Reporters Notebook: Leaving The War Behind

I will admit it up front: I don't remember the Vietnam War. I was born in 1966, just as President Lyndon Johnson was stepping up shipments of young Americans to a tropical place halfway around the world.

When the last helicopters swung away from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975, I was just 8 years old. I don't remember grisly images from the evening news or anti-war protests or rising body counts. But growing up in the wake of the baby boomers--a generation that seemed to define itself by the conflict--I could never quite escape the war's aftereffects. Still, my impressions were shaped secondhand, more "Platoon" and "China Beach" than Walter Cronkite. In college, I finally studied the Vietnam War--as a history course.

So I didn't know quite what to expect when I landed in Hanoi last week as one of the reporters covering President Clinton's historic trip to Vietnam. As a baby boomer with his own complicated war history, Clinton planned to acknowledge the past, but hoped to focus on the future. Before we ever left Washington, the White House tried to craft a mantra for the trip: Vietnam is a country, not a war. But even for someone who didn't remember anything about the war, it was difficult to see the country apart from it.

As the presidential motorcade sped away from Hanoi's Noi Bai airport Thursday night, we squinted into the darkness. Would we see bombed-out buildings? Craters? At first, I could spot only a few still, solitary onlookers, silently watching our long procession speed past. But once we hit the outskirts of Hanoi, the crowds grew. Thousands of people, nearly all of them quite young, lined the roads near the center of the city. Some sat astride motorcycles; others somehow squatted on top of guardrails. Our press van was so far behind Clinton's limo that the people weren't waving or cheering as we passed. We simply stared at each other. We were both curious.

When Sen. John McCain talks about his POW years in the prison dubbed "The Hanoi Hilton," he often jokes that there were no mints on the pillow. As I checked into the gleaming, five-star Hilton Hanoi Opera (they take pains not to actually call it "The Hanoi Hilton"), I could vouch for McCain. There were no mints on the pillow: There were chocolates. Not to mention slippers and a robe in the closet.

Hanoi turned out to be a graceful city of tree-lined boulevards, Internet cafes and ancient temples. The streets were a vibrant, if chaotic, mix of old and new. They were packed solid with low-tech bicycles and horn-honking motorcycles ferrying every conceivable cargo. (In one day, I spotted full-grown trees, chickens dead and alive, pigs, flowers and mangos all peeking from bicycle baskets.)

Nearly two-thirds of Vietnam's population was born after the end of what they call the "American War." But for every young hand Clinton shook--and there were many--an old image seemed to dog him. At every official ceremony, a huge white bust of Ho Chi Minh loomed in the background. (At least the president didn't have to deal with the awkwardness of visiting Ho's mausoleum. It's closed every year at this time when his preserved body is shipped to Russia for a tune-up courtesy of the experts who maintain Lenin.) Clinton made an emotional visit to a muddy rice paddy to observe the latest search efforts for evidence of a missing American pilot. And he stood, silent and straight, at the Hanoi airport late Saturday night, partaking in the elaborate military ritual of "repatriating" soldiers' remains in flag-draped caskets.

On Sunday, in Ho Chi Minh City--formerly known as Saigon--Clinton pressed forward, meeting with young people and entrepreneurs to talk up golden visions of globalization. Clinton was mobbed by wildly enthusiastic crowds in the south, a place even more eager than its northern counterpart to join the rest of the world. A group of us broke away from the scheduled White House events to explore the city on our own. Led by an Asia-based colleague, we found ourselves drawn to the old American war landmarks. The onetime American embassy has been razed, replaced with a new nondescript American consulate building. The former Presidential Palace--where colleagues remembered tanks from Hanoi crushing through the front gates--is now the "Reunification Palace." It was hosting a cheesy Asian trade show when we tried to take a tour.

From the rooftop bar at our hotel, reporters used to look across the Saigon River and watch the firefights in the distance. Now, blocked by a high-rise hotel tower, all you can see is the distant neon of a "Citibank" sign. As we loaded up the plane back to the States, I found myself thinking again of the "country not a war" mantra. It may be an overused line, but there's something to it. I can't help hoping that, someday, I'll visit this country again. Maybe then I'll take a cue from the Vietnamese and leave the war behind.

Reporters Notebook: Leaving The War Behind | News