It was a hot summer evening and I was in school when I first heard of the Vietnam War (1955-75). My parents had guests over and were discussing the movie, The Killing Fields (1984). Amid squabbling with my brother and other children over who gets more scoops of homemade ice-cream, I overheard bits of the conversations about missing people, Khmer Rouge, and Ho Chi Minh. A few years later, I read about the iconic The Girl in the Picture — the photograph depicting a crying, nine-year-old girl with third-degree napalm burns on her back. The photograph became a symbol for anti-war demonstrators across the world.
All these memories rushed back many years later when I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015), in which the central character, an anonymous Vietnamese narrator, is a double agent. He serves as the aide-de-camp to a general in the South Vietnamese army while acting as a mole for the North Vietnamese one because he is loyal to the communists. The book begins with the Fall of Saigon in 1975, when the general and some members of his family are hoping to be evacuated. The narrator is put in charge of planning the escape and organises it, but simultaneously reports everything to his leader among the communists. For, as he says, “Uncle Ho himself, at least when he was alive, was the most committed man ever, the one who had asserted that ‘Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.’ These were words we were willing to die for.”
I remembered this passage as I stood at Badinh Square in Hanoi a few months later. This is where Ho Chi Minh, popularly known as Uncle Ho, declared Vietnam an independent republic in 1945. It is a cold, wet day but people are lining up to take pictures at his shrine, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a simple square building. Our guide, Nicky Doanh, tells us, people still remember Uncle Ho with reverence. “He got us freedom and never tried to make money for himself. In fact, he lived very simply,” he says, pointing at the house on stilts some distance away, where Minh lived, intermittently, till 1969. We walk through the museum dedicated to him, apparently inspired by Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow, and full of photos about his life and career.
After a drive of half an hour, we reach the Old Quarter, which shows a completely different world. It is a triangular maze of lanes and shops with goods ranging from raincoats, jackets and suitcases to raw fruits, vegetables, and varieties of meat and fish. Crossing the roads means dealing with the constant stream of scooters and bikes whizzing by. “Don’t look. Keep walking. Cross quickly,” Nicky advises. I have no time to ask him why. Mid-path, a biker — his eyes are blank and although I am right in front of him, he is gazing to the left — swerves past me at the last minute.
People sit on plastic chairs and benches and eat, play cards, chat and clean. We ask for the famous pho ga — a clear soup with fried fish, glass noodles, accompanied with raw cucumbers, red chillies, and fresh herbs. The cost is 110,000 dong for two! It takes us a while to get used to the multiple zeroes, till we learn to divide everything by 1,000.
We manage to get tickets next for the famous Water Puppet show, where puppets, manoeuvered by hidden puppeteers, perform folk tales over shallow pools. One of the tales they perform is that of King Le Loi finding a sword while fishing in the Sword Lake. After he defeated his enemies, he is asked by a turtle to throw the sword back into the lake, which he does. The sword is still supposed to be hidden in the depths of the lake.
After the show, we cross the road and walk around the Sword Lake. The greenish waters appear tranquil. The locals sit and chat on benches along the walkways, some with ice-cream cones. We sit for a while, too, and have the famed Vietnamese coffee, watching old men play chess, women bargaining for fresh fish, and youngsters zooming by on their mopeds. I am reminded again of a passage from The Sympathizer when the narrator lives as an expatriate in California but is homesick, “We could not forget the caramel flavour of iced coffee with coarse sugar; the bowls of noodle soup eaten while squatting on the sidewalk.” I marvel at the tranquillity of the scene, especially knowing that while the north of the country was under the communist regime led by Ho Chi Minh, the south was under a separate regime supported by the Americans, and this conflict led to 20 years of civil war.
The next day, Nicky takes us to the Temple of Literature, a university dedicated to Confucius and built in 1070. Originally meant for aristocrats, it was eventually opened to all students. Girls in colourful ao dais (tunics) and boys in suits and caps pose at the entrance. Once past the entrance guarded by stone dragons, we enter a series of courtyards, flanked by small gardens, pools, and traditional statues, including ones of a unicorn standing on a turtle. The first courtyard has a row of stone turtles, with names of successful graduates engraved on them. We watch as a few students exuberantly throw their caps in the air, the universal gesture of celebrating graduation.
I ask Nicky, tentatively, about his feelings about the war. “It was all a long time ago. And we have learnt to forgive and move on.” The same feeling is expressed in an interview by Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the girl in the photograph who became known as the Napalm Girl, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred.”
Towards the end of The Sympathizer, the narrator is “re-educated”, a euphemism for him to “confess his crimes”, and allowed to leave with his friend, Bon, as one of the thousands of Boat People who flee the country. Questions remain in the mind of the narrator: “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?” In the end, “the only certainty is this,” the narrator declares, “…we swear to keep, on penalty of death, this one promise: We will live!”
The Vietnamese seem to exemplify this promise, as we end up for dinner at the Cho Dong Xuan night market. The stalls are selling trinkets and a troupe is performing in front of the memorial depicting the battle between the French and the Vietnamese. This is a country that has been colonised, suffered a devastating civil war, and yet, has learnt to survive and even thrive. As our guide for the next day, Trúnh Duc, tells us, “The symbol of our country and our culture is bamboo and we are like that. We will bend but not break.”
As we order a barbecue at a street-side grill, and sit at a small table by the road, enjoying the spirit of the place, I recall Phan Thi Kim Phúc’s words, “We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?”
(Jonaki Ray is a Delhi-based poet and writer)
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