part-two of three parts — re-conning Viet Nam for April 30th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon
Fall of Saigon – 20 years later.
It’s 1995 and I have Dan Yen, former vice mayor of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Le Ly Hayslip, author of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and John McAfee, author of A Slow Walk in a Sad Rain, in our living room.
El Paso, Texas. I am in the midst of coordinating a huge several month-long look at Viet Nam and the Viet Nam war (Anerica’s war on the Vietnamese) and all those attendant issues tied to USA invading and killing, from 1960 to 1975 (disregarding the killing through secret bombings and proxies and CIA maleficence), several million Vietnamese.
It’s been a year since I was in Viet Nam essentially running like a demon through several BioBLitzes and my own search for truth (my own internal truth) as well as photographing the country.
For all intents and purposes, the defeat of the USA was pronounced April 30, 1975, with the Fall of Saigon, also known as the Liberation of Saigon. The capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, was captured by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the Viet Cong.
Le Ly was portrayed by Hiep Thi Le, a Vietnamese refugee, who starred in the Oliver Stone 1993 movie of Le Ly’s life, Heaven and Earth, the last of his Viet Nam War trilogy films (Platoon & Born on the Fourth of July).
In El Paso, the three are my guests for the Viet Nam War retroactive I helped spearhead and organize in El Paso, then a city with a super large number of retired military, former military and then of course the Fort Bliss and the Biggs Field Sergeants Major Academy bringing in many military, as well as the White Sands Missile range and Holloman Air Force base in Alamogordo.
I teach at several places, including UT-El Paso and the community college system. I write for the two dailies, the El Paso Times and the Herald Post. My photography of my work in Viet Nam the year before and now have been in several shows.
Le Ly and Dan both live in California, and John is a teacher in Ashville, NC. All three want to know how I liked Viet Nam, what it was like, and of course I had some crazy wild lie narratives to tell them.
Nothing as harrowing as Le Ly’s life as a village girl by day and recruited by Viet Cong at night. Dan had taken John Steinbeck through parts of Vietnam December 1966 through May 1967 when he was working for Newsday. A book, Vietnam: Dispatches from the War came out after he died.
Steinbeck was supportive of the war, and Dan Yen was a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese Army.
Le Ly was obviously the more controversial figure in this interesting confab in our El Paso house. My wife then was six months pregnant with our daughter, and both Le Ly and Dan blessed the baby with their respective prayers.
It is an amazing moment – John, a Green Beret soldier in Vietnam, Dan, a LTC, and Le Ly, a woman who was decried by all actors in the Viet Nam war and struggle. She ended up getting hitched to a US contractor (in the movie, he was depicted as a Marine played by Tommy Lee Jones) and immigrated to the United States.
Her book is highly compelling and much different than Stone’s movie narrative. Accused as a spy by the South, imprisoned, set for execution, raped by two Viet Cong soldiers. She was a drug courier and sex worker and supported her mother and a son.
For obvious reasons, I have McAfee (former West Texan) and Le Ly in several readings and panel discussions. Dan Yen also is here to talk about his experiences.
All three admire my large photographs of places they all recognized and then others shot deep in primary rain forest and way far out of the main spots near Laos.
I have my old man’s bronze star and two purple hearts and the slug the military hospital dug out of his chest on a mantel place next to a dozen kachinas. My grandfather the World War One German pilot was framed in a collage of his childhood, Navy days and as a bread truck driver in Iowa, along with his Maltese cross and other medals for that meat grinder war.
Even though the year before most of my time is deep into ecology and animal and plant life, I still have strong connections to the American War against the Vietnamese: in village after village, when the local farmers and shopkeepers find out I am the only American in our team, time and time again Dr. Viet helps me communicate with amazing men my dad’s age and older who tell me of their long-long conscription in the military before, during and after the US was defeated.
Strong levels of respect these men have for me. It is many times Dr. Viet and me and two dozen villagers drinking wine, the sun setting, and a brilliant patchwork of two dozen greens as a backdrop.
I have no idea one year later, in 1995, I will be heading up a very large and comprehensive Viet Nam War retrospective. Unborn daughter blessed by Le Ly, and Dan Yen and John McAfee singing songs from Vietnam.
John, of course, was not pro-war, but he had been a captain in the special forces. His novel, Slow Walk in a Sad Rain demonstrates both the ugly reality of special forces virtually murdering civilians (the ends justify the means in war, also known as collateral damage) and the sheer trauma of being part of the US forces in a country not their own and in a culture way out of their range of understanding.
John and I talk a lot about the life of a writer, about his own journey as a playwright and high school drama teacher in North Carolina. He really admires my writing, and even writes a jacket blurb for a book that never made it past a couple of editorial board meetings at St. Martin’s Press. He is sure I am going to be the next great American novelist.
How the world turns in very opposite orbits. Maybe I sabotaged my life as a novelist, as some have accused me of doing. I still don’t know about self-sabotaging, but alas, I have gone from wild and crazy journalist, college teacher who supplemented income by smuggling Valium and other prescriptions over the Juarez-El Paso border, to union organizer for part-time faculty, Occupy Seattle activist, social worker for adults living with developmental disabilities and memory issues, to case manager for just released prisoners, foster youth and homeless veterans.
