The Road to Hill 10

A veteran's return to Vietnam

We crossed the bridge over the Tuy Loan River and stopped the car on the other side. Sweet potatoes and manioc were drying in the sun. The smell of sugarcane filled the air. The old bridge had been blown up in 1974, and at first I wasn't sure where I was. On the north bank, where our bunkers had been, there was now a brick kiln. On the south bank, where I'd had my command post, two men dressed only in shorts were sitting in a shed, patiently sawing logs. Across the road, near where we had set up our recoilless rifle, was a small roadside stand selling tea, cigarettes, and drinks. It had all changed. But the bend in the river was the same, and so were the mountains beyond. I looked in the distance for the old French fort in the foothills where my platoon had often set its foxholes for the night. I was stunned when it rose out of the foreground, scarcely a mile away.

Vietnam was so much smaller than I had remembered. When I fought here as a Marine second lieutenant, in 1969, Da Nang was a world away; today the drive took fifteen minutes. The old French fort had seemed miles from the bridge; now clearly it was only a short walk, just across the rice paddies and along a tree line. But those paddies had once meant booby traps and mines and being caught in the open, and that tree line had meant ambush and death. Now the scene was a peaceful Asian landscape, a nice place to have a picnic. Then it had defined my entire world; now it was only a Chinese watercolor of river, paddies, and foothills in the shadow of the mountains—just another piece of Vietnam.

I got back into the car with my escort, a former Viet Cong captain, and we drove south, down the road that my battalion had swept for mines each morning. I pointed out a narrow gravel road and we followed it through the paddies toward the mountains. Where a refugee camp had been, there was now a cemetery for the war dead, filled with hundreds of graves, each marker bearing, in Vietnamese, the word hero. I stopped two old men who were walking along the road. One of them had been the president of the Viet Cong in a nearby village. "All this was a no-man's land," he said, gesturing around the paddies and hills I knew so well. "We were very strong here. We lived underground right next to the American base on Hill 10. Our best fighters worked for the Americans; at night they joined us."

Then a woman came up the road. Her name was Dong Thi San. I asked her if she had been here during the war. "Of course," she said. "I was the wife of a guerrilla. He was killed in Bo Ban hamlet by an American Marine patrol in 1969. And he left four children." She looked at me with steady eyes. In 1969 I had commanded a platoon of young Americans, their average age less than twenty. We had been through Bo Ban hamlet and had set out ambushes there. My platoon could have—I could have—killed her husband.

"But life goes on," she said. "The war is over now."

The last Americans fled Vietnam ten years ago this April, but for us the war never really ended, not for the men who fought it, and not for America. It was longer than the Civil War, the First World War, and the Second World War put together. We spent $140 billion and suffered 58,022 Americans killed, another 303,000 wounded. Perhaps a million and a half Vietnamese died. The war shook our confidence in America as a nation with a special mission, and it left the men who fought it orphans in their own country. It divided us then, and its memory divides us now. The debate over when and how to commit American power abroad is really a debate over how to avoid, at all costs, another Vietnam.

I spent four weeks there last fall. I drove hundreds of miles in North Vietnam and from the old DMZ to the Mekong Delta in the South, trying to come to terms with why we had fought there and how we lost, with the bravery and the lives wasted, with what we had done to Vietnam and what Vietnam had done to us. I had most wanted to see Hill 10, my old battalion base. It stood on a rocky hill in the path of the main route between the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in the mountains, and Da Nang, South Vietnam's second-largest city, a few miles to the east. Dozens of American bases in Vietnam were just like it. Hill 10 has no place in the history of the war and will most likely be remembered only by the men who fought each other in the rice paddies and the mountains that surround it. But I had seen the war there, and after all those years it was once again just around the curve in the gravel road, past the hamlet hidden in the trees. I got back into the car with my old enemy and we headed toward it.


The flight from Bangkok into Hanoi follows the route that the American F-105s and F-4s based in Thailand had taken out of Takhli and Korat, over the mountains that the pilots had called Thud Ridge (after the nickname for the F-105 Thunderchief). Instead of the hail of flak, the SAMs (surface-to-air missiles), and the MiG-21 fighters that had greeted the American pilots, I saw only typical Vietnamese villages, set amid the inevitable paddies and surrounded by thick walls of bamboo. Oxcarts trudged slowly around the perimeter of the airport. Men on bicycles crossed the tarmac. The passengers on my flight were the only ones in the tiny terminal. After I claimed my baggage, a young man introduced himself in formal English. His name was Tien, and he was from the Foreign Press Center. We loaded my bags into a brand-new Toyota and headed for Hanoi.

