“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 peasants. Nomad tribes—horse people—thanks to irrigation projects, have been settled as farmers and equipped with bicycles. Rice has been made to grow on dry land. However this revolution may be assessed finally in terms of economic cost and yield, whether it is temporary, a mere war epiphenomenon, or can continue as a permanent experiment, the fact of it is a plain wonder. No statistics recited in an office prepare the visitor for what is, to him, in part a delightful magic show, complete with movable scenery, changes of costume, disguises.
The Vietnamese themselves, not loath to moralize, look on it more solemnly, in terms of strictly drawn contrasts. “In the past,” they say, pointing to pale green rice fields laid out geometrically in squares and rectangles, “these fields made a crazy pattern.” “Yes,” I say, “like a crazy quilt”; regretting, in my heart, the classic pattern of individual small-scale ownership. Mr. Phan, who likes words (he is a veteran war correspondent), nods to himself, filing the phrase away, smiles broadly. “I myself,” he declares, “hate anything artificial but I make an exception of the rice fields.” We are in Hung Yen province, very flat, watery, famous for mulberries and for bees attracted by the very sweet fruit of the dragon’s eye tree, the Longan, which grows rank here. he makes another exception, though more doubtfully, of the ugly prefabricated honey combs, made of paraffin and beeswax, they show us in a movie. “In the past,” he says, translating the sound track, “honey production in this province was a fifth of what it is at present” “In the past” or “formerly” introduces every third sentence once you leave Hanoi. In the past, they say, this province had one small hospital; now, besides the province hospital, there is a dispensary in every village, and each district has a hospital of its own. “Formerly there was no second-level school in the entire province; now each village has a second-level school.”
“IN THE PAST” and “formerly”=under the French or, in some contexts, under the old native landowners, “the cruel langs.” But it is not necessary to have known the “before” to appreciate the “after.” South Vietnam, under the Americans, is a present and terrible “before.” Last year I saw the filthy hamlets there and the refugee camps. Here everything I am shown is clean. It is true that I am on an official visit, but in the South, outside of Saigon, wherever I went, I was conducted by an AID man or a US or Friendly Forces officer—the exception being a tour of some refugee camps counted as “middling” by the social workers who were showing them. In the South, they cannot hide the dirt, disease, and misery. They would not know where to begin. It is true that in the North there is no fighting; a US invasion might help equalize things, spreading hunger and squalor.
At any rate, in the North I saw no children with sores and scalp diseases, no trachoma (it has been almost wiped out, according to the Ministry of Health), no rotten teeth or wasted consumptive-looking frames. You do not need plague shots to visit the North, nor cholera, for that matter. They say there is still some malaria in the Northwestern mountains. In the countryside, children and young people were radiant with health; as far as I could judge, everybody under forty was in peak physical condition. peasants and agricultural workers are favored by the rationing system and they are allowed a small percentage of land for their privately owned garden crops and animals; the difference is apparent, but not glaring—seeing them side by side with the desk-workers of Hanoi, you might put it down to the difference between the country and the city, outdoors and indoors.
It was clear that in the hamlets the people had few possessions: some cooking utensils, plates and cups, bedding, a Buddhist altar with a few ornaments, one change of clothes, the small children’s being usually patched and faded. The clothes in the South, chiefly army cast-offs and charitable donations, were better on the whole. In the house of a peasant family in the North, you wonder at the absence of bureaus, chests, trunks, until it comes to you that they have so little to store. On the other hand, they had new-driven wells and clean outhouse toilets, sometimes one to a family, sometimes public. There was no garbage around the houses or floating in the streams. There were no smells. Pretty new brick walks led into the hamlets we visited, and a central square was often paved with brick. I remember the little place of the Dai To Cooperative, under the shade of four interlacing secular banyan trees on top of which, like a tree-house, a lookout tower was perched with a boy from the militia on duty; nearby was the old hamlet bell. In this particular hamlet, an old man, speaking French, dressed in faded army khakis, evidently a gentle lang, was grafting new varieties onto lemon trees, which wore cloth bandages where the insertions had been made. He had come out of retirement, he said, to give his aged skills to his country: under his guidance, young papaya and grapefruit trees had been planted along the walks; he indicated a Rhode Island red rooster, scratching in the dirt, that he was trying to cross with the small local chickens to get a bigger breed.
