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Coming Back to Hanoi


There is a guillotine placed in the courtyard of Maison Central, its blade sharp and shining. The former Hoa Lo Prison is a gloomy reminder of dark days of torture and humiliation; this is where thousands of Vietnamese patriots vanished without a trace, victims of French colonial ambitions. This is where the resistance with its struggle for justice and independence was savagely muzzled and where it became painfully clear that liberty, equality and fraternity were and still are the terms designed strictly for us, not for them.

The French court of “justice” had been strategically placed right across the narrow street from the prison. It was conveniently located: dissidents, nationalists, Communists and intellectuals were briskly tried, sentenced; then shackled, tortured, starved, raped, then often executed. During the American War (known as the Vietnam War in the West) Hoa Lo Prison served as detention center for captured American pilots and was quickly nicknamed Hanoi Hilton.

Maison Central is now a museum containing chilling replicas of torture rooms, death-row cells and photographs from colonial times and the American War. It has shrunk in size: right behind its walls were erected two impressive sky-scrapers called Hanoi Towers, a place which I called home for almost three years.

If I put my face very close to the window which covered almost the entire wall of the living room, I could clearly see the blade of Maison Central’s guillotine. From below, I could see the light in my living room through the blade.

Hanoi Towers were designed by European architects. The legend says that after construction of the buildings had been completed, Vietnamese people refused to live or work there, claiming that because it was built right in the middle of the former prison where thousands of people died in agony, the entire place is haunted by an army of ghosts. Management had to invite a Chinese architect who fully restructured the interior of apartments and offices, creating fantastic broken lines and hidden corners; a design which was supposed to appease the dead.

This is where I lived and worked for years, often struggling in this capital of – what was then – one of the poorest countries in Asia, devastated by countless invasions and wars. And before I left I realized that in fact I had been given the unique privilege of experiencing life in one of the most fascinating and unique but tortured places on earth. Once I closed the door and surrendered my permanent residency permit, wherever I went in the world I had to carry a dull pain inside my heart, a low-key but constant nostalgia; the desire to come back and live again in this city.

The beauty of Hanoi is in the details, although some of its entire areas are strikingly photogenic and elegant. It is the whole setting that makes it one of the most attractive places on earth: mysterious lakes with tree branches touching the surface of water, tamarind trees, Chinese temples and French villas, tasteful art galleries and cafes, countless legends, the traditional long dresses of women caressed by a gentle breeze, the never ending vibrancy of the streets; colors and sounds, laughter, endless optimism through the tears and pain which is brought by memories of the past.

As holder of a U.S. passport, I had never been a target of wrath, discrimination, ridicule or reproach. It was almost surreal and one couldn’t help but feel humbled by this tremendous generosity. More than 3 million Vietnamese people died because of the U.S. invasion and terror: victims of carpet bombing, poisonous gasses, combat, executions and torture. Probably more than 3 million, but we will never know exact numbers. The U.S. never apologized, never helped to rebuild the country, to clean poisoned land where still today people are dying from contaminated water, food and unexploded substances.

Four years ago, a friend of mine summarized the feelings of the Vietnamese people: “We fought Americans and we won the war. We struggled and we suffered, but now we want to look forward, to build our country, our future. There is no point in feeling angry. Anger will not improve this land.”

The Vietnamese people forgave but they never forgot. Museums and monuments speak about the brutality of the invaders. Countless photographs document the past. People are still dying from “mysterious” illnesses. Each family has some horror story to tell. There is almost no adult person in this country that did not experience hunger and extreme hardship in the past.

On 9-11, I went downstairs to buy some food, keeping the television tuned to the BBC World, volume down. When I returned to the apartment, one tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan was burning. I paid no attention, thinking that the BBC was running yet another movie review. It was dark outside. I noticed some lights and when I fully opened the curtain, I realized that makeshift rockets of celebration were shooting towards the sky from surrounding villages. The next day the Vietnamese government expressed its outrage over the terrorist attacks and sent condolences to the American people. The fireworks were never mentioned.

