Hanoi II

In glaring contrast to Saigon, Hanoi is clean—much cleaner than New York, for example. The sidewalks are swept, there is no refuse piled up, and a matinal sprinkler truck comes through, washing down the streets. In the somewhat gloomy lobby of the hotel, where foreign correspondents sit conferring with their interpreters, like clients murmuring with their lawyers on the benches of a courtroom, a strong smell of furniture polish rises from the worn furniture. The abundant archaic towels in the bathroom are stiff from many launderings—in cold water, probably, and a harsh soap. Sanitation is almost a fetish, imbued with political fervor: wiping the slate clean. In Hanoi, there are no prostitutes on the streets (the claim is that they have all been reformed), no ragged children with sores. It is rare to see a child with a dirty face, though children themselves are fairly rare, most having been evacuated to the country, where their parents visit them on weekends.

The fiercer animals in the zoo—lions and tigers—have been evacuated too or, rather, turned loose in the mountain forests. According to a Western news agency, the severely rationed economy could not spare fresh meat to feed them—good news for the Pentagon, since, if true, it proved that the war was “hurting.” Mr. Phan of the Peace Committee, who volunteered the story, told it differently. He said they sent the dangerous animals away in case an air strike should wreck their cages and let them escape into the streets. I prefer Mr. Phan’s explanation, delivered with big grave eyes. It has its amusing side like the thought, hilarious for children, of an elephant escaping from the circus. Yet of course the problem is serious and confronts any city under bombing, just as much as what to do with the pictures in the museums. In World War II, what happened to the animals in the London Zoo? Where did they put them?

Nor—excuse me—is it unthinkable that the US Navy or the Air Force would consider bombing a zoo. The model leper colony of Quyn Lap was bombed not just once—which might have been an accident—but thirty-nine times; I have seen photographs of the pandemonic scenes as doctors and attendants sought to carry lepers to safety on their backs and on stretchers—limbs wasted to stumps, arms ending in knobs. One-hundred-and-sixty secluded buildings, housing more than 2,000 lepers, were demolished (I apologize for using North Vietnamese statistics, but the Americans have not supplied any); the first raid netted 139 dead, some, it is said, machine-gunned as they scattered. “But what could be the motive?” Americans protest. “What is the point of bombing a model leper colony?” I do not know the motive but I know the result: the surviving lepers have been distributed to ordinary district and provincial hospitals, where they are, to put it mildly, a problem, a pathetic menace to public health. If you bomb lepers, why draw the line at captive lions and tigers, who could be quite a menace too?

In any case, the Hanoi government has sent the four-footed carnivores back to the wild. They are the only instances of what the US calls “refugees,” i.e., forcibly evacuated non-belligerents, the war has created in the North. The zoo, very spruce, with well-swept paths, now contains chiefly sage monkeys, intelligent chimpanzees, and, for disgust, some cruel vultures, whose cage, at feeding-time, is the star attraction; maybe for Communist citizens (I cannot forget the monstrous sated vultures of the zoo in Warsaw), they are a fascinating object lesson in insensate, ruthless greed.

Unlike the half-evacuated zoo devoted mainly to peaceful herbivores, the city of Hanoi, like a dragon, breathes fire at every corner. Besides the shelters, the antiaircraft, the scoreboard of shot-down airplanes, the army trucks, and boys and girls in uniform, there are huge war posters everywhere, graphics of Liberation Front heroes, slogans; the current attraction at the movie-houses is a story about the heroine of Ham Rong (Dragon’s Jaw) Bridge, the beautiful leader of a militia unit in Thang Hoa Province, pictured on colossal billboards with helmet and rifle.

SOME WRITERS have pictured Hanoi, even before the air war, as drab, and this is true today, certainly, of the old mercantile streets, which nobody could think of as colorful. There is almost nothing to buy except, literally, hardware: e.g., flashlights, thermoses, canteens, second-hand bicycles and bicycle-parts. Many shops are closed down. The principal private businesses seem to be barber shops and bicycle-repair shops. The very name, Silk Street, sends a pang through the luxury-loving passerby. In Hung Yen Province, there are still mulberries and silkworms, but their product, seemingly, must go for export. Dress goods and woven mats made by co-operatives are sold in the government department store. As in all Communist countries, books are cheap, but the shelves and counters of the Hanoi bookstores display almost exclusively textbooks, of one sort or another: technical, scientific, political. Little fiction or poetry and that mostly of an edifying or patriotic character; few translations of foreign classics, except Marx and Engels. The translation of modern European and American authors, a thriving industry in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, is here still largely a dream for the future: “We have started to translate your progressive writers: Jack London and Mark Twain.”

