In the predawn morning, central Hanoi’s streets assume a dark and ominous demeanor. It is a welcome respite from the daylight hustle this city is known for. This is the witching hour—the brief lull before the city awakes to a furious sun attempting to liquefy the pavement. At this hour, only the most opportunistic roasted-squid vendors, desperate freelance recyclers, and persistent moto-taxi drivers prowl the streets in search of meager earnings. The remainder of Hanoi’s entrepreneurs catches a much-needed break from the hectic, 18-hour work days. Even the cart-crammed alleyways appear to expand and enjoy newfound elbow room in this eerie, shadow-filled tranquility. This is one of the rare moments when it is possible to cross one of the Hanoi-ingly busy city streets without fear of being plowed over by oncoming traffic. Types of potentially fatal transportation include speeding motos, overloaded bikes towing carts of living bamboo, and the rare king of the road, the car, which brakes for nobody. In this vehicle-free calm, however, a wise pedestrian walks right down the center of the street, avoiding the sidewalk’s many obstacles, which remain veiled due to non-functioning street lamps.
Not everyone is asleep at this hour on this Old Quarter street. On a drag called Duong Hang Bac, a faint murmur challenges the quiet surroundings. As I wind through the streets toward my guest house, dimly lit silhouettes of humans become faintly visible along the dusky sidewalk. Packs of teenagers congregate in small groups of two to four, sitting cross-legged and shoeless on straw mats set squarely onto the filthy pavement. Under candlelight they imbibe strong rice spirits and munch on freshly roasted squid while chatting peacefully, Long before I notice them, they notice me. Waving my direction, they seem to be inviting me to join them. I think to myself that I should be sleeping, like the majority of the sensible Hanoi residents.
Just hours from now I am committed to visit the tomb of Ho Chi Minh, embalmed in his communist glory. By socialist rule, anybody may commemorate the leader for free, but their visit must terminate before 10:15 am. Having just emerged from the smoky bars of Old Hanoi, it is almost 4 am, and I should probably ignore the candlelit silhouettes crouched on the sidewalk beckoning me over for a lesson in Vietnamese hospitality. But they are too convincing, gracefully motioning that I take a seat with them on their straw mat. I remove my sandals and sit cross-legged next to three new acquaintances on their woven square, immediately in balance with the cosmos of cultural exchange. The blurred and shaded faces ask me, in the international language of pointing, if I would like a drink. Who am I to decline?
It is not surprising that my new friends belong to the younger generation. Few elderly can be found roaming the streets of Vietnamese cities—and this is not merely the result of a city that is physically hazardous. Several reasons explain this reality. One is that the population structure of Vietnam is, like that of many developing nations, bottom heavy; a higher proportion is under 18 years of age compared to Western standards. Another hallmark of a developing country, Vietnam also had an unsustainable population growth rate during the last several decades. In the streets, anyone old enough to sport gray hair is diluted in a sea of the youth. Another reason the oldest tier of is conspicuously absent is that the average life expectancy in Vietnam is about 71.5 years. People do not live as long as they do in the West. (US life expectancy is 78 years.)
The main factor that accounts for the absence of members of the older generation appearing on the streets of bustling cities such as Saigon and Hanoi is that they were killed in war. A generation died during Vietnam’s horrific and bloody conflicts of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. A man who was 20 in 1974, at the end of the Vietnam War (or American War as it is referred to in Vietnam), would be only 57 in 2011. This means that any middle-aged man would have had to survive fighting in one, if not more, of the deadly conflicts during that violent period. In most countries, one would expect to see plenty of men in their fifties strolling the boulevards, drinking tea with friends at a café, or working for a living. Sadly, the rare Vietnamese male aged fifty years or older often limps by, burdened by some injury suffered during the period of intense regional conflict. He is commonly starving or begging in the street, unable to work due to his debilitation. In the context of Vietnam’s violent history, however, one might say that this man is relatively fortunate to be alive at all. Men over age 65 constitute only 2% of the population.