I learned later that there was no contradiction in these two acts. The Vietnamese people felt genuinely sorry for those who died in New York City, even in the Pentagon. They felt grief and pity for the individual men and women who were murdered and they felt grief for their families. They knew exactly how it feels to be bombed; they knew it, unfortunately, too well.

Condolences expressed by the government on behalf of the Vietnamese people were genuine, not just a diplomatic act. Celebrations were genuine as well. But those who celebrated did so because the empire which caused them so much suffering was under attack.

9-11 brought to surface complex emotions the Vietnamese people harbor towards the West in general and the U.S. in particular. That significant and tragic day evoked in many of them feelings of sympathy, grief and outrage but also joy. They had forgiven the people of the invading countries, but they never forgave the empires.

During the war, Hanoi itself was not bombed as savagely as other Vietnamese cities and the countryside. However, by the time “hostilities” ended in 1973, a quarter of all buildings had been destroyed; tens of thousands of people were dead and almost one half of the population evacuated.

“I didn’t grow up in this city”, remembers Dinh Tien, a high-level official at the Ministry of Trade, general director of Vilexim Import Export who deals on a daily basis with foreign companies, including those from the U.S.. “I came to Hanoi from the area near the port city of Haiphong. That’s where my childhood was. But it wasn’t a childhood that many people in the West would recognize. My street was bombed several times by the US air force. We – the kids – were almost constantly hungry. And the only toys we knew were empty shells from spent American ammunition. Sometimes we played with unexploded substances. Remembering it now makes me shiver, but it was absolutely normal then. That’s how I grew up.”

Probably no other country (with the possible exception of East Timor) in the post-war history suffered such intensive terror inflicted from outside as Vietnam did. After it won a bitter war for independence with France, Vietnam found itself facing the mightiest military power on earth – The United States. Years and millions of deaths later Vietnam had to face “punitive action” from China after it intervened in Cambodia, provoked by constant cross-border raids of the Khmer Rouge, and unable to stomach the genocide taking place at its doorstep.

As a response, the U.S. threw its full diplomatic weight behind the Khmer Rouge, demanding at the UN and elsewhere that Vietnam withdraw its forces and the Khmer Rouge immediately return to power.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the East European trading block landed yet another tremendous blow to Vietnam which was then just beginning to recover from the decades of wars and aggressions.

The exact extent of the suffering of the Vietnamese people is unknown, but estimates speak of about 1.3 million Vietnamese soldiers killed during the American War alone, alongside 2 million civilians. The U.S. and its allies dropped 1.2 million tons of bombs on Vietnam each year, flying 400,000 sorties annually. The defoliated area (1962-71) covered 2.2 million hectares. The average number of civilians killed each month was 130,000.

The most intensive bombing campaign in the history of humankind – Operation Rolling Thunder – began on March 1965 and ran through October 1968. In that period, twice the tonnage of bombs was dropped on Vietnam and Laos as during all of WW2. 4,000 out of 5,788 villages in North Vietnam were hit. General Curtis Le May explained at that time with remarkable and disarming frankness: “We should bomb them back into the Stone Age.” 1.7 million tons of Agent Orange had been used by 1973, and 20 million bomb craters still dot the Vietnamese countryside, from north to south.

Death and terror did not come only from the sky. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese people had to endure severe torture in the hands of American troops and Special Forces. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese women and children were raped, a fact very rarely discussed in the United States.

Back in Washington and Canberra, 57,605 American and 423 Australian soldiers who died in the “Vietnam War” have their names engraved in memorials honoring their sacrifice. There is hardly any domestic or international discussion about whether these memorials are “moral”; a sharp contrast to the bitter discussion over the morality of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo commemorating Japanese soldiers who died during WW2, some of them war criminals.

