Tuesday, September 11, 2001 dawns humid and somewhat cloudy in southern Vietnam. Millions of men and women ready themselves for work. Some make their way by scooter to downtown Saigon, or District 1, in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Some go to the market. Others are already hard at work in the vegetable gardens and rice fields that stretch as far as the eye can see and even further, across the endless flatness of the Mekong Delta. Across the Saigon River, workers set about clearing slums to make way for new riverside gated communities that, although nobody expressly says it, are clearly designed to accommodate expats and Viet Kieu. At the river end of Dong Khoi Street, the former Rue Catinat, tourists mill in hotel lobbies, waiting for the day’s touring to begin. At the other end of the country, in Hanoi, busloads of Vietnamese pilgrims and foreigners begin to line up outside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
In Sarasota, Florida, George W Bush, President of the United States of America, is asleep in bed.
For those heading to downtown Saigon, weather conditions could not be better for a safe and pleasant journey, though due to the sheer number of bikes and cars, it is slow going.
Damien O’Hara, an Australian tour leader, is among them. Damien is hungover and late for work. But what can he do? He’s stuck here in peak hour traffic, surrounded by motorbikes and scooters, a swarm of them, barely centimetres between each one. Working women in the latest fake designer sunglasses straddle 50cc scooters; others ride side-saddle, one leg draped over the other, leaning forward and whispering into their boyfriend’s ear. Teenage girls in elegant ao dais, with their long white gloves and face masks, sleek black hair draped down their backs, not a strand out of place – one so close that if he reached out his arm, he could touch her.
Damien leans into his xe om driver’s back, chin almost resting on the man’s shoulder, the morning air covering him like a warm, wet blanket. He inhales: unfiltered gasoline, rotting fruit and fish sauce fills his lungs. It is at once familiar and foreign, like this place is to him now.
As the stream of traffic at the crossroads thins to a trickle Damien pokes his driver softly in the back. ‘Di di,’ he says. Quickly. There is a chorus of revving, and they are off.
Standing on the steps of the bus, Damien counts heads, checking off the names as he goes. He hasn’t got them all yet, but a few have stuck – there’s Barry from West Wyalong and his wife Denise, Alan the know-it-all from Oxford and Nancy from New York City. He had been surprised to see Nancy’s name on the list, even more surprised when she revealed that her husband had been killed in action and that she was on, in her words, ‘a journey of hope and healing’. In all his time tour leading, he’d only encountered a handful of Americans, most of whom had seemed remarkably free from guilt, and oblivious to the irony of their being here, in this country their country had destroyed, on holiday. He almost admired them for it. He doesn’t know what to make of Nancy. He hopes she’ll tip well.
Tuan, the driver, shifts into gear and eases into the traffic. Damien hears giggles and stifled gasps as the punters watch in awe. To the uninitiated, it seems chaotic, like anything could happen in this moment. But the process, as always, is seamless. It’s like diving into water. The motorbikes fan out like a school of fish leaving just enough space for the bus. The gasps turn into sighs of admiration.
‘Did you see that?’ says Carol or Lesley to her husband, ‘It was like the parting of the seas.’
‘You’re not wrong,’ says John (or was it Tom?), forehead glued to the window, ‘it’s a bloody miracle.’
Tuan hands Damien the microphone. He switches it on and turns to face the group, waits for a hush then taps once, twice, gently on the mike head. ‘G’day,’ he says, deliberately souping up his Australian accent, ‘How is everyone?’
‘G’day,’ says the group, more or less in unison, followed by the usual chorus. ‘Great. Excellent. Super. Looking forward to a fan-tas-tic day.’
Damien smiles at them and continues, ‘That’s right guys, it’s gonna be a blast. Mr Tuan here used to drive tanks down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, so rest assured you’re in good hands.’ On cue, there are sniggers from the punters. Damien smiles, but inside he feels sick. It’s not just the hangover. He turns around, locates Tuan’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. As always, he’s greeted by that conspiratorial wink, a wink that says I know you don’t mean it. Though maybe it says the joke’s on them; Damien isn’t really sure. Apart from anything else, the joke isn’t funny. And like many South Vietnamese, Tuan fought against the Viet Cong, not with them.
When Damien first started tour leading he had been determined to get things right. He made a pact with himself to not even mention the ‘American’ War unless asked about it. He assumed that this was what the Vietnamese wanted: to move forward with their lives; to forget the past. As everyone kept telling him, half Vietnam’s population had been born since the war. He passed this information on to his groups. These kids wanted an education, a job and a Honda Dream, he’d tell them. They didn’t care for the old war stories. The implication was: neither should you.
