Once Again in the Land of the Viets

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1996

Once Again in the Land of the Viets

A war correspondent considers the dragons of his history
By Robert Stone

Early last year, shortly before the Vietnamese Tet holiday, I found myself aboared a bright yellow pilot boat, bobbing in heavy seas off Ha Long Bay near Hanoi. I was peering into the foggy, predawn darkness at the mouth of the bay, trying to make out something more than the cold mist and gray water.

Our mother ship was a small, indifferently maintained cruise ship that had been making excursion trips around Bali and had only just been pressed back into blue-water service. Its brightwork was dull and its wooden decks splintering and discolored. Its plumbing was uncertain, and not all of its passengers were happy with their accommodations. The crew was kindly and anxious to help, but some of its officers--a catchall lot--were surly. One of them, an Australian, had a bit of a thing about Americans, especially ones from New York.

But, in a way, all this suited my purposes. I had returned to Vietnam aboard it, after 24 years, to accompany a tour and give shipboard lectures on the subject of what I perversely keep thinking of as the "recent" war. Too much physical and moral luxuriating might have felt unseemly.

On our rough crossing of the South China Sea, between Kuching, in Malaysian Borneo, and the Saigon River, I'd been frankly enjoying a process of preaching to the mainly unconverted, at least such of them as managed to stagger up to the ship's lounge to hear my rantings in the unseasonable high winds and heavy seas.

Though most of the people on this particular trip were making their first visit to Indochina, there were a number of people aboard with personal experience of or family connections to the war. There was at least one combat veteran. There were several former U.S. officials or the widows of such men. As a result, our exchanges during question-and-answer periods were lively. By no means all of them subscribed to my particular position, which remains that of an antiwar journalist who covered the American effort during its most futile years. But once we'd agreed that nobody's moral sensibility or patriotism was being questioned, we had quite a good time. At least I did, along with those in my audience who, like Sidney Greenstreet's Casper Gutman addressing Bogart's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, "like talking to a man who likes to talk." Without any more right than several hundred thousand other Americans and less than many, I'm capable of holding forth indefinitely on the topic of the war that was one of the central events of my late youth.

Our arrival "in country," as they used to say, had been dismal. The swarm of pickpockets, pimps, and hustling cyclo-drivers in wait at the dark Saigon River docks was reminiscent of the worst days of the "American presence," representing a continuation of poverty and crippled self-respect. Most visitors to Vietnam arrive by air, not at the docks by night, so it's probably not a representative experience. It reminded me for all the world of my navy days when, on liberty in various impoverished tropical ports, we'd be set upon at the pier by "land sharks" offering the questionable joys of the place. As I say, it's untypical of Vietnam today, but it represents an aspect of the country that travelers on the tourist routes may encounter more and more intensely in the immediate future, a legacy of war and its subsequent ironies: the defeat of American capitalism there and the collapse of communism, foreign and domestic.

But the next weeks were fascinating. Visiting a place one knew as a combat area is a little like returning to a childhood neighborhood. Landscape seems to contract as it does when we walk over the fields or parks or vacant lots we left as toddlers. All the landmarks that seemed huge, the distances we remember as vast, are dramatically diminished.

All highly charged settings are reduced on separation from the emotions that informed them, literally or figuratively defused. With battlefields, there's even a touch of lost innocence, like a grown child's. Primary life and death impulses are rudimentary enough to be sort of infantile. After any war, so many hopes and promises have been obviated, so many fantasies of the future deconstructed, fears evaporated or come true.

I don't know quite what I was expecting from the swirling rain of Ha Long Bay that morning. A notch in the Gulf of Tonkin some 20 kilometers north of Haiphong, the bay had always been one of the places forbidden to most outsiders during the war. Even "foreign friends" from the so-called socialist bloc faced bureaucratic difficulties in getting there. Perhaps the Vietnamese, generally proud of displaying their history, thought the place had absorbed enough and wanted to spare it any more.

Ha Long's labyrinth of offshore islands, caves, and channels makes it a sensitive area in time of war, which has been a more or less ongoing condition throughout Vietnamese history. During the fourteenth century, in the course of one of Vietnam's struggles to assert its intermittent sovereignty at the edges of the Chinese empire, a Viet fleet was able to mount a naval ambush against a larger Chinese one by concealing its ships and men within the limestone sea caves with which the bay's islands and its adjoining coast are honeycombed.

Under the French, coal mines were developed along the north shore, from which the product could be directly exported from the bay port of Hong Gai. The mines at Hong Gai became notorious among international reformers as an example of colonial exploitation. Utterly unprotected by law for most of the French occupation, the miners worked for a pittance under a contracting system that saw most of their wages ending up in the pockets of labor contractors. Many of the same contractors served as middlemen for the official French state opium monopoly. Selling the exhausted miners opium at inflated prices, they reduced many to lifelong slaves who barely saw the light of day. On Bai Chay Beach, not so far away, colonial families frolicked innocently, and today tourists are beginning to appear there again.

During our "recent" war, history was visited on Ha Long Bay to the sound of doomsday. The limestone cliffs regularly echoed with sonic booms, exploding bombs, the whine of missiles, and the death rattle of aerial cannon as A-6 Intruders and A-7 Corsair IIs from the offshore carriers that came over for operations against the harbor, the Paul Doumer Bridge, and the Red River Valley.

On the seventh, eighth, and ninth of June 1972, the deadly racket must have been sufficient to startle the serenely complacent Buddhas in their makeshift shrines within the bay's warren of candlelit caves, or even to stir the dead French Foreign Legionnaires, long interred on their own island.