Thousands of people crowded the road between the airport and Hanoi. They were threshing rice, fixing bicycles, driving pigs, carrying rocks, playing games, getting their hair cut—all right on the pavement. There were fishermen and hunters and schoolchildren with briefcases and red scarves. There were oxcarts and cattle and flocks of ducks, and everywhere there were bicycles: bicycles being ridden by one, two, three, four, and even five people; bicycles carrying immense loads of rice, charcoal, lumber. livestock. There were a few trucks, but ours was the only car. Horn blaring, we charged through this sea of activity like a shark through a school of mackerel. This must have been how the French traveled when Vietnam was their colony, I thought—as if this thick broth of peasant life simply did not exist.

Out in the rice fields were armies of peasants—plowing, planting, weeding, reaping. Children rode water buffalo or bathed in the paddies; women bent over with their scythes, harvesting rice like insects taking tiny bites out of a huge golden cheese. Around each house dozens of people huddled, drinking tea, gesturing with cigarettes. There were brick kilns and charcoal racks and primitive sawmills. The effect was like that of a pre-industrial landscape by Breughel, in which each plane is filled with people engaged in dozens of activities, all centered on the agricultural pattern of plowing, planting, and harvest. In our hurtling car we were on some linear mission, but beyond us the world was revolving around something else—a cycle of history, always repeated, seldom changing, the harvest of life deeply rooted in the harvest of rice.

It was peaceful, bucolic. But it brought back less peaceful memories. I could close my eyes and see tracers coming at me; could hear the crack of rifles, the booming of artillery, the velvet thong of an incoming mortar. And I could smell all those odors of war— gunpowder, excrement, fear. Soldiers on the highway wore the same uniforms as the NVA regulars had worn when we did our best to kill each other. When I saw them, I had to struggle with the impulse to flee, to take cover. For a brief moment I wanted a weapon.

It seemed incredible that this backward place could have taken those boys riding placidly on the backs of water buffalo and made them anti-aircraft gunners and platoon commanders, could have organized them to build and maintain a vast logistic network across more than 3,500 miles of trackless mountains and jungle, could have found ways to defeat every new technological weapon we developed. It simply didn't compute. In combat the North Vietnamese troops had seemed so motivated, as if history were riding on their shoulders. But this pastoral, timeless landscape that nurtured them seemed outside of history. Nothing, I thought, ever happens here.

Hanoi is a city built by foreigners. and it appears deceptively familiar. Its wide streets and low pink-stucco buildings with tile roofs and green shutters give Hanoi the look of a sleepy French provincial town. It is like a city of the plain—low, brooding, a large town really, nothing like a capital. The streets are clean, but there is a sense of crumbling, as if Hanoi's layer in some future archaeological dig were already prepared and the city were settling into it as fast as was seemly. Almost nothing remains of the ancient Vietnamese city, known as the Rising Dragon, and since the French left, in 1954, little seems to have been added. Visiting Hanoi is like coming upon an ancient city where the race that built it has vanished and another race inhabits the ruins. The Vietnamese themselves seem foreigners here; they have the air of people wearing someone else's clothes.

My hotel was the Thong Shat, the Reunification Hotel, which under the French was the Metropole, the jewel of Hanoi. Its elevators have long since quit, and the plaster is cracked and peeling. The bar sells Russian wine, champagne, and vodka, as well as Heineken and Coke. The prices of souvenirs in the window displays are listed only in dollars, an example of how the dollar has conquered Vietnam. The hotel had a special cashier, known among the guests as Madame Dollar, who handled American currency. Whenever I paid in dollars anywhere in Vietnam, there would be an interlude during which each bill was subjected to intense scrutiny; if it had the slightest nick or mark, it was rejected. The bills that passed muster were entered by serial number in a special book. I half expected them to be carried away on a silk cushion.

On my first morning in Hanoi I went to the Foreign Press Center, which is housed in an old French villa not far from the hotel. I entered through the back gate; two women were squatting on the ground, cooking over a small charcoal brazier, and a chicken wandered, pecking among the cobblestones. In a reception room with high ceilings, French doors, and a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh, I met the men who would coordinate the details of my visit. Duong Minh is the acting director of the Foreign Press Center. A man in his late forties, he is a smooth and efficient diplomat with a wry sense of humor and a masterly command of English idiom. I also met Nguyen Van Thuan, one of Duong Minh's senior aides, who was to do the complicated advance work on my travels in the North. Thuan was a regular soldier during the war, and was seriously wounded in a B-52 strike. He asked me where I had fought, and when I told him, he squinted and a sly smile crossed his face. "I thought I recognized you," he said, pointing at me in mock surprise.

