[7 August 2002]

By Tara Taghizadeh

From Hanoi, With Love

A simple, black granite bearing a sea of names of the American lives lost in the war, draws a slew of tourists, former vets, and their families who pay homage to their dead and try to make sense of the conflict that still tugs at the hearts and minds of so many. There is a hushed silence as throngs of visitors surround the wall, and quietly read off one name after another. The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC.

More than 25 years after Saigon fell to the Communists, Vietnam still serves as a misunderstood and troubling period in American history. So much happened. Essentially, the war served as a backdrop for the turbulent ‘60s which brought about the civil rights struggle, womens rights, free love, anti-war demonstrations, and changing societal mores. As the war waged in a far-off corner of the world, Americans were awakening to the dawn of a different America, where political and social codes that had long been accepted, were now argued.

“Why did America do this to us?” a Vietnamese person poses to David Lamb, the author of Vietnam, Now: A Reporter Returns. The question itself seems to bring about so many answers which in turn lead to further questions.

What happened and why? Lamb, a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, covered the war, then returned to Vietnam in recent years, attempts to explain by stripping the shroud of mystery surrounding Vietnam. In the process, he explains the how’s and why’s of the war—and more important, its aftermath—the effect of the war on the Vietnamese—an understanding of which should serve to grasp a picture of the future of this important Southeast Asian nation.

Lamb explains: What the United States went to war against was communism. It was never about Vietnam and its people, so much as it was about the Cold War and the free worlds fears of the rising spread and power of communism. The costs, however, emotionally and financially were tremendous. What resulted, on the American side, was a nation pitted against itself, either approving the U.S. involvement, or on the flip side, angrily voicing its antiwar ethos. But more important, the war spelled defeat, and the return of thousands of veterans who were essentially ignored and forgotten by their fellow Americans.

As Lamb writes:

[Antiwar activist] Tom Hayden had cheered the fall of Saigon, saying it would lead to the rise of Indochina. Huh? A thousand University of California students marched through Berkeley on April 30 in celebration. But in celebration of themselves or the Vietnamese? Where was Jane Fonda after the war was over?

As is often the case, the issue is always self-interest. What happened to the Vietnamese was irrelevant.

What Lamb manages brilliantly is to show us what happened to Vietnam after the American War (as it is referred to by the Vietnamese). They, too, dealt with millions (in their case) of dead bodies, 300,000 MIAs, bereaved families who had been divided between the Northern (communist) and Southern causes, and the devastating effects of war which had left a crippled, penniless country desperate to survive.

Lamb offers a portrait of a nation that suffered 90 years of foreign interference, finally being allowed to assert itself in 1975. What has emerged slowly is a nation ripe with potential, a tiger which has drawn the interests of Western entrepreneurs who are rapidly populating its major cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).Lamb, in a recent reading/lecture in Washington DC, explained that this is the first generation of Vietnamese with hope of prosperity. They are the first generation who do not have to deal with the shots of war. Lamb finds it ironic that Bill Clinton, who allegedly “dodged the draft”, was the president who finally paved the way for U.S.-Vietnamese reconciliation.

Though ruled by the Party, Vietnam, beginning in the ‘80s, opened itself up to a free market economy, entrepreneurial ventures, and a more lax media. Before, whereas owning a bicycle established one as a member of the middle class, many Vietnamese are now enjoying commodities such as television sets, motor scooters, and other amenities. Vietnamese youths, which comprise the majority of the population of 80 million, are thirsty for knowledge, education, and travel. According to Lamb, this is a renaissance period for Vietnam. Given the numerous changes that are taking place, however, doesnt dispel the fact that, as Lamb mentioned, the average income is still $1 per day.

Everywhere he went, Lamb was treated with genuine heartfelt respect and kindness by the same people who served as enemies only a distant memory ago, which brought up the question (a theme which dominates the book) as to how did the Vietnamese manage to heal so much more quickly than the Americans. As Lamb writes: The Vietnamese liked Americans. They had forgiven, if not forgotten. They had lost 3 million citizens, been pummeled with 15 million tons of munitions.Yet they had put the war behind them in a way that America hadn’t.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that they have been accustomed to continuous conflict. Therefore, the war between the North and South served only as a mere drop in the bucket. In addition, as Lamb points out, they (the North, at least) had won the war, and had taken the step to reunite with their southern brothers and sisters.

In his journeys around the country, Lamb offers glimpses of the characters of the Vietnamese: patient, eager to learn, forgiving, and kind. He recounts touching stories of visiting with families who lost their sons in the war, to meeting the man who was responsible for saving Sen. John McCain—a former pilot in the war who would also become a POW, to the waiter in his favorite café who is eagerly learning English, to a Vietnamese-Australian attorney who is valiantly attempting to gain visas to the West for the slew of Vietnamese boat people who made it as far as, say, the Philippines, cant return home and are desperately trying to gain access to the West.

In a memorable chapter, Lamb recounts his meeting, along with a few former American vets, with former Viet Cong: the enemy. What do you say when you meet a man whom thirty years ago you would have shot dead on the spot? In the midst of awkward introductions, gradual sharing of life stories and photographs of loved ones and families, however, what really matters most is that They had names. They had faces. They had families. They had their dreams and they had their sorrows. They were human.

Vietnam, Now reads as part travelogue, part historical/political essay which achieves the remarkable task of depicting the gradual transformation of Vietnam from a war-torn, ravaged nation to an economically prosperous force to be reckoned with. Lambs prose is lucid, prolific, and truly captivating, and the tone is that of a master whose sole purpose is to simply serve as a raconteur, not as an apologist for either side.

As a Vietnamese reporter explained to Lamb, in the end,

The big mistake the Americans made was not understanding the Vietnameses history, culture, mentality. They were so sure military strength would win the war, they never bothered to learn who they were fighting.

The who refers to the basis for Vietnam, Now, which delves into the rich, history, culture, and character of Vietnam and its people.

More important, the importance of understanding Vietnam will help soothe those who were angry and baffled by the war, and help future generations to understand the mistakes of history and, perhaps, serve to prevent them in the future.

Lamb sums this up best when he writes: Americans and Vietnamese share an almost inexplicable bond.—It is a bond woven in tragedy and suffering.—The war changed the U.S. as much as it did Vietnam.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/vietnam-now/