The rain sheeted down, time washed away. I looked down from the rooftop in Saigon where, more than a generation ago, in the wake of the longest war of modern times, I had watched silent, sullen streets awash. The foreigners were gone, at last. Through the mist, like little phantoms, four children ran into view, their arms outstretched. They circled and weaved and dived; and one of them fell down, feigning death. They were bombers.
This was not unusual, for there is no place like Vietnam. Within my lifetime, Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists had fought and expelled the French, whose tree-lined boulevards, pink-washed villas and scaled-down replica of the Paris Opera, were facades for plunder and cruelty; then the Japanese, with whom the French colons collaborated; then the British who sought to reinstall the French; then the Americans, with whom Ho had repeatedly tried to forge an alliance against China; then Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, who attacked from the west; and finally the Chinese who, with a vengeful nod from Washington, came down from the north. All of them were seen off at immeasurable cost.
I walked down into the rain and followed the children through a labyrinth to the Young Flower School, an orphanage. A teacher hurriedly assembled a small choir and I was greeted with a burst of singing. “What are the words of the song?” I asked Tran, whose father was a GI. He looked gravely at the floor, as nine-year-olds do, before reciting words that left my interpreter shaking her head. “Planes come no more”, she repeated, “do not weep for those just born … the human being is evergreen”.
The year was 1978. Vietnam was then being punished for seeing off the last American helicopter gunship, the war’s creation, the last B52 with its ladders of bombs silhouetted against the flash of their carnage, the last C-130s that had dumped, the US Senate was told, “a quantity of toxic chemical amounting to six pounds per head of population, destroying much of the ecosystem and causing a “foetal catastrophe”, the last of a psychosis that made village after village a murder scene.
And when it was all over on May Day, 1975, Hollywood began its long celebration of the invaders as victims, the standard purgative, while revenge was policy. Vietnam was classified as “Category Z” in Washington, which imposed the draconian Trading with the Enemy Act from the First World War. This ensured that even Oxfam America was barred from sending humanitarian aid. Allies pitched in. One of Margaret Thatcher’s first acts on coming to power in 1979 was to persuade the European Community to halt its regular shipments of food and milk to Vietnamese children. According to the World Health Organisation, a third of all infants under five so deteriorated following the milk ban that the majority of them were stunted or likely to be. Almost none of this was news in the west.
Austerity, grief at the millions dead or missing and an incredulity that the war was no more became the rhythms of life in a forgotten country. The “democracy” the Americans had invented and life-supported in the south, which once accounted for half of Amnesty’s worldwide toll of tortured political prisoners, had collapsed almost overnight. The roads out of Saigon became vistas of abandoned boots and uniforms. “When I heard that it was over,” said Thieu Thi Tao Madeleine, “my heart flies”.
Still wearing the black of the National Liberation Front, which the Americans called the Vietcong, she walked with a limp and winced as she smiled. The “Madeleine” was added by her French teachers at the Lycee in Saigon which she and her sister Thieu Thi Tan Danielle had attended in the 60s. Aged 16 and 13, “Mado” and “Dany” were recruited by the NLF to blow up the Saigon regime’s national intelligence headquarters, where torture was conducted under tutelage of the CIA.
On the eve of their mission they were betrayed and seized as they cycled home from school. When Mado refused to hand over NLF names, she was strung upside down and electrocuted, her head held in a bucket of water. They were then “disappeared” to Con Son Island, where they were shackled in “tiger cages”: cells so small they could not stand; quick lime and excreta were thrown on them from above. At the age of 16, Dany etched their defiance on the wall: “Notre bonjour a nos chers at cheres caramades.” The words are still there.
The other day, I returned to Vietnam, whose agony I reported for almost a decade. A poem was waiting in my room in the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. Typed in English, it was a “heartfelt prayer” for “the stones [of life] getting soft”, and ended with, “I’m still living, struggling … please phone.” It was Mado, though I prefer her Vietnamese name, Tao. We had lost touch; I knew of her work at the Institute if Ecology, her marriage to another NLF soldier and the birth of a son against all the odds of the damage done to her in the tiger cages.
Through the throng of tourists and businessmen in the Caravelle lobby navigated diminutive Dany, now 57. Tao was waiting in a taxi outside. Five years ago, Tao suffered a stroke and lost the use of her voice and much of her body, but these have now returned and although she needs to take your arm, she is really no different from when she told me her heart “flies”. We drove past the sentinels of the new Vietnam, the hotels and apartment blocks under construction, then turned into a lane where wood smoke rose and children peered and frogs leapt in the beam of our headlights.
The walls of Tao’s home are a proud montage of struggle and painful gain: she and Dany at the Lycee Marie Curie; the collected exhortations of Ho; the letters of comrades long gone. It all seemed, at first, like flowers preserved between the pages of a forgotten book. But no: these here the very icons and inspirations of resistance that new generations must recreate all over again, for while battlegrounds change, the enemy does not. “Each time we are invaded,” she said, “we fight them off. At the same time we fight to keep our soul. Isn’t that the lesson of Vietnam and of history?”
I was once told a poignant story by a Frenchman who was in Hanoi during the Christmas 1972 bombing. “I took shelter in the museum of history,” he said, “and there, working by candlelight, with the B52s overhead, were young men and women earnestly trying to copy as many bronzes and sculptures as they could. They told me, ‘Even if the originals are destroyed, something will remain and our roots will be protected’.”