Writings – Travel – Celluloid Wars – Vietnam


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Published in Queen’s Quarterly

Summer 2005
Celluloid Wars: Vietnam

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

On the flight over a British architect summarizes the kinds of tourists who visit Denang these days. “Frenchmen rekindling colonial splendours,” he says. “Plus American vets, come back to dig for MIA bones in the jungle.” And what is my business in the central port city where the French first invaded Vietnam in 1858 and the marines splashed ashore in 1965? “The movies,” I answer vaguely. The architect is changing planes for hotel negotiations in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

In truth, I am a tourist as well, of still another variety. The book I am reading might betray me: *Jarhead,* Anthony Swofford’s memoir of serving in the U.S. Marines.

Swofford relates how soldiers sometimes grew so excited watching Vietnam movies they pummelled each other afterwards. “All Vietnam war films are pro-war,” he writes, “no matter what their supposed message…. The magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of our fighting skills.” At Denang Airfield I race through the empty terminal to admire the abandoned wartime buildings behind it. They are hulking and cavernous and could pass for a sound-stage.

“China Beach,” I instruct the taxi driver. He escorts me to a mini-van without commercial markings. Concerned, I repeat the request, ignoring both that I am speaking in English and seeking a destination that persists for the most part in memory, along with movies produced far away from here.

But the driver merely echoes my command. “China Beach,” he says. “Many Americans ask for this.” I don’t bother to correct him. America’s war in Vietnam has made conscripts out of millions of us not quite born in-country. A showing of ‘Apocalypse Now’ in an auditorium at the University of Toronto in the winter of 1979-80 recruited my draft-age self. It wasn’t only the on-screen delirium. I also signed-up for the Joseph Conrad, the haunting of men by what they have witnessed and how they have behaved; the everdarkening surface of any going-up-river tale, one bend curving into another, the current unrelenting, until one is truly lost and can’t find a way back. Even now, a quartercentury later, I envy first-time viewers of the film. I thrill equally to news of additional battles to re-fight. *We Were Soldiers’ in 2001. The 2002 re-make of *The Quiet American,* its release delayed by 9/11.

Vietnam yet bristles with cinematic urgency in the West. It is a country alive with our meanings.

The driver slows at the beach used by town people. Michael Kerr’s book *Dispatches* describes the “great curving stretch of beachfront” adjacent to the city of Denang, where marines were sent for R&R. “They would splash in the surf,” Herr writes, “giggling and shouting, riding beach disks along the shoreline, playing like kids.” Kerr collaborated on the screenplays for ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ ‘China Beach’ was a 1980s TV series about an evacuation hospital. In 2004 there is a travel company selling a tour of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that claims to recreate scenes from the Francis Ford Coppola film, including the sequence where marines are ordered by their commanding officer, Colonel Kilgore, to surf a strand while under enemy fire. The tour will play that scene out on China Beach. ‘Charlie Don’t Surf – But You Can’ the internet brochure boasts, paraphrasing Kilgore’s taunt.

Finding no surfers, I provide the driver another destination. My official business here is to write about government attempts to turn that great curving stretch into a resort idyll.

Right now there is only such hotel: the Furama Resort, said to be full of wistful Americans and nostalgic Frenchmen. In the Furama lobby, a Bali-dream-sequence of sensual comfort found at the end of a just-paved road, a Japanese customer relations woman assures me their hotel is situated on “our private China Beach.” “Other beaches are not China Beach,” she adds. Out on the arc, the sand as soft as brown sugar and the waves breaking into foam, I survey the emptiness, maybe thirty-kilometres of pure idyll running north to a mountain and south to a cluster of hillocks. Here it is, I think. And here I am, in it. The war, a little. The books, a little more. Most of all, the movies.

An elderly man renting deck chairs interrupts. He has the permanent squint and coathanger frame of a fisherman. Surfers ride those waves, he acknowledges in French, but mostly between September and November, when the sea isn’t as rough. He also mentions an undertow. To my queries about the exact location of China Beach — *the* China Beach, I emphasize, so named by geography-challenged marines – he squints first north to a place called San Teo, and then south to where once were military bases and, probably, an evacuation hospital. He gives that beach a Vietnamese name – Non Nuoc.

I wander Denang that evening. The city is off the intrepid traveller route, which favours nearby Hue and Hoi An. Some forty American facilities operated within a few kilometres of the port. Thousands of G.I.s must have prowled these streets, looking for beer and boom-boom. I have those scenes in my head as well, complete with Chinese lanterns and cruising cyclos, girls lingering inside doorways. In a deserted hotel I order food, surrounded by employees watching a World Cup friendly – Thailand vs Malaysia – on TV. A teenage waitress assigned to my table literally returns my chopsticks to their mounts, if I dare rest them on my plate. Her lips are parted in shameless curiosity and her black eyes are wide.