Tien, the young man with a shy, formal manner who had met me at the airport, was serving an apprenticeship at the press center. He was to be my assistant guide. I was introduced to Lo Luong Minh, my guide and translator, who was to be with me throughout the trip and who would more than earn his meager 280 dong (about $1.20 at the black-market exchange rate) a month. Minh turned out to be a good traveling companion—a man well versed in political philosophy and also a poet and a hopeless romantic. On long drives he would recite his poetry to me ("My love is like the bamboo tree . . ."), or recount Vietnamese folk tales and legends, or discuss passages from various American political memoirs that pertained to Vietnam. He had spent five years at Vietnam's embassy in Canada. "I have seen all the West has to offer," he told me. "All the material progress, all the consumer goods, the way of life. But my heart is in my village and my country. I would never think of being anywhere else. My father nor keeps the family altar. When he dies, as the eldest son I will keep it, I will light the candles, I will observe the feast days. I am a Communist, but I am also Vietnamese."

That afternoon Tien took me to the military museum, where we watched a marvelous sand-table re-enactment of the battle of Dienbienphu: artillery thundered, planes took off and landed, a ring of red lights advanced inexorably on the French, and, finally, a Viet Minh flag popped up over the French headquarters. I was sitting next to a delegation of Cubans, so the narration was in Spanish. The Vietnamese officer escorting the Cubans was very nervous about my being there, but he relaxed as soon as Tien took a few of my American cigarettes and gave them to him. I was quickly learning how Vietnam worked.

Later we went to the Hanoi art museum. Virtually all of the art is rooted in the wars of Vietnam—the dau tranh, or struggle, that defines the Vietnamese as a nation. War is not an aberration; it is their central experience. They struggle, therefore they exist. I was struck by one painting, a depiction of an early patriot being tortured by Chinese soldiers. They have surrounded him and are piercing his body with a dozen lances. But he lies on his side, smiling, oblivious of the pain. The theme of martyrdom is everywhere. The pantheon of Vietnam is filled with heroes who were tortured, dismembered, and executed for the fatherland. The Vietnamese are intensely conscious of the atrocities committed against them; there are even "atrocity museums," not unlike the Holocaust memorials in Jerusalem and Dachau, filled with photographs of Vietnamese maimed and killed during the war. "We have suffered much," Tien told me as I gazed at the painting—but he smiled when he said it.

I had expected Hanoi to have the devastated look of East Berlin in the 1950s. But the only visible damage was from decay and neglect. And so I asked to visit some of the areas that had been most heavily bombed. We set off in a black Russian Volga—the driver apologized for being unable to bring the Toyota. We drove to Kham Thien Street, which supposedly had been obliterated by B-52s during the Christmas bombing of 1972. We drove up and dot n the street looking for the monument to the bombing, but only after asking many vendors and shopkeepers did we learn where it was. The street itself is like every other busy street in Hanoi; there is nothing to show it was ever bombed.

Our next stop was Bach Mai hospital, which for years has been on the visitors' circuit. Jane Fonda was there after it was bombed, and my hosts proudly displayed pictures of her standing in the rubble. I spoke with Dr. Tran Do Trinh, the deputy director of the hospital, a kindly, competent-looking man. "It was the night before Christmas in 1972," Dr. Trinh told me. "Most of the hospital had been evacuated, but about two hundred and fifty of us were still here. We lived and worked in the basement under the cardiology building. I was teaching a class about mitral stenosis when we heard the anti-aircraft guns begin to fire and then the terrible noise of the B-52 bombs coming toward us like thunder I kept lecturing—there was nothing else to do—and the students were taking notes when the bombs hit. The whole shelter collapsed. The living were mixed in with the dead. We had to break through the rubble that covered the entrances with our bare hands to remove the wounded. It tool; almost two weeks to extricate all the dead, and the smell of bodies filled the hospital. Three of the students in my lecture were killed." He shrugged. "But war is war. We must go on."