Each hamlet or cooperative we visited boasted—and that is the word—a robust girl midwife, barely nubile herself. In the schools, we saw boys and girls with glasses, which gave them a surprisingly “Western” industrious look; I could not recall seeing a single child wearing glasses in the South. Formerly, our guides say, the peasantry was illiterate; now everyone can read and write. In fact the Ministry of Education speaks of pockets of illiteracy remaining in the north, near the Chinese border, but the people themselves believe that they have made education universal, the young teaching the old, if necessary, husbands teaching wives. Outside the schoolhouses, though, I did not see any books in the rural areas, and indeed, as in many farm communities, reading did not seem to be practicable, on account of the early risings and bedtimes and the poor lighting—it was impossible to read a line by the tiny kerosene lamp in a province guest-house. “Where do the people read?” I asked a woman district representative in an “ethnic” village, and the answer was: “In their offices, but mostly the newspapers. They do not have the time.” She was speaking of people like herself. The peasants listened to the radio. Yet here, as in most Communist countries, there is a great hunger for books, it is said—a hunger arising partly from a former scarcity and the novelty of print.
DURING OUR TRAVELS, the one lack I felt, in comparison with the South, was the sparkle and mischief of the little boys. In the North, the children were friendly but timid, unlike the infant black-marketers and bold suppliants of the South. I cannot say I missed having stones thrown at me or being pummeled for a cigarette, but I might have been glad to see a troop of naughty, fearless children tagging along behind us as we walked along the neat brick walks of a village cooperative, pausing to inspect a loom or a model pigsty. Here the children, even the rare show-offs, are models of conduct. A little girl, not much bigger than a doll, urged forward, entrusts her hand to mine: “Hello, Auntie.” “Auntie,” for the Vietnamese, is a term of respect, like “Uncle” (hence Uncle Ho; in the Vietnamese family, the senior uncle, not the father, is the source of authority), and to call an American woman “Aunt” is an act, for a child, of extraordinary docile faith. These country people, who have never before seen an American, unless possibly a shot-down pilot, seem to accept without question the notion that there are “good” Americans—something that, in their place, lacking further evidence, I might be disinclined to believe. Never in the North did I find a woman watching me with eyes full of hatred, though this happened often in the South. Here there was only curiosity and often a desire to touch, as with a new object. Young girls would press close to me, entwine hands or arms with me, particularly when we were lined up for a photograph or to listen to a speech of welcome. The absence of a common language created a “little” language of soft gazes, smiles, caresses. Goodbyes were like those at a school graduation, with parents (in this case our guide) waiting to perform the surgery of separation.
It was useful to have been in South Vietnam, to make comparisons. Yet one could have dropped from the moon into Hung Yen or Hoa Binh Province and known at once that something marvelous, in the old sense, was astir. Schools in the fields, for instance, dispersed over miles of flat landscape, hidden under thatched roofs or coconut palm or straw, so that they are almost invisible from the air. No doubt there must be historical parallels for this; I know that, according to family legend, my great-great-grandfather and his brothers, denied formal education by the English, were taught their lessons by priests in the Irish wheatfields, hidden from the oppressor’s view by tall rows of grain. The Irish and the Vietnamese have a bond of patriotic struggle, I was told one night at the writers’ union by a plump, middle-aged Vietnamese poet, a troubadour or wandering minstrel he called himself, because he had been reciting poems to the troops along the DMZ, accompanying himself on an instrument (his debased equivalent, I suppose, would be the belly-dancers who minister to the Marines); when he was young, under the French colonialists, he had been in love with Irish history, he said—“C’ était ma passion“—we talked about Parnell. But the Irish story, if true, is only a fairly tall tale while the North Vietnamese dispersal of pupils and teachers into bamboo groves and rice fields is a living saga. The magnitude of the phenomenon, the sheer geographic spread, suggests the early Christian hermits dotted about on the Libyan desert and in the caverns of the Red Sea.
