Visions of Vietnam
A journey to excavate war’s many pasts.
By David Biggs
Fifty years ago, millions of people worldwide watched scenes of American and Vietnamese soldiers fighting amid the rubble of Huê’, a small city and former imperial capital in central Vietnam.
The once-sleepy town with its old palace, throngs of bicycles, and cafe-lined streets shaded by flame trees (Delonix regia), woke up to artillery fire at 2 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1968, as communist troops poured into the city and battled South Vietnamese and American troops for the next month. American TV news crews captured the block-to-block combat, relaying scenes of rubble where the town had been.
For Americans, the Battle of Huê’ was a turning point in the war. For Vietnamese, the fighting in 1968 and its many tragedies is a subject that is still only discussed in low whispers at the kitchen table. The communist takeover pitted neighbors against neighbors, and the subsequent return of South Vietnamese forces compelled many pro-communist families to flee.
As an historian specializing in modern Southeast Asian history, Huê’ has held my professional and personal attention for over two decades. I first encountered the city as a tourist in 1994. The city, completely rebuilt after the war, is unlike any other in Vietnam for it has, in some ways, remained frozen in time. Entering the old town, one passes through elephant gates and crosses the same bridges that royal processions and soldiers traveled in the 1800s. The impressive Noon Gate greets newcomers, an explosion of red, gold, and tiered ceramic roofs reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City.
While Vietnam’s recent economic boom has turned Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi into megacities, some combination of the notorious stubbornness of Huê’’s people and interests in preserving the town as a center of Vietnamese traditional culture has produced one of the most idyllic places in Southeast Asia. Since 2006, I have brought UCR students here so they, too, can experience this anachronous, fascinating town.
I also developed a deep personal connection to Huê’ through my marriage in 2001 to a Vietnamese American daughter of a Huê’ family. I became more embedded in a typically sprawling Vietnamese network of uncles, aunties, elders, cousins, and distant relatives from remote villages and cities, and also those spread throughout a global diaspora stretching from Sydney to Paris to Boston. As an American in-law who spoke pretty decent Vietnamese, I was often a subject of curiosity at family functions, especially at weddings and death anniversaries in Vietnam.
Once the novelty of my foreigner-speaking-Vietnamese routine wore off, relatives often shared their family histories in Huê’ and nearby villages. Through these conversations, I could better understand how events such as the Battle of Huê’ sent young people careening from the city to service in distant jungles, and later, on deadly, overcrowded fishing boats to refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines.
Meanwhile, visits to family tombs and ancestral shrines pointed my gaze to the deeply symbolic landscapes around Huê’. This city, continuously occupied for over two millennia, is like Rome in that through the simple act of digging a hole, one might find rubble from 1968, shards of porcelain from the 1700s, terracotta from the 1400s, or earlier relics such as clay pots or jade pendants from 300 B.C.
It was during a UCR study abroad tour in the summer of 2007 that I decided to focus a new research project in Huê’ and its environs. It began at a July 4 party hosted by a local U.S.-Vietnam friendship organization for American students in Huê’. As so often happens, I was asked to make some remarks in Vietnamese. Afterward, a local official asked me about my research and interests. While most of these polite conversations end in a few minutes, we spoke through the night about the history of Huê’’s surrounding landscapes, especially the former U.S. military base sites.
Villagers at one such site had unearthed a cache of steel drums that they soon learned contained a highly toxic chemical. Several laborers cut into the barrels with pickaxes and were sent to the hospital with severe burns. The official asked whether declassified documents at the U.S. National Archives might be used to help local researchers pinpoint other waste sites. This question sent me to College Park, Maryland, and for the next several years, we exchanged documents and historic air photography detailing the operations of American bases in the area.
With both these familial and official connections, I embarked in 2011 on a journey to learn more about what is still for the Vietnamese, and some Americans, a very sensitive topic: the social and environmental legacies of war around Huê’. My newly published “Footprints of War” (2018) is the primary academic result of the work, but years of researching the environmental history of this conflict zone brought me into a number of areas I’d never imagined before.
The expertise I developed about the history of American military operations — everything from paving helipads and setting up hilltop firebases to dumping waste and burning trash — caught the attention of U.S. Department of Defense lawyers still litigating environmental pollution cases tied to 1960s chemicals, including the herbicide known as Agent Orange.
I worked as an expert witness in U.S. courts detailing the history of these chemicals’ development, use, and destruction in the 1960s and ’70s. In Vietnam, this work led to collaborations with scientists, including a team of medical geneticists who may have, through newly available genetic assays, finally cracked the mystery of how human exposure to the dioxin in Agent Orange translates to a number of widely associated illnesses.
As I visited Huê’’s ancient villages and followed old rebel paths through the hills to the former Ho Chi Minh Trail, what most gripped me as an historian were not these sites of modern American ruins — asphalt, rusting metal, concrete — but a greater awareness of how local Vietnamese viewed the American period of war as merely one layer in a much longer history of conflict.
The same village that American marines first entered in 1965 had endured French encampments in 1952, Japanese incursions in 1942, colonial military exercises in 1912, Vietnamese civil war in 1782, and on and on. In fact, Vietnamese royal troops in the 1300s were the foreign invaders when they landed in central Vietnam and wrested these villages from the ethnic-Cham communities that had occupied them for centuries earlier. “Footprints” of one war often follow those of many others.
Many Vietnamese in Huê’ understood that concept in 1965, and communist troops mobilized this history to their advantage. By taking readers through the villages and ancient landscapes around Huê’, I hope this book spurs more thinking, even policy shifts, in today’s active conflict zones as Americans, unfortunately, are coming once again to see the power of this deeper history in such places as Syria and Afghanistan.
While war is a depressing topic, I felt it was important to close the book on a hopeful note. My choice of an ending place — a graveyard — may strike some readers as an awkward choice for hope; but those familiar with Vietnamese culture may be able to guess why. As in Mexican culture, the memory of deceased loved ones and annual ceremonies commemorating their lives create powerful, positive experiences that transcend politics, the state, and past loyalties.
War not only destroys the surface of the present, it also obliterates our memories. Like engineers excavating hazardous waste from a buried cache of drums, families engaged in the process of recovering lost remains, holding death anniversaries, and rebuilding family shrines are equally important kinds of excavations, marked by ceremonial rites, that seek to set things right.