I spent some time touring the hospital. The doctors were particularly proud of some new ultrasound machinery from the Netherlands. "We found the first three cases of left-atrial myxoma in Vietnam with this machine," one doctor said. But to a casual visitor the benefits of medical technology seemed woefully uneven. A few exotic heart diseases were being diagnosed, but there was no blood in the refrigerator in the lab. The patients lay, some of them two to a bed, in their own clothes. Several pieces of simple equipment stood dusty and inoperable. "For two hours each day the power goes out," one doctor told me. "That's bad enough, but what's worse is we never know which two hours. It could be any time—right in the middle of surgery." The hospital was a paradigm of Vietnam: a place of stoic suffering and maddening bureaucracy, where almost nothing works—except the people, and they work incredibly hard. How, I kept thinking, did they run the war?

Many American advocates of air power believe that we failed because we did not bomb enough, that we needlessly limited our bombing (for example, the MiG airfields were off limits until 1967), that we allowed the North Vietnamese to believe that they had survived the worst punishment we could deliver. Wayne W. Thompson. who is writing the official Air Force history of the air war over North Vietnam, told me that if we had sent B52s against Hanoi in 1965, instead of waiting until the Christmas bombing of 1972, "their will to fight could have seriously been crippled." This argument is supported by the POWs who reported that their captors were panicked by the Christmas bombing. Certainly, it has its advocates among the men who fought the air war, who believe they were forced to take great risks, under complex restrictions, for dubious ends. But the argument has one basic flaw: whatever the price of winning the war—twenty more years of fighting, another million dead, the destruction of Hanoi—the North Vietnamese were willing to pay it.

American officers and military historians insist that the Christmas bombing hit "the same old targets" on the outskirts of Hanoi. According to Thompson, "B52s are less accurate than the fighter bombers we had used before. With the heavy flak and the SAMs coming up at them, they could be considerably off target; it's a great credit to the B-52 crews that there were as few civilian casualties as there were. The Vietnamese say they had about twelve hundred dead. From what I have discovered, that seems about right. And that figure proves our point, not theirs. Just one of those B-52 raids could have killed thousands of civilians, if that had been our goal. We could have firebombed, we could have hit the center of the city. If we had wanted to destroy Hanoi, we could have wiped it out."

Having been to Hanoi, I believe he is right—the city itself was practically untouched. But the detached way in which Americans discuss the air war comes from having dropped the bombs; the Vietnamese have a very different view. To them, the B-52 was not simply a bigger and more terrible bomber; it was like the death star, flying so high and so fast as to be beyond sight, beyond hearing, beyond humanity. It attacked without warning. One moment all was peaceful; the next the ground erupted as if the very earth were exploding. To endure a B-52 attack was the ultimate experience of the war. To have been wounded by a B-52 was a special badge of honor. Over and over people volunteered the story of the time they were hit by a B-52; it was the one moment they would never forget. "The first time we shot down a B-52," a general told me, "was during the Christmas bombing. It was an occasion of great celebration throughout the country." The most popular exhibit at the war museum in Hanoi is the wreckage of a B-52 that lies in the courtyard beneath a MiG-17. Children gather around it throughout the day, staring, as if transfixed by the body of a slain beast.

Early one morning we left Hanoi for the Red River Delta, the agricultural heart of the North, a densely populated area south of Hanoi which was bombed frequently during the war. In the hotel restaurant I pondered what to have for breakfast. One of the waitresses gave me a small example of how a Vietnamese views the principle of consumer choice.

"Today, pho," she said—pho being noodle soup.

"Okay," I said. "I'll have pho and maybe an omelet."

"No omelet. Pho."

"Okay, I'll have pho and toast."

"No toast. Pho, " she said.

"Okay, I think I'll just have pho."

"You want pho, then?"

"Uh, yeah, pho sounds great."

After a big bowl of pho we were on our way out of Hanoi, past the railroad yards with their museum-piece engines and railroad cars, across the venerable steel spans of the Paul Doumer Bridge, which stretches more than a mile across the Red River and was one of the most famous targets of the war. I asked Minh how badly we had hit it.

"You bombed it many times. You even knocked out a couple of spans. But usually we had it repaired within a few weeks—or else we just used a pontoon bridge. No problem. "

We inched over the bridge behind bicycles and pedestrians, the old women loping along with fifty or a hundred pounds of banana leaves, vegetables, or charcoal on poles over their shoulders. There is another bridge being built; it was started years ago by the Chinese and then, after the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979, was taken over by the Russians. It is years behind schedule. "It will be finished this year," Minh said proudly. There were no workers to be seen anywhere. The bridge looked like an ancient ruin. Not in our lifetime, I thought.