IN HUNG YEN PROVINCE, you leave your cars by the roadside and walk across the dikes. A group of young teachers accompanies you; one, they say with pride, is from the South. In the North, you are introduced to quite a few young people who were born on the other side of the parallel; they are the children of Viet Minh fighters who regrouped to the North in 1954 and ’55. To have one of these Southerners—duskier, often, if they come from the Mekong Delta, and with round snub features, broad faces, and slightly frizzy, ashier hair—in your school or cooperative is considered a distinction: “she is from Bien Hoa province, near Saigon.”
Leading the way, the literature teacher, male, says politely that he gives his pupils extracts from American writers to read. “My pupils prefer Burchett, of all your authors.” “But Wilfred Burchett is an Australian. I have met him in Hanoi.” “They like very much also Ten Days That Shook the World.” “Yes. He was an American.” Here in the Red River Delta, it has been raining heavily. Beside the flooded fields, old peasants are scooping up water, using an implement resembling a lacrosse cradle. The school huts are new, brick with palm roofs, and set among banana trees. In the teachers’ common room, there is a bust of Beethoven, awarded every year for excellence in literature. You enter a classroom, where the teacher, a thin, serious young man, is at the blackboard. The pupils rise from their desks and clap. Clapping is a mode of welcome, and the guest (if I was not mistaken) is meant to clap too. They are having a history lesson.
Chalked on the blackboard is a map of what is evidently a military action—a battle fought against the French in 1950, Mrs. Chi whispers. This comes as a slight shock, for I do not think of that as “history” yet, i.e., as classroom material. Each pupil has a textbook with photographic illustrations. Glancing over the shoulder of the young girl next to me on the schoolbench, I guess that it is a history of the French Resistance struggle; by the end of the term, they will get to Dien Bien Phu. Today’s subject, though, is not exactly history; it is a lesson in military tactics. Tapping his pointer on the map, the teacher is explaining how the Viet Minh achieved its purpose, which was to lure the French out of a fort into the forest. he illustrates his theme with anecdotes. Called on to recite, a pupil tells a funny story about the cook who got some hungry French to surrender by offering them a little rice in a saucepan. Everyone laughs.
It is a good class, attentive and lively. The girls are well dressed in long brown fitted corduroy jackets. The boys are well dressed too. The class age must be fifteen or sixteen: this is a second-level school, equivalent, probably, to middle high school in America. The atmosphere is reminiscent of schoolrooms in my childhood. You would not find such a well-disciplined class in America today. Yet in my school days, after the First World War, we would never have been studying the tactics of Soissons or Chateau-Thierry. American History was the Civil War and “Remember the Maine” and the War of Independence. Maybe we “had” Gettysburg or Antietam or Chancellorsville, but I cannot recall being instructed in the tactics of these battles. The only tactics we learned, if memory serves, were Caesar’s: how he built that bridge over the Rhine and caught the boats of the Veneti in his fleet’s long grappling hooks. And something about Waterloo and the British square. To my mind, formed in those habits, that is still the way history should be taught: firmly set in the past, beyond partisan passions, and yet capable of exciting the imagination. Children in my day took sides and had heroes: you quarreled with your friends over who was superior, Napoleon or Wellington, Marlborough or Prince Eugene, Hector or Achilles. Confederate generals offered a wide range of preference: Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Morgan the Raider. But your heroes were not the official heroes of the nation, often the opposite: you could “like” spies and traitors: Major André and Benedict Arnold, rather than Paul Revere. Like most spirited young people, I was generally on the side of the losers. History, taught or rather learned, in that fashion, is close to art: it is a “story.”
IT WAS TOO EARLY to hope, obviously, that these embattled children could find a soft spot in their hearts for De Lattre de Tassigny, still less for the inept General Navarre. History, as taught by the French to the Vietnamese, was bound to incite a spirit of revenge on the old French Empire textbooks. Mr. Phan was fond of quoting, with a short acerbic laugh, from the first chapter of the history he had to memorize: “Nos ancêtres, les Gaulois….” In literature, Mr. Phan and I had had the same French textbooks—Crouzet, Desgranges—but being American I had no scars to show from the experience: it had not hurt my national pride.
