Why Vietnam?

Every time I take a trip to Vietnam–averaging every couple of years since the mid-1990s–I’m asked what it is about Vietnam that draws me back again & again. It’s a reasonable question & one to which I have a set answer, but it’s an answer that doesn’t fully satisfy me. I usually say that, given my age, I have an inescapable historical connection to Vietnam. But that doesn’t explain, really, why I’m sitting in Logan International waiting for a 1:30 a.m. flight to Hong Kong, jumping then to Hanoi. And it doesn’t explain why I’ve now made twelve (I think) extended trips to Vietnam since 1996, including a Fulbright year in 2000 – 2001. It must be love.

I feel comfortable in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, which is less frenetic & less Westernized than HCMC. It’s not as if Hanoi is like home–I don’t feel “at home”–but I am attracted to the particular kinds of difference I experience there. And it certainly is different–the interpersonal expectations can take some getting used to. Social life is based on relationships of hierarchy, but also of trust, however paradoxical that may seem. Then there is that long sweep of history that gives weight to both social interactions and the arts, though much of this historical weight is being eroded by the forces of globalization.

Why Vietnam? What is it about going far from home that feels so lively & rewarding? Over the next few weeks I’m going to keep coming back to these questions, though I know in advance that whatever sort of answer(s) I come up with will be protean, shifting, unstable.

Leaving Today for Hanoi

Catch the Cape Air commuter this afternoon to Boston, from which I take a Cathy Pacific flight to Hong Kong & then on to Hanoi. The layover in Hong Kong should be just long enough to eat at the airport’s wonderful dim sum restaurant. Of all the intermediate airports I’ve stopped at on previous trips, Hong Kong’s is by far the best. Tokyo & Singapore are all right, Frankfurt by far the worst, largely because of the snarling security functionaries. Rainy evening in Hanoi

Noi Bai, the airport at Hanoi, is improving, but can be chaotic during busy periods. The main lesson I’ve (mostly) learned from the dozen or so trips I’ve made to Vietnam is to travel light. I pack, then try to subtract ten percent of what I’ve packed. Closes are inexpensive in Vietnam, even when custom-made, so I usually anticipate buying shirts once I arrive, trousers, too: the tailors can copy any pair I bring.

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 , 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 2 of Vietnamese, but basic phonetics is, well, basic.3

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. 4 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. Continue reading