Got My Visa for Vietnam

I'll be heading for Hanoi later this fall. On my early trips to Vietnam, beginning in the mid-1990s, I was mostly interested in the American War & it's effects on the country. I read a lot of history. But you can't really understand the war without understanding Vietnam whole. (This is certainly true of any country & makes writing history in the conventional sense impossible, I suppose.) Still, it is possible to work one's way backward in time & outward in space (both physical & cultural) from the war. All the while hurtling into the future. After that early study of history, I mostly wanted to forget the war--or at least to quit framing the place I had come to love--in terms of the war. I forget the exact figure, but I think something like 70% of the population of Vietnam has been born since 1975 when the war ended & the country was unified. Rainy evening in Hanoi (2012) Over the last couple of weeks, though, I have listened to the audiobook versions of two books about the war, one I've read more than once & have used as a text when teaching a course on Vietnam, the other new to me: Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History [1. The audiobook is a reading of the 1997 2nd edition, which was extensively revised from the original 1983 edition.] , and Lien-Hang T. Nguyễn's recent (2013) Hanoi's War. Neither book is a "straight history"--Karnow's is a journalist;s history, with frequent first-person interjections into the narrative; nor is Karnow's book a history of Vietnam: it spends part of its first chapter sketching in the long, long history of the country, but its focus is the twentieth century wars in Vietnam. Nguyễn's volume covers essentially the same period, with even more focus on the American phase of the war, with the additional narrowing that a specifically diplomatic history requires. Note: Before going further, I want to remark on that narration of these two audiobooks. Karnow's text is narrated by Edward Holland, Nguyễn's by Hillary Huber. Holland is a fine narrator, with good tone, pacing, and timbre, whereas Huber has few of these qualities. Still, Huber is the superior narrator because she took an hour or two to learn how to pronounce Vietnamese--not perfectly, but adequately. It was very difficult to listen to Holland pronounce "Ngô Đình Diệm" as "No Din Dee-em" some 500 times. There is a difference between a barred Đ and an unbarred D: the first is pronounced as in English, but the unbarred D is pronounced more like Z. This is only the most egregious of the narrator's errors, which accumulate until anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Vietnamese will be tempted to stop listening. This is not the snobbery of one who has learned a little Vietnamese--I would not expect either narrator to try to pronounce the tones [1. The three syllables of the former president's name have, in order, a level tone, a falling tone & a low constricted tone.] of Vietnamese, but basic phonetics is, well, basic.[2. The narrator of the audiobook version of Mark Atwood Lawrence's The Vietnam War, Peter Berkrot,  is perhaps the worst offender in this parade of mangled pronunciations: He says "un-go" & "un-guy-en" for, respectively, the Vietnamese names Ngô & Nguyễn. At the same time, he gives correct, if somewhat westernized, pronunciations to the names of Chinese leaders. Lawrence's book is a useful overview, however.] The two books complement each other. Karnow's account has helped to shape the conventional wisdom about the war while Nguyễn's account self-consciously sets about to revise that same conventional wisdom. Karnow relies on interviews & journalistic sources for the most part while Nguyen makes extensive use of Vietnamese archives that have only recently become available. [2. Nguyễn notes that many more archives relevant to the North's conduct of the war remain unavailable to scholars.] The conventional view of the war is that Hồ Chí Minh directed the North's efforts until perhaps a year before his death in 1969. Nguyễn's research makes clear that Hồ Chí Minh & his general Võ Nguyên Giáp were largely sidelined in the early 1960s by Lê Duẩn & Lê Đức Thọ (the "brothers Lê"). Furthermore, Nguyen argues persuasively that Hồ Chí Minh & Võ Nguyên Giáp were, at least within their peculiar historical context, moderates who might have shortened the war by negotiating with the US years before Lê Duẩn was prepared to make that move. In order to gain independence & unify Vietnam, Hồ Chí Minh was committed to first building a functioning socialist state in the north while at the same time carrying out limited guerrilla actions in the south, whereas Lê Duẩn was driven by the idea that  large military actions in the south would lead to a "general uprising" by the populace that would drive the US client government from power and reunite Vietnam under a Communist Party government in Hanoi. Nguyễn's book lays this all out in a convincing & fine-grained manner. My only complaint is that, at the beginning especially, the writer is at pains to demonstrate that this is new scholarship & this goes on for too long, giving the book the feel of an expanded doctoral dissertation. Mark Atwood Lawrence's slim overview of the war from 2008 makes use of some of the same material Nguyễn seems to be trying to claim is original with her research. Once she begins to tell her story, though, this trace of pedantry evaporates & the reader is given a series of new insights into why the war dragged on for so long. In any case, I have been revisiting the war years in my reading, which I have not done for quite a long time & I am struck again by the awful futility of American actions in Vietnam. From Eisenhower to Nixon, with all the best & brightest of the political establishment, the war was pursued with nearly total ignorance of Vietnamese history & culture. Going back over this history at this late date reminds me in a specific & personal way, of the delusional psychology of American political culture since World War II. And of course this delusion is simply the modern version of "exceptionalism," recently celebrated, I'm given to understand, by former vice president Dick Cheney & his wife in a book that serves mostly to extend their record of destructive sniping at President Obama, who has a somewhat less vicious way of looking at the world. Of course, the Vietnamese politics of the war (North & South) had its share of delusion & viciousness, which was, as in the US, covered with flimsy layers of rationalizing language & self-serving posturing. Bac Ho with Visa My own experience of Vietnam--especially Hanoi--is one of transparent friendliness, sincerity & graceful acceptance of the contingencies that befall individuals & nations.    

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.