Know Your History: Indochina 1945 from a Page in my Novel

I’m going to change up the “know your history” post this time around and use a direct quote from my new novel, The Reach of the Banyan Tree, to emphasize the strange WWII ties which existed in Indochina in 1945. Here’s a short paragraph from the chapter entitled “The Strange Ways of the Universe”:

On a cosmic scale, it all seemed kind of absurd. Communist trained guerrillas fighting to overthrow the Japanese, so that they could get a chance to overthrow the French, whom they really hated. Communist trained guerrillas, working with the communist Chinese in cooperation with the nationalist Chinese to fight against the imperialist Japanese with the help of the Americans. Americans, working with the communist Chinese and the communist-leaning Vietnamese, while ignoring the French of Indochina who had kowtowed to the Germans and cooperated with the Japanese, even though their Free-French brothers fought side-by-side with the Allies in Europe. So it was. July of 1945 in Indochina was a political and military mystery—common threads tangled in the strangest of ways.

Commentary: Confusing, isn’t it. But that was the truth and this confusion is what led the Viet Minh to feel confident to declare independence for Vietnam on Sept 2, 1945. They hoped greatly that the Americans would have backed their bid for independence. If only they had, history would have told a much different tale, and the Vietnam War may not have happened. But of course, it is futile to play the “what if” game with history. There is only that which “was”.  And so it was in the summer of 1945.

Ho Chi Minh & Truman: Part II

Part II of my post from yesterday: http://wp.me/p25YFc-C8  – The second part of this post even talks about Tan Trao, the mountainous headquarters of the Viet Minh which is home to the glorious banyan tree which inspired my third novel, soon to be released.

Ho took up the mantle of fighting for Indochinese independence by supporting the Allied cause against the Japanese, much like the CCP did in China. By the summer of 1945, Ho’s independence movement found itself in a favorable position with the French reeling from the Japanese takeover and Tokyo facing mounting war pressures.

Throughout the early months of 1945, Ho hoped for an Allied invasion of Indochina, which he believed would spell the end of French colonialism, commenting that “he would accept a million U.S. soldiers [on Vietnamese soil] but no French” (qtd. in Rossiter 29). Ho met with U.S. Air Force General Claire Lee Chennault in the hopes of gaining American favor by offering intelligence information on Japanese operations (Bradley 125). This solid intelligence led to a favorable impression of Ho by the OSS, which received approval to work more closely with him and the Viet Minh (Bradley 125-126). After the Japanese overthrew the remaining French administration in March 1945, Emperor Bao Dai declared Vietnam unified and independent under Japanese protection (“Summary”). But Ho and the Viet Minh did not jump on the Japanese bandwagon as they saw the bigger picture of the Allied defeat of Japan being of immediate more importance than the end of French rule. The Viet Minh resisted the urge to let their colonial animosity strike out against French soldiers retreating from the Japanese and even supplied the French with military provisions and intelligence (Marr, “Vietnam” 203). As the final summer of the war progressed, Ho and the Viet Minh worked closely with the OSS in hopes of building mutual goodwill and trust.After the initial contacts between the Viet Minh and the Allied forces in southern China, the U.S. sent some OSS officers to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh headquarters in Tan Trao, one hundred miles north of Hanoi (Marr, “Vietnam” 286). The OSS officers spent several weeks training Viet Minh forces (Marr, “Vietnam” 364), which the Americans believed could be used to help fight the Japanese. The views of certain officers who came into contact with Ho during that time bolstered the claim that the Americans, perhaps in hindsight, had missed an opportunity by sidelining the Viet Minh’s nationalistic movement in favor of French restoration. OSS lieutenant Dan Phelan, who began his mission to Vietnam leery of the possible communist connections of the Viet Minh, soon raved about the Viet Minh, stating that they were “patriots deserving full trust and support” (qtd. in Marr, “Vietnam” 289). Other military personnel with boots on the ground in Indochina expressed the opinion that Ho could be trusted as a democrat at heart who cared about American ideals (Bradley 136-139). But the fractured nature of affairs in Washington had already delineated military operations with political realities as OSS assessments of the developments of Indochina had no bearing on policy toward the French. The OSS troops in Vietnam that summer were not privy to the fact that the non-French trusteeship model for Indochina was sidelined and that the administration had shifted its goals to the assumption that the French would once again rule Indochina (Marr, “Vietnam” 291). However, from a military standpoint, Washington did not want to limit the use of any groups, including the Viet Minh, to further military objectives (Marr, “Vietnam” 291). As the summer plodded on, the Americans helped train the Vietnamese, who were preparing for the end of the war to declare their independence, and hoped that this eventual announcement would be backed by the U.S. These naive hopes were later crushed by the Truman administration’s continued support of France’s control in Indochina.