In the street, the population, riding its bicycles, is dressed in somber colors: black trousers, white shirt or blouse, khaki, gray, navy blue. A few very old pedicabs or Cyclopuses, trembly relics of inequality, still circulate, usually as delivery-carts, though occasionally you see a passenger aboard—a stout middle-aged woman with bundles. The alluring, transparent ao-dai, still the normal dress of women in the South, is worn here only on ceremonious occasions. It was startling to visit a generator factory and be received, with bouquets of gladiolas, by a bevy of young women workers dressed in bright ao-dais and with big red Cupid’s bows, reminiscent of the Twenties in America, painted on their lips. Assembled at the factory entrance, coloring shyly through the disks of rouge on their cheeks, they looked like brides-maids emerging from a church. Ordinarily the women wear no make-up, and the only notes of color on the flying bicycles are supplied by girls’ plastic raincapes, robin’s egg blue or pink. Despite the rainy winters, the umbrella, I was told, was discarded when the air war began. Mine attracted attention, and I began to be embarrassed by it, as though it had been a parasol. When not in work clothes, the men of Hanoi dressed neatly in Western suits, clean white shirt, and tie.

HANOI is clean but defaced and stained, reminding one of a bathtub that has been scrubbed with an abrasive power till the finish has worn off. Outside the old French residential quarter, which includes diplomats’ houses, the presidential palace and gardens, and the colonnaded Ba Dinh Assembly, the buildings have not been “kept up” or renovated. Like the ancient elevator in the hotel, manufactured in Saigon in some other eon, and the sighing old French plumbing upstairs, shops, dwellings, and offices are survivors, veterans. The Catholic families who “followed the Holy Virgin south” after Geneva would not find many changes, except those wrought by time. A clubwoman I knew in Saigon, when she heard I might go to Hanoi, begged me to go and look at “her” drug-store, just as a dispossessed ci-devant baron might beg you go look at “his” castle: “It is still there, my drugstore—on the Place du Marché!” I undertook the pilgrimage, and the drugstore was there, all right, seemingly just as she had left it in 1954; only it needed new paint and shutters. The former US consulate now flies the flag of the National Liberation Front delegation; they have changed the official pictures in the reception room and built a shelter in the garden, but otherwise it still looks very much like any US consulate in the South, minus the sandbags and the Marine guards.

The only important new building is the big Polytechnic University, finished just before the bombing started; it stands empty, never having been used (its faculties have been dispersed to the country), and this, no doubt, was taken as a sharp lesson. Hanoi, quite naturally, is closing down existing structures rather than adding to them. The central market is closed—too dangerous an assembly-point—and peasant women sell flowers, fruit, and vegetables from little stands on the sidewalks. So far as I could see, repairing bomb damage was the only building activity going on in the city and its environs. If the damage is extensive, as in the case of blocks of workers’ apartments badly hit (I saw them) in the suburbs, what is left of the buildings is simply condemned, for the time being, and nobody is supposed to live there, though in reality a few families do. If it is just a question of repairing a roof, this is done rapidly.

In the Two Sisters district, an outlying section of Hanoi, on the morning of March 28, I watched workmen repairing the roof of the Church of the Little Flower; it had been bombed March 8, at 7:50 PM. The congregation was at evening mass when the officiating priest heard the first alert on the loud-speaker outside the church: the bombers were 40 kilometers off. He ordered the congregation to disperse, and nobody that had been in church was hurt except the statues on the altar and along the walls; St. John the Baptist, in a loin cloth, with his rustic cross made of sticks, and a green polychrome angel were still recognizable, though headless; the Stations of the Cross were completely shattered. Near the Gothic-style church—stone, with many crockets—there were five big bomb craters, one filled with water, among the growing market crops. Eighteen bombs, the people said, had been dropped on this Catholic hamlet, remote from the main highway and from any discernible military target. Those who had gone to mass had been lucky. Eight people were killed, and eight wounded; fifteen houses had been razed. Yet already the rubble had been cleaned up—only a child’s crib had been overlooked—and once the bomb craters were leveled off and replanted, a visitor would never guess what had happened unless he were shown photographs at the War Crimes Commission.

