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Hanoi—1968

Attachez vos ceintures, s’il vous plaît.” “Fasten your seat belts.” The hostess, plump, blonde, French, brown-eyed, in a light-blue smock, passed through, checking. It was funny to find a hostess on a military plane. Like the plane itself, loaded with mail, canned goods, cases of beer, she was a sort of last beep from the “other” world behind the mountains in Vientiane. Born in Hanoi, she had been making the run from Saigon with the ICC—Poles, Indians, Canadians, of the inspection team—six times a month, weather permitting, for thirteen years, practically since the Geneva Accords.

As the ICC plane, an obsolete non-pressurized Convair, circled in the dark above Hanoi, waiting to get the OK to land, out the window, by stretching against our seat belts, we could see tiny headlights of cars moving on the highways below and then the city all lit up like a big glow-worm. In Phnom Penh, at the North Vietnamese Delegation where they issued our visas, they had prepared us for this surprise, but it remained a surprise nonetheless. I thought of the Atlantic coast during World War II and the blackout curtains we had had to buy on the Cape—a Coast Guard order designed to foil enemy submarines. When the Convair taxied to a stop, it instantly doused its lights, though, and the hostess held a flashlight for the boarding officials to examine our papers. But then the airport, brilliant white and blazing with electricity. “You really don’t have a blackout!” I exclaimed to the delegation from the Vietnamese Peace Committee who had come to meet us, with bouquets of snapdragons, pink sweet peas, pale pink roses, larkspur, and little African daisies. A Japanese author and a journalist from a Tokyo paper were receiving bouquets too. The Vietnamese did not know the word, blackout, and I tried couvre-feu. They dismissed the term, curfew, with laughter. “Passive defense!” In fact there was no curfew of any sort in Hanoi—except the little bell that rang at eleven o’clock nightly, closing the hotel bar—though there was one in Saigon. It was only when the sirens blew that the lights of the city went out and the cars and trucks halted and waited for the All Clear.

On the way from Gia Lam airport into the city, we had our first alert—a pre-alert, really, given by loudspeakers; the pre-alert means the planes are sixty kilometers away; it is not till they are within thirty kilometers of the center that the sirens scream. Suddenly, still deep in the countryside, the driver braked the car; he had heard the pre-alert on his radio. He turned off the engine. I sat in the back seat, holding my bouquet in my lap and feeling quite apprehensive. On March 17, two days before, the much-feared swing-wing F111AS had appeared in Thailand; there had been pictures of them in the Bangkok papers. The driver got out of the car. “He is looking for the shelter,” one of my companions explained. “He has found the shelter,” they announced a few minutes later, and we all climbed out of the car. In the moonlight, we could see the remains of a brick house, with its roof torn off; up the lane, there had been a hamlet, but now there were only indistinct masses of debris and, somewhere in the dark, the shelter, which I never actually saw. It was enough to know that it was there.

OUTSIDE HANOI, the driver’s first job, I discovered, was to look for a shelter for the passengers whenever the alert or the pre-alert sounded. Every hamlet, sometimes every house, is equipped with a loudspeaker, and the alarm is rung out by the hamlet bell—the same bell that calls the peasants to work in the fields. When there is no hamlet nearby, a band of young soldiers, tramping along with a transistor, may warn you that the planes are coming. Once, in Hoa Binh Province out in the west, I sat huddled in the car with the thin, large-eyed young woman interpreter while the driver conducted the search; he came back, and there was a quick conference in Vietnamese. “Here there is no shelter,” she whispered, gravely touching my arm, as we listened to the bombs, fortunately some miles off. Though the shelter may be only a hole in the ground, the assurance that there is such a burrow handy gives a sort of animal comfort—possibly not unlike the ostrich’s. Or maybe it is a grateful sense that somebody, an unknown friend, has thought about your safety; even if the uncovered earth shelter cannot protect you from a direct hit, the thought, as they say of small presents, is what counts.

In the city, there are individual cement cylinders, resembling manholes, every few feet, with round fitted covers of cement or of plaited reeds—good against fragmentation bombs. In a pinch, they will accommodate two small Vietnamese. But what happened, I wondered, if there were more people on a given street when the alarm sounded than there were shelters to hold them? As in a game of Going to Jerusalem or Musical Chairs, who would be left outside? It is a schoolmen’s problem, that of the outsider, that is posed in the scramble of extreme situations, and I was curious—anxious, even—about the socialist solution. But I never was able to observe for myself what did in fact occur: in my two-and-a-half weeks in North Vietnam, it chanced that only once was I in the city streets during an alert and then only long enough to see the people scattering, as our driver raced toward the hotel and its communal shelter. And I felt that it would be somehow impolite to express my curiosity in the form of a point-blank question; there are many questions one does not want to ask in Hanoi.