Ho Chi Minh & Truman: Part I

My new novel coming out in a couple weeks, “The Reach of the Banyan Tree”, is in no small part a by-product of my love for 20th century Vietnamese history. Unlike most Americans who study Vietnam, I became much more fascinated at the 1945 connections between the Americans and the Vietnamese rather than the Vietnam War itself. This led me to write my master’s thesis on the topic of Roosevelt, Truman, and the shifting of US policy toward Indochina at the end of WWII. All of this is clearly connected with the story I created about Charles Carson, the fictional character who helped train the Viet Minh in the summer of 1945 before the Japanese capitulated. It’s a fascinating story – both the real one of the OSS team that came to Indochina and the fictional one that I had a blast creating. The following two posts come from my master’s thesis on the topic. And while it may be thick with references and rather boring academic stuff, I hope my underlying fascination of the time period seeps through. Here is part I:

Another matter of great importance that received only cursory acknowledgment from the Truman administration in the summer of 1945 was the issue of the Viet Minh and its leader for Vietnamese independence, Ho Chi Minh. The stature of Ho Chi Minh and his resolve to overthrow the French loomed large in the subsequent two decades of American Southeast Asian foreign policy, but in 1945, his faction was, to the Americans, nothing more than a curiosity and potential pawn to be used against the Japanese. Ho Chi Minh, known by the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen “The Patriot”), founded the Indochinese Communist Party in the early 1930s. He arrived in southern China by 1940 to work alongside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) guerrilla trainers, who were tasked to help Chiang’s effort in mounting a guerrilla resistance against their common enemy – the Japanese (Duncanson 60). The transformation of the CCP during the war years would not have been lost on Ho. The CCP’s image was strengthened by the United Front, formed with the Nationalists, against the Japanese invaders, demonstrating “the willingness of Communists to subordinate their own interests to national ones” (Gordon 167).  The CCP’s focus on the Japanese also convinced millions of patriot Chinese that it was using its energy on defeating the invading Japanese, when, in fact, the Japanese were the only ones who prevented the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) from completely decimating the Communist movement (Gordon 166). As Gordon states, “The CCP thus made itself appear the embodiment of moderation, reformism, and pragmatism rather than radicalism” (167).  Ho would have been conscious of the CCP’s tactics of cooperation against the Japanese as he initially came into contact with the Americans during this time (Duncanson 60). These contacts later proved useful to him during the Vietnamese drive for independence in 1945.

Ho, more a pragmatist than an ideologue, confused the KMT in some respects as to his true intentions, and eventually ended up in prison. Staffers at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the precursor to the C.I.A. – saw a possible tool for the Allies in Ho Chi Minh and suggested that the U.S. could apply pressure on China to secure his release to support the Allies’ cause (Gardner 44). Ho likewise saw cooperation with the OSS as a possible way to further the cause of Vietnamese independence, but this view was widely disputed between the U.S. intelligence community, which tended to trust Ho, and the diplomatic corps, which did not look favorably upon the enigmatic Viet Minh leader (Gardner 44). The Chinese thought Ho’s popularity “threatened their control” but, after being pressured by the Americans, they released him from prison to head the Vietnam Revolutionary League only after he agreed to follow the lead of the KMT (La Feber 1283).

