Hanoi, Vietnam – February 16, 2018
It is Larry’s second trip to Vietnam, if you don’t count the first one.
Larry did not spend his recent 70th birthday here. He did spend his 18th, 19th, and 20th birthdays here, on that first trip, the one he doesn’t count.
It is my first trip to Vietnam, and it is New Year’s Day, the beginning of Tet, a holiday known to Americans mostly because of the eponymous battle fought in this country exactly 50 years ago. The Viet Cong sacked Saigon, then, including the American Embassy, Hue, and other major cities in an attack that stunned both the American and South Vietnamese. In response, the B-52s of the U.S. Air Force bombed the cities into shards.
“It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it,” U.S. Major Peter Arnett said.
Tens of thousands of combatants on both sides died in the fighting. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the bombing. Hundreds of thousands lost everything.
That was Larry’s first trip.
This Tet is not like that Tet. It is quiet in the streets this morning, the, perhaps, one day of the year when Vietnamese get up late, having celebrated late into the night after fireworks marked the beginning of the new year. Houses were cleaned, debts were settled, rice wine was swallowed. Even the police partied. Shortly after midnight a patrol had pulled up in front of my hostel, shouted some things at the foreigners smoking out front, shot a tube of confetti, threw the spent tube out the back of the truck, and drove off, leaving the cannon and the rainbow river of sparkling paper lying in the lane.
So this morning is quiet. The coffee shops and pho stands mostly keep their shutters down and only a few motorbikes hum through the alleys. At Hoan Kiem lake, just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, people stroll across the aching stretch of red wood that links the shore to the temple island. I stand up from trying to snatch their likenesses from the morning mist.
“Did you get a good one?” someone behind me asks in American. And there Larry is, gray ponytail fluttering, smile tucked behind the points of his mustache. He is leaning on a shiny wooden cane.
We talk first, of course, about the weather, which in Hanoi is much warmer than it is his home in Juneau, Alaska, which itself is much warmer than it used to be. The snowblower he and his friend bought this year, well, they’ve only used it once. These days, the rain gets to the snow before he can. Larry’s wife, 16 years his junior, thinks that’s funny. She’s a workaholic executive in Juneau, and Larry knows the time difference by heart so he can text her every morning from Hanoi to chide her that it’s time to get out of the office.
Larry’s wife wanted to go to Africa this year, but Larry said he’s too old now to run away from rhinos.
“Where do you want to go?” she’d asked.
“I think I want to find the perfect bowl of pho,” he said.
And so he’s back in Vietnam, this time by himself, rather than with his wife and rather than with an army of other American boys.
The first time Larry came to Hanoi, about a decade ago, he’d gotten the shakes. He never planned to come Vietnam, not ever again after that uncounted first time. His wife had been planning a trip to Thailand with a jaunt into Vietnam and he’d stay in Thailand and wait, but then plans changed. The trip would be all Vietnam, instead.
Ah, what the hell, he’d thought and decided to go along. Then, as the plane descended into Hanoi the shaking started. He almost couldn’t get off the plane.
“I knew they’d hate me, after what we’d done to them,” he said.
The airport in Hanoi reeks of confusion and frustration, knots of foreigners trying to sort out their visas. It was worse 10 years ago, Larry says. He milled around trying to understand the chaos when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned.
The vomit green uniform, topped with that red star hat, hadn’t changed much since the the last time Larry was here. The AK-47 slung across the man’s shoulder hadn’t changed much, either. Larry wanted to turn the floor the color of the uniform.
“Passport,” the man with the gun said. Larry knew what was going to happen. He handed it over with a trembling hand.
“American,” the man said. It wasn’t a question. “Come with me.”
This was it, Larry, thought as he followed. This was a big, big mistake. The soldier led Larry to the front of the immigration queue. As he passed, people bowed.
“American,” they said, smiling. It wasn’t a question.
Something was different about Vietnam, Larry realized. It was a realizations he’s come to again and again.
