“The unravelling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind.”
—Vladimir Nabokov, in a self- review of his own memoir, Speak, Memory
In 1995, just before U.S. rapprochement, my friend Frenchy and I traveled together to Vietnam, each with our own stated reasons. On the 25th anniversary of our trip, I have been re-reading the journal I kept and wondering what the trip was really about.
• • •
My father, who was faculty in the Vocational Technology Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, was assigned to Vietnam for a USAID mission, as he would be later to Afghanistan. My mother was a schoolteacher. They and my two half-sisters moved to Vietnam late in 1961, and I was born 18 months later in a French clinic in Saigon, on Ho Chi Minh’s birthday.
By that time there were 16,000 American military personnel in Vietnam; 200 had been killed. As the violence escalated in 1963, we returned to the States, just before the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm. The plan was to go back to Saigon for a second tour, but we never did due to the war, the subsequent embargo, and the dissolution of my family. My mother kept the beauty of Vietnam and its people vivid before my eyes, like a sandalwood-scented dream.
• • •
Frenchy was the NCO in Charge of the U.S. Army Dive Detachment at Fort Eustis, Virginia, when I showed up there in the mid-’80s, a young military diver still wet behind the ears. He had done two tours in Vietnam, as a helicopter crew chief for the Special Forces, before he became a deep-sea diver. He saw my paperwork before he saw me and was surprised and amused I was not Vietnamese.
With President Clinton about to normalize relations, we wanted to see the country before everything changed yet again.
I liked and respected him, so when he asked if I wanted to be on a team he was taking to open a new detachment in the Republic of Panama, I extended my enlistment. When I got out of the service we lost touch for a while, but after that became close friends. In 1994 we started making plans to go to Vietnam, since 1995 would be the 20th anniversary of the end of the war and of the country’s reunification. With President Clinton about to normalize relations, we wanted to see the country before everything changed yet again. More importantly, I think both of us wanted to face it.
• • •
Face what? I never really say in my journal.
Whatever it was, I took it very seriously indeed. I read more history and news, bought too many things (including a well-stocked medical bag with needles and syringes, a water purifier, and a backpack that allowed me to carry too much weight), and had my doctor give me the recommended battery of shots and a prescription for mefloquine, for malaria. I cleared my desk at work so a temp could fill in while I was gone, but I had the strong feeling I might not come back.
• • •
There was no official diplomatic Vietnamese presence in the United States then. Frenchy was still active-duty U.S. military, and my having Saigon on my birth certificate might have been expected to raise questions on both sides. But we got our visas. We left December 27, 1994, and travelled for a month, to Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat, Nha Trang, Danang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Hai Phong, Ha Long Bay, and back to Ho Chi Minh City, by commercial jet, turboprop, hard-berth train, minibus, car, motorcycle, scooter, bicycles, boats big and small, and on foot.
• • •
A monk in a Buddhist temple in Dalat, a popular mountain town, asked me, “Excuse me, what is your job?” He had been an ARVN lieutenant and learned his English from an American military advisor, whom he told us he loved very much, on the border of Cambodia, about the time I was born. After the war he spent three years in a re-education camp. When he finally got home his father was dead, and he, his wife, and children all became monks and a nun.
“I’m in advertising,” I said. He looked at me blankly, so I said, “Writer.”
“Ah! Writer? For book?”
I was embarrassed. I would have loved to have published books but had written only short stories in college and now was an advertising copywriter. I felt like a fraud keeping a journal and carrying a voice recorder on the trip, but Frenchy encouraged me by being a character and by never scoffing or showing impatience when I took time to jot or mutter notes.
My journal is in two parts. The first half is entries I wrote when we were transiting, waiting for a meal, having a drink to kill time, or getting ready to sleep. The second half is my handwritten transcriptions, once we got home, of daily recordings.
Because I did not always understand what I was seeing, or what was worth writing down, the journal lists where we stayed, at what cost, and the transportation we took to get there. (I may have been angling to be a Lonely Planet writer.) It describes first encounters of food I know well now. Beautiful views are reduced to prose, explanations of temples taken from signs, expert evaluations made of Vietnamese infrastructure.
I did not understand travel’s rhythms then—how, having seen all the local sights, and fatigued by hours of walking, we might find ourselves bored, stranded, with nowhere else to be, like characters in a Chekhov story.
It contains easy pickings, in terms of travel writing, such as awkward translations on menus—“Nutritious Gruel”—and how there was a dogfight in the same restaurant. It captures us being goofy a lot. When we exchanged $100 in currency we laughed ourselves silly over becoming đồng millionaires.
Business cards in some restaurant are noted, belying that we were among the first Westerners to return to Vietnam: Paul Cleveland, VP and General Manager, California Division of Urban Industries; Thomas Easton, Tokyo Bureau Chief, Baltimore Sun; Yves Barbier, Malay-Hennesey Asia Ltd.; Ken Olshansky, Comedy Central Director, Development.