Tomorrow: The Viet Minh and the Americans in the summer of 1945

 

Happy Vietnamese New Year (and a reminder of Tet ’68)

Chuc mung nam moi!

Happy ‘Tet’ everyone. January 31 marks the most important holiday of the year for the Vietnamese. Yes, yes. It’s the same as Chinese New Year, but no self-respecting person from Vietnam who speaks Vietnamese (like myself) would ever refer to it using the name of their northern neighbor. It’s ‘Tet’! For the Vietnamese, it’s like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all rolled into the one. It’s the only work break of the year for some workers and shop owners. It’s the time to travel back to one’s hometown “que” and visit relatives and enjoy the revelry. It’s truly a time of celebration. I wish all of my Vietnamese friends around the world the most joyful Tet yet!

Below, I’m re-publishing a post I wrote about Tet 1968 which you may find interesting. It was originally published on this blog during Tet 2012.

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I enjoyed many Tet holidays in Vietnam, visiting neighbors, being stuffed with delicacies by eager grandmothers who wouldn’t be satisfied until I would hold my stomach in agony and beg her not to put more on my plate. (She always did anyways.)  Tet is a wonderful time for family and friends to commune and feast while the trials and troubles a a year’s hard work are long forgotten. It’s a three day, non-stop heaping dose, celebrating Vietnamese life. It’s a time to remember the past, enjoy the present, and drink for the future.

But for a different generation of Americans, the word “TET” means but one thing – a horrible reminder of the pain of war from 1968.

The Tet Offensive in 1968 changed the Vietnam War, but it didn’t do so in the way you might expect. Leading up to the Viet Cong attacks on the first day of their New Year, the American people had been led to believe from their government that great progress was being made in freeing South Vietnam from the Communist instigators who had been reeking havoc in the delta and central regions of the country for nearly a decade. But the Tet Offensive proved once and for all that the reassuring words from Washington via the press corp were hollow at best and possibly down right deceitful.

On the first night of Tet 1968,  the Viet Cong pulled off nearly fifty coordinated and simultaneous attacks which caught the Americans and the South Vietnamese armies off guard. From the former Imperial city of Hue, to the central highlands where American missionaries were killed, to the fortified city of Saigon itself, these attacks reverberated loudly throughout the country, the world, and especially the American media which drilled home this point to the American people – we were not winning the Vietnam War.

It mattered little that American firepower pushed back every single one of these advances. That’s right. America won them all, but the Viet Cong delivered a devastating punch and a massive dose of reality to the American people. From that point on, cynicism crept in and led to one of the most turmoil filled years in American history, from President LBJ deciding not run for president again, to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to the urban riots, the Tet offensive set the stage for them all.

 

Sit down, drink some tea.

“Sit down, drink some tea.”

Never was there such a dreaded phrase if I had a list of tasks to complete, and it’s a phrase I never encounter any more.

When I lived in Vietnam, completing ordinary, everyday tasks was sometimes a huge challenge. Getting something fixed or trying to find the right item to purchase took an extraordinary amount of time, but that dreaded phrase, “Sit down, drink some tea” compounded the issue on a daily basis.

For example, I would pull up to an open-air shop on my motorbike, get off, remove my helmet and sunglasses, and walk towards the shop owner. I could always see the apprehension in her eyes as this tall, big, lumbering, over-sized, freak-of-nature person came at her with all the white skin and brown hair he could muster. But I had the proverbial ace up my sleeve, and I would look at her, smile, and inquire in perfect Vietnamese, “Hello ma’am, do you have any _______ (insert item here).” Her face would light up, and she would start talking a mile a minute, and we would have a polite and friendly conversation about anything and everything except for the item that I wanted to purchase. And then she would pull out her trump card:

“Sit down, drink some tea.”

I would oblige. She would pull out a small teapot, fill the bottom with the world famous Thai Nguyen “che bup” loose green tea leaves and then pour in some steaming hot water from her red thermal water container. She would dump out the first batch of water immediately, then pour in a second, allowing the tea to blend slowly into the hot water. I would sit patiently on the six-inch-high plastic stools, knees almost at my chin, waiting for the tea ritual to end.

