Reunification Express

Reunification Express, 1994

Somewhere miles out
of Saigon
north even of Phan Rang
and Nha Trang
eating sticky white rice
spooned from red plastic
laundry tubs
you’d swear the riders
of the purple sage
were hiding in a box canyon
a kind of hot tumbleweed
dryness with prickly pears
pretending to be
overlapping green roof tiles,
sheltering some
deeper resemblance to the
cowboy warrior’s home range,
a dun-blue sky as big as the
over the Badlands
on a persistent wind afternoon
broken by furrowed trees old
before their time,
stands of slender
silver-mottled rubber trees
slip by
warning even those
lost in train time
bound for the Hai Van Pass
that the time of heroes
is past
is past
is past.

Constance Lee Menefee

After Saigon, we were never obviously surveilled. Of course, it was easy to keep track of us in Da Nang. We were staying in a hotel run by the local police. My hotel room was next to a common room in which two Vietnamese men were cheerfully ensconced the day we arrived by train from Saigon.

I made several trips to my room, each time I went passed they raised their beer bottles and saluted me. Finally, they gestured me to sit with them. They acted as if they did not speak English, although they seemed to understand English. OK, I can play this game. I used my phrase book and pointed to questions, as well as asked them in English.

The two were having a fine time. Fried frog legs arrived. They wanted to know why I was in Vietnam. And who were those men I was traveling with? The sliced cucumbers arrived. And were they veterans of the war? My bottle of beer arrived. I told them who and why. I was persistent about asking what they did for a living. Finally, amid much hilarity, the one who was clearly in charge, showed me his official ID card. Police, he said, laughing. VC number 10!

I wondered what etiquette called for under these circumstances. So, I shrugged my shoulders and said, VC number 10; VC number 1. That seemed to tickle them. Of course, they were getting pickled and urged me to drink more. I demurred. Finally, I excused myself and promised I would re-join them the next evening. I had not been in Vietnam more than four days, but I was not surprised when I never saw either of them again. I was catching on.

Da Nang Street
Da Nang Street: Constance Lee Menefee

Da Nang is a blue-collar town. People work for a living here - fewer foreigners in suits and a more relaxed feeling. I enjoyed walking the streets and smiling and waving at people. There was a wonderful park that cost only 10 cents to go in. Sanctuary.

Park Bench
Bench in Da Nang Park: Constance Lee Menefee

Into the countryside

Riding down Highway 1, through the countryside villages that hug the only road as if desperate not to be left behind, I watch the thatch and tile-roofed huts wink into evening life with oil lamps. Twilight whisked past, and darkness fell disconcertingly fast.

The villages, each organized into several hamlets, have been the basic unit of Vietnamese society for centuries. The rhythm of life follows natural cycles of planting and harvesting. The village elders hold sway. Life follows ancient patterns that still are in evidence.

As we drove through some villages, I saw the pallid glow of  fluorescent tube lights hung in the middle of a few huts - it must seem like great progress to have steady, unwinking light to work by in the relative cool of night. Once in a while, my eye was caught by that distinctive square shape with black and white moving shadows. A monochrome starlight scope? No, television in the countryside. The world has penetrated the village, a far cry from the old days, when it was said that the emperor’s rule stopped at the village gate.

Prosperity has trickled into the countryside to some extent. I saw new, red brick houses, reinforced with bamboo poles, in almost all the villages; although wood, bamboo and straw were still the most common building materials.

Rural homes are open. Wide windows permit  passersby to see most of the interior. As we passed by in the night, a warmth grew in me from these intimate glimpses into the hearth. More than once, I wondered how it must have felt to patrol down the paths, past the bamboo hedgerows and see the families around their evening meal. How far from home our young soldiers must have felt. What contradictory emotions did these night patrols through hamlets evoke?

The Vietnamese manage to do extraordinarily well with minimal resources. The meal that this kitchen produced was unforgettable.


Not for the faint of heart

The lack of modern amenities was tolerable to us spoiled Americans since we were merely passing through for a few weeks. Toilet facilities covered the full range: a bush and no hole; a proper hole with a short plastic sheet hung between two twigs (I am not sure what it was supposed to obscure since no vital anatomy was hidden by it - I guess it was so the user couldn’t see who was watching, thus not be embarrassed); a hole with two cement footprints in a thatched hut; and real flush toilets sometimes.

Train toilets deserve a special mention: they required agility unless one wanted to be exposed through the flapping door. A window with bars looked out on the passing countryside. Slightly off to one side, two footprints and a hole that went straight to the tracks. I wear long, loose skirts to travel in just for this kind of situation. The floor was always damp with urine and I needed both hands - one to hold on the window with and the other to brace the door shut. Oh yes, there was a latch, but it allowed the door to flap open 10 inches every time the train jolted. Which was every 10 inches. My skirt tucked nicely under an elbow.

The living and the dead

In the countryside, cemeteries are a striking landscape feature. We go past white, blue and, orange-crested tombs. The Vietnamese custom of ancestor-worship produces a more seamless relationship between the living and the dead then Americans are accustomed to, or even comfortable with. Ancient Buddhist graves resembling gray, weathered four-poster beds with buried legs appeared willy-nilly in fields or near villages.