One thing hadn’t changed, though: the smell.
“As soon as I stepped out of the cab into the Old Quarter, bam, I was right back. It smelled the same,” Larry said. “There something about that olfactory memory, it never goes away.”
The smell. Hanoi is a city of things in millions: people, food stalls, motorbikes. A dash of cinnamon and anise, a slab roasting beef and onions, a plate of fresh herbs, a liter of gasoline. Mix it together and let it simmer, like the broth of the city’s most famous dish, and you get the smell.
It pervades the Old Quarter, as if the raucous, twisting alleyways were one giant pho stall during the lunchtime rush.
“If I didn’t have a wife, I’d never leave,” Larry says.
He loves that food stall more than anywhere on earth — and seen the earth he has — so much so that in the last few days he’s walked it back and forth until he couldn’t walk anymore. Bad hip, he says nodding sideways. Hence the new cane.
“Do things when you have the chance, that way when you can’t do them any more, you won’t regret it,” he says, then mimes picking up a pail of water with the hand that isn’t resting on the cane. “When people ask me what’s on my bucket list I say ‘My bucket’s already pretty full.’ I’ll tell you another thing: Don’t go to the grave healthy and safe; go screaming up to the edge, tip right in and say ‘That was a hell of a ride.'”
These days Larry doesn’t do much screaming, though, and that’s OK. He’s content to spend his mornings walking the lake, looking for students, who are always happy to practice their English and teach him more about Vietnam. Sometimes he heads into the Old Quarter searching for that perfect bowl of pho, and sometimes strolls the French Quarter to sip on the country’s famed coffee — strong and sweet, often with condensed milk — and gaze up at the jarring Hanoi skyline.
In Hanoi’s dynastic days, the crown levied property taxes based on the width of the storefront. So the vendors and homeowners built “tube houses”, narrow and really long, like gigantic square pipes. In recent decades Hanoi’s tube houses have also shot skyward, some as many as seven or eight stories, and have tacked on facades that look vaguely French, Chinese or both.
The result is a city that looks as if someone handed a toddler a set of Lego’s designed by a cocaine-addled, out-of-work architect with delusions of artistic grandeur and let the child go to town.
Larry’s made a lot of friends already on his two trips to Hanoi, even if some of his conversations happen only in pantomime. He’s going out to a village with one friend next week (he hopes someone will speak a bit of English to avoid one really long game of charades), and the hotel staff even asks him to watch the desk while they run errands.
“I’m not just a tourist anymore,” he says. “I came down this morning and they said ‘No one eats alone on New Year’s Day,'” he says. He shared their New Year’s breakfast. In a country whose culture very much still revolves around the Confucian centrality of family, there’s not much higher honor.
Through his chats next to the lake, Larry no longer fears how people will react when they learn he’s American and that once, that uncounted time he came to Vietnam, he came here to kill.
“They say ‘Nobody cares anymore; that was our grandparents.’,” Larry says, then laughs. “But I’m the grandparent!”
So they know, Larry says, the grandparents know.
Next week he’s arranged a meeting with a few of those grandparents — Vietnamese veterans of the American War — to talk. I don’t ask Larry what they will talk about. I’m not sure he knows. I do know he wants them to understand the fear he felt during that first trip to Vietnam in 1965 and the fear he felt on what he sees as his first trip 50 years later. I think that he wants, somehow, through shared experience communicated in gestures and translators, to try to atone for something.
“They kicked our asses,” Larry says, and I add the French and the Chinese to his list while he nods. “When I got back, I started reading about Ho Chi Minh. I probably read everything he wrote. We were wrong. Ho Chi Minh is a hero. For a country that is supposed to be about freedom and democracy, when they asked for it, we wouldn’t even let them have it.”
Because Larry is still trying to understand how the people of this country could embrace him the way they have even after what he and his country did to them.
“I was 20 years old when I left this place,” Larry says. “There aren’t too many of us left. When I walk around here and I see someone my age and they see me, we just know.”