Two Vietnamese girls, maybe 7 and 10, on a well-lit Hoi An sidewalk after dark, wearing tee shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, stood frozen, their hands dangling uselessly, their mouths open. In the middle of the street, one of the ubiquitous mid-sized Vietnamese dogs, muscular and square headed, was rapping the death snap on a skinny orange cat. Blood on the pavement, dark red and clotted with dust, had been sprayed as if the cat’s plight began with a motorbike that didn’t stop. Two women, possibly the girls’ mothers, stepped into the street, giving the Vietnamese equivalent of “scat!” and waving their hands, forcing the dog to back off. The cat writhed left and right, wailing, its whole body shuddering, then suddenly sprang three or four feet into the air. Charged by the spastic motion, the dog darted in again, worrying the cat by its throat. Now the English version, very loud, coming out of my mouth –“SCAT!”– startling the Vietnamese and me too, catching myself doing something before thinking, risking a dog bite in a country where I know I shouldn’t, and then worse, stepping off the curb to scare him, preparing myself to kick him with all I had should he turn on me. The dog bolted into a hotel parking lot, and when it disappeared behind a fence, I stopped following it and looked back. The cat now rocked from side to side, slowing down, taking its last breaths. A hotel security guard emerged from his booth with a dustpan to scoop it away from where his guests might see it. The girls hadn’t moved. The women stood behind them.
I walked on, wondering what sort of sign this might be. I was on my way to a travel agent to hire a car to Son My the next day, better known to much of the world as My Lai, the site of the 1968 massacre. I had wanted to make the trip since returning to Vietnam five months before, and here on the way was not only death, but a chaotic, violent, and painful one, witnessed by mothers and children. I didn’t have time to parse it out then, the office would close soon.
The agent, a weathered fifty- or sixty-year-old man with large rectangular glasses and coarse but still jet black hair, seemed amused by my ability to speak Vietnamese, and refused to speak to me in English, even though I’d heard him speaking English on the bus a few days before. After telling him I taught at the National University in Hanoi and wanted to write about My Lai, he arranged the trip without taking a commission. Something in his eyes obviously approved.
The next morning, I woke early, showered, and dressed in long pants and a button-down shirt despite the heat. It’s not polite to enter certain places in shorts, and though I didn’t know for sure the memorial would be one of them, I wanted to do everything right. I roused Jen, my wife, and Owen, my two-year old son, and made them eat breakfast with me before meeting the driver at eight. It was the middle of our Christmas vacation, and none of us wanted to spend a day apart, but I couldn’t take Owen to My Lai.
The driver, Hai, an earnest, good looking man with full, wavy hair, sported one of the wide, thin catfish mustaches popular with many men in Vietnam. He took my Vietnamese with used-to-foreigners nonchalance. On the way out of town, we exchanged ages and the particulars of our immediate family situations–the usual introductory Vietnamese conversation. He had married just last year, at thirty, the same age when I married, and planned to have a child next year, at thirty-two, the same as when we had Owen. There was something about the way he grinned and said “ theo Anh ” –following you, big brother– when he spoke of having his first child at the same age that made it all feel real, like genuine human kinship. Vietnamese forms of address–all based on age and familial titles that force a speaker to change first person pronouns depending on who’s being spoken to –could feel a little alien, but now, with someone I barely knew compared to all my Vietnamese colleagues and friends in Hanoi, something felt right.
Along the flat and silty Vu Gia river, the tourist hotels gave way to wide, one story homes typical of the region, and Hai pointed out one set back from the road, painted blue long enough ago to now be as faded and nearly white as the hazy Vietnamese sky.
“That’s my house,” he said.
“Beautiful,” I replied. “It must be nice living so close to the river.”
He beamed. “Very nice. Lying in a hammock, watching the river go by. It’s a good place.”
