“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.
We were passing pretty rows of small, compact trees—perhaps pruned fruit trees; it was too dark to tell—a pre-alert to the fact that Hanoi is a shady, leafy city, like Minneapolis or Warsaw; like Minneapolis too, it has lakes, treated as a municipal feature, with parks and promenades. The people are proud of the trees, particularly of the giant camphor, wreathed in a strange parasite with dangling coin-like leaves. Near the bombed brick house where we waited during the alert, there was a big bare blasted trunk, maybe an oak, which was putting out a few new leaves; my companions eagerly pointed them out, making sure I did not miss the symbol of resistance and rebirth. To the North Vietnamese, I soon became aware, everything is now a symbol, an ideogram, expressing the national resolve to overcome. All of Nature is with them, not just the “brother socialist countries.” Nodding their heads in time with a vast patriotic orchestra, they are hearing tongues in trees, terrible sermons in stones and the twisted metal of downed aircraft. In Hung Yen Province, you eat a fresh-caught carp under a red and white nylon canopy, like a billowing circus tent enclosing the whole room; it is the giant parachute of the pilotless reconnaissance plane they have shot down. Near Hanoi, in a village cooperative, raising model pigs and making handicrafts, they show you a small mute cluster bomb, olive drab, and, beside it, the mute rusty primitive soilscratching implement the young peasant was using in the cooperative fields when pellets from the cluster bomb killed him. Visual education, they feel, for the people, and they are not afraid of hammering the lesson in. But it is Johnson, finally, they wish to give food for thought.
Growth statistics, offered everywhere, on bicycle-ownership, irrigation, rice harvests, maternity clinics, literacy are the answer to “the war of destruction,” which began February 7, 1965; a bombed oak putting out new leaves is a “reply” to the air pirates of the Air Force and the Seventh Fleet. All Communist countries are bent on furnishing growth statistics (it is their form of advertising), but with Hanoi this is something special, carrying a secondary meaning—defiance. On a big billboard in the city center, the number of US planes shot down is revised forward almost daily in red paint—2818, they claimed when I left, and the number keeps growing. In villages the score is kept on a blackboard. Everything they build is dated, down to the family wells in a hamlet—a means of visibly recording progress, like penciling the heights of children, with the dates opposite, on a door. And each date has a clear significance in the story of resistance: 1965 or 1966, stamped on a well, proclaims that it was built in spite of the air pirates.
Hanoi, it is whispered, is going underground, digging shelters, factories, offices, operating theaters, preparing for “the worst,” i.e., for saturation-bombing by the B-52s or even—draw a deep breath—for atom bombs, although if you mention those to one of the leaders, he tersely answers that Johnson is not crazy. This feverish digging, while dictated no doubt by a very practical mistrust of the Pentagon, seems to have a secondary meaning too—mythic, as though the city were an allegorical character. Hanoi appears to be telling its people that it is ready to go underground, harrow helf, to rise again like the rice plants from the buried seed. To a Westerner, this sounds fantastic, so much so that I hesitate to bring it up; after all, you can tell me, Hanoi’s leaders are Marxists, and Marxists do not believe in resurrection stories.
YET THE VIETNAMESE folk beliefs are highly animistic; they venerate (or did) the souls of their ancestors, resting in the rice fields, and the souls of rocks and trees. Their classic relief sculpture surprises you with delicate, naturalistic representations of plants, birds, animals, and flowers—much more typical of Vietnamese art than grotesque images of gods and the Buddha. The love of nature is strong in their literature too and is found even in the “captured enemy documents” the US is fond of distributing for publication. This helps explain their attachment to the fatherland, which, as every observer has noticed, goes beyond politics, into some deep sphere of immanence the foreigner is almost embarrassed to name—“spiritual,” “religious”? Much is made in the North of the fatherland’s sacred, indivisible unity, and, despite a history of partitions like Poland’s, that seems to be an authentic sentiment, which is shared, incidentally, by the South Vietnamese firebrands who would like to “march on Hanoi.” As a symbol of that unity, the North has planted the coconut palm; the visitor may be slow to grasp the significance of this. “Coconut trees.” “Yes, I see them.” “Before, here in the North, we did not have the coconut tree. It is a native of Saigon.”
