VIEW FROM AFAR: Postcard from Vietnam (2): Revisiting the My Lai tragedy

Date Line Hanoi, Vietnam

It is Friday night in Hanoi. My travel partner Adam and I are settled in a $25-dollar-a-night hotel-but breakfast is included. I am sitting in an Internet shop surrounded by local kids using computer chat lines.

Today we left the country life of Ho Ain behind and took a hired car to catch a plane in Danang. Our driver pointed out the abandoned U.S. military base near the city.

Our days in Hoi Ain were country living-awakening to roosters crowing and pigs squealing in the morning-then ambling down for breakfast and eating the best fresh rye bread since the bread my mother made for us on the farm in Hillsboro.

Below the terrace on which we ate were rice fields and water buffalos. (We are in a four-star hotel, costing less than a Motel 6 in the States.)

In 1966 in Wichita, I heard the beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, read-and howl?-his new poem, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” He described a nighttime drive from Wichita to Omaha and back.

He painted word pictures of the all-night cafe in Florence and the refinery lights in McPherson. He said the sleeping farm boys of Kansas and the sleeping farm boys of Vietnam had no quarrel with each other-he had been to both places.

On Tuesday night, Adam and I played Frisbee with kids ranging from 6 to 17 on the beach at Hoi An. Everybody took turns and the rules were made up as we went along. Everybody laughed and had a good time.

The next morning we hired a car and driver for a 50-mile drive to the former village of My Lai.

Along the way we dodged on-coming trucks, buses, motorcycles and, as the road become narrower, we also dodged kids on bicycles plus cows, chickens and potholes.

We were in a 1988 Toyota with 278,000 miles. Our driver-who spoke no English-ran out of gas, flagged a passing motorcycle to get us one gallon of gas and then drove to a gas station. He smoked a cigarette while he pumped gas. He seemed an easygoing sort of fellow.

But he knew the route to My Lai. We stopped in an empty parking lot, paid the 50-cent admission fee and entered a square two-story, windowless building. There were no flags or banners anywhere. Aside from two western ladies and a couple of kids hanging around outside-we were the only visitors.

The photographs, news clippings and simple household relics tell a terrible story. In March 1968, American soldiers massacred 504 villagers in My Lai. They executed 170 of them and pushed them into a ditch. The rest they killed by going house to house. About 200 of the victims were under age 14.

I had heard rumors of events like this in 1968 when I was stationed 600 miles down Highway 1 in Saigon, but I believed the stories were exaggerated. A year later we all knew they were true.

We walked outside the building and crossed the ditch of death and walked along a concrete sidewalk.

At first glance, I thought the footprints of both barefooted and soldier boots and bicycle tracks in the cement were accidental. But I realized they were deliberately created to force the visitor to walk the same path of that fateful night.

The burned foundations of houses still exist. We went to a white monument. It is traditional in Vietnam to light incense as a tribute, but the incense was wet from the morning dew so we were unable to perform even this simple ritual.

The My Lai Monument tells that something very terrible happened in this place. But no attempt is made to explain why it happened or what can be done to prevent this from happening again.

Adam and I were quiet for the rest of the day. We bounced on motorcycles to the ruins of the Cham dynasty and dodged more on-coming vehicles and livestock. Our closest call was when the driver dodged a dang duck.

We saw a truckload of puppies headed for the lunch counters of Hanoi and a bicycle load of pink pigs probably destined for the same fate. But mostly we were quiet.

On the plane to Hanoi, we read the English newspaper printed in Vietnam. There was a small story about the burial of a Hugh Thompson in Louisiana. He was a helicopter pilot at My Lai. He saw what was happening from the air and threatened to open fire on American soldiers to stop the madness.

Thompson was aged 63.

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