In some entries I try on Frenchy’s voice, outlook, and sense of humor as if they were mine.
I did not understand travel’s rhythms then—how, having seen all the local sights, and fatigued by hours of walking, we might find ourselves bored, stranded, with nowhere else to be, like characters in a Chekhov story. I note the glare of sun on water, the clack of stones in the surf, the abandoned villas near the French pillbox filled with shit on the empty beach, but say little about the meaning of dead hours.
There are the impressions of cultural and historical sights now available on Google Image, of meals (the bowl of beautiful fat yellow noodles in broth with shrimp and crab, $1), mildly-uncomfortable travel, beer we did not really want, drunken laughter, stories we told about what was not in front of us, books started and put down, books finished, postcards written to remind others we still existed. Much of that seems now a record of avoidance, or proof the trip itself was both engagement and deferral.
I mention offhandedly that a disc in my back ruptured on the very first night in Saigon, but I was in such pain I did not write the emotional content—how afraid I was that I had ruined the trip for us both, that I might need surgery in Vietnam, or that I took so many thousands of units of army ibuprofen, in an attempt to mask the problem, that it could have been fatal.
But there are also entries to offer some hope for my prospects as a writer, if only because they look outward.
• • •
The two men who drove us to Montagnard villages in the Central Highlands, an hour-and-a-half on the backs of their 50cc scooters, were knowledgeable and spoke at least three languages. One had been mentioned in the New York Times. They showed us the article.
One of the guides had been a high-school French teacher before the war. The other had degrees in biochemistry and psychology but was not allowed to practice after 1975. Both made it a point to say they had not had to go to a re-education camp. When I asked what year the camps closed, one pointed to prisoners doing roadwork and said they still existed.
We wound down the mountain on their little scooters, past rice paddies where children rode water buffaloes to thresh grains from stalks. A Taiwanese company took the stalks after harvest and made straw houses from them, where they grew mushrooms in the sawdust of rubber trees. A field of gladioli for Tet grew nearby.
When I asked what year the camps closed, one pointed to prisoners doing roadwork and said they still existed.
About 100 Protestant Chill people lived in the first village. They had built thin-sliced log homes and subsisted on slash-and-burn farming, chopping out trees and growing manioc. They moved on after three years, one of our guides said. The village children yelled, “No!” when we tried to take photos. Their chief asked us repeatedly for eye medicine. Across the road was a tomato farm run by a company from Hong Kong.
In the second village the people made moonshine, grew robusta and moka coffee and cotton, and weaved intricate fabrics on looms. They had been part of the Strategic Hamlets Program during the war. We were invited into a house, where corn was hung to dry from the straw thatching. A woman nursed a baby on a narrow bed in the smoke from a fire. She had ten children. Gourds held water; a crossbow was propped next to a bicycle; a cat drank from a puddle.
The village was crowded; it was a celebration. Many had come from other villages, our guides said, some a day’s walk or more, for a man’s 70th birthday. (One of the guides was confused by their dialect at first and thought it was a wake.) A man chopped bloody meat for the party in a long tray in the dirt, as a puppy ate from it, wagging its tail.
Two young men in army uniforms walked up behind us with assault rifles. Our guide asked where they were stationed. They replied, “Kampuchea,” and our guide cracked up because, he said, that was meant to be a big secret. He said they were FULRO fighters, who were not supposed to exist anymore. He laughed and covered his teeth with his hand.
• • •
We were in a café eating soup. A little girl and an even littler girl were begging from the doorway.
“Hello, what is your name?” the older one called.
She came in and started playing around with Frenchy’s hat. She wanted to try it on. He thought that was cute and laughed as she put it on her head. She ran off through the crowd with it and came back, twice. He took her picture both times, and she squealed. He tried to get her to sing a song.
“Give me money,” she said.
“I’ll give you hell and call it money,” he teased. He was going to give her money but something changed his mind. She was at it until we had to leave.
As we walked away from the café, through the crowded square, she followed at a run and kept jumping and trying to grab Frenchy’s hat. He did nothing. People were watching now. She was so excited that she was laughing and crying as she jumped up and down, grabbing for his hat, and fell once. She finally snatched the hat off his head and ran. As she passed, I took hold of it. We tugged grimly. Finally a man yelled at her and she ran off. It was a bad scene.
• • •
We were in a bank one morning, waiting for a teller. A Brit, a young man we had seen elsewhere on the trip, came to change money. He and I talked, then he disappeared. I thought he had left the bank. There was a crash and the sound of glass shards hitting the floor, and when I spun I saw he had gone to sit down on a glass coffee table, and it had shattered. He struggled out of the frame and shards, and his hand was sliced open all the way across the palm, like a crimson wisdom line. He ran out the door, crying in pain. A few minutes he was back, staggering, dripping blood, looking faint. He had tried to find a doctor but was grimacing and denouncing Vietnamese medical care.