In Hanoi you see cabbages and tomato plants growing in the ornamental garden of a museum, in parks, around an anti-aircraft unit; the anti-aircraft battery has planted a large flower garden as well and it has chickens running around the gun-emplacements. Today the abundant use of camouflage—exuberant sprigs of plants, fronds, branches, leaves of coconut and banana on helmets, anti-aircraft, military vehicles, even tied to the backs of children on their way to school, cannot be meant entirely to fool the enemy overhead. For one thing, the foliage on the anti-aircraft artillery does not begin to conceal the guns’ muzzles. This camouflage, snatched from Nature, must be partly a ritual decoration, “a palm” or “laurel” of prowess and connected with ancient notions of metamorphosis—pursued by a powerful enemy, you could “survive” in the verdant form of a tree. In Hanoi, the innocent protective mimicry of coconut leaves “disguising” military hardware always made me think of Palm Sunday in a Catholic country and the devout coming out of church with palm leaves or olive branches—a preEaster mood. In the country, a column of army trucks and halftracks proceeding under its thatch of greenery made me feel that Birnam Wood was rolling on to Dunsinane: “Your leafy screens throw down/ And show like those you are.”
The determination of Hanoi appears at first incredible—legendary and bizarre; also disturbing. We came eventually to the pontoon bridge, floating on bamboo, the replacement, for automobiles, of the Paul Doumer bridge that still hangs, half bombed, like a groping tentacle, over the Red River. On the bridge, the traffic goes single file, and you wait for the oncoming cars to finish their turn before a policeman gives you the signal to advance. This waiting in line by the river’s edge is scary—there has been a lot of bombing in the area, as you can see by looking around—and it is even scarier when you start across the frail, wavy bridge; traffic moves very slowly, with many halts, and if the bombers should come while you are there, suspended over the water, there would be no escape; useless to look for shelters on the insubstantial bridge, obviously, and you could not jump into the dark, quite swift river. You just have to put your mind on something else, make conversation; I always dreaded this crossing, the sense of being imprisoned in a metal box, a helpless, all-but-motionless target, and I had the impression that the Vietnamese did not care for it either; each time, there was a general easing of tension when the bridge was finally negotiated.
IN THE HOTEL, to my stupefaction, there was hot water, plenty of it. During nearly a month spent in South Vietnam the year before, I had had one hot bath—on the US Enterprise. In my room at the Continental in Saigon, there was only cold water, and when I was once offered a bath in the room of a New York Times correspondent, the water ran dark red, too rusty to get into. In theory, they had hot water in the Marine Press Base at Da Nang, but in practice they didn’t. Other luxuries I found at the Thong Nhat Hotel were sheets of toilet paper laid out on a box in a fan-pattern (keys at the desk were laid out in a fan-pattern too), a thermos of hot water for making tea, a package of tea, a teapot, cups and saucers, candies, cigarettes, and a mosquito net draped over the bed and tucked in; in Saigon, I had been tortured by mosquitoes.
It was obvious that the foreigners at the Thong Nhat lived better than the general population, but this could be said too of the foreigners at the Continental, who moreover had to pay for what they got, whereas in Hanoi, a guest of a Vietnamese organization was not allowed to pay for anything—I never had to change so much as a dollar bill into dongs. The knowledge of living much better than others (the meals were very good) and at the expense of an impecunious government whose food-production areas were being pounded every day by my government produced a certain amount of uneasiness, which however wore off. There was nothing to be done about it anyway, and I soon was able to verify that outside no families were sleeping in the streets, as they had been in Saigon, nobody was begging or in rags, and the people appeared healthy, though tired in some cases, particularly those who were old and had doubtless been hungry a good part of their lives.
On opening the window. I found that there was an extraordinary amount of traffic, extremely noisy traffic, though nobody in Hanoi owns a private car—only bicycles and motor-bikes. The honking of horns and screeching of brakes went on all night. To someone who lives in a European city where it is against the law to honk your horn, the constant deafening noise seems very old-fashioned. My ears had forgotten those sounds, as they had forgotten the clanging of streetcars and the crowing of cocks at 4 A.M. Hanoi still has both cocks and streetcars, and you can hear the whistle of trains, as well as the more up-to-date noise of MIGS overhead and the almost continuous voice of the loudspeakers, invariably feminine and soothing, sugared, in tone. Unless you know Vietnamese, you cannot guess whether they are announcing an air raid or telling you the planes have left or simply giving a news broadcast or a political diatribe.