After several thimble-sized cup fulls, I would thank her, stand and inquire once again about the item that I needed. She would oblige and after twenty minutes, I was allowed to make the purchase.

When I first came to Vietnam, those rituals caused nothing but frustration. But I learned, eventually, that the best way to accomplish anything in Vietnam (and oftentimes Asia in general) is to sit down, chat, and have tea before doing anything else.

At the university I used to work at in Thai Nguyen, I learned how to play the system. If I had an issue that needed dealt with, I would slyly walk into the Foreign Affairs Office, seemingly with no agenda at all. I always met Ms. Lien (a wonderful woman, who has since passed on), and we would immediately sit down for some tea, chatting for 30 minutes or so until I would then stand up and tell her I had to go. But before I left, I would turn around and say, “By the way, I have a small problem with ….(insert problem).” She gladly would say that she’ll take care of it for me. I would leave. Case closed. Relationship built. Problem solved.

What’s going on here? It’s all about value orientations: Task Orientation vs. Person Orientation.  Westerners are typically taught that tasks, goals, and, achievements are the most important things in life and so we tend not to like it when people get in the way, taking us off task. Asians traditionally come from the mindset that people and relationships should take precedence over tasks. When a westerner charges in and wants immediate action, it must feel like an impersonal cowboy invasion. It can be seen as rude and uncaring. The westerner doesn’t view it that way. He or she just wants to get the task done, then it will be talk time. But for the easterner, the relationship must take precedence over the task.

If a westerner can learn to build relationships and connect with people, they’ll find their time in Asia will go much smoother.

But times are changing in many parts of Asia. I live in Penang now – a very westernized place in many ways – and many of the personal connections are not so easily established as they were in Vietnam. That is probably the one thing I miss the most about living there. I wish I could sit down and drink tea more often.

 

Burger King in Hanoi: The End is Near

A friend posted a selfie outside the newly opened BK at Hanoi Noi Bai Airport.

Globalization is complete. My Vietnam is dead.

I arrived at Noi Bai Airport for the first time on a dark, stormy night in August 1994. My wife, 15 month old daughter, and I were picked up at the airport by an official from the Vietnam Maritime University in Haiphong where we would be teaching. Haiphong is a port city off the Gulf of Tonkin about 60 miles east of Hanoi. I remember the van ride to Haiphong vividly. We had been travelling for 30-some hours, and we were dead tired. Our heads bobbed constantly as we nodded off even as our official greeters did their best to welcome us. The road was mercilessly bumpy – our vehicle bounced around like we were jumping on springs rather than rolling on tires.

At one point, we thought we were going to die. The driver slammed on the brakes, and we all went flying into the seat in front of us, wide-eyed, wondering what had happened. The headlights shone brightly on a herd of dark-gray water buffaloes which were just trying to cross the road.

The ride to our university took about 3 hours. Did I mention before that it was only a 60 mile trip? Well, this is the Vietnam I remember and know well.

There was only one road to Haiphong – not the highway that is there now – and the road was in horrible condition, preventing anyone from going quickly if they wanted to keep their lunch down. The road also had to cross two rivers where there was only a one-lane bridge – which also shared space with the train. If a train was at the bridge, or if someone had broken down, or if there was a long line of cars from the opposite side, traffic just came to a stop. We would get out of the vehicle and wait a good 20 minutes until it was our turn to travel over the bridge.

On a good day, you might have been able to travel to Hanoi in 2.5 hours. My longest trip back in the day lasted 4 hours.

This previous illustration should instruct you in your understanding of every aspect of life in northern Vietnam during that time. Here’s a few more examples:

  • Very few cars – the popular ones were the Russian Lada from the 1970s. Only government entities or large companies had vehicles.
  • Motorbikes were only starting to become more common.
  • Best mode of transportation – city to city – was by train (but you had to be prepared to burn a lot of time.)
  • Inside a city, the best mode of transport was by bicycle or by Xich Lo – the three-wheeled “pedi-cab” where you sit up front and the driver would pedal you around.
  • The new Hanoi airport had not yet been built, and the old airport was still used, including its small, dingy building which was just creepy.