After twenty minutes of walking among noodle stalls and outdoor restaurants, every other shop a cyber café or motorbike repair, with mothers actually lifting children up for a better look at the foreign ghost, I retreat into the anonymity of a park. How can I be a revenant in this city? The beach in ‘Apocalypse Now’ belongs, it is true, to the Philippines and the television series was shot in Hawaii. Just about every country in southeast Asia has ‘played’ Vietnam on screen, matter of fact, except for the nation itself, and starting in the late 1970s history threw up a curious inversion: as Americans began to make films about the war they had lost, Vietnam started forgetting, or re-contextualizing, the war they had won.

Still. This is Denang, or G.I. “soul city,” as Michael Herr called it. This is China Beach, where Charlie Don’t Surf, But You Can.

In the morning I hire a guide to sort out the beaches, and reassure me that I am in the right cinema. Tung Phuc’s own story is cheering. His father worked for the Americans at the airfield. While the job cost the parent a bout in a re-education camp followed by fifteen years unemployment, it bequeathed to the eldest son both excellent English and an intimate knowledge of wartime Denang. Tung is bright and earnest and, though just twenty-four, breadwinner for his clan. He promises to reconstruct the city as it stood before he was born.

But then, on our way to those hillocks – called the Marble Mountains, and the subject of countless tourist snapshots — he offers an unprompted resume of his government’s campaign to halt the return of pre-1975 licentiousness. “In Denang there are the ‘Five Nos’ Tung says. “No murder, no beggars, no illiteracy, no hunger and no heroin.” In Hoi An, a half-hour further south, there are three extra ones: no massage, no karaoke, and no women working in ‘hair salons,’ a popular front for brothels. He explains this with a smile, certain it is something I want to know.

So goes our tour. Though Tung Phuc has brought me up Water Mountain, tallest of the five limestone outcrops, for a bird’s-eye view of the strand, he insists we stop at a shrine to a female deity, where he relates a Vietnamese creation myth. Likewise for the cavern inside the hill that houses a miniature temple, complete with stone guards. Blue sky shows through gaps in the roof, courtesy, claims a sign, of American shells fired on it to flush out Vietcong. I ask about the gaps, but my guide replies with a story about Minh Mang, the emperor who lived in the palace at Hue. Minh Mang had a different wife for every day of the year. “He must have been tired,” Tung says, cheeks rouging at a joke he has surely told before.

Even from the top of the mountain, gazing down on a diaphanous South China Sea, his outlining of the actual beach – Non Nuoc below us, where US officers once had a facility: Bae My An further north, site of a former helicopter base; My Khe, incorporating the city swimming areas – is patient and courteous, but lacking the passion he shows for emperors and deities and higher morals. It is as though he has never quite got my request for a war tour, or else hasn’t an inkling how films can overrun a person, like a small country by a much larger one.

I decide to name names. “A-pock-lips?” Tung Phuc says of the one movie that might help him understand. In the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City they sell t-shirts emblazoned with the film title. Here, near the source of that particular up-the-river tale, a local has never even heard of it? Tung inquires politely about the term. “A kind of prophesy,” I answer with sudden regret. “Usually of doom and destruction.”


2. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

A cyclo driver is hawking a tour of the old capital. He pedals along the curb while I straddle the sidewalk, making for a trophy display of war detritus. Tanks bearing unit numbers on their shells, Hueys fire-gutted and skeletal, along with insect-shaped artillery weapons, barrels aimed at the sky, rust on a lawn. Behind the display are elegant traditional buildings, now museums; adjacent is the north wall of the Imperial Enclosure, which houses the ‘Forbidden Purple City,’ former residence of emperors. Those walls, like the walls of the citadel itself – ten kilometres of city-fortress, encased in a moat – are pockmarked and scarred, as if from a pout of smallpox, once a common slayer of Asian royalty.

Hue is a near religious site for Vietnamese. Until 1968 the city’s imperial splendours, by then largely architectural, spared it being enlisted as a battleground. The Tet Offensive cancelled the privilege. In January of that year the Vietcong snuck across the bridges and occupied the citadel. At the end of the month the marines, in company with the South- Vietnamese army, resolved to take it back. The battle lasted twenty-six days. Ten thousand residents died.