A squad of policemen arrived and led him out of the bank. “Uh oh, the local politburo,” Frenchy said. They had the Brit standing in front of the bank and were shouting at him. It seemed they were saying he had to pay for the table before he could go anywhere. He refused to do whatever it was they wanted, and they got shrill, and he was screaming. Frenchy and I finished our business and slunk out the back door with our money.
There was a crash and the sound of glass shards hitting the floor, and when I spun I saw he had gone to sit down on a glass coffee table, and it had shattered. He struggled out of the frame and shards, and his hand was sliced open all the way across the palm, like a crimson wisdom line.
Frenchy lamented we could not help him, but the butterfly bandages were in my pack in the room and would do no good anyway. We had no sutures, and he probably had tendon or nerve damage, he said.
We left to go have frogs’ legs at the restaurant named for the Catholic nunnery. A boy on a scooter shouted fuck you as we walked in. The place was empty, and we sat on the water. Emperor Bảo Đại’s palace was up the hill, and across the lake the fire department was watering the fairway of the new golf course with their hoses. We started laughing and could not stop. Frenchy’s unit had flown in and out of the town in the war. They used the school’s soccer pitch to land the Hueys. He saw a man gunned down in the market. The restaurant still did not take plastic—no one did yet—and Frenchy whipped out his VISA, Mastercard, and an AT&T phone card.
“Roll out the barrel, I think I’m going to like this place,” he shouted to the confused waiter. His hair was crazy in the wind.
• • •
In these and a few other places in the journal—call them “Fragments from the Postcolonial”—I feel as if I was starting to do it. Still, I was missing whatever it was that would have allowed me to tie them together and make general observations that held up. The material never became a book. After revisiting all those painstakingly handwritten words, I think I finally have an inkling of what the “it” was that needed facing.
• • •
I thought by going to Vietnam I might die—maybe in an accident, maybe by jumping off a bridge. What can I say? I do not believe I have been seriously depressed, but I had been through a divorce then, had money problems, and felt the weight of lost time and a deadening of spirit. The mefloquine made some users anxious, panicked, depressed, or psychotic, so there was that.
My mother, angry with me once when I was young, told me that if the war went on long enough for me to get drafted, I might have been born and killed there too. For all the beauty we found there, the urge to make the trip itself was suffused (for me) with the idea of death.
Up to 3.5 million Vietnamese died in that war, on that landscape, as well as 58,000 Americans. I heard fragments of the news, growing up. My mother, angry with me once when I was young, told me that if the war went on long enough for me to get drafted, I might have been born and killed there too. For all the beauty we found there, the urge to make the trip itself was suffused (for me) with the idea of death.
But don’t other travelers feel this when they go anywhere ambitious, with little support? I have always said, as a diver, that every water entry is a suicide; once you take that first step, you are no longer the person you were. The same could be said of every page of the right book.
No, if I were writing it now, I would try to get at what was behind or below death on that trip. Whatever it was is still the thing to be faced.
• • •
Defining the Beast is difficult. It is not Churchill’s “Black Dog,” which some reduce to a diagnosis, but which he also expressed as a common sentiment:
I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.
Self-awareness plays a role, since without it everything simply is. The water buffalo feels terror in the tiger’s attack but likely does not berate himself for not taking a different path, or feel humiliation as his fellows watch him go down. As far as we know, he does not search the woods for the tiger.
The Beast is not enforced solitude or loneliness, though facing it might access those things.
The water buffalo feels terror in the tiger’s attack but likely does not berate himself for not taking a different path, or feel humiliation as his fellows watch him go down. As far as we know, he does not search the woods for the tiger.
In some lecture halls, the Beast is called complexity: the incomprehensible forces and apparently infinite expanse of totality, insoluble as sugar crystals in the cold water of the mind.
But everything is not the all of it. The Beast is also the mystery of the holy spirit, the something instead of nothing, the many somethings instead of one. You watch the Beast but may become aware of the Beast watching back, ready to drop you and try a different form if it becomes disappointed in its investment.
For a writer the Beast is both the urge to see, no matter what that means for the integrity of the human urn, and the urge to get a little peace and quiet for a change.
• • •
My friendship with Frenchy, our trip to Vietnam, even the journal I kept, changed my life. After that trip I found and met my father, who had left after my family’s return from Saigon. I went to graduate school, for writing. I changed careers. I wrote more confidently.
And yet, the Beast has merely hidden in different caves. I (often with Frenchy) have traveled to Lithuania, Russia, Standing Rock, Japan. Once, the two of us drove a long way to see a writer I admired, when I was supposed to be at a conference where I knew there would be no beasties at all.