Nam Dinh, a provincial capital in the Red River Delta, is a textile town of about 200,000 people. During the war it was an obligatory stop for people like Harrison Salisbury and Tom Hayden, who were brought here to wring their hands over the effects of American bombing. I was to meet with the People's Committee, whose headquarters were in the old French administrative offices. I was escorted to a room with red walls and a large chrome bust of Ho Chi Minh. On the table were a white tablecloth and red flowers, along with a teacup at each place, and a bowl of fruit. The members of the People's Committee took their seats, opposite me, and the meeting began with the customary formality of exchanging cigarettes. They offered Dienbienphus and Flying A's from Laos. I offered Salems I had bought in Bangkok, solely because they were the favorite cigarette of South Vietnamese soldiers. They accepted the Salems only out of politeness. The cigarette of choice in the North is 555, a British make popularly believed to have been Ho Chi Minh's favorite brand.

There were two men and one woman, who was described as having compiled information on "U.S. war crimes." These had been methodically divided into two files—"the crimes of the LBJ period" and "the crimes of the Nixon period." The files looked worn, as if they had received a great deal of use. One of the men began to read from the LBJ file. "During this period Nam Dinh was bombed a hundred and seventy-eight times, including seventy-tow night raids. Sixty percent of the houses were destroyed." Then he went on to describe particular raids, for example: "On April 14, 1966, there was a raid against Hang Thao Street at six-thirty in the morning. The children were getting ready for school. Many of them were among the forty-nine people killed; two hundred and forty homes were destroyed." I asked if there had been a military target nearby. They smiled and said no, nothing, you can see for yourself.

Then they showed me photographs, each carefully labeled. I saw pictures of a woman crying over dead children, of a priest being pulled from the rubble of a church, of a destroyed school, of people digging in the wreckage.

The woman on the committee had been sitting quietly. Her hair was pulled back; her face was drawn and sad. She began to discuss the Nixon period: "This was worse than before. On June 12, 1972, we had the largest raid on Nam Dinh—twenty-four planes attacked at three P.M. They dropped a hundred and two bombs. Many people died." I asked how she knew it was precisely 102 bombs; weren't they hard to count? "We kept careful records," she replied. I asked her opinion on why we had bombed here. "The Americans would bomb whenever they saw lights or crowds or any sign of life. There were no military targets. It was just psychological. They destroyed dormitories, schools, kindergartens, hospitals."

As it happens, Nam Dinh was not quite the helpless provincial town inexplicably attacked by American bombers that my hosts portrayed. "If Nam Dinh was so innocent," one former American pilot said to me later, "how come it lit up like a Christmas tree every time we flew over it?" In Siam Dinh there were gasoline storage tanks, textile plants, heavy equipment, and some of the most powerful anti-aircraft batteries outside of Hanoi and Haiphong. And the Vietnamese were fighting total war: they were not naive or overly scrupulous. American pilots tell innumerable stories of bombing runs that missed their targets and by mistake struck schools or dormitories, which then blew up with huge secondary explosions—the Vietnamese had kept their ammunition there. Also, I would not be surprised if an American pilot, after long periods of being shot at from prohibited targets, had one day just decided that he was tired of seeing his buddies get shot down by anti-aircraft guns on the roof of a hospital, or from SAM sites parked next to a church. And the bombs—understandably, in the pilots' view, this being a war—would fall, just as they fell on the monastery at Monte Cassino when the Germans put a gun emplacement in its shadow during the Second World War.

My hosts brushed these points aside. "We would not have had anti-aircraft sites if you had not been bombing us," one of the officials said. "We were not attacking your planes on their carriers. You were attacking us. We had to protect ourselves."

"You know," the vice-president of the People's Committee said, "we were bombed so much people began to be bored with it. The siren would go off and we wouldn't want to get out of bed or leave the table and go into the shelter. Not again, we'd think. Not down into that hole again." The woman resumed her litany of bombings, of families killed, of children mutilated. The vice-president interrupted. "When you fight, you must have hatred. Whenever we needed someone for a dangerous mission or if in the South we needed a suicide fighter, we had to hold elections, because so many people wanted to sacrifice for the fatherland. When we were bombed, the best time to shoot down the planes was when they dove, but it was also the most dangerous. It took hatred to keep us out there, our fingers on the trigger, as the jets came in with their guns blazing."