Words like “mass murder” are never mentioned in the mainstream US media in relation to mass killings of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian citizens. International courts have not tried either American military nor political elites on charges of genocide.

Obviously the lives of those gooks mattered not at all and to this day they still don’t matter much. Killing more than 3 million of them doesn’t mean that we have to consider abandoning any deeply rooted beliefs in our superiority, our undeniable right to lead the free world to the shining glory of liberty and democracy.

But due to the countless and heinous crimes we have committed in Korea, Indochina, Central and South America, the Middle East and elsewhere, it is possible (let’s stipulate this just for the sake of the argument) that in the eyes of the majority of the world we transformed ourselves into nothing more than an outlaw state, a power spreading terror and fear through the unbridled murder of innocent men, women and children all over the world; a frightening specter and an incurable disease all in one; a catalyst for the second coming of Fascism.

In Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos we are remembered for our B-52s which dropped bombs from tremendous heights (people received no warning that the attacks were coming), for burning civilians with the chemicals, for gang-raping little girls, for supporting any corrupt and brutal dictatorship as long as it was willing to lick our boots. It is truly a fine way to be remembered! A true shining example of heroism which will surely inspire our young men and women to fight for freedom and democracy in many other oppressed countries whose citizens can’t wait to embrace our values and our liberties.

And back to the gooks: these “gooks” happened to be my neighbors for almost three years. Some became my close friends. With tremendous sacrifice and determination they resurrected their country from rubble, attempting to build the society on principles of equality. They often failed but never gave up, moving forward, determined, hard working and endlessly optimistic. One step back, two steps forward, that’s how it looked to me.

Vietnam is a beauty dotted with bullet-holes, an elegant Asian landscape sprinkled with blood. It is a poem with letters blurred with tears; with gentle traditional music whose monotonous beauty is interrupted by desperate screams of pain. It is our endless shame.

In front of what used to be the Citadel stands an old jet fighter – MIG-21 – with nine stars painted on its fuselage. Each star symbolizes an enemy aircraft (ours) it had shot down during the war. Behind it is Cot Co, the Flag Tower. Cot Co is all there is left of the once impressive citadel attacked and captured in 1882 by Francis Garnier and his French troops.

Garnier’s pretext for attack was exactly the same as the one used a few decades later by US policy makers: he said that “he had to attack because the Vietnamese were planning to attack him”. His logic was readily accepted in Europe, regardless of the fact that he and his troops were 10,000 kilometers from home, already rampaging a foreign land.

I walked all over the city for long hours, taking in Hanoi’s beauty, its colors, smells and sounds. I strolled around Huan Kiem Lake, then alongside West Lake, towards my hotel. I desperately wanted to come back and live here again. Late at night I parked myself at the roof bar of Sofitel Plaza, one of the few places open at that hour.

Paddle boats carried lovers on Petit Lac more than 20 stories below. The entire city was in front of me and so was its majestic Red River illuminated by the moon and by the weak lights of cargo ships in the distance. I had several drinks trying to get drunk, but it didn’t seem to work. I tried to write a poem but I couldn’t.

Looking at the sky I suddenly imagined hundreds of tons of bombs falling on the city and on me from the height of 57 thousand feet. I imagined thousands of dead bodies dotting the pavement below. What would I have done? What had been on the Vietnamese people’s minds when it was not just an imagination but reality? How the hell did we dare to do it and how did we manage to get away with it?

Then I noticed the International Herald Tribune on the table in front of me. In the dim light I read excerpts of the speech by John Bolton who was defining US policy towards Iran. I felt suddenly scared; terribly, endlessly scared.

ANDRE VLTCHEK: writer, journalist and filmmaker, co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org), publishing house for political fiction. His latest published books include the political novel “Point of No Return” and the book of essays “Western Terror – From Potosi to Baghdad”. He is the producer of “Terlena – Breaking of a Nation” the 90 minute documentary film about Suharto’s dictatorship (www.millache.org). He is based in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]

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