Mental Wanderings of the Streets of Hanoi or: Elisha’s Communist Birthday

July 25, 2012 in Asia, Travelogue, Vietnam

Across the pond from Ho Chi Minh’s house


“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”  –Mark Twain The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

It’s an interesting thing to be a guest in country that a government of your father’s generation bombed to perdition with questionable motives.

From the moment we hit the ground here I’ve been looking into the eyes of every man in his sixties and wondering how he sees me. If he hates my guts. If in another decade of his lifetime he’d have killed me where I stood just because my passport has a blue back with a golden eagle emblazoned on it. Would he have shot my uncles dead if he’d crossed paths with them in the jungle? Did my older friends drop the bombs that killed his entire family? His black eyes give no hints.

We watched a beautiful and ancient woman cross the street today in the middle of a rain storm.

She pulled her long pants up around her knees and gingerly stepped through the puddles in her plastic sandals. She was wearing a traditional cone shaped “rice paddy” hat and was grinning from ear to ear without one tooth left in her head. It’s likely she’s lived her whole life in Hanoi.

  • She was likely a girl under French colonial rule.
  • She likely saw the rise of the Vietnamese revolution, the ousting of Japan and the establishment of a Vietnamese state in the north.
  • She may have had sons who fought against my uncles.
  • She would certainly have spent terrified nights while bombs fell only to clear away rubble by day and pray to whatever gods she may have that those she loved be spared.
  • She surely buried people and part of her heart with them.

What does she think of me? Of my children? What would she say to me if she could?

I wonder these things as I wander the streets here, delighting in so much that is rich and achingly beautiful about this ancient culture.

We spent the day in history lessons, first hand: A visit to the mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh’s body is displayed (embalmed with the help of the Russians.) We saw his homes, where he lived up until 1954 as well as the newer stilt house he had built across the pond that he lived in after that. We saw his bomb shelter, just steps from his bedroom. We saw the beautifully preserved cars that were given to him as gifts from the Russians, and Vietnamese in France.

Hoa Lo Prison, the Hanoi-Hilton as most Americans know it, was sobering. It’s not just the prison that held American Airmen shot down over Vietnam; they were some of it’s last residents. It was a prison built by the French where Vietnamese revolutionaries were held, tortured and killed. When the Vietnamese took it over not much changed, it was just the roles that were reversed.

Everything we saw today was a first hand lesson in propaganda.

Of course Vietnam is Communist. They achieved independence. They won their revolutionary war. They defeated the American “puppet-government” and we all know that history is written by the victorious. To hear them tell it, the American Airmen were treated better than the Vietnamese people themselves during their incarceration, including Christmas celebrations and top notch food and medical care. Of course the incarcerated tell very different versions of that story.

It was sickening to move from room to room and read the stories of mistreatment on all sides. Vietnamese women and children harmed horribly under the French. US Airmen with blank eyes telling one story while their captors told quite another in the video footage.

I tried to imagine being locked in one of those rooms in my own filth for years on end. I tried to imagine my Dad, my Uncles, my husband… my sons. It is unimaginable, and yet, it happened. It is happening now around the world, at this very instant.

It is a corner of the human heart, the human condition: our capacity for wrong doing ,that I simply cannot get my head around having lead the carefully, gently, tenderly treated life I’ve lead. And I know that, that fact, in and of itself, skews my perceptions and my ability to understand. I strive not to judge because I know that in the truest sense of the words, I cannot understand.

And then… we sit on the side of the road munching down doner-kebab sandwiches in happy food heaven, joking with the sons of the revolutionaries who are cooking for us.They are counting our kids, amazed that we have FOUR, as usual. The wizened, old, toothless crone crosses the street. The rain falls. Horns honk, and  here we are, in downtown Hanoi, with our children, celebrating Elisha’s 12th birthday.

He’s calling it his “Communist Birthday” because today has been one long lesson in Vietnamese history and their version of Communism. We took his picture in front of “Uncle Vladamir” in Lenin’s park. He got a t-shirt with “Uncle Ho” on the front, not because we in any way sympathize with Ho, just because that was what today’s lesson was and he wanted to remember where he’d been and who he’d celebrated his birthday with. He’s very proud of the t-shirt. I’m proud that he not only knows who Uncle Ho is, but that he understands that there are two, often very different, sides to the same story.

I don’t know what to say about today, and what we’ve learned.

I don’t think I’ve lived long enough or had a broad enough experience in these things to have earned the right to say anything at all, except that we learned a lot. Our understanding is deepening, of ourselves, our culture and our government as well as that of the Vietnamese who are so very graciously welcoming us into their homes and their streets and who are stuffing our children with noodles and Pho as if they were their own.

Something occurred to me this evening when slapped hard in the face with the seething hatred and depth of pain that still lies beneath the surface on the American side of the experience:

I’m very glad that I’m not often judged by the actions of my government or the governments of my country that have passed in the generations before my time.

People are not refusing to feed me noodles because of President Johnson’s policies.

I hope that the lesson my children take away is the same: that the Vietnamese are people, who serve a government that tells them only part of the story, just like us. I hope that they learn to separate the individual from international policy. I hope that they learn that in all countries, in all corners of the world are people, just like them, who are trying to cobble together a life out of their dreams and their realities.

I hope that they can extend the same grace to the descendants of “enemies” that is being extended to us at this very moment, because it seems to me that that is the ultimate way to defeat the atrocities on both sides: to find a way to reach over and through them, allowing the next generation to build something new.