Still, I was sorry to find that map on the blackboard. Beyond my personal disarray and regret at what appeared to me a kind of indigence (History was richer than these children knew), I was sensitive to the fact that at home this lesson would be regarded as sheer propaganda: “They indoctrinate the school children.” Yet it was not ideological instruction they were receiving here, except for one set phrase, run together like a printer’s slug—“The French colonialists aided by the American aggressors”—which had the merit of being factually true: Indochina in 1950 was a French colony, which was getting large quantities of military aid from the Americans, whose intentions were certainly not defensive as far as the Vietnamese were concerned. Rather, what the children were studying in the textbook and following on the map was a practical guide to action. This was a class in Preparedness. It would have been foolish, I guess, to expect to find them studying the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. They had probably had that in grade school, along with the story of the two sisters, Vietnamese Boadiceas, who had repelled the Chinese invader in the first century A.D. ruling as queens until, defeated at the head of their army, they drowned themselves together in a river.
In the next classroom we visited, they were having a lesson in solid geometry. The class rising from its desks was a trifle older, about seventeen, and there was only one girl member, wearing glasses. The boys were good-looking, some beautiful, even, with lustrous hair, shining eyes, soft clear skin—no acne in North Vietnam. The teacher at the blackboard, not much older than they, was very handsome himself, gay, laughing, kind. Most of these students, Mr. Phan thought, were the children of peasants: the teachers, who came from “away,” lived in with the peasant families, as used to happen fifty or sixty years ago in rural America, when the schoolteacher boarded with farmers. Agricultural specialists and other technicians from Hanoi were also housed with the local peasants, teaching them new methods: this province, formerly, had been backward. “Our experts have learned much from the people too,” Mrs. Chi, conscientious, appended. “It is a new experience for them.” The need for learning from the people is often emphasized in the North: we have heard about that before, in the Soviet Union, where erring writers are sent to “learn from the people,” as young delinquents of the capitalist world are sent to reform school, but on Mrs. Chi’s lips the expression has a tender, Tolstoyan sound, a mild, soft, reverent note I have heard in the South too but there it turns bitter or melancholy: the South Vietnamese on the US side who care for the poor and the peasants—and there were some of these last year—despair of the American advisers’ learning anything about the people, let alone from them.
In this classroom, I felt more comfortable. The conic sections on the blackboard were eternal, universal, democratic, the same in Hung Yen Province as in Tacoma, Washington. Here the class, when called on, unlike the history pupils, did not get the answer right on the first try: the problem was harder, requiring thought, not just memory of what was in the textbook. The teacher gently prompted and, seeing that his students were abashed before the visitors, quickly wrote the solution himself on the board. I was invited to make a speech to the class. At the conclusion of a visit or tour, the guest may be called on to sum up. “Now give us, please, your impressions of our factory/cooperative/school/dispensary.” I was never any good at this and usually left it gratefully to my companion, but today I felt more confident. Having had that restorative impression of geometry as a binding universal, I wanted in turn to impress it on them. But either something went wrong with the translation or my thought, which was really propaganda for a disinterested world of pure forms, was too crazily tangential to their own interests or to what they were expecting to hear—anyway, whatever the reason, it fell flat. When the translator finished, the whole class looked bewildered, as if the words that had reached them had been an empty envelope that had traveled all the way from the US, Airmail, Special Delivery, with no message inside.
BACK at the province guest-house, we ate a second meal under the parachute of the Drone they had shot down. At one end of the room was the wreckage of a bomber plane, which had lettered on it what appeared to be part of a name: “LT. ED. VAN OR…” The vice-president of the province (in the South he would be called the Deputy Province Chief) was a former Viet Minh fighter: around his neck, he wore another trophy—a French jungle camouflage scarf. An old army cook resembling a sailor had prepared a splendid carp—fished that afternoon from a pond nearby—with dill, tomatoes, rounds of carrots. The vice-president poured little glassfuls of mandarin wine, a pink alcohol, very good, though sweetish, and many toasts were exchanged. As he drank the mandarin wine, under the leaking tent of the striped parachute (it was raining hard), his somewhat splayed features grew darker, his gold tooth glinted, and he made me think of that tough character Stenka Razhin, the Anarchist hero and brigand leader of the Russian marshes, who planted an egalitarian Cossack Republic along the whole length of the Volga in the time of Alexius—seventeenth century. (Does the reader feel that some of these comparisons are far-fetched? They mostly come from my notebook and have been taken down on the spot, hurriedly, lest I forget, for example while Mrs. Chi, opposite, at our bedroom table in the guest-house sits poring over the Report of the Third Party Congress on Agricultural Matters. A curious and maybe important thing about North Vietnam is just this historical resonance. Whatever seems strange and new there at the same time has an insistent familiarity: “Who or what does this suddenly remind me of?” Far-fetched may be the right word.)
