It is dusk in Hanoi, and a fine mist is falling, turning the myriad of coloured lights into a haze and causing the many motor bikers to don raincoats that cover their precious bikes. The streets are full of caped B.M.X. bandits rushing to get to a pho shop or bi ha noi bar as soon as they can.
I walk along the wide gutters with Rachelle, a tri-athlete and teacher from California on a break between jobs who is travelling through south east Asia, India and Italy on her own, after meeting her in Halong bay on a junk earlier that day. Crumpled map in hand, we are hunting for the “Kangaroo Bar” where the lonely planet tells us we can get cheap tasty vegetarian fare.
After a few spins in street corners with some ensuing confusion and laughter, we find the bar, and walk in to cute smiling Vietnamese girls greeting us. Rachelle spies some men she saw at the airport and they all greet each other like old friends, as you do when western and travelling in foreign countries, united by small similarities.
We sit down at their table and proceed to have the most amazing conversation I will witness during my time in Vietnam.
There are four of them, in their fifties and sixties, grizzled, tattooed, smiling, one of them wearing the tell tale 420 T shirt of an American who smokes weed. Their names are Chuck and Gary from Oregon, Charlie from New Hampshire, and Wolf from Colorado. They begin joking with us right away with the sparkling eyes and sharp wit that I identify with the real yanks of my childhood, when I grew up in San Francisco.
On the outside these guys look like roadies, or hippies on the road to Saigon, but they are on an altogether different mission in this part of the world.
They are all Vietnam Vets.
They came here in the late sixties as teenagers, some as young as 17, to put their lives on the line for their country, to fight in a war they knew nothing about. They came with heads held high and hearts full of hope, only to go home later plagued by nightmares, Agent Orange and memories that would shape the rest of their lives.
During the war, known on this side of the world as the “American war”,
They fought as helicopter crew chief/door gunner, as medics, tank commanders, as supply men, in the south of Vietnam, where all the foot soldiers were, while the B52 bomber planes took care of destroying lives and villages in the north. Years later, while the nightmares continued, they met at a vet’s gathering in the states and decided to do something to help. They wanted to help the lives they assisted to destroy to re build, and they needed to heal the pain.
They formed a team of men and women and began to build schools, hospitals and orphanages, to retrace their steps of ignorant destruction forty years ago and replace their memories with positive hope. Ignorant in the sense that they didn’t really know what the war was about. They thought they did in their youthful minds of patriotism, hormones and adrenalism, but they had no idea. The same things militaries around the world count on to recruit the next generation of fighting machines.
The first group of returning vets landed in Vietnam in 1989 with a team of 13 and spent 2 months helping to build a clinic. They began to build schools, hospitals and orphanages, and this group of men I just met are part of the “Team XXIII” of the VVRP or Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project. This first team drew plans, carried baskets, broke rocks, and talked with the local villagers about what everyone’s lives had been like since the war. The tears flowed from both Americans and Vietnamese into the concrete of the foundations so the sorrow and pain would be integrated into the buildings, so that all the past evil was acknowledged and forgiven, together.
Chuck was part of the team in 2001, which comprised of a crew of three vets, the wife of one and the daughter of another. The daughter chose to come so she could see what it was that so affected her Vietnam Veteran father, so she might make tangible some of the endless nightmares and fears that haunt her father still.
One of the members of the team “21” battalion that Chuck, Gary, Charlie and Wolf were part of was Joel, known as “Buddha” to his friends for his Buddha like frame, loving personality and smiling eyes. During the war, Joe always connected with the kids in the villages they passed through, and was a loyal friend to all of them. He left for the war with love and his friends, and he was only seventeen.
After his return to the States, Joel worked hard to be integrated and “normal”, studying at night to become an attorney, connecting to the society at home as best he could, in spite of the damage done to him in his formative years and the constant uphill struggle to offset it.
With his wife Jane and son Gabe close by him, he died in America from the after effects of Agent Orange, cancer of the oesophagus, and after some of his remains being scattered across his homeland of New York and other parts of the US, his final request was that Chuck with the help of Gary bring a portion of his ashes, to the delight of his family, back to the school they helped build in 2001 and to the battlegrounds of Vietnam to rest.
Chuck and Gary then had the daunting mission of getting permission to honour their friends’, a veterans’, last wishes in the country where they fought on the other side. After a few incredulous phone calls trying to explain to the government officials that Joel was, in fact, an American soldier who wished to lay at peace in Vietnam, they received an official letter from the Socialist republic of Vietnam stating that they would be honoured to have his ashes brought back here, and attached was a tourist visa for him.