Whenever I asked what it was like to be out in the open, firing at the diving planes, I was told that it was terrifying but necessary; but when I kept probing, I usually discovered that the men and women who had done it had in truth loved it—it was a great sport, like shooting human skeet. They talked about shooting down American planes with a sort of childlike wonder about why the American pilots kept flying into their flak and their SAMs. There was admiration in their voices, but pity, too.

The next day we drove to another of the stops on Harrison Salisbury's 1966 trip, Phat Diem, one of the bishoprics of North Vietnam and the site of its most famous church. Along the road we passed women working on the railroad bed. Their faces were wreathed in checked scarves. They worked two to a shovel. One held the handle and filled the shovel; the other lifted it with a rope tied to the blade. Up, down, up, down, like metronomes, they dug. They were still at it, holding the same rhythm, when I returned, eight hours later. I passed a long line of bicycles, each loaded with five huge sacks of rice. One pole had been attached to the seat and another to the handlebars, so that a man walking alongside could steer. The men were moving with a rolling, steady gait. I his is how they built the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I thought; this is how they repaired the bombing damage. and this is how they moved all those supplies south—bit by bit, shovel by shovel.

At Phat Diem I was introduced to the vice-president of its People's Committee, the redoubtable Mrs. Yu Thi Que. She was dressed simply, in black trousers and a white shirt, her hair pulled back with a ribbon. She is a beautiful woman in her forties, typically formal and earnest, but with a trace of a smile underneath. During the war her husband was away, fighting in the South, for nine years. She received one letter from him. "That seems like a long time," I said. "Everyone did it," she replied, with a shrug. We had tea and rice wine and grapefruit while she told me about Phat Diem.

"We were bombed fiercely from 1965 to 1968, and again in 1972. We don't have a siren, like in Nam Dinh. We had only a bell in a tower. I can still hear it ringing, ringing, ringing. They tried to hit the transportation systems at first, but never did. Instead they bombed the marketplace, pagodas, schools, neighborhoods. And then in 1972 they bombed the church and the monastery. Many people were killed here."

The main church is Oriental in architecture, as if pagodas had been dropped onto the towers of a Gothic church. It is some 250 feet long, built in the nineteenth century from local wood. The pillars were carved from massive trees; the altar is gold and bears pictures of missionaries' and priests, most of them French. Mrs. Que pointed out the damaged areas. "This was bombed August 15, 1972. The entire west wall was destroyed. So were three of the convents behind, and two of the schools." I could not tell, except by some slight change in the shade of the stones around the church, that it had ever been bombed. The nearby chapels and other churches are a different story. They stand roofless, the steel skeletons of their rafters exposed to the sky. Walls are in rubble. It looks like Coventry. It was the only place in four weeks where I could actually see the effects of bombing.

As we were about to leave Phat Diem, an older man, who had been silent throughout the visit, spoke up. "I was in the war," he said. "I was wounded twice at Dong Ha." He pulled up his trouser leg to show me the scar on his leg, and then pulled up his shirt to exhibit a long scar on his back.

"How were the American soldiers?" I asked, expecting the usual answer—that we fought bravely but in the wrong cause.

He looked at me, knowing I had fought near where he was wounded. "Not good. Not good. They were afraid to leave their base, their helicopters, their artillery. They weren't brave."

Only the night before, I had felt guilt about the bombing of Nam Dinh, had in fact apologized, for all the good it would do. But at this moment I felt something entirely different. Got you, though, didn't we? I said to myself.


Hanoi wakes up to a little music-box tune played on the loudspeaker. When I went running at 6:00 A.M., the park around the Lake of the Returned Sword, in the center of the city, was filled with people doing their morning exercises. Old couples swatted badminton birdies back and forth, men did tai chi, and runners circled the lake. My running shoes were of intense interest, since the Vietnamese were jogging in shower shoes, tennis shoes, or bare feet. I was constantly stopped, so that my watch, my clothes, and my running shoes could be examined. Some young men playing soccer invited me to come and play, which I did. After twenty minutes we took a break and one of them asked me, in English, "What is your nationality?" I bent down, in the stooped posture that came to seem natural in a world where almost no one was taller than my shoulder, and told him I was an American. His face relaxed and he smiled broadly. "Number one," he said.