IT WAS TOO MUDDY for the tour of a cooperative that had been scheduled; instead they showed us movies, and the vice-president gave us many statistics about the province. He talked about the bombing, but there was not a great deal to tell: Hung Yen Province had not been heavily bombed—that was why it had been chosen for our visit. Only Xuan Duc, completely destroyed by 300 ordinary bombs, Minh Hai badly damaged by phosphorus bombs, Lai Vu. He said American planes had dropped butterflies on the crops, which seemed strange: in the car, going home, Mr. Phan explained that he had meant insects. I asked if we could visit the province capital, which was only a mile or so off, but there was nothing to see there any more, they replied apologetically—just shut-up buildings: it had been totally evacuated.
North Vietnam is full of those ghost towns, ghost factories, ghost hospitals. In Hoa Binh Province, which I visited the following week, we came one morning to a very large yellow modern building, with a number of outlying buildings behind it: Hoa Binh Hospital. It had been bombed on August 20, 1966. The roof of the main building—on which, our guides said, a red cross had been painted—was shattered, and in the tall grass and weeds there were huge bomb craters. In the wilderness behind, the maternity building was relatively undamaged: inside, patients’ records were blowing about or lying scattered on the floor. We picked some of them up and examined them: Mother, Pyelitis; Child, Diarrhea, and so on. Along the main walk, ornamental plants were still growing, though choked by weeds. This desolate picture made one fear to ask the question: “How many were killed?” “Nobody,” our guides said, smiling. “But how is that possible?” “We had evacuated the hospital before the bombers came.” They stood nodding. This was quite a usual thing. It had happened, for example, with the Thai Nguyen steel factory, the pride of the North. When the bombers came pounding, it was empty. Nobody home. Americans who dismiss talk of war crimes as “propaganda” would no doubt argue, if confronted with photographs, that the Hoa Binh Hospital might have been evacuated to serve as an arms depot. Possibly. Yet there were no signs of this, no evidence that the hospital had ever been occupied by anybody except medical staff and patients. The hospital looked as if it had been left in a hurry and as if nobody had come back since except bemused, head-shaking visitors like ourselves.
SUCH DERELICT STRUCTURES would be pathetic, like forsaken hopes, if the story ended there. But fantastically a new crop of hospitals has replaced them, springing up in the woods and fields, sometimes under the protection of an overhanging cliff. A surgery is improvised in a grotto or in a thatched hut, with a generator run by kerosene and a tiny old Frigidaire, kerosene-powered too, stocked with serums and vaccines. The result of this migration of doctors and equipment may have been an actual improvement in public health: for instance, a highly trained young doctor from Hanoi has been “dispersed” to a traditional Thai community living in wooden houses on stilts. Clustering together in a valley, they looked from a distance like natural elements of the wild landscape—a species of bird colony or apiary. We were received in one of these remote communities, still in some ways barbaric in its customs or savage in the old sense of the word. You take off your shoes before climbing up into the family dwelling: inside there are two big central fire-places, recalling the discovery of fire, one for the men to talk by, the other for the women to cook. There are mats and homespun coverlets on the floor for sleeping, the men at one end of the room, the women at the other. The women are chattering and heating food under a smoke-blackened shelf where edible roots and ears of corn are drying: I am given a piece of fresh-roasted manioc-tapioca. Around the necks of the baby boys are silver collars or necklaces: the women wear earrings, and the young girls’ breasts are bound, for reasons of modesty, in a tight, flattening bodice of hand-woven cotton. Yet thanks to the proximity of the evacuated hospital across a teetering log bridge, these primitive families have quickly learned hygiene: boiling their water, washing, making use of new cement latrines. Their pigs, which used to live in refuse under the high-perched houses, are now installed in clean pigstys: these people are fond of pork. And the rapid revolution in folkways has been effected (credit must be given) by the “Johnsons” flying overhead and strewing a few bombs casually on another slumberous Thai hamlet down the road a few miles, missing the hospital, if that was what they were looking for—there are no other “military” targets—in its shelter under a beetling crag.
