From 10,000 feet, the Mekong Delta stretches glass flat, large brown snaking rivers interconnecting with shrinking and swelling zigzagging tributaries. The land is dark green, leaking into an aquamarine South China Sea. The clouds, miniature white fluffs, are not even big enough to cast shadows on the earth. My mind is wandering. One moment I look hard for physical signs of a war almost 40 years gone. Then the utter flatness below fills me with sadness too. The Mekong Delta is on the path of our rising oceans and scientists predict it will disappear in a few decades. But as my plane touches down, in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, I am mostly anticipating.
This is my first trip to Vietnam. When I was 15, Vietnam was the only place I wanted to visit. It was the summer of 1977 and my father’s work had brought us to Medellin in Colombia. I came face to face with the war in a bedroom closet of our rented house where I had gone to forage and explore on a hot lazy afternoon. In a dark corner was a pile of dusty Life magazines. I sat down next to them, the closet door letting in just enough light to read, and for the next few hours, and for many weeks after that, I leafed through pictures of dust, heat, blood, tanks and helicopters, faces contorted in pain and desperation or just impenetrable. 1966, 1967, 1968. Tet, Hue, Khe Sanh, the Perfume River, Ben Tre, Dien Bien Phu. Dates and names that grabbed and held.
It is not that the Vietnam War was an unknown quantity. As a family, we listened religiously to the news on WQXR. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I watched on TV as American helicopters were pushed off aircraft carriers into the South China Sea. My parents talked about the war at dinner and in our weekend commutes to the Catskills. Wars, or rather the images of war, had in one way or another always been part of my childhood. On long car rides, my mother would weave me her stories of joining the Italian resistance during World War II in Rome and of being arrested and imprisoned by the Germans. On rainy summer days, my cousin Carlo and I pored over his magazines of World War II Pacific battles. My older sister had decapitated all the family dolls but it never occurred to me to ask for new ones. I played with Carlo’s GI Joes.
But that summer in 1977, Vietnam became personal. I didn’t want to be a passive observer. So without knowing what it entailed, or how I was supposed to get to the finish line, I decided that I wanted to be a war correspondent. Hopelessly naïve? Yes. Innocent? For sure. Clueless? Definitely. I spent hours and days learning every detail of those pictures. Back in New York, I made my mother escort me to Columbia Univeristy’s Butler Library so I could use her ID card and take out military books on Vietnam’s battles. At 16, my mother gave me my most memorable Christmas gift: Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I have since read it over a dozen times. It has travelled with me to four continents. The spine is cracked, the pages marked so I can grab a quick high from his explosive, taunting, cutting, visceral and utterly visual prose. If I wanted to get high, I didn’t need drugs. I had Dispatches.
It took me until May 2014 to make it to Vietnam. By then war was something I had already done. The romance was long gone. I had coped–not always successfully–with all the intangibles that came with it. My sister says I became a journalist because I didn’t know what else to do. My Italian cousin, also a journalist, warned me that what made front page in the morning wrapped the fish at night. Not sure whether I could ever figure out how to be a journalist, I had studied Chinese, worked as a tour guide in mainland China, danced for a Taiwanese rock band, tried (unsuccessfully) to get a PhD in Indic Studies and then in 1987 went to Afghanistan where I spent two years traveling and writing about the Mujaheddin.
Twenty five years: big wars, small wars, a genocide, inner city crime, inheriting three children when I married a widower, adding on another one. Having three teenagers at home. Living in Kenya and now in Nepal. Sometimes I felt I’d been put in a blender that overheated and stalled before the final smooth product was ready. I still felt the need to see the Vietnam I had housed in my head for all those years.
I don’t know what I expected Vietnam to give me. On the surface, the war is long gone. Three million Vietnamese (two million civilians) and over 58,000 Americans dead. Today, the majority of Vietnamese are young—born after the war ended, they are too young to know the past intimately. For some of them, it is now just a backdrop.
On Highway 1 between Danang and Hue, I saw a young Vietnamese couple pose for a wedding photo shoot on a decaying American bunker. The battle fields in Hue are unfindable. The Continental Hotel, in Saigon, is such a posh hotel that I felt an imposter as I walked through the lobby. China Beach is in the process of becoming a shoulder-to- shoulder high-end collection of resorts. Beautiful roads, strict traffic rules, 24-hour electricity, clean sidewalks, tree-lined avenues (puts Nepal to shame)–a communist country where the triumphs of capitalism are visible everywhere. A Lamborghini store is scheduled to open soon in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam is a beautiful land wrapped in delectable food with a coffee shop on every corner. I became a war tourist of sorts. I dripped sweat all day and thought of soldiers humping through the jungle with 50lbs packs, flak jackets and leeches.
Alongside my 9-year-old son, I was mesmerized by the Cu Chi tunnel network. I wiped away tears at the War Remnants Museum and insisted on walking and re-walking Le Loi and Tu Do Avenues.
And every Huey and Chinook helicopter I saw (and there are many parked on the grounds of Ho Chi Minh City museums), reminded me of my long standing love-affair with these hulking beasts. I first met them in Dispatches – “Savior- Destroyers” Herr called them.
It was an arranged marriage on paper and later I fell for them hard in Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, flying night missions in Black Hawks, scrunched in the gunners seat in Gunships and in Hueys, door open, feet dangling, music blaring, flying Nap of the Earth along Rwanda’s rivers. Grit- whipping terror, sweaty dank canvas, every part of my body on edge.
Some local history is scrubbed so clean that I only realized later that my Ho Chi Minh City hotel, selected because it was near the local office of my husband’s company, was just one block from the site of the former US Embassy. I was 13 years old in April 1975 when the last American helicopter lifted off into a slate sky in a final desperate evacuation.
Everyone has their own war story, their own angle of vision, and none of my wars have been like Vietnam. Long ago, I’d agonized that I had missed it, that I was born too late. But that doesn’t matter anymore. War is memory and it must never be forgotten.