On those June days, reinforced by Air Force F-4s from the U.S. base at Udorn in Thailand, the Intruders and Corsairs mounted Operation Linebacker, the most severe aerial operation of the war thus far. Linebacker's objective was the entire Hanoi-Haiphong complex, and the Hong Gai mines, presumably operating under proletarian auspices by then, were trashed utterly. The port area of the city was, in the words of the U.S. military report, "leveled."

Even during wartime the mountain mists of Vietnam, if one had the leisure and comparative safety to observe them as I did, unfolded wonders every morning. After the night's dreadful carnival of flares and tracers and shouts in the darkness, the gray first light would show itself, reminding me forever of Caesar's repeated phrase from his Gallic Wars: prima luce. Sweet words, full of comfort. At prima luce, back in old Gaul, the tired sentries trudged in for chow and the legionnaires turned-to in a hurry, ready for another day of fighting the goddamn blue-painted Gauls, who were full of tricks and didn't know the meaning of mercy and whom you may be sure the Roman soldiers, in their classical Latin, referred to as gooks.

The same spirit prevailed at American firebases. But to someone arrived during the dark of might, prima luce could bring wonders never to be forgotten. Parrots and monkeys wakened in the chocolate folds of the mountains, and as the air warmed, vultures rode the updrafts from valleys far below. Then, as the last mist receded into the distance, the mountains would turn from chocolate to pale green, then to a richer green, and finally pass through a process of progressively brighter greens until you felt the possibilities of the color had been exhausted, whereupon the sun would come over the nearest peak and explode the vegetation into a fleshy, sinister, reptilian verdancy, preternatural, the brightest green of all, that would portend the broiling, whited-out, most unbeautiful heat of day.

It was the same for me as the morning mists parted over Ha Long Bay last year. Again, prima luce furnished one of those exquisite astonishments so characteristic of the country. The sun never did break through that winter day, but the scenery, both delicate and wildly melodramatic, became a study in grays, something from a Chinese ink drawing or woodcut 700 years old. It was impossible to imagine yourself anywhere but Asia.

In terms of time, though, the setting was ageless. Marx, who briefly replaced Confucius in this part of the world, once said that reality conditions consciousness and not the other way around. But Marx was wrong about a lot of things, and as that morning broke over the bay we saw all around us the traces of the giant Descending Dragon after whom Ha Long Bay is named.

The Descending Dragon came, of course, from the primordial home of all dragons, the imagination or meditative piety or collective recollection of the East Asian psyche. It was his enraged thrashings, as offended ancient emperor of the place--outraged by the wickedness and insolence of man--that carved the canyons and hollows in the mountain landscape and allowed the surrounding seas to thunderously rise and flood them.

Each fantastically balanced sandstone boulder, each submarine cave and limestone grotto, shows the scaleprint of his writhing. When he had finished his display, he dived, disappeared into the South China Sea with a terrifying flourish of his vast, reptilian tail, and left the place to pelicans and colonies of yellow macaques and of course the fishermen, who still eke out a living in the wake of the dragon's rage, colonial overseers and splintering cluster bombs and commissars notwithstanding.

Of all the mornings I ever saw break to reveal the sinister magic and mystery of the Land of the Viets, I never saw one so beautiful or so fraught with the essence of the place as that gray ghost of a dawn. As never before in that country I felt that the night's darkness had brought morning as a revelation of the tragic, sublime spirit of the land itself.

Centuries of ocean winds had whipped the sparse vegetation and stunted trees into bonsai shapes. The incredible, intricate sandstone patterns of the islands, each one with its mythological name--the Unicorn, the Crouching Tiger, and of course dragons in all their moods and manifestations--stretched like so many granite towers, an entrance to the maze of Asia itself, as far into the mist as I could see. The pillars, in their weird geometry and metaphysical patterns, seemed to be spelling out some kind of ideograph of the sort only necromancers of the Tao could fathom. "There it is," they used to say during the war. The phrase applied to a multiplicity of things, grim insights, contradictions, horror, beauty.

I never set foot on the magical shores of Ha Long Bay on that morning or any other, confined as I was to my yellow pilot boat and bound for Haiphong and Hanoi. These days a five-hour bus ride from Haiphong brings visitors to stay at one of the three hotels at Bai Chay Beach, where once maman et papa et les bon enfants played in the surf of this magic kingdom while a few miles away the coal miners dreamed their opium dreams of places no more magical than the heavenly islands by whose shores they labored. Torchlit guided tours are available now to conduct tourists through the island's limestone caves and grottoes, some of them miles long, commanding views described as being like those nowhere else on earth.

Eventually our yellow pilot boat was turned back for its mother ship by the winter wind and gathering rain. Just as we turned, we made out other vessels making their way toward us, fighting the edge of the gale. They were fishermen's boats, boats that looked as though the families working them had no other home. A few of the people in the boats were proffering fish for sale, though of course we had no use for ad hoc fish from the dragon's lair.

As their craft approached ours, though, a number of these sea people motioned to us. They pointed to their empty open mouths, an old and unambiguous gesture.

Some people threw them candy. Others looked away, focusing instead on the stone towers stretching into the distance. Maybe, a few cynical old Vietnam hands offered, it was some kind of hustle, like in the old days. A strange hustle, though, for a man to make, in a proud country, before foreigners. So there we were again, the mists lifting on a landscape of staggering beauty, the people suddenly once again a puzzle, a reproach, a mystery to our foreign minds that had been so confident, so knowledgeable and beguiled with what seemed familiar magic a moment before.

"There it is," someone said.

Robert Stone is the author of Outerbridge Reach, Dog Soldiers, and the forthcoming collection of stories Bear and His Daughter.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!