A Very Bad Day In September sky in the morning,
sailors take warning,
soldiers, too,
before the day runs out,
first molten then
clotting the moment
forever behind your eyes;
in a climate of havoc
no footprints
left behind
from a day toothed
like elephant grass
blades skirting
gray stone
four-poster graves
half sunk beds of eternal rest
for Buddhist bones.

Constance Lee Menefee

Prominent monuments erected by the Communist Champs let us know that this war cost ally and enemy alike.

The Khai Dinh tomb is one of several royal burial places of the Nguyen Dynasty (the final dynasty) near Hue. I saw a small, grubby sign on one of the statues that had "Do Not Touch" in Russian. Although the Russians spent time and money in Vietnam, the signs were all in Vietnamese, English, and French. This was the only Russian I saw. Interesting.

This reminds me of a rueful summary I heard: First, the French came to Vietnam and brought civilization; then, the Americans came and brought money; then, the Russians came and brought nothing! Although the Chinese weren't mentioned in the series, they ought to be: First, the Chinese came and brought rice cultivation and poetry....and bureaucracy...

The sand flats visible from the Emperor Khai Dinh’s tomb were the site of mass graves discovered after Hue City was regained from Communists in February 1968. As many as 3,000 citizens from Hue were killed or buried alive by the Communists during their 21 day occupation. How difficult it is to get past these events.

waiting until history
bites its own scaly tale
and the gate-crashers
must be turned-out
Vietnam is a cultural anthropologist’s wet dream. The intermingling of ancient Chinese culture, one hundred years of French colonialism, and the relatively recent, concentrated infusion of American words, gadgets, and fashion has created a nation leaping from the late 19th century into the 21st century.

Threads of French and Chinese influence are tightly woven into the present Vietnamese streetscape and inner life. The strong influence of Chinese politics and culture has been a source of discontent and open rebellion for hundreds of  years. It has also formed the underpinnings of traditional Vietnamese life and culture. At best, it is an uneasy truce. Stamping their mark forever, the French romanized the Vietnamese written language. To me, that has always seemed a greater insult than any amount of evangelizing done by missionaries. Language is so integral to one’s culture.

The Vietnamese take pride in their ancient heritage. They have proven efficient at absorbing foreign cultures without losing national identity. The massed legions of  businesses eager to tame the newest Asian dragon are a new challenge, more powerful, perhaps, than all the Chinese armies defeated by a series of national heroes. The language of money may finally unravel traditional Vietnamese culture.

The ever present French architecture and courtyards belie a complex set of religious and political beliefs that are unmistakably Vietnamese. The precepts of Confucianism still are an important force shaping the social system. Taoism, Buddhism, and ancestor worship are evident in many aspects of daily life, especially in rural areas. The majority of Vietnam's population is still tied to the land. When dealing with forces of nature like monsoons, it makes sense to have lots of deities to entreaty!

The  addition of Catholicism in the 16th century added to the potent brew that sometimes bubbles up Eastern and sometimes Western, but always Vietnamese - a complex stew of pride, persistence, gentleness, ambition, brutality, jealously, and sentimentality.

The Quiet American paints the Indochina picture: peek-a-boo in a cloud of opium smoke, the soft underbelly of romance, passion, greed, despair, duty, honor, and country meeting the inexorable steel of well-intentioned, misguided American foreign policy. Americans being only one in a line of foreign powers that have tried to subdue Vietnam and, instead, were subsumed by it.

I could see how easily one could be pulled deeper and deeper into the frog legs and beer and amusement. We linear Americans cannot sense the potential menace in the laughter.

Our hearts are drawn to what appears to be simplicity of life. The flowing lines of black-haired Vietnamese girls in their ao dai. Loping lines of children in white shirts and dark trousers, red young pioneer ties around each neck, walking along the dikes. Catching quick meals from charcoal braziers curbside, mama sans smiling black lacquered teeth, deft over the coals.

The hospitality was almost inexorable. I found myself marveling at the tyranny of politeness. The power of ceremony and jasmine tea. We see only the surface, of course. It has always been that way.

Lang Co: Constance Lee Menefee

So inveigling is the land of the ascending dragon many succumb to the indefinable longing for Vietnam the French call le jaune mal. Yellow fever.

Sufferers are unable to find true happiness anywhere but in Vietnam. And even those who escape - inoculated against a full-fledged case of the fever because they have real, satisfying lives back at home - still are called back to Vietnam. Mysteriously sliding under the skin, it is impossible to shake Vietnam off.

Time doesn’t diminish the tugging. Thoughts drift off unexpectedly - certain incense drives straight into my brain and nails me right to the wall.

Years after my trip, I find myself longing to return to Vietnam. There are several places in downtown Cincinnati, next to restaurants, where I catch myself thousands of miles away. Some mixture of smoke and spices and the feel of soft, warm air just catches me by the throat and drags me away.

No matter how hard I fight it, it happens.

For now, THE END 

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Constance Lee Menefee
Copyright 2000