|I Keep It In My Heart
And Wait For You
Part II: The Return, 1996
Timothy A. Duffie
USMC, Viet Nam, 1966-67
Sunday I had the best tour of Saigon any American tourist could possibly want, still on the back of that Honda. After we had toured the main streets and side-streets of Saigon, I suggested to Phuong Thu that this may be an opportunity for her to see some sights she had never visited. She took me to the Presidential Palace. Perhaps not my first choice, but...
As we moved with our group through the palace, new guides met us to explain each floor and/or room. They all spoke English exceptionally well, and very quickly I became the center of attention. One of the guides asked if I was an American. The others didn't. They saw the 35mm camera over one shoulder, and the videocam over the other, and they knew I had to be an American. (Yes, much to my chagrin I was the typical Ugly American tourist!) The Vietnamese nationals became a mere footnote to the excitement of having a Hoa-Ky (American) on the premises. The guides seemed inordinately attentive to me, leaving the nationals to fend for themselves.
Deep in the dungeon-like heart of the palace, three levels down, we entered a room full of radio equipment. It was antiquated equipment that may have been left over from the war. Good Morning, Vietnam! did enter my mind. The guide looked at me, cocked her head in an ever so charming manner, and in the most disarming of voices said, "Do you know how to operate this?"
I gave her my best nonchalant shrug, shook my head feebly, and tried to look like anything but an American Vietnam Veteran! (Why do you ask me that?! What makes you think I would know? Ask some of these other people! I glanced fearfully over my shoulder at the heavy steel doors to make sure they were still unlocked!)
I don't think she was fooled.
While it was a pleasant tour, I drew the line at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sit in a captured American helicopter. All for the bargain price of 1000 dong ($.10).
Later that afternoon, after Phuong Thu had gone home for a while, I met the enemy. Two former Viet Cong sat watching as I walked up and down Dien Bien Phu Street. They pointed to a chair and invited me to sit and visit. One spoke English, so I did. I was still a little nervous on the streets of Saigon, so we verbally sparred our way through the introductions.
The conversation started off innocently enough. With a smile on his face, one asked, "This first time you live in Viet Nam?"
(My first day there it had taken me some time to realize that "live" is synonymous with "visit". For the next two weeks that peculiar phrase was to be repeated dozens of times.)
I knew then where this conversation was going to lead. With a sheepish smile, and hoping to impress them with my firm grasp of the Vietnamese language, I said, "No. I lived here in sau-bay ('67)." (Well...one Vietnamese word didn't really impress them, but it was a start!)
Knowing glances; sly looks. Then the spider continued to weave its web. "Where you live when you live in Viet Nam in sau-bay?"
"I lived in Phuoc My hamlet, Quang Tri Province."
Feeling as though I was being undressed in public, I watched as they compared notes on
what they knew about Quang Tri Province in sau-bay. To one well versed in the Vietnam War,
time and place tells volumes about the participants. I had every reason to believe that
these gentlemen were well versed in the war. I sat mentally whistling past the graveyard.
Then he went for the kill. He asked,
So well put; rapier sharp. He was kind enough to say "perhaps", but I
know he didn't mean it. Thirty years ago I would have argued with them. But that was
before I endured twenty-nine years of bodies parading through my mind. I was not sure that
this issue was worth arguing over. Hoping to find a more tactful way of settling our
differences, I learned that I can be non-committal when I want to be. Smiling
diplomatically, I responded,
(Every time I slipped and referred to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon, I glanced around in paranoid anticipation of being strong armed for inciting a revolution. After several days I began to notice that even the locals, at least the older ones, continue to use the name Saigon. I began to relax....a little.)
They looked at each other, nodded in agreement that such could only be construed as a confession, and our conversation moved on to other matters.
But I could not dislike them. In addition to their both being quite affable, as I sat on Dien Bien Phu Street I was acutely aware of the fact that I was in their home. Again. I was the visitor. I could not be angry because thirty years ago they had made a choice that differed from mine? A choice that had an impact on their own country. In my mellow old age, I found that rather ludicrous to contemplate.
At the airport, and during my first day in Saigon, I was surprised to find that I was traveling alone with Phuong Thu. I had read a few trip reports on the internet, written by experienced travelers, regarding travel in Viet Nam. Some had mentioned the attitude of the Vietnamese toward a single woman in the company of a Western man. The books all indicated that the woman would be considered a prostitute. No questions asked.