THERE IS A GOOD DEAL in North Vietnam that unexpectedly recalls the past. Waiting to cross the Red River recalled my first trip to Italy, just after the Second World War, when most of the bridges were down (“Bombed by the Liberators,” in Italian, was scrawled all over the devastated cities and towns) and our bus crossed the Po or the Adda on a tremulous pontoon bridge; the loudspeaker outside the hotel window (“Attention, citizens, attention”) recalled the loudspeakers in Florence during a spring election campaign (“Attenzione, cittadini, attenzione“). Jouncing along a highway deeply pitted by pellets from cluster bombs made me think of my childhood: bumpy trips in northern Minnesota; Grandma in a motoring hat and duster; and how each time we struck a pothole her immense white head, preceded by the hat, would bounce up and hit the car’s canvas top. North Vietnam is still a pioneer country, where streams have to be forded; the ethnic minorities, Meos, Muongs, and Thais, in the mountains of the wild west, though they do not wear feathers, recall American Indians. The old-fashioned school desks and the geometry lesson on the blackboard in an evacuated school, the kerosene lamps in the villages, the basins of water filled from a well to wash before meals on an open porch, the one- or two-seater toilets with a cow ruminating outside brought back buried fragments of my personal history. I was aware of a psychic upheaval, a sort of identity crisis, as when a bomb lays bare the medieval foundations of a house thought to be modern.
The daytime alerts in the hotel reminded me very much of fire drill in school. During my stay there was no bombing near the hotel, though the siren sometimes sent us to the shelter as often as six times in twenty-four hours. After a while you estimate the distance of the explosions you hear—six kilometers, ten, fifteen—and you think you can tell the dull, resounding noise a bomb makes from the crackle of ack-ack. In the hotel, I began to have a feeling of security, like the veteran correspondents who usually did not bother to get up during night raids or who, if they were up already, wandered out into the street to watch the anti-aircraft activity. In the daytime, it became a slightly tiresome routine to walk, not run, to the shelter, where a delegation of Chinese in gray uniforms—who never spoke to anyone—were always the first arrivals, and wait for the All Clear. And as in the case of fire drill, I began to half-wish for some real excitement, for the bombs to come a bit nearer and make a louder bang. It got to be a disappointment if the alert was a false alarm, i.e., when you simply sat in the shelter and heard no action at all. The other foreigners must have felt the same way, for when the explosions were noisy and the guns replied, the conversation in the shelter became much livelier, and there were giggles.
AN ALERT was also a social event; you saw new faces and welcomed back old friends—that is, people you had known a few days—reappearing from a trip to Haiphong or Nam Dinh. One day in the shelter I met the Danish ambassador to Pekin, and another time a whole diplomatic dinner party, men in dark suits, large, freshly waved ladies from the bloc countries in low-cut silks and satins, an Indian lady in a truly beautiful blue sari, joined us drab “regulars” on the underground benches, leaving their double rows of wine glasses and their napkins on the table of the hotel’s private diningroom, reserved for parties—this eruption, as of a flight of butterflies, was a momentary wonder in our somewhat mothy, closet-like existence.
The late alerts were different. Though I had concluded that there was no real danger of bombing in the immediate neighborhood of the hotel—unless Johnson escalated again, with B-52s or “nukes,” in which case my personal survival was not of any interest; I would not care to survive—at night, when the shrilling of the siren waked me, I forgot and would jerk up from the pillow with my heart pounding, grope my way out of the mosquito netting, find the flashlight in the dark, slippers, dressing gown, etcetera, and stumble, still unnerved, down the stairs and out through the hotel garden, pointing my flashlight down, searching for the entrance to the shelter. Those late March night raids made everybody angry. According to the Vietnamese, who were experts on such matters, they consisted of one or two planes only, whereas before they had come in large purposeful waves; their object now must be psychological—without any military pretext—to harass the population at random, deprive it of sleep, while at the same time lessening the risk to themselves of being shot down, for it is harder to hit a single plane in the sky than to pick off one or two out of a serried dozen or twenty.
No planes, so far as I know, were shot down over Hanoi during my stay, though one, they said, an Intruder, had been shot down the day of our arrival. The foreign correspondents agreed that the bombing was slowing down, at least in the region of Hanoi, and they wondered whether the Americans could be short of planes, on account of the number destroyed or damaged in the late January Têt offensive. The date of manufacture stamped on a shot-down plane was always of great interest; if a plane manufactured in July was shot down in August, this suggested that stocks were low.