Of all the dreadful modern conflicts in Vietnam—dynasty-long wars with China, the protracted French Colonial period, and the civil war—the one most burned into the psyche of this war-torn nation, is the idealistic conflict that developed between the North Vietnamese and a weaker South Vietnamese army, who were aided by the invasion of the US military. Even though few of the residents of Hanoi were born until after the war’s termination, it is still recent history. As an American, I am sensitive to this history and its consequences; I know I should tread lightly. During my travels through North Vietnam, I am cognizant of how my hosts respond to the revelation that their most recent foreign aggressor, the United States, has sent yet another foot soldier across the ocean, albeit in peace. Although my new friends were years from their birthdates by the war’s end, this tumultuous period left an unparalleled legacy of violence and horror in the minds of the entire population, and the vivid memories have no doubt been imparted upon the generation with whom I now sit. Yet here I am, an American among several Northern Vietnamese youths, whose grandfathers certainly—and fathers likely—fought ruthlessly against my parents’ generation. Our countries’ citizens mercilessly slaughtered each other just one generation previous to ours. But tonight we mingle in silent, mutual respect while drinking to our health.
“Can chén!” toasts one of my new friends, raising a plastic shot glass of rice liquor to the center of our makeshift square. The remainder of us follow suit. “Can chén!” A series of muffled crinkles emerges from the brief union of five flimsy glasses as we slurp down the dry, potent liquor together. An instant of intense discomfort accompanies the consumption of the warm, undiluted booze. But smiles reemerge after everyone reaches for a piece of shredded squid, which has been freshly roasted over a portable bucket of coals. This snack was prepared for us by the late-night calamari vendor, who is perched on her haunches across the street fanning her coals and hoping for more business. A dip of salty meat into a sweet chili paste zaps away the liquor’s burn, and the clamor returns to the group.
This ritual is repeated several times over the next 10 minutes. The fact that no meaningful conversation takes place during this period is lost on us—at least until the bottle of rice liquor runs dry. Suddenly, with our great social leveler terminated, the lack of conversation becomes apparent. However, everyone seems content to enjoy the silence. On woven rectangles covering the pavement, we share looks of mutual approval, staring at each other with an understanding that transcends verbal communication. Suddenly, it appears that there is more cultural exchange to be had, even if the majority of it involves drinking spirits in relative silence. One of my new friends hops up to purchase another bottle of cheaply distilled grain liquor from across the empty street. In his absence, one of the young me next to me finally breaks the silence and garbles, “You America?” I pause. “Yes,” I admit, somewhat reluctantly. Unfettered, he announces, “America great country!”
My mind races in vain to process this friendly statement. “These guys should hate me,” chimes in my paranoid conscience. Historically, the US caused great harm to the people of Vietnam, while destroying the land in some areas for generations to come. Where is the anger they should be directing at me? How can they say, “America great country!” while shaking my hand enthusiastically, when, just over 35 years ago, America’s government cowardly dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of flaming, carcinogenic chemicals and millions of bombs directly on their citizens from overhead warplanes? After all, in the US–whose people suddenly seem infinitely less forgiving than these humble Vietnamese–there are still older, WWII-generation Americans who still hate the entirety of the Japanese people for the attack at Pearl Harbor. Likewise, some in the US fault the citizens of France for not participating in the unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003. No matter that all of these incidences and policies, including the Vietnam War, were instituted by the governments of countries rather than their people. It is always convenient to blame a country’s population for the crimes committed by the heads of governments. However, it is refreshing to hear these young men bury the past.