I had anticipated that she would bring some friends to the airport. Since it was obvious that she did not seem the least bit concerned, I asked her about it. She explained that her attire was more of a determining factor than the mere fact that we were together. Since she was not wearing a mini-skirt, being in my company did not, categorically, brand her as a prostitute. So much for the experts.
Yes. I ate everything that was put in front of me...no questions asked. I was given a fork and spoon at each meal, but I was determined to learn to use chopsticks. I even learned to bring the rice bowl to my mouth as I pushed the rice into my mouth with those ungainly utensils. I did get a trifle annoyed when my Vietnamese friends insisted on putting a towel on my lap at each meal to catch all the food I dropped! (I am [reasonably] sure they were just funnin' with me.)
I spent much of my meal time watching them so I could do things properly. What is the sauce in the dish? How do they mix their food? When I was uncertain, I waited until someone else showed me the proper procedure for each item. I had remembered that Viet Nam is a country of polite idiosyncrasies. Shaking hands with both hands; offering something to someone with two hands, bowing politely while making the offer. They are easily offended when we don't pay attention to their customs. Rightfully so, I might add. While they have become accostomed to our more off-handed approach to such formalities, I was determined to not offend them.
Nothing would offend them more than for me to turn my nose up at the dinner table. So I watched carefully, then I proceeded accordingly. And I ate everything!
(Later, in Phuoc My, I was presented a plate of seven raw squid one morning. Not your everyday basic food in America. I had given my hostess, Co Van Thi Hue, 100000 dong [approximately $10.00] for the market. She bought me the squid as a special treat. Her daughter, Phuong Thao, brought it to me. One look and I knew I did not want to eat them. However, with Thao standing there looking so pleased and excited, I simply could not turn my nose up at it. So...gulp...here goes...gulp!)
By the end of the two weeks, I was beginning to dread the next meal. The food was delicious, but I could not eat as much as they thought I could. Perhaps because of the size difference (Me, a svelte 175 lbs.; them, a miniscule 90 to 130 lbs.), they thought I should have eaten more than they. When I could eat no more, I would push my chair back to let them know that I was done. Co Hue (while I was in Phuoc My), or Phuong Quyen in Da Nang would simply fill my rice bowl again. They would throw in a few pieces of meat and some vegetables, then sit back with the satisfed look of a Boy Scout who just helped a little old lady across the street.
They never did figure out that I could not eat what they thought I could. So late each afternoon I began to worry about the fact that I was going to have to eat again. I did not want to offend my host families, so I always managed to eat. But it was sometimes difficult.
And I lost 12lbs. in the process of gorging myself!
(Since my return, it has been suggested that my mistake may have been in cleaning my plate. To indicate that I was finished, I should have left a small portion on the plate. Unfortunately, while in Vietnam I couldn't forget all those "starving children in China" my partents had so often warned me about as a child! Talk about a "Catch 22" situation.)
Late in my visit, while at the home of Diep and Tuyet in Da Nang, I was getting restless each evening. After dinner Diep went to fix the lights in the streetside restaurant in front of their home. One evening, I went out and offered to help. He took me by the arm and, murmering softly "No...no...no...", led me back to the family room. He pleasantly deposited me in a chair.
Their daughters, Phuong Quyen (age 16) and Phuong Tam (age 14), were helping Tuyet clean up the dishes. Co Hue and her husband were there, so she was helping the women. Co Hue's husband and I sat alone at the table. I did not care all that much for being waited on hand and foot, so I picked up some dishes and headed for the kitchen.
Word rampaged through the house like grenade shrapnel. Diep dropped the string of lights and came running in from the shop. Horrified, Tuyet and the girls huddled anxiously nearby. Co Hue was no doubt humiliated. After all, she was the one who had invited this uncultured neanderthal to Viet Nam in the first place! I stood looking around in confusion.
For the second time in as many minutes, Diep took me by the arm as he removed the dishes from my hands and gave them to Tuyet. Then, in his best "You Are An Honored Guest" manner, he once again murmered politely, but this time just a little more firmly, as he led me to a chair.
In Viet Nam, Honored Guests do not help with the dishes...or the electrical wiring in the cafe.
Anyhow, back to my first day in Vietnam. That evening, while waiting for Phuong Thu to arrive for our evening out, I experienced the first of three terrifying moments that I was to encounter over the ensuing two weeks. I must add that none were justified. Each was the result of my mental VCR playing back responses to external stimuli.
(Even toward the end of my visit, I never totally got over the feeling of impending danger, a feeling I had not anticipated prior to the trip. It happened once while I was in the train station in Da Nang, mid-afternoon, and I was with Diep, Tuyet and the girls at the time. That was the most inexplicable of them all, but the feeling was real.