Le Ly tells me I am an old good soul, and that I will do good for people. We all toast on some 400 Rabbits Mescal and crank up the fireplace and dance and laugh. I know something is in the wind for me, but definitely not an Oprah moment or even third rate literary creative writing teacher with tenure. My life course never put into place those stepping stones to get anywhere, really, not in this capitalist and co-opted world of Brave New World silliness and surrealness.
I still write things down as all three of my guests say a lot and I write about them, about this experience with them in now, 1995, about all the things that happened before and after the Twentieth Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Even a few people in the large crowd that show up for Hayslip’s presentation stand up and turn their backs on her. Many stand up and turn their backs on me, too, when I moderate a few panel discussions while also self-describing myself as against the war, even when my old many was in the jungle getting plugged through with a slug from a Chinese carbine.
For you see, the face of destiny or luck or god that gives us war also gives us other kinds of pain: the loss of health and youth; the loss of loved ones or of love; the fear that we will end our days alone. Some people suffer in peace the way others suffer in war. The special gift of that suffering, I have learned, is how to be strong while we are weak, how to be brave when we are afraid, how to be wise in the midst of confusion, and how to let go of that which we can no longer hold. In this way, anger can teach us forgiveness, hate can teach us love, and war can teach us peace.
— Le Ly Hayslip, talk, University of Texas- El Paso, Nov. 4 1995.
One full year before . . . I am here with Meg, Rod, Mike, Dr. Viet, Jon, and a few others in the middle of primary rain forest at base-camp, along a river bend. I had just spent the night studying civets and these incredible bats that scoop fish out of the water.
Rattan harvesters are just arriving in our camp – some of the few people coming into these mountains are rattan men and hunters looking for pseudo oryx, barking deer, tigers, gibbons, hornbills.
We ask them about caves, about guano, about places we might venture to with backpacks, bird nets and gear. They draw maps on the wet ground, share green tea, eat bowls of rice and Raman and stir-fried duck eggs.
Mike the science leader pulls out a map, and we start putting down grease pencil marks on areas where the rattan men say are up thrusts of limestone where bats roost. They wonder if we are in the game to collect bats to eat.
We show these four hardy fellows our equipment and some photos we’ve got uploaded on the computer. Dr. Viet helps us with our rudimentary language skills. They inspect our camp, which is scattershot with my tent and then a main living and sleeping area made out of bamboo, a mess area, another large lean-to, and our three Minsk motorcycles and extra gasoline. The latrine is hand-dug and enclosed with tarps.
That’s where I find and capture a green vine snake which is diurnal and mildly venomous. This arboreal snake is a constant in and around our camp, feeding on frogs and lizards. It has binocular vision to hunt.
I show the timid Brits (our Canadian, Josh, is not so timid) this snake, and since it is not happy being held by me, it expands its body when revealing black and white scale marking. A sign of even a more venomous species in the jungle.
An hour later, two of the fellows bring us a gallon glass jug of rice whiskey. Inside the container are herbs and roots and, alas, one of those vine snakes.
We sip, we talk, we laugh, and the guys show us how they cut through rattan-canes quickly. We decide to follow them the next day into the forest where they gather the rattan, which is used in basket making, furniture and flooring.
One day to the next, and we make hikes into the forest, set up rudimentary transect, and start recording what we see – insects, fungi, plants, reptiles, anything. We end up doing a lot of bird watching and recording, and the number of butterflies up here is surprisingly high. We do what the British and Americans have done for centuries – we capture-kill one species of each we see.
We are not any sort of Charles Darwin team, though at times the Brits tend to have that attitude.
Before our trip into forest, we are in Hanoi talking to scientists and researchers from the institutes of biology and forestry. One small museum has all these birds in drawers. A few rare species taxidermized into lifeless pathetic poses.
The rare barking deer is here, in a bizarre standing pose. That rare creature had been captured and taken to the institute. The biologists didn’t know what to feed it. They gave it shoots and other things they found from the Hanoi market. Eventually, the rare deer perished. Not leaving anything to go to waste, the scientists stripped the animal of its flesh and had a barbecue. Then some fellow took the carcass and hide and bones, and reconstructed it based on photos and his own instinct.
Flash forward to London, after the months and months of work in the jungle and then debriefing back in beautiful Hanoi. I am here with my wife who flew over from El Paso for Winter Holiday in London to rendezvous on my way back from Viet Nam and my debriefing in London.
Plenty of snow at Hampton Court and all the other tourist sites. We end up getting into the play, Miss Saigon, in the nosebleed seats.
Then and there, I begin writing and taking notes. I end up four month later back in El Paso with a three-act full play called Tiger Cages.
I review the American movies on Viet Nam – the three from Stone, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter. The Scent of Green Papaya is one way outside the strictures of Hollywood. “Miss Saigon” is reviewed.