In fact, though we did not know this in Hanoi, the “return” of the bombing, in dollars terms, had been added up early in the year by the accountants in Washington. The April number of Foreign Affairs was revealing that it had cost the US six billion dollars to destroy an estimated 340-million-dollars worth of facilities: clearly a low-yield investment. The cost in lives of US pilots in comparison with estimated North Vietnamese losses seems not to have been computed—where, on the balance sheet, would the lone target, working in a rice field, of an anti-personnel bomb figure? Left out of the calculations also—surely an oversight?—was the cost to the North Vietnamese government of the shelter program, not to mention the cost of the loud speakers and the personnel to man them.
ONLY ONCE in the city, while I was there, did a bomber “sneak through” the warning system. It happened once in the country, but there it was less spectacular to hear the thud of bombs before, so to speak, listening to the overture of the sirens; in the country, as I said, there are no sirens anyway and surprises were to be expected. In Hanoi, it happened one evening at the Museum of War Crimes, when we were sitting down to little cups of tea at a long table following a tour of the exhibits. Suddenly, there was a long-drawn-out, shrill, banshee-like, shrieking noise, succeeded by a shattering explosion. At the same time, out the window, we could see a plane streak across the sky. The museum director, an officer in uniform, rushed us out into the garden; guiding me by the arm, he was propelling me toward the shelter. Big red stars looking like skyrockets were bursting in the dark overhead. Then the siren must have blown, though I have no memory of hearing it. In the museum’s shelter, we heard more bombs exploding. “The museum is near the bridge,” the interpreter murmured, as if to excuse the fact that a raid had come so close. When the All Clear sounded, we went in and found the tea cold in our cups. Back at the hotel, during the next alert, one of the guests told us that there had been three bombs and a shrike.
To return from a shelter to a disarrayed table where the tea has grown cold in the cups and resume a conversation at the precise point it had left off (“You were saying…?”) is a daily, sometimes an hourly occurrence in the North—inevitably so, since tea is served visitors on every ceremonious occasion, and all occasions, however sickening or painful, are ceremonious. Hospitality requires that tea should be served at the beginning and end of any visit: tea, cigarettes, candies, and long slender little cakes that taste of bananas. The exceptions were the Journalists’ Union and the War Crimes Commission, both of which served beer, and the prison where the captured pilots were held, which offered a choice of beer or a soft drink, plus bananas. I could never make out the reason behind these slight variations of an otherwise inflexible precept. It was easy to guess why beer was served to journalists (newsmen drink), while the Writers’ and Artists’ Union served tea, but why beer at the War Crimes Commission and tea at the War Crimes Museum? Maybe beer is more expensive, and Mr. Luu Quy Ky of the Journalists’ Union and Colonel Ha Van Lau of the War Crimes Commission had bigger budgets than the others. In some instances, tea was followed by coffee.
Perhaps I should have asked, but the Vietnamese are sensitive, and to wonder aloud why beer was served instead of the customary tea might have been taken, I thought, as a criticism of the hospitality: “Why did they not serve tea?” In the same way, I was reluctant to ask why in some cooperatives, factories, and associations there were portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Ho, while in others there was only Ho. Was it a matter of personal preference on the part of the administrator? That did not appear likely. Once in a village cooperative I thought I saw Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Ho and no Stalin—which made a joyful impression on me—but when I got up from my chair, I found that Stalin had been behind me all along, chuckling. The explanation may be that if the center you are visiting is a branch headquarters of the Lao Dong (Workers) Party, you get the whole pantheon; otherwise, only Ho. The absence of portraits of Mao and of the current Soviet leaders seemed self-explanatory (“Vietnam asserts its independence”), but it could not be remarked on, any more than you can remark to a host on the absence of certain persons who you might have thought would be invited to a party.
IN THE WAR CRIMES MUSEUM, that evening, among the exhibits they had showed us a shrike, so that the sudden advent of the live missile had the air, to us, of a coincidence (“Speak of the devil…”), but of course, to the North Vietnamese, nearly all the exhibits in the museum “matched” what was befalling them regularly outside the museum walls. The museum, unlike that at Auschwitz, is strictly contemporary. There were cluster bombs—guavas and pineapples—some of the delayed-action type, regarded as the most fiendish, ordinary placid TNT bombs of varying weights, ranging from babies of 200, to big daddies of 3000 pounds, rockets, an assortment of missiles, crop-spraying powders (with the results in a bottle), tear gases, front and rear views of patients hit by a spray of pellets from the “mother” bomb, x-rays of pellets in human skulls, photos of napalm and phosphorous victims (napalm has not been used in the vicinity of Hanoi and Haiphong or, as the Vietnamese say, “not yet”), quite a collection of exhibits. And shuffling about among the displays was a small middle-aged Vietnamese woman in a bunched sweater, wide trousers, and sandals, who was staring, as if drawn by some morbid, fascinating curiosity, at the weapons and devices in the glass cases, at the big bombs arranged, like modern metal sculptures, on the floor, bending to read the labels, sometimes furtively touching. In reality, they told us, lowering their voices, she had been haunting the museum since she had lost her twenty-year-old son early in the year.