In any case, the target of the Hanoi government is one shelter per person within the city limits—I am not sure whether this ratio takes into account the communal shelters attached to institutions. During my stay hundreds of brand-new cylinders were lying along the side-walks, waiting for the pavement to be dug up and holes sunk to contain them, and every day trucks kept dumping more. Production and delivery were ahead of the picks and shovels. “Manufacturing shelters is one of our principal industries now,” people remark, rather ruefully, watching the gray cylinders being put into place. What can be done with these grim manholes, war memorials, when and if peace comes? The only answer I could think of was to plant flowers in them.

JOHNSON’S SPEECH of March 31—and the subsequent eerie absence of alerts—did not cause even a momentary flagging in the shelter program. Yet, so far as I could tell, the shelters were more a symbol of determination than places to scuttle to when the planes approached. The city population had a certain disdain for using them. “There are toads in them,” a pretty girl said, making a face. Like the white-gowned surgeon I met, a Hero of Labor, who had calculated the statistical probabilities of being killed by a bomb in the night and decided that he preferred to stay in bed to be fresh for operating the next morning, many people in Hanoi decline to leave their beds or their offices when the peremptory siren shrills; it is a matter of individual decision. Only foreign visitors are hustled to safety by their guides and interpreters and told to put on their steel helmets or their pellet-absorbent hats of woven reeds or straw; a pellet in the brain is the thing most dreaded by the Vietnamese—a dread that as a brain-worker I more than shared; unfortunately the hat they gave me was too small for my large Western head, and I had to trust to my helmet, hurriedly strapping it on as I trotted down the hotel stairs to the communal shelter and glad of the excuse of social duty to do what private fear was urging.

Your guides are held responsible by the authorities if anything happens to you while you are in their care. This applies particularly to guests invited by North Vietnamese organizations (which we were); accredited journalists are allowed more rein. I was asked not to go out into the street alone, even for a short walk, though this rule was relaxed when the bombing of Hanoi stopped on April 1—Hanoi time. This of course limited one’s bodily freedom, but I accepted it, being a law-abiding person. Our hosts of the Peace Committee told us that they had been severely reprimanded because some frisky young South Americans had eluded their control last summer and roved unsupervised about the country; one got a pellet in the brain and had to be sent by plane to Moscow to be operated on; he lived. Whenever we traveled, one of the comrades of the Peace Committee made sure I had my helmet by personally carrying it for me. I was never alone, except in bed or writing in my room. In the provinces, when we stayed at a guest house or came to inspect a village, each time I went to the outlying toilet, the young woman interpreter went with me as far as the door, bearing my helmet, some sheets of tan toilet paper she had brought from Hanoi, and, at night, the trusty flashlight. She waited outside till I was through and then softly led me back.

THAT FIRST NIGHT, driving in from the airport, everything was novel. The driver had left the radio turned on in the car when he switched off the lights. We could hear it talking, as if to itself, as we paced up and down, and I had the foolish notion that the planes, wherever they were, might hear it too. Other shadowy sedans and passengers were grouped by the roadside; there had been a great influx at the airport that night because for over three weeks, four times running, the ICC flight had not been able to make it down the narrow air corridor from Vientiane to Hanoi. On the road we had passed several cars with diplomatic license-plates, one, surely, containing the Indonesian ambassador, who had boarded the plane with his golf clubs; he used them to exercise on his lawn. Now abruptly all the headlights went on again; motors started. “They are going away. They are going away,” the radio voice had said in Vietnamese; the pre-alert was over.

Activity resumed. A chattering stream of people, mostly young, was flowing along the highway from the city, walking or riding bicycles and motorbikes: boys in work clothes or uniforms, with camouflage leaves in their helmets, girls and women, some riding pillion, carrying baskets of salad greens and other provisions; now and then a wrinkled old peasant, in black, with balance-pole on shoulder or pushing a cart. A cow raised its head from a field. All that nocturnal movement and chatter gave an impression of revelry, as if a night ball game or a theater had just let out; probably a work shift had ended in the factories. Along the road’s edge cases of supplies were stashed, covered with jute or tarpaulin. Jeeps and military trucks, some heavily camouflaged, were moving steadily in the opposite direction.

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