“I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam. That a woman’s voice can drug you? That everything is so intense, the colours, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you are looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. But the rest has got to be lived.
The smell, that’s the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat. Your shirt is straight away a rag. You can hardly remember your name, or what you came to escape from. But at night there is a breeze. The river is beautiful. You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war, that the gunshots were fireworks, that only pleasure matters. A pipe of opium, or the touch of a girl that might tell you she loves you.
And then something happens, as you knew it would, and nothing can ever be the same again.” – The Quiet American (movie)
I walk among My Son’s ruins that whisper of ancient beliefs and not so ancient ambitions, and I think of all that is destructive and terrible; I think of all the violence and rage; of all the numbness that humanity can behold knotted into the distilled power of a bullet or a bomb. How easy it is to pull the trigger or press a red button and wipe out 10 centuries of devotion and labor. It took the Champa Kingdom just as much to build the red brick sanctuary of My Son, only for it to turn into a graveyard of corpses, fighting for a colossal strategic blunder and humanitarian disaster.
It is not the best way to start an article about a place of which you’d say you love.
I love Vietnam.
The post-war disenchantment, though, is interwoven in the ambience of most sites I have visited to that moment. Turning your back to it, is only an act of ignorance. Most of the countries I have been to have had their times of war but there is something about Vietnam that makes me think of it beyond “Oh, so this cave is where the soldiers were hiding? Fun fact. Next.” Something powerful, which beyond the constant reminder of the swastika symbol, disperses invisibly in the air like radiation and infects your thoughts.
You can see the swastika symbol everywhere you go—on buildings, statues, even Buddha’s chest. Far from our association with Hitler, here it means—long life and happiness. (note: Hitler and copyrights!)
When I asked a local about the war, he looked at me with a blank face and said:
From never-ending ancient wars to modern-day ones, Vietnam’s succession of conflicts has been on a roller-coaster ride. I am no historian, but from all I’ve learned about the Vietnamese War (or the American, as some would refer to it here) a few things stood out for me. Beyond the facts and the blurs, one could say that the Vietnamese war marks the birth certificate of media power.
“It’s the first war we’ve ever fought on the television screen and the first war that our country fought where the media had full reign.” – General William Westmoreland, commander of US military operations in the Vietnamese War
“Do not fear the enemy for they can only take your life; fear the media, for they will destroy your honour.”—N.V.A. commander
Sometimes war is regarded as the bastard of religious disputes, though we all know that well-behind the red curtains stained with blood, there always hides the lust for power beyond any belief. Surely, war affects society, culture and religion. It fascinated me to find out the Vietnamese war impacted the percentage of Buddhists in the county, which declined from 65% (before the war) to 13% (after). Dramatic! It is the free fall of faith.
Vietnamese people behold a dense range of beliefs (the country is a melting pot of religions), Buddhism being the mode. I’ve always thought that one of the superpowers of religion was to offer refuge in times of war. The rituals and togetherness create some strange sensation of comfort and control when things get out of hands. It gives hope.
Now I see things otherwise.
“Why do you think people abandoned their faith after/during the war?” – I ask.
“People pray. Do rituals. But nothing. Massacre. People lose faith.”, as simple as that.
(The quote refers to the My Lai massacre when U.S. troops murdered hundreds of unarmed women and children during the Vietnamese war.)
It is much like being pissed at a friend who doesn’t pick up the phone when you need them the most. You may get through that rough patch using the magic of conversation and language, but when there is no conversation, forgiveness is rare.
(No Martini, no party!)
Marvel the marble
Still, for those who pay their respects to the gods, the five limestone peaks of the Marble mountains hold a deep spiritual significance. The cave-like formations are home to numerous temples, pagodas and shrines that date back to the area’s first Hindu Cham settlers. I was mostly fascinated by the statues of ancient ‘Go’ masters and the unbelievable similarity of the holes in the ceiling of the main cave (the one where soldiers were hiding) with that of those in Prohodna cave in Bulgaria.
Despite the brutality of the lethal conflicts, Vietnamese people are warm and peaceful. They are hard-working, honourable and welcoming. They don’t smile like the Thai, whose grin can end up at the other end of the spectrum and turn into a grimace. I thought I wake up early (5.30) but here by that time in the morning the neighbourhood is already fuelled with life.
There is also something terribly peaceful about Vietnam.
About the morning light that lingers over the fields of herbs. And all those hands that gather in a uniform tact—not too hasty, with precision.
The rain that pours down to wash away the oppressive heat. One that sticks like a shield which envelopes daily life beyond the fortress of air-con facilities.
The rolling wheels of my bicycle on the heated pavement.
There is something peaceful in the way Hoi An’s ancient town is ablaze with a perennial yellow. Decorated with the cuteness of lanterns – colourful, yet far from the Orient’s kitsch.
Calmness orchestrates the vibrations of the air as my favourite violin concerto pours out from the old town’s speakers. It is the perfect soundtrack for an evening stroll.
There is something peaceful in the contours of the days, when the evening invites all the locals on their small plastic chairs to sit on the side walk and play games.
There is even something peaceful about the way people turn left here. A calm arch which enters the trajectory of the oncoming traffic. Yes, initially, you freak out! Eventually, you give into the new flow and become part of it.
Tucked in the middle, between the North and the South, on the border of what were once clashing sides, I am yet to discover whether the notion “as above, so below” is relevant here.