Going back to Vietnam

My story on the phenomenon of Vietnam War tourism and US veterans who return to visit the places they once fought ran yesterday in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, although not in their online edition. Today is the anniversary of the Saigon airlift. Here's the pre-translation original:

On the telephone, Mr. Vu speaks English with a clipped, military precision, quickly dispensing with the logistics of the next day’s excursion. “Do you need to visit Khe San?” he asks. “No? Fine. Just to confirm: the driver will pick you at 10:15 in Hue and bring you here to Dong Ha, where you will collect me and drive up into the DMZ.” Mr. Vu sounds like the real deal, a veteran of the Vietnam war; it is almost like the planning of a tactical assault. Mr. Vu is one of the very best, but there are many people in and around the ancient Imperial City of Hue who do what he does. Vu is a DMZ tour guide who takes visitors and Vietnamese alike on customized trips through the many notorious locales dotted along the former border between North and South Vietnam.

Replica of the "Peace Bridge"

Demilitarized zone tourism is a thriving business in Hue, something that would be impossible if the wounds were still fresh. The savage conflict that unfolded here is quickly receding into the fog, not of war, but of distant memory. Overwhelmingly youthful, the population of Vietnam seems focused on the future and the country's bustling, Chinese-style economy, while America is deeply mired in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that have defined war in the present millennium. In the inevitable comparisons the lessons of Vietnam would seem to have been forgotten; for most, the war has become history. But not for the veterans who fought here.

Along the esplanade on the north bank of the Perfume River, near the gates of the famed Hue Citadel, street vendors hawk used dogtags, the steel identity badges all GIs wore around their necks, listing their name, blood type and religious affiliation. Apparently authentic, they are lined up on a low stone wall along with other knick-knacks: North Vietnamese medals, Soviet-style enameled communist friendship pins, and antique Chinese porcelain. Not far away, behind the ancient and imposing walls of the old city, stand rows of tanks and US artillery seized by the North in the conflict known only here as The American War. Dozens of agencies dotting the tourist quarter of the city offer tours to the DMZ. Options range from an inexpensive day in a bus full of other travelers to the kind of individual tailored experience Mr. Vu offers, on which former servicemen can seek out the particular places that were of personal significance to them forty and more years ago.

 Inside the Vinh Moc tunnels, where North Vietnamese lived underground on the edge of the DMZ in order to avoid American bombs. The network of burrows is now a showcase bit of propaganda intended to underline the resilience of the outgunned but ultimately victorious North.

Mr. Vu, it turns out, is 34 years old, born in 1976, the year after the Saigon airlift. He is extraordinarily knowledgeable. He knows which branches of the US forces served where, and when, and which regiments were involved in which conflicts. On the drive to the preposterously named “Peace Bridge,” across the Ben Hai River, Vu pulls out a binder full of maps and Life Magazine photographs showing the landscape as it appeared in the late 1960s. The tranquil but dreary rice paddies stretched out on either side of the 17th parallel appear in them as a cratered, lunar devastation, like a heavily polka-dotted carpet.

It is gray, and raining, and peasants are driving their water buffalo along the muddy banks above the paddies. There is almost nothing left to indicate that the DMZ was the scene of some of the war’s heaviest fighting. The southern half of Quang Tri province, below the Ben Hai, was the first area in the south to fall, and the area to the north, Mr. Vu says, was the most heavily bombed of all.

Replica of the battle-scarred and bullet-holed loudspeakers used by both sides to broadcast opposing ideologies across the Ben Hai River.

In many ways, this is a simulated experience. The Peace Bridge is a copy, right down to the guard booths at each end and the towering columns of gunmetal gray loudspeakers, non-working replicas of the ones which used to face-off, broadcasting competing propaganda across the river in an incessant, deafening battle of volume. All this was bombed to splinters; these reproductions have only been here for the last ten years or so, Mr. Vu says, to satisfy the tourist demand. Why, a visitor wonders, do so many people want to see the DMZ?