The majority had been willing to follow his lead, to embrace this new Vietnam – the vibrant present of the place made it easy to do so. But they were baby boomers, mostly, and some of them, for whatever reason, really wanted to know about the war. They were always horrified, of course, when confronted with the reality of what happened, even with the distance of time, but like a childish urge to touch that damn stove, even though you knew it would burn, they pressed him for details.
‘Now we are on Dong Khoi Street,’ he says, ‘the old Rue Catinat from French times.’
Heads nod in something that resembles interest. Fingers poke at the glass. The women’s eyes light up at the sight of colourful window displays full of jewellery, silks and shoes.
‘What’s that building there, Damo?’ asks Barry. He has the face of a man who’s spent his life on the land: keen blue eyes and ruddy, slackened features. Lottery missed me by a day, he told Damien at dinner the night before. My cousin got called up – he made it back, but he was never right in the head after. If my mother hadn’t gone into labour early – just think – that could have been me.
Damien had heard plenty of near-miss stories. There’d only been one – that he knew of – who had actually served. Don was his name. Don from Newcastle. He had fought at Long Tan. Damien remembered learning about it at school, about the eighteen Australians and at least two hundred VC who had been killed one hot, wet August afternoon in a rubber plantation not far from Saigon. Damien had always been curious to know what it was like to survive something like that but Don wasn’t able to enlighten him. A humble, contemplative man, he barely said a word the whole trip. Damien only knew he’d been there at all because his wife had taken him aside and mentioned it.
Barry is pointing towards a boarded up construction site. From the vantage point of the bus, you can just make out the tops of half-erected scaffolding beyond the boards. There is no sign of movement. It’s been the same since Damien arrived. He’s got used to not even noticing it.
‘As far as I know, Barry, it was supposed to be a new hotel,’ says Damien. ‘There are sites like this all over Saigon. When the Asian economy crashed in the late nineties, developers shut up shop and went home, abandoning their half-built projects.’
‘Oh,’ says Barry, disappointed. ‘I thought it might have been a relic from the war.’
‘There’ll be heaps of other war stuff, don’t you worry,’ says Damien. ‘There’ll be more guns and tanks that you can poke a missile at. See here to the left, that’s the Rex Hotel. Its rooftop bar is famous for being a favourite drinking hole of GIs during the war.’ Cameras start clicking.
‘Can we stop?’ asks Alan, former solo traveller and rebel of the group. Don’t usually do group tours, he told Damien when they first met.
‘It’s a bit early for a drink, don’t’cha think?’ says Damien, though he could do with one. When he first arrived he could drink whatever came his way, until dawn on some nights, and still wake up feeling human. Not any more. At least the microphone gives him something to grip on, to stop his hands from shaking. They keep driving, past the Notre Dame cathedral and into a boulevard lined with kapok trees. Dutifully he points out the site of the old US Embassy and the Reunification Building, former home of the president of South Vietnam. ‘We’ll stop here later,’ he says. ‘First up it’s the War Remnants Museum or “Museum of American War Crimes” as it used to be called.’ Some of the group laugh. Nancy shoots him a tight smile.
The bus pulls into the kerb and Damien jumps off, signalling to the group to follow him. They do: already obedient, almost sheeplike. He buys their tickets at the booth at the entrance, hands them out, points out a large map of the complex with its exhibits spread across a series of numbered pavilions, and the location of the toilets. ‘I’ll meet you back here in 45 minutes,’ he says. Alan and a couple of the others race off, but some of them linger, wanting more. Once upon a time, when he was still green enough to care, he might have tried to prep them, to give them some context for what they were about to see. But with his cell-depleted brain bulging up against his skull and every limb screaming at him to lie down, it’s all he can do to stay upright, let alone talk.
He sits on a bench under a large frangipani tree, its branches bolted into the concrete to keep it from toppling over. It doesn’t provide much shade, but it’s better than nothing. He’s only been there a moment when he sees Long sloping towards him, his bag of photocopied Lonely Planets and travellers’ favourites, The Sorrow of War and The Quiet American, slung over one shoulder. Long smiles and sticks out one of his stubs that do for arms and says, ‘G’day mate.’
Damien shakes his ‘hand’. As always it leaves him with a distinct sense of unease. Ignoring it, he asks, ‘How’s the book trade going?’
He gets the usual response. ‘It’s a bit slow today mate. Maybe,’ he nods in the direction of the museum, ‘you could tell your people to buy from me.’
As always, Damien replies, ‘I’ll see what I can do mate.’
Long smiles his uneven smile. Damien wonders, not for the first time, what happened to him. Not wanting to pry, he’s never asked, just always assumed it was a landmine. Or maybe birth defects from Agent Orange. Long would not have been born until after the war.
Time passes slowly; the minutes, like everything else, expanding in the heat. Has it really been four years? Has it really been that long since he and Sarah parted ways? He tries to picture it – the two of them sitting in a bar in Bangkok Airport, killing time while waiting for their connecting flights. Her flight to Melbourne was called first. He remembers that much. What was she wearing that day? Thinking he’d see her soon, he barely looked up from his overpriced Singha to say goodbye.
