War Reparations

Hanoi’s Lake Hoan KiemStreet vendorMotosBalcony viewTemple of Learning

[mouse click on a photo to enlarge it]

Back at the keyboard after a three-week vacation in China’s Yunnan Province and Vietnam.

Which border to step across was open to taste: Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar all abut. But, naturally, I chose Vietnam. I have a long relationship to Vietnam. I had earlier taken pains — all the pain of an academic deferment — to avoid going there, while my country was bombing it back to the stone age (as the freshman war-planners Cheney and Rumsfeld were wont to say way back then, at least before we lost the war). So my relationship is a Dagwood-sandwich of guilt, resentment, self-righteousness and moral debt. All drenched in irony: guilt for the consequences of a war I actively opposed; resentment of those who closed the gates of their consciences and flew away scott-free on that last helicopter in 1975; righteousness in thinking that choosing to spend my tourist dollar in Vietnam would cancel the debt. Guilt is as sticky as napalm.

And so, with all that baggage, I strode down the “nothing to declare” line in Hanoi airport out into to streets of the now sovereign capital.

That is poetic license. One who strides carelessly into Hanoi’s streets will most certainly be struck down by a “moto”, an apparently kamikaze swarm of greater- and lesser-powered motorcycles that ceaselessly ply the streets, dozens abreast, each serving and jockeying for advantage, tooting, and disregarding pedestrians, when they are not parked on the sidewalk blocking your path and offering their services as conveyance to you for hire. So move individuals, hugging couples, families of four, and all manner of cargo, often one-handed (one needs the other for that important mobile call) and not a helmet in sight. I couldn’t get out my camera quickly enough to snap the one carrying a coffin cross-wise the back carrier. I wonder if it was full or empty. These are the indelible terms of endearment of the streets of Hanoi.

Even someone so sensitive and sympathetic as I soon becomes calloused to the stream of micro-capitalist vendors on the streets. Fruit, water, bread, basket-ware, postcards, souvenirs, ride-offers, restaurant hawkers. shoe shiners. “No, thank you” soon gets contracted to “No”, which finally gives way to a curt, dismissive hand gesture.

Those with a command of English (not a few, though French is passe’€€€€) demand more engagement. “Do you mind if I practice my English a little with you?” (How can you dismiss that?) Lake Hoan Kiem forms a central park in old-town Hanoi, close to my hotel, and I relaxed there every evening among the natives, young and old, who also enjoyed the relative quiet. A favorite spot also for the let-me-practice-my-English gambit, which, after a few minutes’ practice culminated in “would you be interested in ….?”

One evening a woman beckoned from a park bench; she would like to speak English with me. As I approached, it was impossible to overlook a missing leg. We chatted for a bit: American?, how long had I been in Vietnam?, first time?, what had I visited? “Flower” she gave her name as. With the polite introductions over, I got right to what was on my mind, half knowing what the answer would be: could I ask how she lost her leg? 1972, she was fifteen, stepped on a land-mine. Even with the benefit of premonition, the best I could muster was “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Then followed that up with a few murmurings on the tragedy of the war. But Flower wasn’t interested in buying into my guilt trip; she had her own commodities for sale. “Would I like to buy a magazine?” she asked as she pulled a magazine out of her shopping bag. It looked to be the only one she had; something like “Healthy Living”, English, not a pristine printing. It was not a time for haggling over price. Here’s fifty thousand Dong for the magazine and the interesting conversation; but you keep the magazine, I really won’t have the time to read it. After a few rounds of please-you-must-take-it-no-I-really-don’t-need-it she relented, and stuffed the magazine and fifty-grand into her bag. Her beautiful face and deep eyes showed a hint of consternation. At losing the argument or the leg? The former, I think; her dignity proscribed her taking something for nothing.

Three dollars in war reparations. Not a record to be proud of. But, then, back home in Hangzhou, I caught NPR’s Saturday Edition to hear may-be-presidential candidate Thompson declaring that he doesn’t apologize to anyone for America’s foreign behavior.

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