Foreign food was simply not available in Haiphong. Even in Hanoi, there was no place to buy pizza, burgers, or any other kind of foreign food. Any foreign food in 1994 would have had to have been purchased from one of the few upscale hotels.

And to further illustrate what Hanoi was like, we called 1994 Hanoi “B.C.” – that is, “Before Coke.” That’s right. We arrived in Vietnam before Coca-Cola. That’s hard to do. The shops carried Coke bottles from China which were always flat. Sometimes you could splurge for a Coke can from Singapore, but those were rare and expensive.

I have lots more examples which I’ll share in a future post, but in 1994, we never dreamed that Vietnam could ever change enough to have a Burger King open in Hanoi.

It took twenty years, and now the end is near.

McDonald’s, too, is on it’s way.

Oh, how I would trade every McDonald’s in Malaysia for one Vietnamese Pho street vendor.

Sad, indeed.

Human Experience of the Vietnam War: Full Essay

I had previously posted a portion of this essay about eight months ago. Here it is in its entirety. The only additional thing that I will mention is that the part about the B52 bombers creating craters that swallowed soldiers was exactly what inspired the poignant scene that Martin’s father tells him about ‘Nam in my first novel “Beauty Rising.” I hoped that my writing captured the horror that that scenario would have created for any soldier close enough to see it happen. After the works cited, I made a couple notations about two of the sources.

Military historian John Keegan has said that warfare is nearly as old as humankind and it “…reaches into the most secret places of the human heart, places where self dissolves rational purpose, where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct is king” (3).  A quick survey of warfare of the mid to late 20th century provides a vivid picture of the all-encompassing way in which war affects the person. The Vietnam War in particular tested the boundaries of physical and psychological survival.  The American soldier faced a faceless enemy which could appear or disappear seemingly at will. It was a place where the tired rhetoric of the powerless political machine of both America and South Vietnam plummeted the soldier into a purposeless world where survival would become possible only through the clever tricks of human instinct.

The Vietnam War created a surreal environment where normal rules of civility did not apply.  Soldiers had to live with the immediacy of death. This psychological game of trying to cope with war’s grim reality distanced them forever from their former civilian life.  Tim O’Brien in his semi-autobiographical Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried describes a war in which the soldiers would do anything to cope with army life if it meant that they could distance themselves from the atrocities around them.  Euphemisms for death like someone being ‘lit up’ or ‘greased’ were tossed around casually (19).   Death became so much the norm that it seemed like their deaths were ‘scripted’ (19).  They were there to fulfill their roles and one of the more prominent roles of war is death.  They trudged along in the game resigned to their fate whatever that may have been.

The role of fate in the minds of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict played a large role in how they acted and thought.  Truong Nhu Tang in his book A Viet Cong Memoir describes the terror of hunkering down under the relentless B52 bombing raids.   He describes it as an ‘Apocalypse’ where soldiers would scream uncontrollably and lose control of their bodily functions and where guerrillas would suffer nervous breakdowns (123).   However, he describes how eventually the shock of the B52 bombing raids would wear off.  The soldiers began to look at them in irrelevant terms, and they would have a fatalistic attitude that there was nothing to be done except prepare yourself for death (Truong 123).  In this way, survivors were able to view their life in a more serene and philosophical manner (Truong 124).

