When I went to Vietnam, ten years ago, many people were surprised, puzzled. I could not quite understand why, until one day a thirty-something woman told me “I would never go on holiday where there’s a war”. She looked horrified, yet she sounded more disapproving than worried.
Back in the Eighties, the American narrative of the Vietnam war was huge on us European kids. Loving Joan Baez was so very easy. Springsteen felt like home. We would sing Dylan, hate Agent Orange and watch as many movies as we could to dispel the collective guilt.
It felt good being on the right side. We should have never gone to Vietnam in the first place, the lesson went, and the disapproving lady must have stretched the concept to perpetual damnation.
I was no different from her, because I myself went to Vietnam thinking of the war and confident of my knowledge of the war. The moment the communist party officer at the airport stamped my passport and welcomed me in his country, I realized I knew nothing about Vietnam.
I didn’t know the language, for a start. I did not know my phở. Also local girls were not Phuong from the Quiet American in the slightest way. And Cholon wasn’t a dreamlike refuge of French lost love.
There was no heart of darkness to be explored.
Everything I thought I knew about Vietnam proved completely useless. In order to be there, to be present, I needed my own narrative. I was not born on the fourth of July, I was in fact born on Mabon, the autumn equinox. Unexpectedly, my rural background turned out to be key to my journey, as well as a strange ease in the high humidity.
I discovered my skin is beautiful in the 95% humidity. I discovered the sad Cavendish bananas we eat in Europe cannot compare to the real thing. A wild piton’s skin is soft and warm, certainly not slimy. Ripe coffee beans are red. Catholic churches come with tidy lawns, fake deers and bright neon lights.
My Vietnam is in the tennis courts (go figure), the pool tables (oh yes), the white Buddha statues, the darkened Cham temples, the pink incense sticks, the few remaining ancient trees, the bats, the waves full of sand, and the very unsettling contacts with the ethnic minorities.
I also discovered I’m uncomfortable with calling Saigon Ho Chi Minh City.
Viet Thanh Nguyen fled Vietnam for the USA in 1975, when he was four years old. He was fed the same American narrative we were, only he grew up to understand that you do need your own voice, as a person and as people.
The Sympathizer tells of friendship, of cultural identity and how those who lost the war got to tell the story.