“You are interested in the war?” the cyclo driver asks. Thinking ruefully of Denang, I hesitate. My plan now is to revert to guidebook tourism. Visit the Imperial Museum and the Halls of the Mandarins, the Royal Library and the Nine Holy Cannons. Later I’ll head out to the tombs south of town, including the one for Minh Mang, which most visitors reach by riding a ferry across the Perfume River. My book describes it as “majestic.”

The week before, however, I happened to watch ‘Full Metal Jacket’ again for the first time in a decade. Earlier in the day I found myself scouring the outskirts of Hue for the industrial wastelands where the film’s battle sequences take place. I kept a look out for the intersection where Private Joker, the movie’s anti-hero, banters with a prostitute. (She has virtually the script’s only lines of dialogue by a Vietnamese. ‘Apocalypse Now’ offers Asians even less of a say.) I sought the drab buildings where the marines get cut down by a sniper, who proves to a teenage girl, and who they, in turn, hunt and eventually kill.

My eyes sought a parallel in reality despite knowing that ‘Full Metal Jacket’ was filmed in England. Stanley Kubrick did not care for travel, and instead spent millions first recreating Hue, and then re-destroying it, in a dockyard outside London. “We worked from still photographs of Hue in 1968,” the director explained. “Now, not every bit of it was right, but some of the buildings were absolute carbon copies of the outer industrial areas… We had demolition guys in there for a week, laying charges… Then we had a wrecking ball there for two months, with the art director telling the operator which hole to knock in which building… All in all,” Kubrick concluded, “a tremendous set dressing and rubble job.”

“I might be,” I finally answer the cyclo driver. “Were you here for it?”

“I was a boy,” he replies. “Eight-years-old. Our house near gate where Americans enter. My whole life, I live in Hue.”

Dismounting, the man introduces himself simply as Tran. Tran’s hair is dishevelled and his shirt-collar is frayed. He ties his pants with a cut of rope. His eyes, though, are clear and his handshake is firm. He tips the seat forward for me to climb into, his flip-flops clacking. Tran says he is forty-three, with a wife and two children. I, coincidently, am the same.

Cyclos, or pedi-cabs, place the passenger seat before the rider, making eye contact difficult. For much of the hour tour my guide is a voice in my ear and a mild scent of cigarettes and unwashed clothing in my nostrils. Unlike Tung Phuc in Denang, Tran knows exactly what I am seeking. He documents the Battle of Hue that he experienced in February 1968, a boy elated and terrified through days of mortar fire and flames and nights of sirens and smoke. He indicates where he and his friends followed marines up an alley – the soldiers had heavy boots and big behinds – in search of nesting Vietcong.

He pedals out a causeway in Tinh Tam Lake to detail a sniper exchange he tried to sneak a look at, narrowly missing a bullet. Tran also points down a road where he joined a frantic effort to clear the floor of a bombed house. They found the baby beneath a collapsed wall, its face blue.

“No school for a month,” he says. “A strange holiday.”

But then his own house was shelled, and a sister and grandmother killed. There was also an uncle who had been executed by the Vietcong during their occupation. Afterwards, city dwellers unearthed mass graves of collaborators. No one talks much about those deaths, though: the Vietcong eventually won the war, and became the liberators.

“And your parents?” I have to ask.

He halts the cyclo in a neighbourhood of detached homes. I step down from my perch so we can talk beneath a small pagoda, its upper floor converted into a pillbox for soldiers or police. Kids kick a soccer ball around us.

Tran removes a photo from his shirt pocket. Though cracked and creased, the face of a handsome man in the uniform of the South-Vietnamese army is still visible. The resemblance between father and son isn’t striking; it is disconcerting, an abrupt collapse less of time than distance, as if what was up on a screen is now down off it, smiling and watching me admire his image, captured by a camera.

“Your father?” I say stupidly.

The quaver in his reply is impossible to ignore. “He was away from Hue during battle,” he says. “He die fighting in DMZ in 1972.”

“You look like him.”

“I miss him very much,” he says, dropping his gaze. Though he touches the top of the photo with his fingertips, as if to assure his parent of his enduring regard, Tran does not demand its return. I hand it back anyway.

When a ball bounces off the cab my guide exchanges words with the boys. I use the pretext to ask if these children are aware that the nicks in the wall behind us are from gunfire, or that soldiers likely died in the pill-box over our heads.

His voice drops to the whisper he used when relaying his uncle’s execution. “Only a little,” he says. After 1975 war memories became sanctioned and censored, credible only if they validated the victors. And who is Tran to inform these youngsters about their own history? He is a cyclo driver because his father wore the wrong uniform. He holds up his pants with rope.

