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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.

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