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The Flip Side of Vietnam

SO THIS VIETNAMESE GUY TAKES THIS AMERICAN GUY TO A WAR MUSEUM...

The mangled remains of a B-52 and two fighter jets are piled against a tree in the courtyard, looking like a Cubist sculpture. Nearby are examples of the guns that brought them down. At the museum's entrance stands a vintage Soviet MiG, conveniently intact and polished.

Hanoi's Army Museum covers military history from the 1930's to the present, although, interestingly, there's almost nothing on the late-seventies conflicts with Cambodia and China. The full treatment is reserved for Western invaders and their "wicked puppet regimes." The displays are compelling--photos and dioramas; helmets, dog tags, and other captured enemysupplies--and the English labels intriguing, if not entirely reliable.

Vuong and I followed along behind an American couple, who provided commentary. Each time the husband read a placard describing a certain battle or campaign he gave a little pff and told his wife what had really happened.

"Bullshit," he'd say. "Khe Sanh took only five hundred of our guys, not ten thousand. They lost ten thousand, and they call it a 'total success'?Pff. That's a goddamn lie."

He wasn't having a good time at all. But for me, the inflated language and the unvarying accounts of "decisive victories" made the Army Museum fascinating. Certainly the exhibits elide a great deal. Yet if you ignore the most glaring errors, you find a completeness in the differing histories--a filling in of gaps, if not always with facts then at least with perceptions. ("PFFFF!" my compatriot might add.)

Vuong, meanwhile, quietly read descriptions in Vietnamese that were three times longer than the English. I wondered aloud what I was missing. Not much, he told me, just a few more place-names and dates, and some lines about the glory of liberation. At my request he translated some pumped-up patriotic bits and I was surprised to hear a slightly sarcastic tone in his reading, an offhand irony that I'd naïvely believed was unique to Americans.

MEEP-MEEP

Everyone in Hanoi has a motorbike, and every motorbike is right now honking its horn.

This is usually a newcomer's first impression. Five years ago, longtimers will tell you, it was all bicycles--bells ringing like antique telephones--and three years ago it was 50cc scooters. Then came the motorbikes, and, now, the roaring choppers big as water buffalo.

You see a few Suzukis, a few Vespas, and a lot of $3,000 Honda Dreams. In a country where cash doesn't hold its value nearly as well as a 27-inch Trinitron, urban Vietnamese are buying up imports as much for investment as forindulgence. Today nearly three-quarters of Hanoians own color TV's, up from 10 percent in 1992.

Still, the disparity between city and country is striking: 74 percent of Hanoi residents have refrigerators, compared with 1 percent of the rural population. Four out of five city dwellers own motorbikes. In the country only one in seven do. But I guarantee you that every motorbike has a functioning horn.

The horn, as all visitors to Asia learn, is the most important working part of any vehicle--because horn-blowing sheathes you like a prophylactic from harm. At least that's the mind-set of most drivers here. Blow your magic horn and nothing bad can happen. Cutting across three lanes of traffic?Lay on the horn and no one will hit you. Go ahead, speed down a crowded one-lane street: if you make enough noise, you'll be fine. A vigorous horn renders moot those bothersome laws of physics--which, let's face it, only slow you down anyway.

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