Vague thoughts about Buddhism, reports of the country’s beauty and outright admiration for a nation that had survived a thousand years of Chinese domination, a century of French colonialism and eleven years of American military technology all played into my decision to go to Viet Nam. Maybe there was also a need to confront some lingering shades of poorly defined patriotic guilt. Despite my poorly displayed opposition to what there is called the American War, I went to Viet Nam still expecting to be seen and, in some sneaky, snide way, treated as the enemy. But look at this guy! Look at the look he gave me when I, unmistakably American, asked, as best I could, if I could photograph him at his post in Hanoi at the Ho Chi Minh Masoleum.
“Yes! Of course! You betcha.”
And this warmth was absolutely typical of the response our group got everywhere we traveled in that country, from Hanoi in the north,
along the coast through unspeakably beautiful Ha Long Bay,
to historic Hue,
and Hoi An,
and Nha Trang,
to Da Lat,
and Ho Chi Minh City as it prepared for Tet, the new year
and into My Tho in the Mekong Delta.
We lunched in private homes with both ARVN vets who fought with the invading American forces and members of the Viet Cong who fought against us. All agreed,
“The war is over. Our job now is to make Viet Nam the best it can be right now–not to waste our time being pre-occupied with the past.”
Guilt laid to rest, there was still worry…
* * * * *
“How does anyone (like the woman at the left of the photo above) get across the street alive,” we asked. “It’s not like Rome where you wait for a nun who’s going your way and tail along behind her.” They said, “Relax. When you want to walk, walk deliberately and steadily across the street. Don’t look left or right. Don’t speed up, slow down or stop. Cross like you’ve got the right to do so. You do! People on bikes, motorbikes, in cars and trucks, they’ll see you and go around you. If they can’t go around you, they’ll stop. No one will honk or yell–the way they say they do in your country.”
* * * * *
After that reality and theory fell into place. Maybe because I want to believe it, I do see the hand of the Buddha in the veterans’ focus on the present and in the mutual respect shown by those who use the street. I see it in the harmony of native and French cuisines, in a guide telling us, “We are a very practical people. We eat everything.” This was our introduction to weasel coffee. (In the words of Yogi Berra, “You could Google it.”)
* * * * *
A remarkable number of my trip photos are of people: workers, kids, some Buddhist nuns. The kids all go to school. Everyone else works. It’s said in Viet Nam, “If you don’t work, you die.” More Buddhism?
There’s more to say about this trip and the 3 day extension into Kampuchea (what the Cambodians call Cambodia) with Angkor Wat and a floating village and memories of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. Stay tuned.