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Back to Vietnam

December 4, 2005

I’ve never been back to Vietnam. The war ruined the places I remember. And I couldn’t imagine going back and facing Vietnamese I knew when I was a young soldier there and saying “xin loi—sorry that my country tried to destroy your country. Sorry that so many Americans didn’t give a damn about Vietnam.”

But an art show in New York featuring work by Dinh Q. Le, a Vietnamese-American now living in Ho Chi Minh City, stirred up a new stew of thought.

“Come back to My Lai…for its beaches,” Le provocatively wrote on a tourism-poster view of surf and a pacific sea—so much like a beach near where my army unit was stationed in the early advisory days, before destroying villages and uprooting Vietnamese society became a relentless, monstrous mission.

“So sorry to hear that you are still not over us. Come back to Vietnam for closure!” Le scrawled in white script atop an inviting photo of three lovely young women in traditional white ao dais serenely waiting at a bus stop—so much like scenes I still vividly recall.

“Come back to Saigon! We promised we will not spit on you,” he wrote on a photo of a crowd of Vietnamese on motor scooters poised to race across an intersection where the startled viewer seems to be caught in mid-stride just as the light changes. That scene transported me right back into the middle of Saigon traffic in 1963.

Near these startling travel posters on display in a show at the Asia Society called “Vietnam: Destination for the New Millennium” hangs a “quilt” of snapshots loosely sewn together of smiling Vietnamese men, women and children at weddings, family gatherings, Saigon scenic spots. On the backs of the photos, Le wrote in Vietnamese, French and English snippets of diaries, letters and poems conveying tragic consequences of people trampled by war.

In these tiny photos, which Le found in second-hand shops, I saw people I might have known, full of laughter and delight in life, before their world exploded. I have photos just like these of people I met in Vietnam, whose fates are equally unknown.

“The photographs came to represent the lives we had before and during the war, a way for me to reclaim what was lost,” Le said in the exhibit catalog. Born in Vietnam, educated in America, Le has tried a variety of creative ways to bridge two warring societies.

The exhibit at the Asia Society, plus similar work on display at The Drawing Center in New York, includes photomontages of Hollywood movie war scenes, news photos and portraits of Vietnamese and Americans literally woven together in patterns he learned from an aunt, who was a grass mat weaver.

Le’s most startling works are sculptures of happy Siamese twins and cutely designed clothes for two-headed children—a head-spinning comment on birth defects that Vietnamese believe were caused by Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals used by the US military in what people in Vietnam call the American War. “Instead of being shunned or ignored by society,” Le wrote in a note about war victims whose wounds are birth defects, “they should be honored for their suffering.”

If I never go back to Vietnam, Le’s artwork provided a thoroughly thought-provoking memory trip.

For more information: www.asiasociety.org, www.drawingcenter.org

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