Soon, Im posing with half a platoon of Vietnamese soldiers with our arms over each others shoulders in a grip & grin shot. Theyre all smiling from ear-to-ear. Its an eerie feeling, because a generation ago, these kids would have been mortal enemies of the gringo in their midst.
But bygones are bygones over a war that ended in 1973. Despite my recent gripe over a lack of Americans in Asia, I see former U.S. soldiers visiting Hanoi and being treated with respect by the locals. If anything, the Vietnamese seem bored with us. For the young Vietnamese, the American War is ancient history. For American soldiers, its a stroll down a bloody Memory Lane.
Not that the Vietnamese have forgotten the war. The Museum of Fine Arts has many propaganda oil paintings of soldiers struggling against the American aggressors (sample painting: The Enemy Burned My Village). And there are also paintings of peasants enjoying the fruits of communism, painted after the war when 3 million Vietnamese starved to death despite being one of the most fertile countries on earth. Those tough times prompted the communists to reinstate free market principles, and in 1995, full diplomatic relations were restored with the U.S. Our first ambassador, Douglas Pete Peterson, had been a POW here.
Speaking of which, I visited the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison where Peterson and Sen. John McCain were held for six years or more during the war. Built by the French in 1896, Hoa Lin Prison was used to imprison Vietnamese rebels. The French subjected the Vietnamese to horrible tortures. Then, ironically, the French were held and tortured in their own prison by the Japanese during World War II, and then by their former Vietnamese subjects when they lost control of the country in 1954. That legacy of torture and abuse was handed down to U.S. airmen who were held here -- captives taken from more than 3,000 warplanes which were shot down over 10 years of war.
There are also many museums around the city devoted to the war and the revolution. The Army History Museum is a regular Disneyland of Destruction, full of dismal relics and photos.
The museum yard is filled with captured U.S. planes, helicopters, tanks and other weapons. Included is the wreckage of a B-52 Stratofortress bomber, piled up in a tattered pyramid. A helmet with 20 bullet holes through it testifies to the savagery of the destruction of the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. There are somber American and French citizens here, reflecting on the past. Me too. If you wish to be enlightened on the madness and futility of war, Vietnam is the place to get your overdose.
But today, Hanoi is a fairly happy city, full of coffeeshops, 3 million motorbikes, and old French colonial buildings. Heres the latest from the Paris of the Orient.
-- I saw a roast dog in the market today, glazed with a sugary red sauce with its canines curling from under its cooked lips. Nearby, a cage of mid-sized dogs cowered on the sidewalk, awaiting their fate. Dog is usually only eaten by men on certain ceremonial days determined by the lunar calendar. Different portions are eaten for virility, long life, blood-thinning and other nutty notions.
-- Traffickers also sell children in Vietnam, illegally, of course. Boys are used to sell flowers, postcards and books out on the street corners, often until the early hours of the morning. They can bring in $700 per week to their owners. Girls are sold as household slaves and worse. Often, poor families in the country are conned into giving their children up to traffickers with the claim that they will be adopted by foreigners, or find a better life in the city.
-- There are still human reminders of the American War: an old man figured my bill with a pen strapped to the stub of his right arm. Both of his arms were blown off below the elbow during the war. There are many amputees on the streets here.
-- Ive unleashed my inner dragon on two occasions so far with taxi drivers trying to rip me off. In the latest, I handed a guy a 50,000 dong bill and he flipped it for a 10,000 bill which looks much the same. A fearsome roar on my part put him in his place.
-- Speaking of money: things are cheap in Vietnam. A huge lunch at a small cafe included shrimp rolls, stir-fried beef and noodles, pineapple upside-down cake, coffee and Pepsi for $4. Plus, French film star Catherine Deneuve used to hang out here. A liter of premium beer goes for as little as 30 cents.
-- Nothing separates the men from the boys like a shot of snake whiskey. This is rotgut booze with a dead cobra packed in the bottle, sometimes with a scorpion tossed in for spice...
-- Whats that terrible smell? Oh, pardon me. You take a shower every chance you get and wash your hands 20 times a day when traveling, but your clothes get nasty in no time, traveling on the dirty buses, trains and cabs. Oh well, Im setting off on a journey of 1,000 miles down the length of Vietnam and my laundry will have to wait...