“Most of my clients,” he says, “are in their 40s and 50s. Khe San, Hamburger Hill, the DMZ, these places are familiar to them from books and movies.” DMZ tourism has gotten lots of free publicity from Hollywood. Nonetheless, the phenomenon began with Vietnam veterans in 1991, the moment the US eased travel restrictions that had prevented its citizens from visiting the country. “So many of them are my clients,” says Mr. Vu. He estimates that in 1999, when he began giving tours, 30% of those he guided had seen active duty in Vietnam, and still today at least one in ten are veterans.

Mr. Vu with artillery shells, carefully repainted with the identifying codes and letters of US ordnance of the period.

Rob Allerheiligen, who was a First Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps in 1969, at Monkey Mountain outside of Danang, wrote in an email that “I think I always thought I would come back some day.” He spent a day in 2010 with Mr. Vu. “Even though I had not been stationed at any of the sites we visited, I had friends who were, and I have read enough about Marine Operations…to know what I was looking at and to be impressed at what those Marines accomplished there.” He says he experienced a “funny feeling” landing at Danang almost 41 years to the day after he deployed. “There was a flutter in my stomach and an increase in my heartbeat.”

Glenn Prentice experienced the siege of Khe San on the notorious hill 881S as a forward artillery observer, one of only 17 out of 350 Marines there who was neither killed nor wounded. In 1995 he felt “overtaken by an overwhelming urge to go back to Vietnam,” and returned on his own to the hilltop scene of his youthful trauma; the siege began on his 19th birthday, in 1968. “You come back with guilt that you survived,” he says. But the sense of obligation he feels as a survivor seems not only to extend to his fellow American servicemen; after making friends with a North Vietnamese colonel who had fought at Khe San as his enemy, he collaborated on building a water treatment plant in a village near Hue, and since his unlikely friend's death he has helped the man's daughter with her college expenses. “I promised I would take care of his family,” Prentice says.

“When you have so many traumatic events, and when you are so young, they are basically permanently imprinted in you,” he says. “You need to go back, because at times it feels surreal.” He has now returned 14 times since his first revisit, and helps other veterans who aren't sure how, or whether, they can manage the trip. Their reactions “run the whole gamut,” he says. “Sadness, depression, relief.”

“They are very quiet, and don't really want to share,” says Mr. Vu, barreling back towards Hue in a minivan through the misty rice paddies of today's utterly transformed Vietnam. “They're very emotional. I don't know why.”


New York Times solves Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge Hindu Conundrum

A couple of years ago, after stumbling upon countless yards of cheap saffron and scarlet "silk," ruined, rotting offerings, washed-up floats and soggy bunting littering the pebbly beaches of eastern Queens, I blogged about the evident use of Jamaica Bay for an unspecified Hindu ritual. Finally, the New York Times explains. Broad Channel, apparently, is New York City's answer to the mighty Ganges.


Cosmic Slop: The Gumbo Movie

The inaugural meeting of the Association for the Promulgation of Gumbo was, if the co-president may permit himself to say so, a resounding success. On Thursday night, St. John Frizell and I served two subtle variations on the theme of fried chicken and sausage gumbo in the boardroom at Cabinet Magazine, along with caruru, a Brazilian okra stew. Caruru is a ritual food of the Candomblé religion, often available in Brazil from Bahiana vendors who wear pristine white cotton finery to demonstrate their religious proclivities. It is essentially a gumbo, but one made with dried shrimps and ground peanuts, and it was included on the menu in order to demonstrate the connective culinary tissue (okra fiber) linking the far-flung corners of the African slave diaspora. Staggeringly decadent and delicious pies from Four and Twenty Blackbirds rounded out the meal, and the tummies of the guests.

At the meeting, during which vast quantities of gumbo was consumed by about twenty ravenous board members, we showed the following film. According to the filmmaker, the surface of the bubbling pot of gumbo serves as a metaphor for the creation of the world and everything in it.*

I'm not only the co-president of the Assoc., I'm also a client the secretary. The minutes of the meeting are in preparation and will be posted here shortly. For the moment, please enjoy this classic of kitchen cinema.

*From a Darwinian, rather than creationist, perspective.