“Out of this nettle, danger, we pick this flower safety” (Hotspur) could serve as Hanoi’s motto in contemptuous answer to the Pentagon. Contempt for the adversary and for material obstacles and difficulties is the mood of the provinces, which now harbor most of the country’s resources, like hidden talents: dispersed industries, laboratories, medical staff, the young. Ho Chi Minh himself, according to rumor, is in a safe place in the country: that is why he has not been available to recent visitors to Hanoi. Imagination situates him in a cavern, like Frederick Barbarossa, waiting for his country’s need to summon him back. In fact, on his return to what was then Indochina, in 1940, and again at the end of the Second World War, he was living in a cave beside a mountain brook, at Pac Bo, near the Chinese border. In the Museum of the Revolution, you are shown photographs of the cave, and his few simple possessions, relics of the hegira, are on exhibit, the most touching being his “suitcase,” a small flat reed basket; he traveled light. With his many changes of name, which seem to signify so many Protean incarnations, he is a legendary figure, a flitting place spirit or genius loci. The whole saga, now being enacted, of the dispersal bears his imprint: mobility, simplicity, privation, resourcefulness. The Vietnamese Revolution has recovered its lyricism by returning to its primal myth of Ho’s cave: the bombers furnished the inspiration.
HOA BINH PROVINCE, to the West of Hanoi, is mountainous country, full of natural wonders and fantasies: caves, natural bridges, sugar-loaf peaks, weird stone formations resembling upright tombstones. The Black River winds through it, and it is not far from the Dien Bien Phu region, which, they say, has a similar geology and vegetation: the ban tree, associated with the memory of the Dien Bien Phu campaign, as much as the poppies of Flanders with the First World War, grows in abundance on the mountain slopes. The first evidences of a Vietnamese culture, of the Neolithic Age, about 5000 B.C., were discovered in the caves and grottoes of this province, when human remains known as Hoa Binh Man were brought to light. A later, Bac Son Man was found near Hanoi. Archaeological digs have not been halted by the war: in fact they are part of the war effort, for the most recent Bronze Age finds are proving, at least to the Vietnamese satisfaction, that already in the Bronze Age there existed a specific Vietnamese civilization having nothing to do with the contemporaneous Chinese civilization of the Han period, in short that Vietnam, as an indissoluble entity, has always been and always will be.
A local official, introduced as the Permanent Member, had come to meet us in the dark when our cars crossed the province border: he was an old resistance-fighter from Quang Ngai Province, south of the parallel, plainly of peasant origin, with a kind, lined face and large genial-looking teeth. He led us to an evacuated factory, which consisted of a series of workshops cleverly built under a cliff, a natural bomb-proof shelter. This was quite remarkable enough, but he was saving a surprise for us: a chamber or “room” in the mountain, closed on four sides, except for a man-made portal: here Hoabinhian Man’s descendants were manufacturing farm machinery. Some boys had found the cavern, lowering themselves into it from a small aperture in the top: the people had blasted an entrance with dynamite, and an electric cable had been run in from the generator below. The night shift was at work (the factory ran continuously, on three eight-hour shifts), almost all young people, including some Muong girls from another “ethnic” tribe of these mountains wearing their tribal earrings and bracelets and shy as birds of strangers. In the glow of a forge, under the natural vaulting, it was an operatic scene, which Verdi might have scored, with a chorus of revolutionary patriots: I thought of Ernani. As in the factory in Hanoi, where the young girls had been making generators by hand, the work in this secret chamber was artisanal, handicraft applied to turning out labor-saving machinery, e.g., a power tea-roller for extracting the juice from the leaves. In the woods, not far from the workshops, was the wreckage of a US plane: they took us to see this artifact of an unknown civilization, running the beams of their flashlights over it wonderingly: again I thought of Ernani and the night scene at the tomb of Charles V. Verdi’s Risorgimento music, his love of storms, night, patriots, freedom-fighters, is well suited to the North Vietnamese theme of struggle. On our return to Hanoi, two nights later, we passed a crowd assembling at the entrance to a large grotto in the mountain-side: it was Saturday night, and they were going to the movies in an “evacuated” movie-house.