They meet at the airport and Chuck was carrying a Ziploc baggy of their friend’s ashes; he shrugs and points out that it was the best way to transport him, and in typical 21 battalion style they laugh uproariously as there is no other course of action. They board the plane, made the trip to Hanoi, and presented the letter to the officials at customs. The man behind the desk asked ‘where are he?” when the letter and visa was presented. Chuck held up the baggy, pointed and explained that he was in fact, right here. The official’s eyes got wider and wider and wider as he quickly stamped Joel’s visa and nobody has ever been rushed through customs so fast in the history of the world.
Chuck and Gary made their way to the northern village where Joel, his wife Jane and Chuck had helped build the school in 2001. On the way there and over several weeks Gary and Chuck scattered Joel all over Vietnam. They threw him from the deck of a junk into the churning waters of Halong Bay, north of Hanoi, down to Saigon (Ho Chi Mien city) from the coast to the HCM trail, often from the backs of their bikes while hooting and laughing and crying. While doing this they said their goodbye prayers for their lost buddy Buddha.
When they arrived at the school Joel and Chuck helped to build, the entire village and students were formally dressed to receive them and were prepared for a formal Buddhist funeral. One of the head masters of the school brought forward a refined lacquered tray, one of the local craft specialties, and Gary and Chuck gave each other a meaningful look, shrugged, and placed the plastic Ziploc baggy of grey dust reverently on it.
After the formal gathering and the placing of Buddha’s ashes in a temporary shrine they gathered in the Headmaster’s office to talk. During this time, they had asked Mr. Took, the headmaster of the school, to invite some of the local Vietnam veterans of the “American” war.
As Chuck and Gary were talking about Buddha’s wishes to Mr Took, a Vietnamese man and a veteran of the war on the side of the North was writing on a pad. Gary thought he was transcribing what they said and he thought more trouble was to come from some other authorities, but in fact, he was writing a Buddhist prayer for Joel.
The headmaster had built a large shrine on the school grounds and when he knew that Joel was coming there to rest, he added a second story onto the shrine just to hold Joel’s ashes. The shrine will only be accessible from the second story of the buildings and so Joel was placed in the lacquered box. When Chuck and Gary asked why the tall shrine, the response was: “So he can view the whole valley”.
From now on, Joel will be included in the Vietnam Veteran’s minds and hearts along with the official list of soldiers who fell during the American war; he is listed right next to his Vietnam brothers of both sides that sacrificed their youths for a futile cause. He is now equal to the men that were once his enemies, and can rest in final peace.
The men take turns telling this story, peppered with swearing and raucous laughter, their mission to fulfil their brother’s final wishes in a land they were terrified of coming back to. So terrified, that the first time they landed, they had to pull each other off the stationary plane, unable to cross the runway and confront what had happened and what they had done, all those years ago.
Chuck shows me a tattoo on his left forearm, a beautiful black and white shaded rendition of Buddha, he points to the bottom and says “and there are the children, budda’s children” where there are three tiny plump Asian faces smiling happily. Listening to them, with their obvious reverence to him coming through their comical stories and humorous take on these events, my heart constricts and my eyes well up with tears.
These men, once our fighting boys sent off to war, now almost elderly, show a side to human nature I have not encountered many times in my life. Such beauty comes from them, flows around them, as they tell these stories, as they remember, as they have come back 23 times with more and more vets to re build and to replenish, to heal and to forgive. This trip in 2008 sees 11 of them with two wives here in Hanoi, from all corners of the United States.
Chuck had been drinking with a Viet soldier in 2001 and after many a rice wine, the soldier said “you know, I am glad I didn’t have to kill you in the war. But you know what, I’m also much happier you didn’t have to kill me!” as they laughed and clapped each other on the backs, comrades now in peace.
He also said “the Chinese, then the French, then you guys, we just kicked you all out, and we will do it again!” proving that on the whole the Vietnamese understand how young and uninformed they were, that they do forgive America. But of course, The vets said that America still stands behind the war like they do every time, unable to admit their mistakes. To me, that is sadly, no surprise.
We wander out into the street as the night falls, I am arm in arm with Gary who practices spiritual paths of the Sioux and Navajo Indians, and the boys light up a smoke as we walk back into the misty evening around the lake, where the sacred turtle of Hanoi is rumoured to live.
Parting ways with email addresses and hugs, feeling as if I just met a group of long lost fathers who love me, I am left humbled and in awe of them. I am left hurting inside at the choices those men in power make in boardrooms, in every country, and the people that it affects forever. The people who remember each face they have lost, who will never forget.
The people on both sides, who will bravely fight for their country, even now, in wars we should not be fighting.
I mention Iraq and they say “We wont touch that one, but we will be there for the soldiers who return, because there was nobody there for us” and I think of all the young men, the fresh faced, wise cracking, gorgeous strong men the world over who go to fight with guns and all their heart, and come back empty shells.
For every man who is man enough to admit when they are wrong, for every man who reaches deep inside and finds the humanity lost, for every man ripped from the earth for an agenda not his own. For these four men who touched my life over one beer, whom I will always remember with love.
Lest we forget, indeed…..