As the B52 raids played havoc on the psyche of the Viet Cong, the mental state of the American soldier in Vietnam was likewise shredded by what many saw as an illogical struggle against an unseen enemy in a strange and foreign environment.  The Vietnam War had no ‘fronts’.  There was not a Maginot line or 38th parallel.  The enemy could come from any direction, at any time, in nearly any form.  It was more like an endless front.  Bombs and booby-traps were everywhere.   It was impossible to distinguish a common peasant farmer from a Viet Cong insurgent.  This deeply contributed to the fatalistic attitude that a soldier’s life was not in his own hands. O’Brien called these faceless enemies the ‘enemy ghosts’.  Vietnam became a game of hide and seek with boogeyman enemies – only partially seen – slipping in and out under the moonlight – spooking hardened soldiers into ghost believers (192-193).  Even in the daytime, a soldier would tire from the constant snipers.  Or it may be that a soldier could be plodding along a well-known path in a flooded field only to be swallowed up completely by a massive B52 bomb crater which was undetectable under the water (Truong 123).  It was these types of events that made many soldiers feel that everything was out of their control.  Or perhaps more precisely, maybe there was not anything to control in the first place.  Even soldiers who worked in offices in Saigon were never out of danger.  They were susceptible at any moment of any day to a bomb or rocket attack (Karnow 33).

Soldiers coped the best they could.  They laughed at the horror to help lessen its sting.  In one absurd tale, a soldier sings “Lemon Tree” as he pulls the remains of their comrade Curt Lemon out of the tree where an explosion ripped him to shreds (O’Brien 79).  O’Brien writes the story of Norman Bowker and how he almost got the Silver Star for nearly saving his buddy but ultimately watched him slip to his death in a muddy field on the banks of a flooded river.  It is revealed later, however, that it was actually the author who held the leg of the one who slipped away and not Norman Bowker (154).  This clever storytelling technique illustrates the mental games of war.  A horrific incident beyond description seems more palatable when placed at the feet of another.  It was survival instinct which distances oneself from that which makes no sense or which is too painful for a sane person to deal with.

War creates an instinct to survive not only for the soldiers in the trenches or the soldiers humping through the jungle but also for the political figures on a more macro-governmental level.  Politics and war provide a canvass in which survival often becomes the eminent theme even beyond winning or losing. Leaders will manipulate, intimidate, and inspire in order for a nation and its’ soldiers to follow their lead.  Before World War II, Hitler invoked a personalized national pride and insisted that his soldiers swear a personal allegiance to him (Keegan 367).  The American soldiers who went to war in Vietnam certainly displayed a national pride and a willingness to defeat Communism, but when they arrived,  they only saw a political situation that offered the soldiers little hope or honor.  The political players on the American side of the Vietnam War displayed paranoia, deceit, and shrewd political games in order to either keep themselves in power or to sway public opinion in one way or another.

South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky put on a show execution of a Chinese businessman accused of corruption which ultimately provided him with a scapegoat in order to protect himself from his unsavory dealings (Karnow 456).  Ky’s predecessor Khanh did all he could to protect his own authority but did virtually nothing to create a competent administration which would enable the South Vietnamese government to wage war (Karnow 358).  The successive infighting amongst the South Vietnamese government led to massive dissatisfaction among the South’s population.  Coup after coup left the South Vietnamese government in a state of disarray and left America holding the political baggage forcing them to put a positive spin on things for the American people.  The government used the media as a propaganda wing to promote their view of what was happening. For example, the U.S. press gave vivid accounts of the North Vietnamese unprovoked attack on an American vessel even though it never happened (Karnow 386). This made-up event helped speed up the escalation of the war. The media seems to have taken its’ cue from a government which rewarded positive war reports even if they didn’t resemble the truth (Karnow 271).

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson who escalated the war in hopes of stopping Communism from spreading threw in the towel himself deciding not to run for re-election after the devastating “Tet” offensive of Jan 31, 1968.  The coordinated Viet Cong offensive caught the Americans off-guard and drastically turned public opinion against the war leading to the many vocal and intense protests that typified the late 1960s (Karnow 558).  All of this disinformation and backbiting created a cloud of confusion over the whole Vietnam War.  The political in-fighting certainly played a crucial role in the disillusionment of the Vietnam soldier.