When considering the US’ involvement in Vietnam and how it is currently perceived by the Vietnamese, it is worth noting that not only was this conflict more recent than Pearl Harbor, but that the foreign intervention consisted of much more than a singular, surprise naval attack. A lengthy civil war, intervened in and perpetuated by ideological outsiders, who only exacerbated its length and death toll, it took place merely three-and-a-half decades ago. Fresh in the minds of many, it claimed millions of lives, disrupted many millions more, made orphans of legions of children, and caused deformations and cancer to thousands more. It destroyed livelihoods, villages, and culture—an entire country. Its legacy was to bestow irreparable harm on the citizens and environment of Vietnam. The United States is directly at fault for much of the atrocity. With these truths clearly in the open, how can these guys not hold a grudge against me? How can they look me straight in the eyes and joyfully ‘cheer’ me with their rice spirits?
Following the moment my new friend tells me that America is a great country, I surmise the following: Perhaps the Vietnamese don’t have the time or energy for hate, anger, or vindictiveness over the past. They are too busy working hard to change their future for the better. If they mentally linger over their recent history, they will never move forward as a nation or progress as a culture. When sifting through the ashes of their charred villages they may have realized that they must forgive and try to forget. There is no remedy for the horrors of the past, so the only constructive outlook is to concentrate on the future. To survive decades of warfare, the Vietnamese had to evolve beyond moralistic grudges and acts of revenge. Instead of hate and negativity, they fostered inventiveness and resourcefulness. Instead of focusing on the negative outcomes that have befallen them over centuries of warfare, they maintained an optimistic outlook, so that when the fog of war cleared, they were prepared to enjoy a more fruitful period. All the while, the citizens endured war after war, honing a survivalist instinct, and waited for their opportunity to show their resiliency.
The blossoming of Vietnamese ingenuity came to fruition after it was sharpened during the conflicts of the mid-20th century. Among myriad survival techniques, the Vietcong dug thousands of miles of tunnels in every direction, stretching from Saigon to the Cambodian border, to penetrate into enemy territory. This intricate network, which was entirely underground and invisible to the opposition, supported entire cities of people, complete with triage and surgery centers, kitchens and meeting rooms. Even factories thrived, in which acquired US ammunition and supplies were skillfully re-crafted into much needed basics for the under-supplied North Vietnamese army. High-caliber rifle bullet shells became lighters, while tires from US vehicles were made into sandals for the troops. Unexploded artillery stolen from US bases or dropped from planes was defused and reconstructed into land mines, knives, and booby traps to be used against the enemy.
The tunnels of Cu Chi
Entire communities stacked themselves into three or more claustrophobic levels of dark, dank, and sweltering underground tunnels, subsisting on the root of the cassava plant and little else. Ingenious methods of survival developed out of necessity, along with an indelible fortitude that still manifests itself in the younger generation. The Vietnamese go about their everyday lives finding incredible solutions to their difficulties and relying on creativity and productivity to survive.
Even in the rapidly changing society, many examples of Vietnamese resourcefulness can be found throughout the country today. It is still possible to encounter US military-issue equipment from the 1970s in use. When I visited an ancient temple complex in central Vietnam, built by the intricately artistic Champa culture in the 12th century, I found a perfect example. Near the entrance gate to the temple structures, our guides piled a group of visitors into an old jeep. I instantly recognized the make from having inherited a similar model from my grandfather: a US military-issue relic. This jeep had run over 400,000 miles since it was abandoned by the US in the early 1970s. The Vietnamese had kept it running and were using it to cart around American tourists.
The next day I hailed an entrepreneurial driver and his motorbike for a trip to a sacred Buddhist pagoda on the outskirts of an expansive, central Vietnamese river town. As Vietnam has recently enacted a helmet law for all motorcyclists, my driver donned an olive green helmet for our harrowing journey through the crowded and narrow streets. I noticed painted numbers and some sort of US GI insignia on the back of the hard hat. It looked antique and well used. As we sped the wrong way down one-way streets full of oncoming traffic, I yelled ahead against the wind and into his ear, “Where did you get this helmet?” Taking his eyes off the road, he turned to me and uttered one word. “War.” From a legacy of terrible conflict, the Vietnamese have emerged resourceful and creative.