In the center of Hanoi, where raids took place in August and again in October last year on two thickly populated city blocks (the “industrial” targets being a small hardware store and a little bicycle repair shop), you stand deep in rubble, amid twisted bedsprings; your guides point out where a partly destroyed house has been rebuilt, looking no newer—to your eyes—than the adjacent houses that escaped. Here there is no question of urban renewal. A patch of roof or wall is hastily applied to the old worn fabric of the city. Somehow, in Hanoi I missed seeing the bombed area visited by Harrison Salisbury and others, though from their description it must have been not far from the hotel. Maybe it has been rebuilt and blends, like camouflage material, with the emaciated buildings around it. In and around Hanoi, I noticed, only relatively fresh bomb damage is called to the visitor’s attention. The rest is documentation: museum material.

DESPITE THE SHADE TREES, lakes and parks, Hanoi in peacetime could undoubtedly seem drab—a poor relation of the Western Communist capitals with their tourists’ attractions of rebuilt palaces, restored glittering churches, picturesque marketplaces, pretty girls in mini-skirts, shops full of “good design” hand-woven rugs and embroidered place mats to take home. What makes the difference, now, is the militancy, the flame in the eyes, which sometimes darts out if you make an imprudent comparison. As a common purpose, repelling the invader is a more enlivening goal, it would appear, than building socialism, a sometimes zestless affair; here building socialism is not just an end, which may seem to be perpetually receding, like a mirage, but a means; the reason for making sacrifices is clear and present to everyone. In Hanoi, you do not see the dispirited milling restless crowds of the cities of eastern Europe; almost everybody here is in a hurry. Obviously there must be discontented people, grumblers, but where are they? There cannot be a government decree ordering them to stay in their houses. Yet wherever you go, you are met with smiles, cheers, hand-clapping. Passersby stop and wave to your car on the road. Once in a while, it is true, in a poor, historically “disadvantaged” province, you pass old blackclad peasants, with cross, obstinate faces, who do not raise their eyes—like people refusing to salute a flag—as you go by, smiling and raising dust. But this is almost reassuring; unanimity would be too abnormal.

In Hanoi, because of the war, the population goes to work at six in the morning. The stores open at five or even four. Few people eat at home any more or in restaurants. They take their meals in the government canteens, turning over their rationing tickets. An exception was Mr. Phan of the Peace Committee, a gourmet, who did his own cooking, his wife being either at work in a government office, in one of her two evening classes, or at committee meetings. He profited from trips to the country to shoot birds to bring home; so, in fact, did the driver.

It was plain that life in Hanoi was austere and strenuous, though every effort was made to lessen this for the foreign visitor, who was regarded as a weaker vessel. The indulgences of the West were known to the North Vietnamese by repute, though their travel usually had been confined to attending congresses in Communist countries. They would apologize for the inconvenience caused one by the alerts—an excess of courtesy when speaking to an American, I felt. They were solicitous about one’s health, how one had slept, whether one was tired. Our tour of the recent bomb sites in the city required a 7 AM departure from the hotel, and they excused themselves for this. “We are sorry about it, but that way it is safer.” The bombers, they told us, seldom arrived before 9 AM. “You mean the pilots have to have a hot breakfast first,” I said ironically. “We do not know the explanation,” they replied. “But we have observed that this is the case.” It did indeed appear to be so, as a general rule, in the countryside as well as in the city. In my notes I have marked down only one early-morning alert: at 5:45 AM on March 21.