An American apologist might claim that she was an exhibit too, a “plant” to invoke the sympathy of soft-headed pacifists and other bleeding hearts, but in fact the museum personnel seemed somewhat put out by her presence and by the occasional snuffling, sobbing noises she made, interrupting the scholarly presentation of the material. In short, they reacted like museum officials anywhere who were not lacking in heart but had their professional duties, which included discouraging nuts and people with “troubles” from intruding on official visits. It was true, she was causing our attention to stray. Then, as if guiltily conscious of being a disturbance, she would abruptly quiet down and regain her composure, peering into the glass cases with an air of timid wonder, like a peasant viewing the tools of modern civilization and demanding what they were for. She seemed to be trying to put her lost son and these efficient implements together in some satisfactory manner, as though to make a connection and localize the source of her grief. Sometimes, appearing to find it for a moment, she actually smiled and nodded to herself.
To tell the truth, when the shrike came I forgot about her, possibly because I had got used to the fact that during an alert the ordinary Vietnamese—chambermaids, cooks, waiters, desk clerks, tea-servers—vanished from sight only to reappear when the alert was over. Either they went to their own shelters, separate from those for foreign guests, or, like the chambermaids in the hotel who doubled as militia, they shouldered guns and went up to the roof, or they continued quietly with their jobs, like the cook I once glimpsed in the hotel sitting in his white apron and hat at the kitchen table when the All Clear blew. At the National Liberation Front Delegation the distinction was marked by a heavy dark-brown curtain dividing the communal shelter between personnel, on one side, and, on the other, the Chief of Mission, his immediate staff, and his guests. To an American, such a frank distinction is ipso facto undemocratic.
At the museum, in a parting ceremony, they presented us with rings made from downed US aircraft. Like a wedding-ring, mine is dated August 1, 1966—the day the plane was shot down. They also gave me a woman’s comb of the same material. Such souvenirs seem to be popular in Hanoi, but though, as they watched, I murmured “Merci beaucoup” and hurriedly, like one rapidly swallowing medicine, tried the blunt ring on my finger, I instantly slid it off and dropped it into my handbag; luckily, I had the excuse that it was a man’s ring: too big. Back in the hotel, I shut it up in a drawer out of sight, but it kept troubling my mind, making me toss at night, like an unsettled score. For some reason, the comb, scalloped in the Vietnamese style, did not bother me.
Perhaps, if I had had the courage, I might have declined to take the ring, handed it back to the Vietnamese as soon as I realized what it was. But from their point of view, it was a symbol of friendship, a rosette like Légion d’Honneur, a medal. They were proud to offer it. What was it that, deeper than politeness, which was urging me to do so, made it impossible for me to keep it on my finger, even for a few minutes—just not to give offense? Maybe the feeling that if I once put it on, I could never take it off; I could not sport it for the rest of my stay and then get rid of it as soon as I left the country—that would be base. Yet equally repugnant to my nature, to my identity, whatever that is, to the souls of my ancestors, would be to be wedded for life or at least for the duration of this detestable war to a piece of aluminum wreckage from a shot-down US warplane. Or was it just the fact that it did not “go” with my other jewelry?
Nor could I drop it in the wastebasket of my hotel room. The chambermaids would find it and possibly feel I was rejecting their country or them. But if delicacy forbade my throwing it in a wastebasket of the Thong Nhat Hotel, then there was no sea anywhere deep enough for me to drop it into. I had to keep it. The comb, presenting no problem, a simple keepsake, and rather pretty, remained openly on my bureau in the Thong Nhat with my other toilet articles. Yet I now slowly realize that I never passed it through my hair. Mysterious. I cannot explain the physical aversion, evidently subliminal, to being touched by this metal. Quite a few of the questions one does not, as an American liberal, want to put in Hanoi are addressed to oneself.
(This is the first in a series of articles)
May 23, 1968