The most useful phrase of Vietnamese that I learned, the one that brought smiles and affection and opened doors for me everywhere, was "Khong phai Lien Xo"—"I am not a Russian." At a small cafe near the lake in Hanoi two sullen Eastern Europeans were numbly pouring brandy from a paper sack into their coffee. The place was packed with bo doi, young Vietnamese soldiers in the uniform of my old enemies. "Lien Xo," a soldier next to me said to his friend, gesturing at me in disgust.

"Khong phai Lien Xo, " I said.

"East German?" the soldier asked in Vietnamese, suspiciously.

"No, I'm an American," I replied in Vietnamese. At once his and his friend's eyes lit up and their faces broke out in big grins. The soldiers bought me drinks and insisted that I try on their helmets and caps with the red stars on them. Over and over they kept saying, "America, Number One—Russia, Number Ten." "American, tot!" (Good!). "Tot lam!" (Very good!) Similar scenes happened almost daily. In Hue I met a young man who had lived for six years in Moscow as a student and was part of the Communist Party elite. After giving me the familiar Party line, he changed the subject and began asking me about "this singer named Michael Jackson." After all those years in the Soviet Union didn't he prefer Russian music? He made a face and turned up Laura Branigan. "This is music," he said.

On one memorable evening a group of Russian tourists ate in silence while my driver played my tape of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. I called him over and suggested that he turn the tape down.

"They're Russians," I said.

"You're right," he replied, and turned the tape up as loud as it would go.

After dinner the Russians danced awkwardly to the single most popular tape in North Vietnam, Disco Hits of 1980. The next morning, Sunday, they had to endure breakfast while the waitresses played an American gospel program on Voice of America. I never ceased to find their immersion in American culture in the heart of Vietnam amusing, but the fact that their own culture does not travel well makes the Russians palatable allies for countries afraid of the attractions of the West. Pham Van Dong, the prime minister, need not worry that the alliance with the Soviets will end up tempting his faithful flock to stray from its old values; no one, after all, is going to start wearing Russian fashions, listening to Russian music, or adopting the Russian way of life.

But after the North, with Russian aid, conquered the South, a strange thing happened: the South, with its Western culture and consumer society, began to transform the North. And though we lost the war, our culture is clearly winning. At the official bookstores in Hanoi there are thousands of books in Russian, which no one seems to buy. The few books in English are snapped up at once, and sold for high prices on the black market. Anything American is highly prized, particularly clothes. I gave a government worker in Hanoi a black LA Raiders T-shirt, and for two days he wore it to work.

The old men in the politburo carry in their hearts a nostalgic vision of a country that during the war was a pure culture. Through the long years of war no foreign music was allowed, no clothes were seen except black trousers and white shirts and army uniforms, and no one had anything to speak of. Everyone suffered together, and suffered for a goal that everyone could understand. When Ho Chi Minh said that nothing was more precious than independence and freedom, he clearly meant to include motorcycles, blue jeans, and tape recorders. But when one young man in a village or a neighborhood gets a motorcycle, and when one girl gets a pair of jeans and some makeup, then that idyllic world where one is for all and all for one and everyone suffers together is on its way to the dustbin .

Two weeks after I arrived was the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the liberation of Hanoi from the French. There were performances of traditional and popular music, speeches, a parade (for which the French ambassador, rather sportingly, I thought, stood at attention, wearing a special medal issued for the occasion), fireworks, and a concert in Lenin Park. At the concert most of the singers were tentative and wooden, but at the end a group came out with long hair and sharp outfits. The lead singer had a modest version of Mick Jagger's moves down. The audience sat in rapt silence. I went backstage after the concert and discovered what I should have known—the first groups were from Hanoi, the last group was from Saigon. At another concert, when the rock music was over, a group began to play patriotic music. The crowd got up and left. It reminded me of what must surely be the worst of the politburo's fears—it reminded me of America. Of such events are moral majorities and cultural resolutions made.

In the Western press the divisions in the Vietnamese leadership are customarily referred to as between the ideologues and the pragmatists, and the phrase almost exclusively refers to matters of economics—the pragmatists want more individual incentive, the ideologues want less or none. But these battles are also being fought in culture, in the area of values. And America is going to be much more difficult to defeat in this battle than we were in the others: our clothes, our language, our movies, and our music—our way of life—are far more powerful than our bombs. We represent something else now—we represent a future that many Vietnamese want, and that everyone, from the Communist Party leader, Le Duan, to the simplest peasant, knows the Russians cannot give him.

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