For an overnight trip, you waited till late afternoon to start. Preparations were methodical. First, you were given time to rest in your room. Then a light supper was ordered in the dining-room for precisely four-thirty. Your guides from the Peace Committee (it was never clear whether they had eaten themselves or whether they ever rested) were distressed, almost alarmed, if you protested at eating so early, having finished lunch at about two—luckily I am docile about sitting down to table when told to. At the destination, you would be fed again—fed and fêted. Wherever you went, there would be basins of hot water and towels for you to wash up; I was never invited to wash so often as in North Vietnam. And, when we stopped en route, young Mrs. Chi of the Peace Committee whispering: “Would you like to make water or shit?”

EACH DEPARTURE, smacking of danger, was an adventure. Shortly before six, the baggage waiting in the hotel lobby was carried out to the cars. In Vietnam, it gets dark about seven, all year round. By the time we went through the military checkpoint at the city limits (all automobiles entering or leaving the city are checked, but not bicycles or pedestrians), it was dusk, and trucks and military vehicles, which had been parked by the roadside, had begun moving too, like sleepers awaking and stretching. This crepuscular stirring at nightfall, when good people should be preparing for bed, was full of excitement, half childish, as though you were in a dense forest when the owls and other night creatures came into their own, and the effect was enhanced by the sibilant leaves of the camouflage. Gradually, headlights blinked on, the big trucks using only one, like the Cyclops. Lanterns hung over the tables of little country inns; a dim crowd of working-people was waiting by the road’s edge. “A bus stop.” Under cover of darkness, the country was resupplying.

Respecting that cover, I never asked exactly what was in the trucks or where the convoys were going. I did not want to feel like a spy. Indeed, I had a strong desire not to observe any movement of men or vehicles that might have a military or political significance. I tried to restrict myself to innocent questions and speculations, such as: “Was that thunder and lightning or a bomb?” This inhibition extended to observing my companions and attempting to study their attitudes and behavior, in the manner of a social scientist. A poor approach for a reporter, but I suspect it was rather general and dictated by courtesy to a people whose country was being invaded not only by fleets of bombers but by reconnaissance planes, monitoring every pigsty and carp pond, while in the South, below the DMZ, North Vietnamese prisoners were being interrogated, often under the stimulus of torture, their documents, little poems, and diaries read and studied by military intelligence and US political scientists, hopeful of penetrating the medulla of North Vietnamese resistance, to find evidence of homesickness, malnutrition, disillusion, war fatigue.

Nevertheless, I could not help noticing an awesome lot of military traffic, any more than I could help seeing that the car I was riding in was a Volga and that the car ahead, bearing another guest of the Peace Committee, was an old Peugeot, and the car ahead of that, bearing the doctor and the photographer (guests of the government, when traveling must be accompanied by a doctor), a Warshawa.

Nor could I wholly disconnect the intelligence apparatus within my own head, which registered the evident fact that my companions were Communists, that they were sometimes guarded in their conversation and quick to correct a doctrinal error or slip on the part of a compatriot, as when in the Museum of Art, the director, a gray-haired painter, while making some point about a fifteenth-century Vietnamese landscape with figures, had referred in a derogatory way to the Chinese, meaning plainly, I thought, “the cruel Mings,” and the Peace Committee guide, with a sharp cough, interposed, “The Chinese feudal oppressors,” lest we understand an innuendo on the People’s Republic of China. The embarrassing point of this little episode, in terms of political constraint, apparent to any Westerner, including a non-Party Russian, a Czech, or a Hungarian, was probably lost on our young guide, who must have felt simply that he had covered, with smiling rapidity, a tense moment, instead of, on the contrary, causing one.

He was a nice person, Mr. Van, modest, kind, amused at himself, with a startled, hare-like look, always dressed, when we went to the country, in a rather sporty cloth cap and scarf. I wished he had not had to do that or to nod in our direction with boyish satisfaction, like a bright senior approving a junior recitation, when the museum director promptly echoed, “Yes, of course, the Chinese feudal oppressors.” But I did not blame him, really. I blamed the United States. If we had not been bombing his country, Mr. Van might be a free or at least a freer spirit, instead of an anxious chaperon fearful that his charges might draw an “improper” conclusion.