Damien looks up. Nancy is walking briskly towards him. Her face is flushed and her black-grey hair is plastered to her forehead. She’s fanning herself madly with the museum information booklet. As she draws closer, Damien can see that she is crying.
He jumps up off his seat. ‘What’s wrong? Are you okay?’
‘Are you serious?’ she screams. ‘What’s wrong?’ She points in the direction of one of the pavilions. ‘Have you even been in there?’
Without looking he knows she must be referring to pavilion number 4, the one where they keep the malformed dioxin-affected foetuses, alongside the photographs of My Lai and other atrocities: an old woman with the point of a machine gun pressed into her temple; groups of women and children being herded into ditches; bodies strung up and dragged behind a tank; a girl running naked along a country road, while behind her, in the distance, her village is swallowed up by napalm. Of course he’s been in there. Just the once. It was enough.
He gently nudges Nancy towards his seat under the tree. She takes it, and thanks him. But when she notices Long she jumps up again, horrified. Damien shifts his weight from one foot to the other. What should he, what can he do? Long offers Nancy a pack of tissues, using his stubs as pincers. She snatches them, pulls a $50 bill from her money belt and thrusts it at him, before running off in the direction of the toilets.
Later, on the bus, there is silence for the first time that day.
Denise, who has appointed herself Nancy’s comforter-in-chief, is the first to break it. ‘You should have warned us!’ she says.
‘You’re right – I should have.’ His stomach churns.
Not that it would have made much difference. There are so many images, too many, too much to take in on a 45 minute pit stop on a Saigon city tour. After his own first visit he was haunted for days by one of the photographs he had seen, of a young GI holding up the charred remains of a child. The caption under the picture stated that the GI was smiling, though it really didn’t look like he was. For days Damien could not stop thinking about that GI, wondering if he was still alive, and whether he’d been able to erase the memory of that day or if it was forever soldered to his brain, soldered fast, never to be removed no matter how much he drank, no matter what he put up his arm.
‘Why do we even come here?’ asks one woman, her voice shaking. ‘What’s the point?’
‘Well,’ it’s on the fucking itinerary, ‘to remind us … of what happened … of what can happen, I suppose.’
‘We’re disgusting,’ says Nancy, under her breath, looking out the window. He wonders whether she means the group, or Americans, or humanity – all of us. He takes a deep breath and counts to ten, then announces the next stop. If he keeps them moving, he’ll be finished up by lunchtime.
In the wholesale market in Chinatown, they linger at each stall, taking delight in all that is new to them – the ash-encrusted 1000-year-old eggs, the pink dragonfruit with their bright green scales, jars filled with tiny pickled shrimp, the hundred different kinds of rice. They absorb it all with exaggerated wonder, pressing him for details, wanting to know everything about everything, wanting to erase the memory of that morning. It’s 3pm by the time he gets them back to the hotel.
He spots Ashleigh, one of the newer tour leaders, in the foyer. He watches her engaging with her group, pointing out places of interest on their maps with genuine warmth and interest, a smile on her face, buzzing from the interaction. When she finishes, he waves to her. ‘Do you want to go for a beer?’
They go to the Heart of Darkness. Ashleigh only stays for one. He is glad to be left alone – Ashleigh reminds him too much of Sarah. Most women do these days. Sarah who he loved, who had loved him. Sarah who’d sent him an email, just the day before, letting him know she was engaged. Hi Damien, the email said, Just thought I’d let you know, before you hear it from someone else, I’m getting married in December. His name is Jason, we’ve been together for a couple of years. He’s like you, but not like you – if you know what I mean. I think you’d get on. I hope you’re well anyhow. Are you ever coming home? love Sarah.
After five beers – or maybe six, he loses count – Damien leaves the bar. Without thinking, he walks straight into the middle of the traffic. Motorbikes emerge from the blackness, their headlights like beacons, growing larger as they come towards him. He turns and watches the red glow of the tail lights disappear into the distance. He feels suspended in time.
On the other side of the street, a crowd has gathered outside the brightly-lit window of the city’s newest shopping mall. As he moves towards them he sees they are watching a wall of televisions, televisions in a range of shapes and sizes. He imagines a shop assistant describing them in that typical Asian way: Here, look, many TVs. Same same, but different! Every one is showing an identical image. He blinks, at first not believing what he sees. But when he opens his eyes it is still there. Those two towers in New York – the twin towers they call them, the highest buildings in the city – appear to be on fire. Mesmerised, he moves closer. The crowd parts to let him through. He hears murmurs, the words anh My. They think he is American. There are hand prints all over the glass.