He tells his daughter much of what he has told me, he confesses, though not everything.

She has the top grades in her class, and may qualify for a spot at university. He is teaching her the English he learned before unification, to help her succeed. His ten-yearold son is interested only in soccer and video games.

We shake hands again. It doesn’t even occur to me to ask if he has heard of a film named after a superior brand of bullet, one designed not to fragment inside its target, and which was shot in various locations, including an abandoned dockyards outside London. This is Hue, and it is no movie.


3. The Quiet American (remake, 2002)

In Hoi An, I stroll to the river at sunset, easy in my stride. The evening – and my head – will be free of cinema. The town is too dreamy, too much a wishful reverie of antiquity, to conjure curved beaches or industrial wastelands. Streets of pagodas and assembly halls wind down to a riverside lined with boats. Shops sell silk slippers and traditional dresses, called au-dias, tailored for tourists in an afternoon. I will hire no guide and ask no locals about their lives. *Jarhead* is back in my hotel, replaced by a novel set in New York.

But then, emerging near a footbridge, I squint in recognition of the setting. Assuming it to be from a photograph – I have never been in Hoi An before – I cross the bridge, remarking on the absence of lanterns along the famous covered bridge fifty meters further up river. Again, I wonder why I would expect these decorations. I am seated on the terrace of a restaurant off the landing when, once more, my eye insists. This time, it provides details. An older man is crossing the footbridge at night, a lantern-lit arch behind him. He is being escorted to a table in a café, where he can watch for the friend he has just betrayed.

Thomas Fowler, as played by Michael Caine. The Daikow Bridge in Saigon, as recreated in Hoi An. The penultimate scene in *The Quiet American,* no less, with Fowler waiting to dine with the agent Alden Pyle in Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown, once the most notorious neighbourhood in the country, rife with brothels and opium dens and ‘taxi girls’ on the prowl. The apotheosis of smoky, sensual, decadent Asia – as seen through the imagination of Graham Greene, at least. Greene, of course, was a legendary cinemafile.

An elderly waitress serves me a beer. “Was there?… “I begin to say, indicating the footbridge. My tone is apologetic.

“Mr Michael Caine,” she answers.


“Make movie, right here in Hoi An!”

Her pride confuses me until I recall a magazine article extolling Phillip Noyce’s remake of the original 1958 adaptation as one of the first western films about the war to receive permission to shoot inside Vietnam.

A young English couple order food at the next table. The man flips through a pirated copy of *The Quiet American.* “Fowler is having second thoughts about letting Pyle be assassinated,” he says to his companion. “He crosses back over the bridge there, hoping to intervene.” “Caine was brilliant, don’t you think?” the woman says.

“He was ten years too old for the part.” “Brendan Fraser didn’t seem, I don’t know, American enough,” she says.

Though I feign reading my book, my thoughts have already joined the conversation.

Brendan Fraser was terrific as Pyle, I counter silently, capturing how certain men bury their ambition and zeal in excess amiability and the body language of a harmless old hound.

Soon the couple are running through the list. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is the consensus masterpiece. Both remember the Russian roulette scene in ‘The Deer Hunter’ and Jon Voight’s performance in ‘Coming Home.’ (“Who walks into the ocean at the end?” she asks. “Bruce Dern,” he answers.) The man hated ‘Casualties of War,’ which the woman hasn’t seen. He appreciates the boot camp sequences in ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ and thinks Kubrick was a more perceptive critic of the war than Coppola. She wonders about Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon,’ which he can’t recall very well, except the ending.

“‘Platoon’ is too didactic,” I say. Out loud, apparently.

The man smiles. We exchange greetings.

“The first Vietnam film I ever saw was called ‘The Losers,'” I continue. “It was showing at a drive-in outside Toronto. An insanely violent story of bikers who get drafted, or maybe volunteer, and who all wind up dead. I was maybe twelve, and had never seen anything like it. I still remember one scene… ”

We talk movies for two hours, ordering more food and beer from the waitress, whose face I barely register and whose excitement over the appearance of Michael Caine in her town I forget to query, mindful, perhaps, that her comments would likely shift into a sorrowful account of her own troubles. Our manner is relaxed and intimate, as though we are old friends, typical of the encounters one has while travelling in foreign countries, and of the effect chatting about films has on people. Night darkens beyond the terrace, and lanterns are indeed lit along the riverbank. It’s a charming effect, and one I have to believe if for our benefit.

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