The Vietnam soldiers that went home were damaged both physically and mentally.   By 1971, it is estimated that one-third or more of American troops were using drugs (Karnow 31).   There were many cases of soldiers not only disobeying orders but even murdering their superiors with grenades (Karnow 31).   Nearly one-sixth of all Vietnam veterans experienced some form of post-traumatic order (Karnow 33).  It is no wonder that eighty-two percent of veterans believed they were sent into a war which they couldn’t win because the government tied their hands (Karnow 480).  In an environment like this, what purpose could a soldier possibly find?  Nothing but survival.

O’Brien describes war as not being a moral, virtuous, or instructive venture.   He writes, “You can tell a war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (65-66).  This perhaps describes better than anything else the human experience of the Vietnam War.  The war penetrated deeply into the inner chasms of their heart only to find there was nothing there to comfort them.

Works Cited

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1991. Print

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin, 1976. Print.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Mariner Books, 2009. Print.

Truong, Nhu Tang; David Chanoff, Van Toai Doan. “A Viet Cong Memoir”. War and Human Experience: Additional Reading. California State University Dominguez Hills Custom Publication #16679, 1996. 122-126. Print.

NOTE: I highly recommend both Karnow’s history and O’Brien’s work of fiction. O’Brien’s work is moving, deep, and powerful. Karnow’s history was one of the most thorough histories of Vietnam at the time it was originally published in the early ’80s. He was a long-time journalist that covered the Vietnam War years.

Vietnamese General Giap: 1911-2013

The revolutionary general of the Viet Minh and the North Vietnamese communists died earlier today.

(You can check out the slide show of his life on yahoo HERE!)

He was the military mind and right hand man of Ho Chi Minh. He dressed in street clothes and a fedora, making an unassuming presence. But his presence was felt on the battlefield – not that he won many huge decisive battles. He just won hug, decisive wars.

He worked with the Americans of the O.S.S. in the summer of 1945 as they received training in order to help defeat the Japanese and bring an end to WWII in Indochina. But when the Americans, under Truman’s leadership, did not back the Vietnamese claim for independence, instead backing the French and General de Gaulle’s desire to reestablish authority in their show-piece colony.

With American support waning, Giap and Ho Chi Minh declared war against the French in December 1946. The brutal French-Indochina War ended in 1954 with the French’s stunning defeat at Dien Bien Phu.  This was Giap’s signature achievement – one of the most strategic and important military victories of the 20th century. It directly led to the split of Vietnam and the Vietnam War a decade later, followed by the fall of Cambodia, Pol Pot & the Killing Fields, a war with China in 1979, the boat people of the 1980s,and complete isolation from the world. All the Vietnamese wanted was their independence, but no one could have seen the far reaching effects of that battle.

Giap continued to be involved with the military throughout the Vietnam War and became a national hero during his long, twilight years.

Two last notes. The general makes an appearance in my upcoming novel entitled,The Reach of the Banyan Tree.” It’s a completely fictional account of an American meeting him and Ho Chi Minh in July of 1945 during the waning moments of WWII. I like the scenario that I’ve created that enabled me to confidently bring these two historical figures into my story. I hope everyone will like it. Estimated arrival: mid-2014.

Lastly, next year is the 60th anniversary of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Vietnamese officials are expecting one million visitors to the remote mountain city during the course of the year. It is one out of the two northern Vietnamese provinces which I have not yet visited. I really want to go next year. I hope I get the chance.

East -West Culture: Skin Color & Beauty

Perhaps you’ve seen this graphic spreading around the Internet recently.

http://bsix12.com/east-meets-west/

Having lived nearly the last twenty years in Asia, I enjoyed seeing these depictions and understanding clearly the different world views, or better yet, value orientations which these graphics represent.

A westerner moving to Asia could learn a lot just by studying and understanding expectations and priorities, and how different they will be when arriving in, especially, East and Southeast Asia.

There was one graphic in particular that I wanted to comment on today: the “Ideal of Beauty.”

The west: darker skin is more beautiful.  The east: lighter skin is more beautiful.

True. I witnessed it in many different situations.

