North Vietnam: The Countryside

“Go out into the field,” American officials last year, in blustery hectoring tones, were telling newcomers to Saigon, meaning get close to the fighting if you want to “connect” with the war. In North Vietnam, officials do not stipulate a tour of the combat zones as a condition for climbing aboard, “turning on,” or, as they would express it, “participating in the struggle of the Vietnamese people.” Indeed, if I had wanted to be taken to the 17th parallel, they would surely have said no: too long and dangerous a trip for a fleeting guest of the Peace Committee. And too uncertain, given the uneven pace of travel by night, in convoy, to plan ahead for suitable lodging, meals, entertainment. A reporter on the road can trust to pot-luck and his interpreter, but for guests hospitality requires that everything be arranged in advance, on the province and district, even the hamlet level, with the local delegates and representatives—stage-managed, a hostile critic would say, though, if so, why the distinction between guests and correspondents? Anyway, that is how it is, and I do not feel it as a deprivation that I failed to see the front lines. The meaning of a war, if it has one, ought to be discernible in the rear, where the values being defended are situated; at the front, war itself appears senseless, a confused butchery that only the gods can understand; at least that is how Homer and Tolstoy saw the picture, in close-up, though the North Vietnamese film studios certainly would not agree.

Nevertheless, it was a good idea—and encouraged by Hanoi officials—to get out of Hanoi and go, not into the field but into the fields. In the countryside, you see the lyrical aspect of the struggle, i.e., its revolutionary content. All revolutions have their lyrical phase (Castro with his men in an open boat embarking on the high seas), often confined to the overture, the first glorious days. This lyricism, which is pulsing in Paris today as I write, the red and black flags flying on the Sorbonne, where the revolting students have proclaimed a States General, is always tuned to a sudden hope of transformation—something everybody would like to do privately, be reborn, although most shrink from the baptism of fire entailed. Here in France the purifying revolution, which may be only a rebellion, is still in the stage of hymns to liberty, socialist oratory, mass chanting, while the majority looks on with a mixture of curiosity and tolerance. But in rural North Vietnam, under the stimulus of the US bombing, a vast metamorphosis, or, as the French students would say, re-structuring, is taking place not as a figure of speech but literally. Mountains, up to now, have not been moved, but deep caverns in them have been transformed into factories. Universities, schools, hospitals, whole towns have been picked up and transferred from their former sites, dispersed by stealth into the fields; streams have changed their courses. City children have turned into…

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