OFTEN, when with our friends of the Peace Committee, I thought of other Communist countries I had been to, other and different conversations. In particular of Sarajevo in the winter of 1960. I had gone to Yugoslavia on a lecture tour for the State Department—itself an index of how time has flown, politically speaking, since. Between Sarajevo, the old Bosnian capital, and Hanoi there were quite a few points in common. The flowers on arrival. When I got off the train in Sarajevo, I was too green to know that this was a Communist custom—which must have derived, I think, from pre-Revolutionary eastern Europe—and I was amazed and flattered to find some bundled-up officials from the Writers’ Union waiting for me at the station in the snow with a large bouquet of red roses. They took me to a hotel with antique plumbing, quite a different milieu from the modern hotels of Belgrade and Zagreb; the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie had stayed there on June 28, 1914, the day they were assassinated—their names must still be in the register. Around the corner there was a sort of Museum of the Revolution, which I was immediately taken to; it was devoted to fading photos and mementos of Prinzip, the assassin, and the bridge nearby, over the Miljacka River, was named for him. It was strange to think that here in Sarajevo this young man, who had caused the First World War and, indirectly, all its sequelae, right down through Belsen and Auschwitz, was a Hero of the People. They were proud of him. I was made conscious, almost dizzily, of a gulf, a dangerous chasm that showed me how far apart we were, as, to a lesser degree—for I was somewhat prepared for that—did the ubiquitous likenesses of Stalin in North Vietnam.

In Sarajevo, I was warned ahead of time, the Party apparatus was tough and illiberal. The town was poor, shabby, provincial, old-fashioned, half Moslem, with a bazaar and minarets; the administration was under-favored by the Tito regime. I would be meeting old doctrinaire functionaries, reactionaries in the sense of being still unreconstructed from the Stalinist period. There would be no question of the audience’s understanding English, as at Zagreb or Belgrade or Ljubliana; a translator would be supplied. My lecture was on the novel, and I tried to choose examples chiefly from Russian and classical French fiction that I thought the audience might know. At the end of the lecture, the bald-headed Party literary chief rose from his chair and demanded: “Why have you not mentioned your great writer, Jack London?”

THIS QUESTION, really an accusation, had not been directed at me anywhere else in Yugoslavia, still less in Poland, where I had been lecturing too. It floored me, and I could only answer, mildly, that I had never read Jack London, except a book about a dog when I was a child. The answer made the literary chief angry (like any light dismissal of somebody else’s taste), but it made me popular with the translators, of whom there turned out to be two, both very young. One had studied acting in Stratford-on-Avon one summer and had played Hamlet in a student production; the other was the son of a professor. These young men, as I soon found out, were in very bad odor with the Writers’ Union, but on the occasion of my visit they had become indispensable to it, being virtually the only translators from English on the scene. Probably, as in Poland at the time and in North Vietnam today, English and French, the capitalist tongues, were discouraged in the local University, offered only as “second” or optional languages, while Russian was a “first” language and compulsory—in North Vietnam, if I understood right, there is a choice between Russian and Chinese as a “first” language.

In any case, the two young men, “Hamlet”—I could not master his last name—and his friend, were making the most of my presence, to tease and annoy the Party leadership. There was a whole group of contumacious young writers, it seemed, who met in a café and discussed Greek pre-Socratic philosophers and forbidden writers like Nietzsche. They invited me to the café (an honor, they told me, for I was the first person over thirty ever to be admitted to their table), and naturally I went.

It was in the café, I think, that the plot was hatched to get possession of the Party car, in order to take me to the mountains and go up on the ski-lift. As in Hanoi, there were no private cars in Sarajevo—certainly none for young people to ride around in. The car belonging to the Writers’ Union was very old, rusty, and battered—a real heap. But to “Hamlet” and his friends, it was a prize to be captured, with some cooperation from me. In the end, they got it—virtually hijacked it, I gathered—and somehow got the gasoline too, and we all went off to the mountain lodge, a new socialist construction, which was empty, and rode back and forth in the ski-lift over the fir-tree tops, even I, who am afraid of heights. They had struck a blow for freedom; that was how they saw this escapade.

