Postcard: Heaven and/or Hell

Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner, writers and media makers, are traveling in Southeast Asia and reporting on their visit.

Suppose you take a barefoot walk along the sweeping stretch of white-powder China Beach toward what the marines called Monkey Mountain (toward Da Nang, that is, where U.S. soldiers were sent for R&R–the first marines deployed to Vietnam, came ashore at Namo Beach, on the north end of Da Nang in ’65). It’s best, if you have any sort of a sensitive streak, not to allow your gaze to stray too far ashore.  Lest you catch sight of the dozen or so luxury resorts in the midst of furious construction–capped for the moment by a new super-Raffles. (It seems relevant to note, while you shudder, that the first Raffles, the ur-colonialist hotel, built in the 1880s in Singapore, admitted no Asians until 1930.)  Avert your eyes to the oceanside economy: the two dozen young men swimming and pole-diving for clams, their mopeds parked in a herd well ashore.  At least I think they were clams. The bite-size clams we’ve been privileged to consume here have had a miraculously fresh taste–well, it’s no miracle: they are practically still alive as you shovel them into your mouth.

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The morbidly chirpy voice of Karen Carpenter, singing “I’m on top of the world lookin’ down on creation” filled the open tour bus as we approached Hue, the imperial city, from which the Sons of Heaven, the Nguyen Dynasty, looked down on Vietnam, or pretended to under French ‘protection’, until Emperor Bao Dai, the final Son of Heaven, was shown the nearest exit in 1945 by Ho–only to be propped up once again by the French until Dien Bien Phu settled the royal hash.  Already battered in 1947, the Citadel was wrecked during the ’68 Tet Offensive, when something like 80% of its dozens of exquisite structures were flattened by U.S. forces attempting to regain control of the city. But the imperial citadel lives on nonetheless, architecturally and touristically speaking, in the post-revolutionary era, and is being reconstructed bit by bit, under the aegis of its present overlords, the putatively communist government of Vietnam.  The center of the Citadel (actually: at the center of a citadel within a citadel within a vanished citadel) is now a sizable but basically empty green space that was once the Forbidden Purple City (the Nguyens took their imperial cues from Beijing).  A few yards from an exhibition building in which the imperturbably mandarin Ten Kings of Hell sat in a glass vitrine, squads of chattering young men and young women were busy lacquering doors and gold-leafing balustrades.

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In a comic foreshadowing of an earthly paradise not as yet realized, it is now possible for anyone wandering through the Forbidden Purple City (while in possession of a few hundred thousand dong, that is) to become Emperor–for a few moments, at least. Via photo op.  In an improved pavilion, we watched a 5-year old pretender to the throne, in gleaming yellow and red Emperor-drag being photographed with unending pleasure (by his father) while seated on a convincing mock-up of the imperial throne.  I was fleetingly tempted myself but Emperor Ernie just doesn’t sound all that Vietnamese.

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Later, during a lazy boat ride from Hue down the Perfume River, toward one of the half-dozen serenely beautiful imperial parks that contain the imperial tombs, I read that one of the Emperors-Minh Mang, I think–cleverly arranged not to be buried in his own tomb (constructed by forced labor) but elsewhere in a still secret place–so he could be interred with a vast treasure, which would undoubtedly help him set up in the next world (heaven or hell).  In the effort to keep the secret secret he also arranged to have his 200 pallbearers/gravediggers beheaded.

We spent one long physically and emotionally intense day in the Demilitarized Zone, with a car, driver, and English-speaking guide: a few resonant moments from this journey (about which more soon). Our DMZ guide Tam was 14 years old when the U.S. army swept through his village, not more than a few kilometers off shore. One of his older cousins was VC, another went off to fight for the South. (A Vietnam vet we met at a hotel swimming pool in Nha Trang whose wife is Vietnamese, said, “You know it was a civil war.  And you just never knew who was who: only last year we found out that my wife’s favorite aunt was VC,” and he shrugged.)cemetary-dmz.jpg

Among our many stops in the DMZ: a VC cemetery across the highway from a rusted-out U.S. tank, almost completely overgrown with creeping greenery.  When, I wondered, did it become customary for headstones to feature a color photo portrait of the interred?  But most of the headstones here are not identified–instead, as Tam tells us, they read:  Martyr-Unknown Soldier, one after the other, after the other.  But here, in front of us, amid the ranks there is one that is identified–a name, the dates of birth and death, and a likeness in color of a very young man.  Tam says that, little by little, the unknown are becoming known.  Mothers and fathers experience strangely compelling dreams, in which the spirit of their boy (their lost son of heaven) speaks to them.  These parents consult a geomancer who is able to locate for them which of the dozens upon dozens of unknown martyr’s graves does contain the remains of their son.  There are 82 such graveyards in Vietnam–this is one of the smallest.  And slowly, in the last few years, the spirits of the lost sons, daughters, fathers, aunts, uncles are finally being located–after a decades-long hiatus in which millions of screaming souls circulated unendingly through the ether, without a firm place to land.  We are told that even high officials of the government, even Communist generals, have been consulting geomancers, to locate and to inter at last their lost
loved ones.

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