Perhaps it was because Viet Nam has represented danger in my mind for the past thirty years. It would seem that fear is a thought process that simply cannot be turned off in a few days.)
I was sitting on the curb in front of the boarding house. The street was narrow, leaving room for only a motorbike and possibly one pedestrian to pass at any given place. It was, to say the least, mildly claustrophobic! Parading past was a constant array of local Vietnamese. Sitting directly across from me, on the opposite curb, was a Vietnamese man approximately 30 years of age. I had the feeling, as we had said in 1967, of being "...all alone in Indian country".
In what can only be considered a response to an all too familiar environment, the feeling of impending danger I had experienced years ago crawled through my body like blood poisoning. I knew that I had to sit and confront that fear. Not with rifles and hand grenades, but with reason and logic. I would be traveling between Saigon and Dong Ha for two weeks. The majority of the time I would be in the company of my friends. But I would also be alone for extended periods. Those would become very long weeks if I could not control the replays of old fears.
I knew I was being ridiculous. But that did not make the fear any less intense. Feeling virtually defenseless in this sea of Vietnamese faces, I had to fight the urge to run up to my room and lock myself in.
As logic argued with experience in my mind, I heard a motorbike approaching from my right. As it passed, I noticed that the driver was a rather attractive (a gross understatement) Vietnamese woman in her mid-twenties. However, it was her passenger who earned my undivided attention, and my eternal love. The object of 52 years of my dreams was sitting side-saddle behind the driver facing me. She was dressed in a mini-skirt that left little to the imagination.
Conceding to life's most basic of instincts, I almost fell face first onto the pavement as I leaned forward and followed my fantasy down the street until she disappeared onto Dien Bien Phu Street. As I struggled to regain my composure, forcing my head back to front and center, I noticed my imagined nemesis on the far curb doing the same thing. He looked at me, and we both knew we had been caught with our basest instincts bared. He laughed, and my terror disappeared.
Later that night, Phuong Thu and I went out on the town. She took me to The Cabaret Of Art, 14 Lam Son St., Binh Thanh, Saigon, Viet Nam. This was not a tourist spot. It was a local favorite. I relaxed as a variety of foreign and domestic music was presented by different groups and soloists. As I listened to a woman sing a rather melancholy song, Phuong Thu explained that it was about the war in Viet Nam. A man went off to the war, leaving his family behind. Once she told me it was about the war, I was able to draw conclusions based purely on the tone of the music.
Then the tone changed. It became music of celebration. Without being told, I knew that the man had returned from the war. He had been reunited with his family. It was a happy time, and the faces on the Vietnamese listening reflected that joy.
I tried to think of anything comparable that had been written in America during the Vietnam War. Anything! I thought of many songs of celebration that had been written down through the years. "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again", "Over There", and a few others. But they were all written for other wars. Not ours.
We were treated to protest music and nothing more.
(Fortunately for me, and all those around me, that was my only brief venture into the unwelcome land of self-pity. Early Sunday morning Phuong Thu had called her family to tell them what time I would arrive in Da Nang on Monday. She spoke to her sister, Phuong Quyen, who was to be my interpreter and guide while in Da Nang, and told her that I was "cheerful". Quite frankly, it was something she had not expected. I was determined that Quyen, too, would say I was cheerful when I left.)
It was impossible to watch the locals as they moved about on Dien Bien Phu Street, or those with whom I had toured the Presidential Palace, and not be aware of the fact that some of them may have killed Americans.
What was my reaction?
Even as I was pondering these things, my body was fighting off jet lag from the trip half-way around the world. Mental and physical fatigue were constant reminders that I had traveled 24 hours to get there. The vast majority of those I was critiquing were, no doubt, South Vietnamese nationals at the time of the war. As citizens of South Vietnam, they had made a choice based on what they believed was best for their country. I was the outsider....then, and now.
I may have differed then, and still do, with their political choice. However, the simple fact remains that it was their country. It was their choice to make. Only Yankee arrogance could continue to be angry with them for making a choice in their own country. Even if that choice led to a war.
As I pondered the decisions of my youth, an expected side effect of my visit to Viet Nam, I considered the fact that one of the premises I had fought for was that of freedom of choice. It seemed rather silly, thirty years later, to remain angry with them because of that choice.
So, as I fought more with jet lag, and less with the locals, my personal war in Viet Nam continued to abate.Continue to Part 2, Section 3