.

The name Hoa Lo, commonly translated as "fiery furnace" or even "Hell's hole”, actually means “stove”, derived from the street name phố Hỏa Lò, “due to the concentration of stores selling wood stoves and coal-fire stoves along the street from pre-colonial times.” (Wiki)

The French called the prison Maison Centrale – literally, Central House, located near Hanoi's French Quarter. The prison’s capacity was expanded in 1913 from 460 inmates to 600. It nevertheless warehoused up to 730 prisoners in 1916, 895 in 1922 and 1,430 in 1933. By 1954 it held more than 2000 people “in subhuman conditions.”

Operation Rolling Thunder was a gradual and sustained aerial bombardment campaign conducted by the U.S. 2nd Air Division (later Seventh Air Force), US Navy, and Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) from March 1965 until November 1968. By the end of 1967, the Department of Defense announced that 864,000 tons of American bombs had been dropped on the North, compared with 653,000 tons dropped during the entire Korean War and 503,000 tons in the Pacific theater during the Second World War.

Ruins in Hue, Vietnam (photos, 2008)

After the signing of the Geneva Agreement in 1954, the 17th parallel became a military line separating North and South Vietnam. Quang Tri township, then a political, military and economic hub of Quang Tri province, was virtually razed during an 81-day fight in the summer of 1972. Only a few parts of the citadel still stood but today the location is a garden and tasteful memorial to many lost lives and reminder to visitors (including many who were once the enemy) that war is savage.

Not far away on the 17th Parallel, underground tunnels and jungle pathways witnessed deprivation and determination that only guerrilla warfare can muster. I emerged from the dark passageways at Vinh Moc wondering about my own capacity to endure hardships recorded by both sides of the former conflict. As bombs fell and craters multiplied, the local residents dug deeper, leaving behind today several tell-tale levels of shelters that barely qualify as habitable.

South China Sea

Viet Nam Cong San (VC) were hard to find under the thick mantle of jungle sweeps

At Hien Luong Bridge, crossing the Ben Hai River, travelers on Vietnam Route 1 give only sidelong glances, if any mind at all (given the more compelling lure of the cell phone), at the stone ramparts and enormous reconciliation memorial that sits astride what was once the DMZ outpost in Quang Tri Province. Loudspeakers installed along the riverbank had broadcast alternating promises and threats as the civil war expanded to a war of independence.

A walk across HIen Luong Bridge for me was one highlight of my journey to Vietnam in 2018. Stone swords pointed to the sky and the placid river nourishing rich grain fields on either side beneath the wood and steel bridge elicited a ghostly and solemn impression, punctuated by light-hearted laughter and conviviality among a group of locals sifting a freshly harvested grain pile on the river bank. The contrast between the past and the present could not be more vivid. The 5 kilometer-wide no-man’s land has become a breadbasket where swords actually did become plowshares.

Grain and Sugar Cane

And so past enmities have evaporated, even in my own short lifetime. A new Vietnamese is being fashioned and his/her future no longer relies on imperial dictates. Their fate is being redesigned and new paint is being applied to old buildings and customs. Soldier boots are out of fashion; boots for the field work are still in high demand.

Fashioning a new Vietnam

To be continued....

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