The sentiment I hear echoed repeatedly, wherever I travel on this planet, transcends any barrier of language or culture. The simple phrase is: life is difficult. Whether it is uttered peacefully by a gardener in Kashmir, aggressively by a falling-down-drunk miner in Bolivia, or passionately by a silver-tongued tourist tout in Morocco, this statement is always raw and ringing of truth. The fact that the same perception of life’s difficulty is mirrored by good-natured, honest, and hard-working people everywhere—those who are swept under the rug by prosperous nations—leaves no doubt in my mind that this is the true reality of the human condition for the majority of souls struggling for survival on Earth.
In Vietnam, just as in any other part of the world, it does not take much coaxing to tease out the ‘life is difficult’ phrase from anybody. They are not complaining; far from it. If there is one thing the impoverished are not, it is whiny. They are merely stating the facts. Life is tough in Vietnam. A good wage is six dollars a day, and that wage is reserved for somebody who has developed a specialty. Someone who is fluent in English and works in the tourist sector may earn such a salary. The remainder of the workforce survives on much less, toiling seven days a week for up to 20 hours per day. This sacrifice provides them with barely enough to eat. Food in Vietnam is cheap by Western standards—rarely over a dollar for a meal. However, the average wage-earner in Vietnam cannot afford three decent bowls of rice a day on the average salary. Inflation is high, and currency is hard-earned. Yes, life is difficult and only the strong, industrious, resourceful, cunning and, apparently, forgiving survive. These are the characteristics that define the Vietnamese of today. And if they are not working themselves to the bone for their own subsistence, then they are honoring the generations before them, who were decimated violently in the pursuit of a peaceful and prosperous future for their offspring. Today’s Vietnamese hope to offer the same peace and increased prosperity to future generations.
Realizing that I am still sitting on the mat of my gracious hosts, I shake my head clear of introspective thoughts, fighting as the haze of rice liquor settles in. Meanwhile, the choppy conversation has begun to ramble on to the useless but passionately discussed topics inherent with swilling excessive amounts of alcohol. We have reached the point in the night where we are identifying our favorite English Premier League football clubs. The fifth round of shots in rapid succession has brought much more animation to the group. Livelier than before, the discussion contains less actual talking but more motioning and smiling. Language barriers are nearly transcended, thanks to the liquor and my hosts’ kindness. It becomes increasingly difficult to say ‘no’ to these generous guys interested in cultural exchange. Meanwhile the time approaches 5 a.m. The mummy of Ho Chi Minh will be unveiled to me in only three and a half hours. Cross-legged, cross-eyed, and woozy, it is time to excuse myself from this serendipitous situation before I lose my whereabouts…after one more shot of course. “Can chén!” All toast and reach for a final round of fiery squid.
“Cám ơn (thank you),” I blabber to my hosts, exercising the only Vietnamese I can muster up at the moment. They do not say, “You are welcome.” Instead, to my surprise, they thank me for the experience. I reach for some cash. In the hour I sat with them they spent the equivalent of nine dollars on liquor and snacks, two days’ work for most of these youngsters. It is the least I can do to chip in. They refuse the donation, looking surprised and a little disappointed that I would not accept their invitation unconditionally. Without trying to insult them, I offer again. They refuse resolutely. I can only rise from the mat, stumbling like a young llama taking his first steps, and exuberantly thank them one final time. They repeat their thanks to me again, clearly pleased to have had the chance to show an American the kind of North Vietnamese hospitality that is unconditionally extended to a non-invading force. If the most important thing that comes from travel is the exchange of culture and ideas, then its raison d’être has been validated this early morning.
Again, I walk in the lonely, dark streets of Hanoi, wandering past even more candlelit groups sitting still on mats, hidden in the shadows of the predawn sidewalk on Duong Hang Bac. In just a few minutes, the rush of traffic and ceaseless noise will begin anew. But for now, the calm persists. As I bumpily bisect the street on my way to my guest house, several mats full of young drinkers motion at me to come join them. I politely decline their acts of generosity. Fortunately they do not insist.
Copyright © 2011 Tyson Volkmann