Hoa Binh Province, though considered relatively safe, had been bombed more often than Hung Yen Province. There was some bombing while we were there, and one morning we saw a flight of Air Force planes pass over on their way from Thailand, but they did not bother with our little procession of cars. The bomb damage in this region disclosed no pattern of attack: here the hospital, there some houses for workers from a sugar plantation, here a small garage for farm trucks, there huts and fields, here an Agricultural School (March 4, 1966, forty rockets, twenty fragmentation bombs: one worker killed in the school laboratory, laboratory destroyed, three teachers injured). Along a short stretch of the road on which we were driving, Route 6, 4000 CBU (anti-personnel) bombs had been dropped last year.
THE DANGER was made vivid by the miles of trenches surrounding the reconstructed Agricultural School, now spread out over a wide area in camouflaged huts, in which were installed classrooms, dormitories, a refectory. You had to wade through a stream to reach the school or approach it more adventurously from another direction by motorboat or sampan along the Black River—they would not let me do this. The narrow straw-lined tunnel trenches, like mole runs, with points of entry every few feet, were supposed to be particularly effective against CBUs. This underground network extended for three-and-a-half miles. Every morning boys and girls coming to school across the fields toted their bundles of possessions with them and deposited them in neat piles at the tunnel outlet nearest their classroom: homespun coverlets, sleeping mats, zipper bags—everything they owned. This was in case their strawy dormitories caught fire from a raid in their absence. Yet despite the danger and hardship, perhaps even because of it, spirits in the school were high. Classes were being held outdoors, under the trees, in a pre-holiday atmosphere resembling that of a small American college campus in June, when seminars are gathered under an oak or an elm. On a table moved out into the sunlight, a makeshift chemistry laboratory was set up for an experiment: the students, who were going to be agricultural technicians, were getting a foundation in the sciences. A school chorus entertained us with folk songs. Our pictures were taken. But their lunch was waiting on the refectory tables: rice, a hot stew, vegetables. We left.
Some of the teachers walked with us as far as the stream we had to ford. I remarked on the evident, glowing health of the students. A woman teacher agreed. “The life outdoors is good for them.” She sighed a little, shaking her head. I do not know what shadow was crossing her mind. Possibly she was reflecting on the mystery of good coming out of evil. Or—a related thought—on what would happen afterward, when the bombers went away once and for all. Would this pastoral scene be dismantled, as helmets were put away, camouflage leaves brushed off, city children returned to their parents? I frequently wondered, myself, especially in such idyllic circumstances, how the population would react when the spur of the bombing was removed. There would be no further need for factories hidden in the mountains, disguised schoolhouses strung along the fields and woods, tunnel networks. Could all that art and artifice be institutionalized—photographed and stored in museums?
But possibly the teacher was thinking of something quite different: the front. While we stood by the stream, exchanging formal goodbyes, at Khe Sanh the Americans would be totting up the morning North Vietnamese body count. That subject is never mentioned in the North, at least not when company is present. Being human, they must talk about it among themselves. Yet hearing no allusion to battle casualties, you actually forget that the sons, husbands, fiancés, brothers, cousins of the cordial people you meet are being killed in a certain proportion every day. It was only when I left North Vietnam and opened a capitalist newspaper that I was reminded of the North Vietnamese dead. I asked myself how, for two-and-a-half weeks, with young soldiers everywhere, training or marching, I could have let that slip my mind. The power of persuasion, no doubt. The North Vietnamese, confident of the immortality of their nation, of its powers of dispersal and subterfuge, had infected me with their indifference to death.
(This is the third in a series of articles on North Vietnam.)
June 20, 1968