What was interesting about this group was its seriousness. They were not literary Bohemians but deeply interested in politics and philosophy. Moreover, they were committed to Marxism and hopeful of working out for themselves, in that backward Moslem town whose chief products were pure mountain air and “Turkish” carpets, some synthesis of Marxism with other subversive philosophies. The neo-capitalist economic ideas coming out of Belgrade at the time did not attract them at all, but they were curious about that intransigent figure, Simone Weil, and her little book on factory work. Nor had they been infected by the careerism typical of the young big-city intellectuals of Yugoslavia, who were mostly interested in making money, acquiring unspoiled seashore property at bargain prices for vacations and watching its value mount (“We bought it for ten thousand dinars, and now it’s worth ten times that”), getting showy apartments and studios from the government, and staying out of trouble politically. If the literary bureaucrats of Sarajevo were the most benighted and forbidding functionaries I met in Yugoslavia, “Hamlet” and his friends were the most advanced and freest—in the true sense—young beings. A sort of polarization had taken place.

Riding along in the Volga, I wondered what had happened to them. The worst (to my mind) would be if they themselves had slowly—or rapidly—climbed up the rungs of the Writers’ Union and had reached the top. The best would be if they were teaching in the University. Perhaps “Hamlet” had become a player and was treading the boards in Belgrade. Comparison with the young translators of the Peace Committee was inevitable. Their situations were equivalent: as interpreters, they were in contact with foreigners from capitalist societies; they had become negotiators, in a sense, between their own society and friendly elements belonging (or half-belonging) to ours. And humanly they were not unlike: dedicated, pensive, patriotic, proud of their native scenery and customs. Behind the Vietnamese, however, was a grimmer experience; young as they were, they had fought with the Viet Minh against the French. And they were still resolutely fighting, though no longer with guns. In contrast to their seriousness, that of the young Bosnians appeared frivolous, a luxury; at any rate, that was how young Mr. Hieu, small-featured, slender, delicate, hard-working (he had taught himself English by listening to the BBC and the Voice of America) and his wife, Mrs. Chi, would have regarded it. And it was true: it was easier to imagine “Hamlet” and his friends giving up the struggle finally, succumbing to the local temptations—Slivovitz, sloth—than to imagine Mr. Hieu, Mrs. Chi, or Mr. Van renouncing the fight even for half a day.

IN AN IDEAL WORLD, though, Mr. Van and Mr. Hieu—and why not shy Mrs. Chi?—ought to be free to pursue their own intellectual evolution, to speak without constraint to the foreigners in their charge, to question authority, in fact to hijack the old Peugeot up ahead and go off on a joyride—in a Communist country, the Party car is Father’s car. But until the Americans go home, Father’s car, or Uncle Ho’s, garaged in North Vietnam, will be treated with deferential respect. No question of “borrowing” it for private, unauthorized enjoyment. The Americans have blocked such possibilities for the young Vietnamese, and for the old too. They have frozen the country in a posture of wary vigilance, ears pricked up for the slightest violation of the defined intellectual and political boundaries, in the same way that, in the Peugeot, the driver’s radio, though turned low, is alert to catch an announcement from the central network of a violation of the national air space. And until the Americans go home, translation will probably be arrested at the point of Mark Twain and Jack London.

But the ideal world I am speaking of is mine, not Mr. Van’s and Mr. Hieu’s. I had been able, to my surprise and joy, to share it with the young Bosnian, but the North Vietnamese interpreters would reprehend the thought of our having such a libertine world in common. An irony of the war is that so little can be shared, except opposition to the American participation, by the charming Vietnamese hosts and the Americans who come here as friends—pacifists, liberals, young members of the New Left, who share among themselves an attitude of incaution and resistance to received authority.

Hence the parable of the Party car, though it kept recurring to me during those long night trips, had to remain unspoken; I felt slightly guilty, stealthy, in confiding it even to my notes. To begin with, any comparison to revisionist Yugoslavia would have been, automatically, odious. As the Cyclopean trucks lumbered by, bound for some destination which I did not care to know—Laos? The Ho Chi Minh Trail?—the best course was to avoid reminiscence, black out large embarrassing areas of my past, and concentrate on the present. A flash in the sky ahead. “Lightning, do you think?” “Maybe.” A double flash. “It looks like lightning.” “No. Bombs.”

(This is the second in a series of articles on North Vietnam.)