APG® Okra graphic ©2011 Laura Harmon; used here by permission of the artist


First loaf of the year

Impassioned bread-baking and relentless world travel seem close to incompatible. Even though I'm a purist whose bread only involves three ingredients--flour, water, and salt--I failed to find any opportunities to bake a few loaves while tramping about in the National Parks of Vietnam. Before leaving at the end of December, I had distributed samples of my sourdough starter to diverse friends, family and acquaintances in the hopes that some would survive until I returned. When I got back I had scarcely time to locate someone who hadn't killed it off (thanks, Mom!) before I departed for Haiti on a film shoot. So it wasn't until this week that I managed to fire up the oven.

Like the Sugarhill Gang said, I don't mean to brag and I don't mean to boast, but I like hot butter on my breakfast toast. Also, I like a crisp, nutty crust and an open spongy crumb, and it's just like riding a bike, apparently, because if I say so myself my first effort for 2011 is an unqualified winner. No yeast involved.

Technical details in the comments.


New York Times almost writes a sensitive article about Vodou

Dan Bilefsky's effort at a cautious, politically correct and balanced article about New York area practitioners of vodou was reading better than I might usually expect on the subject from the New York Times, until I reached the last paragraph. After framing his story around a ceremony to celebrate computer engineer Jack Laroche's ritual marriage to the lwa Ezuli Frida, such weddings being a common mode of expressing allegiance and affiliation with a particular spirit, he concludes with the non-observation that Laroche "sees no contradiction between wielding an iPhone and marrying a voodoo bride." (After all, what would those pagan pin-pushers be doing with a mobile telephone? What if you were to spill goat's blood on it?)

You don't have to have been to journalism school to know that "sees no contradiction between" is a construction that does absolutely nothing except raise the spectre of just such a contradiction. Now go back to that sentence and replace "marrying a voodoo bride" with "keeping kosher" or "lining up in church to receive the holy communion." Would Bilefsky have included those sentences in articles about the resurgence of orthodoxy in Jewish youth, or the fascinating Sunday-morning antics of hedge-fund managers?



The Social Life of Caged Birds, on PRI's "The World" UPDATED

On weekend mornings at dawn, Saigonese songbird aficionados like to bring their pets to a café in the corner of one of District One's most popular parks, where they drink coffees and teas, and chat, perhaps about birds, perhaps not. Meanwhile the birds make friends among neighbors of their own kind, at least to the extent possible while trapped in their bamboo prisons. They also do their best to out-sing one another.

I realize this is rather short notice, but my "audio postcard" about these caged-bird fanciers in Ho Chi Minh City runs on PRI's "The World" today on your local NPR affiliate. In case you missed it, I'll post a link here later, the segment is now available online at The World's website, along with a groovy slideshow of my photographs.


Reading: Imajine by Claudel Casseus

In Port au Prince, before the earthquake, living on the brink of disaster was the status quo for countless Haitians. Now, almost fifteen months after the disaster, life among the ruins is the new normal. The media tells us that half of the 1.5 million people made homeless have now returned to their former homes, or have found new ones, but wherever we drove in the capital last month it seemed that every vacant lot and public space was still crammed with tent cities. No major roads remained blocked with rubble, but I saw many buildings in a state of near-collapse, tilted and slanted, their poorly engineered concrete slabs jutting into the sky at all angles. They look, these former buildings, as if the earthquake had only happened last week.

Not so the tent cities, which are developing a sense of permanence. The once grand, open expanse of the Champ de Mars, directly in front of the as-yet still undemolished, collapsed and impotent national palace, is full of tents, some now with reinforced walls of plywood and metal. It looks as if every last rusted tin corrugation, ersatz television antenna, tattered blue polytarp and urine-stained alleyway of a Rio de Janeiro favela had been teleported here and dropped in front of the equivalent of the White House. This is no longer a refugee camp, it is a community, complete with restaurants, bars in which to gather and watch television, hair salons, hookers, fried plantain salesmen, midwives, neighbors and hoodlums. It is all too easy to imagine that unless presented with a pleasant alternative, nobody is going nowhere no time soon. At the moment neither options pleasant nor unpleasant seem to be presenting themselves, despite the hundreds (thousands?) of NGOs that have flooded the city with housing schemes, feasibility studies, risk assessments and white SUVs.