White westerners on the beach strip down to the bare minimum of clothing – wanting the sun, the tan, the darker skin, which makes them look “alive” or “traveled” – especially in the summer months. Tanning booths? Darkening creams? They use them all. Working outside in the sun? No problem. If mowing grass, take off your shirt. If weeding, get your shorts on. Use the opportunity to bring some life back to your skin.

Easterners – I’ve seen it in both Vietnam and Malaysia – avoid the sun at all cost. If on a motorbike, waiting for the traffic light to turn, they will huddle under the shade of a tree a hundred yards from the intersection rather than wait at the line in the sun. And they will wear long sleeves, often shirts or coats put on backwards to make sure their arms are not exposed to the sun when driving. Whitening creams? Oh yes. Many young girls will use them to try to get the bronzish look out of their skin – that same color that westerners will pay money to get. Working in the field, large conical hats are worn to protect as much skin as possible from the sun. I had more than one friend in Vietnam who lamented how they were the “dark” one in their family. Their sister was the fair-skinned beauty – having the lighter town which was basically indistinguishable from the underside of a white westerner’s arm. Dark was undesirable, and white was beautiful. In Malaysia, I have not found this to be the case – at least not in the same way as in Vietnam – and it must be because of the great diverse cultures, including the Indian culture, which has spread its influence into Malaysia.

Crispy Vietnamese Noodles and a Memory

As you might know, I live in Penang, Malaysia. I used to live in Vietnam. Not much Vietnamese food in Penang, unfortunately, but plenty of other great cuisine.

I was at my favorite hawker stalls the other day (for you locals, we call it “Lucky 99”) and my wife ordered a dish from a Chinese vendor called crispy noodles. We used to eat crispy noodles in Vietnam and wondered if this dish was anything similar to what we used to eat.

One bite confirmed it. Identical. An unmistakable taste. I was immediately transported back in time 18 years to a small alley-way in central Haiphong City – right across from a Buddhist temple – to a small open air shop where my students used to take this formerly palate challenged American.

When I arrived in Vietnam, I thought the Big Mac was on the top of the food chain. I couldn’t understand why my students disparaged frozen food. I said to them, “you have to try American frozen food. It’s so good!” I shutter to think of the person I used to be, but I’m glad I learned to accept the idea that perhaps I wasn’t the most open-minded person in the world.

I remember one time in particular when two young friends whisked me away to this delectable back-alley noodle shop. I, of course, offered to pay for my friends and asked what the brother-sister tandem wanted. The brother replied that he was starving and ordered a plate of noodles. The sister said she wasn’t hungry. I said ‘ok’ and we ordered two plates. I looked over at the sister and asked once more, “you sure you don’t want anything?” She humbly replied that she wasn’t hungry.

The two of us gobbled down the crispy noodles topped with sliced pork, a delicate gravy sauce and some chili peppers. It was delicious, but I was sure my Big Mac would be jealous.

We had a pleasant conversation and then went home, happy and satisfied. Or so I thought.

About a year later when I had gotten to know the pair much better, the sister looked at me one day and said, “Mark, do you remember the day when we were at the noodle shop with my brother.” I did. “Yes,” I replied. “I remember that you weren’t hungry.” “Actually, that’s not right,” she replied. “I was starving.” “Then why didn’t you order anything?” I asked in a perplexing manner. “Because,” she concluded. “You only asked me two times. I didn’t want to seem too eager, that wouldn’t be polite. If you had asked me a third time, I would have said ‘yes'” I was confused. “But your brother accepted immediately. Why is that?” I asked. “He had spent a lot of time around foreigners and knew that if you wanted something to eat, you had to say so immediately. I didn’t know that.”

Live and learn. We laughed about it. I felt bad, of course, but chalked it up to being inexperienced in an exotic land. From that point on, I was determined to learn all I could about Vietnamese culture and to do that I realized that I needed to learn the language – which I eventually did.

So …

Lesson One: when inviting your Vietnamese friends, ask at least three times.

Lesson Two: Always be a learner. Humble yourself and your own desires and wishes to learn about other people and cultures.

Lesson Three: Penang has a place that sells crispy Vietnamese noodles. (Even if they call them Chinese.)