The motorbike taxi sliced a hairpin turn down a cobbled back alley then sputtered to a stop. I handed the driver 50,000 đồng and thanked him for the bumpy, exhilarating ride. Dropped off in the Ba Đình district in Hanoi, I began searching for a peculiar artifact from American and Vietnamese history––Huu Tiep Lake. I reached a clearing overlooked by sprawling apartments and the lake emerged into view. Its murky water resembled a black void––the contents dark and hidden. A fisherman dive-bombed a lure into the mucky water. Floating near the far side of the lake were the mangled remnants of a steel military airplane. On December 27, 1972, Việt Cộng forces shot down an American B-52 bomber soaring over Hanoi during U.S. Air Force Operation Linebacker II, and the aircraft’s wreckage hurtled down and plunged into Huu Tiep.
I walked to the far side of the lake and found an iron placard describing in gold writing how “The U.S. imperialist air raid against Hanoi…led the Vietnamese people’s anti-U.S. resistance…to complete victory.” The Pentagon had a strikingly different account of this air raid over Hanoi: former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger claimed that the North Vietnamese Army was “on their knees” after American forces dropped twenty thousand tons of explosives across North Vietnam that same day. As an American travelling in Vietnam, conflicting narratives like these muddled any chances for me to understand the already opaque Vietnam––in Vietnam they call it the American––War.
If any American combatants survived the B-52 bomber’s crash landing into Huu Tiep Lake, they would’ve been taken to Hỏa Lò Prison, comically referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton” by American soldiers for its unaccommodating conditions. Today, Hỏa Lò’s gatehouse stands as a museum in Hanoi recounting the prison’s extensive history––it was used by French colonists to house Vietnamese political prisoners in the early twentieth century and later by the North Vietnamese to hold U.S. prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. American POWs detained in Hỏa Lò recount daily interrogations followed by brutal torture techniques. U.S. Navy pilot Harry Jenkins describes being tied up and “hung from his wrists from a meat hook” in the prison. Notable politician and Navy flier John McCain recalls guards who cracked ribs and broke arms while detained in Hỏa Lò in his book Six years in the Hanoi Hilton, as well as meals consisting of spoonful’s of gristle with noodles.
Glass shards and barbed wire still lined the prison’s cream yellow concrete walls as I walked through the museum entrance. The stories depicted in the prison museum could not be more different than those told by American POWs. One room in the museum had pictures of captive Americans playing basketball and contemplating chess moves in wooden chairs. Another room displayed photographs of soldiers beaming for a prison snapshot. Walls were donned with Americans enjoying everything from fish dinners with rice to painting. Were these pictures staged to belie hospitable conditions and treatment in Hỏa Lò, or did Americans combatants actually receive decent room service at the Hanoi Hilton? When war history is written by the participants, accounts become blurred when each side tells the stories they want remembered.
A half mile from Huu Tiep Lake is Vietnam’s B-52 Victory Museum, featuring an aircraft boneyard on the museum’s front lawn with buckled B-52 scraps and towering antimissile turrets pointing at the sky. Walking through the warfare wreckage and past a historic North Vietnamese military control station used to “shoot down four B-52s during Operation Linebacker II”, I entered the museum doors and was greeted by a mural depicting an American plane aflame and nosediving. Artwork throughout the museum illustrated U.S. bombings across North Vietnam. One painting displayed a Vietnamese woman desperately clutching her newborn as an American air raid showered mortars from above. These graphic depictions are substantiated––experts on the war in Vietnam estimate nearly two million Vietnamese civilian casualties. The Vietnam Veteran’s memorial in Washington D.C., which captures the immense toll of the war with thousands of fallen American soldiers’ names etched on a smooth black wall, glosses over the millions of Vietnamese civilian deaths that resulted from the twenty-year conflict.
With historical accounts from Vietnamese museums and war memorials differing starkly from American versions, one may worry that grudges are held against Americans visiting Vietnam. However, nothing could be further from the truth: Vietnamese citizens treat the war as a historical relic buried deep in their past. In the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter is Obama’s Restaurant, which commemorates the former president’s trip to Vietnam with a placard of Obama enjoying a local beer hanging outside. Vietnamese citizens filled the streets in excitement when the former president slurped Bún chả, a Vietnamese soup filled with grilled pork belly and rice noodles and chili peppers, in Hanoi in May 2016. American veterans returning to Vietnam for rehabilitative purposes are shocked by the country’s reconciliatory attitude towards the war. Joining a pickup soccer game in Hanoi, my Vietnamese teammates asked me in broken English “where you are coming from?” I waveringly responded “Mỹ”, the Vietnamese word for America. They smiled with agog eyes––foreigners were rare in the city, and the young athletes lacked any personal memories from the war.
When history is written by the victors, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. But there was no true victor in the war in Vietnam: thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese lost their lives in a bloody, bungled twenty-year conflict. Stories told from the war reflect contrasting versions of everything from prisoner of war treatment in Hỏa Lò to military confrontations. Though the United States and Vietnam want to both forget and understand the war, accounts from each side reflect a predisposed interest to legitimize their own actions during the war rather than understand why the conflict endured for two decades––and occurred in the first place. As I hopped back on a motorbike and sped away from Huu Tiep Lake, I glanced back at it––a reminder of a mistake-ridden conflict nearly forty years ago. Though Huu Tiep continues to swallow and erode the downed B-52’s carcass, it remains a lasting symbol of a war lost in the muck of proclivities.