It is an unfulfilled cliché of development and aid work that the population being aided should, for best results, be consulted, involved in the process and invited to help shape its own destiny. But a recent literary project showcases, for me, just how rare it is for a Haitian perspective on the earthquake to take center stage. Imajine, by Claudel Casseus, is not a prescription for relief or reconstruction, it is a personal narrative of how one Haitian man experienced the earthquake and its aftermath. Reading it makes one realize that our comprehension of what the quake was like is based on images, and on a few quotes from traumatized citizens collected and selected by foreign reporters in the days immediately following the catastrophe. It showcases, by extension, the limitations of the very narrow lens through which we view most international events, despite the potential of the internet to bring us direct reports from those affected.

Imajine is essentially a work-for-hire, produced, enabled and published by conceptual artist and musician Bill Drummond. But the words in it are those of Claudel Casseus, perhaps a typical underemployed, eager, brilliant and sometimes desperate Haitian young man. There are many like him in Port au Prince, people with vast unrealized potential, their creative possibilities and dreams squelched by racism, borders, corruption, politics and poverty. Nobody else, however, could have written Imajine.

As a participant in the December 2009 Ghetto Biennale, Bill Drummond painted the provocative and uncomfortably prescient slogan "imagine you wake up tomorrow and music has disappeared" on a wall in the Grand Rue of Port-au-Prince. Claudel Casseus steadied the ladder for him. In the days after the earthquake, less than a month after the triumphant finale of the biennale, participating artists, now back at their homes all over the globe, set up a master list and an email network to exchange news and reports of how their newly made Haitian friends and collaborators had fared in the earthquake. Nobody knew anything of Casseus' whereabouts, nor what might have happened to him.

"Imagine you wake up tomorrow and music has disappeared."

Some two weeks later Bill Drummond's cellphone rang. Through the electronic fog he recognized Casseus' voice, but the connection was too bad and the language barrier too great for him to understand much more than the simple fact that his former ladder-holder was alive. He wondered how he could help, for surely that transatlantic telephone call represented a request for assistance. Drummond's answer to this question continues to elude many of the NGOs working in Port-au-Prince, despite its simplicity: if you want to help a Haitian in this nightmarish time, give him or her a job. Drummond proposed a work-for-hire, commissioning Casseus to write a five-thousand word account of how he had experienced the earthquake. Imajine is the result of Casseus seizing this opportunity by the horns; he spent countless hours in an internet café pouring out his memories in emails to Drummond. Ultimately, his account ran to some sixty pages.

The Grand Rue on runoff election day, March 20th.

Casseus' descriptions of the psychological effects of the earthquake demonstrate the shortcomings of journalistic accounts, so often written by observers arriving on the scene after a catastrophe has already occurred. I remember reading in various stories that Haitians were traumatized and that many "refused to set foot in any building," and that this was complicating efforts to get people to return to their homes, but I didn't really understand the emotional depth of their sentiment until I read Casseus: "It was impossible to walk by a collapsed building without having the illusion that there might be someone under the rubble screaming for help. Sometimes it might be true and sometimes it might be just a vision that got stuck in your head. If you walked by a building, you can't help but think it is about to fall down on you or that you could have been dead under there if it wasn't for the grace of God and the Spirits."

The power of Imajine lies in the raw, unpolished delivery of Casseus' memories. Typing directly into a terminal in an internet café, the author had neither the means nor the technology to review and edit his own work. He simply let the words flow onto the screen and then pressed SEND, making this book the Zapruder film of earthquake memoirs. It is full of elliptical meanderings, digressions and repetitions, none of which manage to diminish the visceral quality of the writing. Profound truths and painful observations await the reader with each turn of the page. This gives Imajine a unique mode of narrative tension; you continue to read because at almost any moment you may stumble across a surprising thought or illuminating sentence. "This tragedy made me come to the understanding that we human beings are nothing," Casseus writes early on, "and that we should make good use of our time because we do not know when we are going to die."

The deservedly proud author, Claudel Casseus, in the Grand Rue two weeks ago.

I got my copy of Imajine the best way one can acquire a book: I bought it directly from the author, who autographed it for me. It is available directly from Penkiln Burn, and also from Amazon.co.uk, but there are very few copies for sale in Haiti. I'm hoping on my next visit it will be available in every gift boutique in the airport. Ask for it, when you are there buying your duty-free rum.