Reflections at a Hanoi café

(Photo by Tranquil Books & Coffee)

HANOI, VIETNAM — While I was sitting in this little Old Quarter café, hunched over my Windows tablet working on my editing task, familiar music started playing on the stereo — The Beatles, The Doors, The Kinks, The Mamas and the Papas, The Searchers, Little Peggy March — all music that Americans would have listened to back in the 1960s and ’70s.

Music that Americans serving in the Vietnam War might have listened to, when they weren’t being shot at or trying to shoot soldiers on the other side.

I could have been one of those guys — maybe not in a combat position, given my poor eyesight — but during the early 1970s, as the War seemed never to end, and as my 18th birthday approached, there was a possibility that my number would come up and I’d be sent to Vietnam to serve in the war.

Yet, here I was, 44 years later, sitting in a quiet café in the NORTH of Vietnam (formerly enemy territory in wartime), the only foreigner in the building and easily the oldest, listening to American and British music of that era.

It was at once poignant and surreal.

I wondered if any of the other patrons, who were all born at least a decade after the War ended in 1975, realized the irony of the situation. America lost that war, and yet in some ways, we won it, too.

Perhaps one of the reasons I chose to visit Vietnam this winter was the excellent documentary series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns, which I had watched last fall. It’s difficult to explain to younger people in the USA (and probably Vietnam, too) how that war hung over us — especially us men — like the sword of Damocles for two decades. Conscription was in force. Many men and women were sent to ‘Nam — and many did not come back. I can still remember watching with my parents the list of fallen soldiers every night at the end of the 10 O’Clock News on WNEW-TV Channel 5. My mother had even suggested I — an only child — should go to Canada to evade the draft.

Tank tracks, Vietnam Military History Museum, Hanoi (Photo by author)

It didn’t come to that.

Richard Nixon had made a 1968 campaign promise to end the draft if he were elected president. And in fact conscription ended in 1973. But, at the time, we didn’t know it would end completely; as the war was still going on, there was the possibility the draft would be extended, to call up men born in the mid-1950s.

The draft then worked like a lottery system, with each birthday assigned a priority number. A low number meant you were likely to get a letter of invitation from the Selective Service Board. I lost that lottery — my priority number was high enough that being drafted was unlikely.

A year later, the war ended. On April 30, 1975, American forces pulled out of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City), and the North Vietnamese army moved in.

The American rationale for the conflict was to prevent the spread of Communism. According to the so-called Domino Theory, if Vietnam fell, then so would Laos and Cambodia, then Thailand, Malaysia, and so on. Both China and the Soviet Union were supporting the North Vietnamese forces led by Ho Chi Minh, so the “hawks” in US government and the military deemed it necessary to side with the nominally capitalist and democratic (cough, cough) government of the South.

Memorial sculpture constructed from airplane debris, Vietnam Military History Museum, Hanoi (Photo by author)

In the end, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos did form socialist republics, but from my experience in Hanoi and Da Nang, you’d never know it.

There are glitzy shopping malls in Hanoi. At least one Rolls-Royce dealership. Young people carry cellphones and laptops. They use Facebook and Instagram, YouTube and Google, Snapchat and Telegram. (Unlike paranoid China, Vietnam does not block those services.) Da Nang has a casino. There are cafés everywhere. Bakeries selling baguettes and pastries, convenience stores selling European and American brands.

We fought a war, presuming we would bring Western values to a supposedly benighted peninsula. Instead, we lost the war and the victors adopted (in large part) our way of life anyway.

Were the younger patrons at all aware of this, as we all drank our coffees, surfed the Internet, and listened to “Lola,” “Love Potion No. 9” and “I Will Follow Him”? I wondered.

Probably not. And they are probably happier for it.

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