We turned south on to Highway 1. A few dusty machine shops, fix-it joints, and dry-goods markets trailed from the intersection before giving way to the empty, mud-brown paddies, framed with narrow, red clay dikes. On a rise overlooking the fields and the road spread a civilian cemetery full of raised tombs, all painted in bright swirling colors and adorned with flowers. Each incorporated a small censer, so the survivors could pray to their ancestors, sending them fragrant reminders of their love and respect. Not far down the road, a national cemetery cut a different shape and feel, with its hundreds of neat, white tombstones and a central monolithic monument proclaiming “ Ghi Cong To Quoc ” — in commemoration of the fatherland — as do the thousands of others just like it, all over the country. Another one, small, probably a single family’s, occupied a corner of a rice field, protected from the paddy water by a concrete dike. Within a half mile, another, overrun by a flock of ducks. In metropolitan Hanoi, I could go for days without thinking about the war, but on this trip, obviously, there could be no avoiding its consequences; four million killed in a country smaller than the state of California meant 31 casualties per square mile, if spread throughout the whole country. But most of the fighting took place here in this very narrow part of Vietnam, so the real figure must be something like 190 casualties per square mile. In a place where people worship their ancestors, believing that they continue to have an influence on day to day life, I couldn’t help imagining this trip as a pilgrimage into the land of the dead.
Hai asked me what I taught at the National University, whether I lectured in English or Vietnamese, and if my teaching related to our trip. I explained that I taught American Studies, and that for me the subject involved literature and the environment, history and culture. I told him in the United States I also teach the literature of the American war in Vietnam, and I have my students read about My Lai, so I wanted to visit so I would have some first hand experience to share with them. I said I wanted to write about it so that more Americans would have an appreciation both for what happened there in 1968 and for what it means now. All these answers seemed to satisfy him. Hai told me what he knew of the massacre, which was a lot–more than I could understand in Vietnamese. One phrase I couldn’t miss was one he repeated several times nonetheless: “ Nhieu nguoi chet do, nhieu con em be ” — Many people died there, many babies. I could only nod, and tell him it made me very sad.
After awhile, we talked about lighter things: the road, the car, differences between driving in Vietnam and the US. Soon enough, though, I ran out of Vietnamese, and we fell into an amicable silence, which I appreciated. I wanted to drift with my thoughts about the upcoming visit and the landscape around us.
Even though I had always been welcomed warmly and with exceptional generosity by my Vietnamese colleagues in Hanoi, I wondered whether people in Son My would hate me for being an American. Seeing so many tombs alongside the road, I already felt deserving of hatred: my country had caused many of them. I knew no matter what I would do or see, the experience would drain me emotionally. At least the land held some comfort. The suitably overcast sky, a melancholy slate, made the greens in the trees deeper, more serene.
When we occasionally topped a rise in the road, the Eastern Sea (or the South China Sea, depending on your point of view) appeared beyond the long tidal flats of shrimp and fish farms. The mountains loomed just twenty kilometers to the west, their steep faces rumpled with deep, jungle green. Between them lay the fertile plains, descending ever so slightly, paddy by paddy, to the shore. I could actually see all at once the geographic root of the Vietnamese myths in which the spirit of the mountain and the spirit of the sea battle one another, afflicting the people in the middle with the worst of the consequences.
The further south we went, the more alive the land became. The flat, empty paddies suddenly had men in them, plowing up the heavy mud with tractors or buffaloes, and then others were already full of rice seedlings. Further on, the seedlings had been pulled from their dry beds, and men and women waded through flooded paddies, bent over with baskets of the young green shoots on one arm, inserting them into the muddy bottom with the other. Within another thirty kilometers, some of the transplants had begun to glow golden green, nearing maturity.
Charles Waugh’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Wisconsin Review, Two Lines, B/N Magazine, Knock, Proteus, Studies in American Fiction, Placing the Academy, and ISLE. He teaches American Studies and Creative Writing at Utah State University and is the fiction editor of Isotope: the literary journal of science and nature writing. In 2004 he received a Fulbright Fellowship to join the faculty at the Vietnam National University of Hanoi, where he helped develop undergraduate and graduate programs in American Studies, taught a Literary, Cultural, and Environmental History of the US, and delivered the first lectures on ecoctiticism in Vietnam. In 2006, he and Nguyen Lien received a Rockerfeller Fellowship to translate and edit a volume of Vietnamese fiction and nonfiction chronicling exposure to and suffering from agent orange.