We have films shown as part of the Vietnam retrospective in 1995. My play, Tiger Cages, is performed as a read and stand play.
All of this Viet Nam – Fall of Saigon – retrospective steels me, motivates me. My former student (in basic composition) Thomas Daniel (he goes by Vu now) and I collaborate and he uses 13 of my Viet Nam images, blows them up, and imbeds them into his large canvases called “Napalm Mornings.”
Vu was a child during the America’s war War on Viet Nam. His father was in the military. His father was killed. He became a refugee with his mother and three sisters. He ended up in New York, then Los Angeles and then El Paso.
He is now in his late fifties teaching at Binghamton University. He is an incredible print maker, designs and makes clothes, and he has embraced his Vietnamese self, re-appropriating his father’s name after having a stepfather with the name of Daniel.
Here is an amazing story about the woman who plays Le Ly in Stone’s Heaven and Earth. The LA Times piece was written in 1993, right after Stone even thinking about the movie. In fact, he looked at around 16,000 Vietnamese Americans before ending up with Hiep Thi Le as the lead and staring role.
Hiep Thi Le says that even though she was only 9 years old, she can still see the look on her sister’s face that night in 1979 when a fishing boat captain grabbed her screaming 7-year-old sister and put a knife to her throat.
“Tears rolled down her face, but there was no more crying,” says the now 23-year-old Le. “I thought her eyes were going to fall out of their sockets.”
Le and her sister were hidden in a secret compartment behind a galley pantry on a fishing boat carrying them and about 60 other refugees–boat people–toward China and Hong Kong. Their father had made the trip the year before, and the girls thought their mother was sleeping with them. She wasn’t–she had stayed behind with her three other children.
“Sometime during the night, just as we arrived at a Vietnamese checkpoint, my sister woke up and started screaming for our momma,” Le says. “Everyone thought we were going to die.”
Sometime during the night, just as we arrived at a Vietnamese checkpoint, my sister woke up and started screaming for our momma … Everyone thought we were going to die”, she says. That night, a fishing boat captain grabbed her screaming 7-year-old sister and put a knife to her throat. Le witnessed it and it scarred her for life. “Tears rolled down her face, but there was no more crying … I thought her eyes were going to fall out of their sockets”, she says. Her sister survived, and when they both reached port, they stayed in a Hong Kong refugee camp. They eventually reunited with her father in Hong Kong. Le’s entire family — her parents and five children — were eventually reunited in Northern California. – Jack Matthews, LA Times
That same year, 1979, Thomas Vu came to the US as a refugee, with his family. He was 12 years old.
Those BioBlitzes still stick with me, sometimes ending up in my short fiction, other characters in novels I am writing.
The tropical lowland rainforest trees of the genus Dipterocarpus are still in my dreams, over 150 feet above me while gibbons launch through hand over hand like running track stars.
Then the bats – as my friends, true chiropterologists — have studied all over Viet Nam, north and south, are now counting several taxa new to science, two of which were described as new species. The bat faunal list of Viet Nam is up to 120.
The demons of Vietnam – and ironically the demons all those veterans I would end up working with later almost 23 years after these trips into Viet Nam, as a social worker – are the monsters of my country, of the wicked war lords, of all those pigs in high office with their Military Industrial Complex brownshirts leading more and more acts of terror against brown and black people.
Every load of stench in Central America, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Panama, wherever, is the stench of the Viet Nam War’s legacy. This “not another Vietnam” bullshit from the soldiers of fortune and mercenaries that define the US military, I have heard it all on military compounds where I taught college English, to the highlands of Guatemala where mercenaries and ex-military were doing their dirty wars School of the Americas shame to more brown farmers.
Each step into the primary forest with hornbills above me or pangolins below is dream time, a whole other part of my brain and heart separate from my old man’s war. Separate from my older friends who have missing legs and burned faces. All those people I know who committed suicide because of Viet Nam. Viet Nam for me is people and the faltering landscape which has undergone massive bombing and napalming and razing, and even after the wars, so many starving people going into the dark jungle for food. Anything they could their hands on.
Yes, the same bats we were studying while sleeping and eating in bat caves are the same species big and small cities sell as deep fried delicacies.
In that reality is the dichotomy and the ever-flagging spirit of what it means to be an American in this land we invaded. To be a judgmental American working with scientists who are judgmental. Beauty and poverty, nature and unnatural acts, landscapes made for Van Gogh and inner cities in a layer of sadness.
But people in huts and along the Mekong near Hanoi, in Hue, in Nha Trang, those are my people in a sense – the people I want to talk to. Thanks to Dr. Viet, I am able to have more than a basic restaurant conversations.
The story continues, of course, with specific encounters, specific moments, time frozen in 35 mm film strips, enlarged and mounted on walls.
You know Paul, it takes someone like you to bring this all together. You are kind of a dramaturge pulling all these artists together, seeing this vision. It can only happen via someone like you who sees my world through different eyes. You were there but not there as Le Ly was or Dan or me. I can’t thank you enough for pulling this together. I hope there is healing as well as learning. — John McAfee tells me over some tequila
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