This was our life. A soldiers life. One day there would be nothing left of it.
Duong Thu Huong, Vietnamese Writer
What remained was sorrow, the immense sorrow, the sorrow of having survived. The sorrow of war.
Bao Ninh, Vietnamese writer
I took a trip to the second hand market that specialised in War souvenirs. The place itself was insufficiently small to be busy even if it was too crowded to be bustling. Amongst the stalls of reproduction war minutiae were counterfeit Nike sports bags, and a veritable library of classic books on Vietnam. Most of which were already residing in my rucksack having been purchased along the trip through the country. I even saw the Quiet American in German. Posters of David Beckham were everywhere. You could date the season by his hairstyles and increasing number of tattoos. There seemed to be a preponderance of his pre Mohican, post shaved head era. Less noticeable were images of Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson. There were even lacquered wooden carvings of Mickey Mouse and framed reproductions of the Mona Lisa inexplicably for sale.
Yet all the sellers had eyes for was the most important cultural icon of them all in Vietnam: Abraham Lincolns face on a greenback. I remembered what a Vietnamese man had told me all those miles away in Halong Bay: ‘In the dollar we trust’.
It was the war bric-a-brac that interested me the most. It wasn’t so much the Sorrow of War on show, but the ephemera of war. Every accessory you could think of associated with the war was on sale.
It was the sort of market that needed, no demanded, an unsmiling character with darting eyes and a scar on his cheek to call us over and whisper conspiratorially, ‘you wanna see something really interesting?’ I wouldn’t have cared if we had been told good honest lies so long as it made curious.
But there was no-one. For once the truth was far less compelling than fiction.
It shouldn’t have been that way. There were GI, NVA and VC memorabilia everywhere.
Except that it was all fake.
A man showed me a rubble of rusting Zippo lighters bearing legends such as ‘Danang 68’, and ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. I willed them to be real. ‘These aren’t real’ I said to the stallholder more in search of a truthful denial than a confirmation. His face looked offended. But it was a practiced hurt, and like his offerings was just as fake.
Even in his rebuttal it seemed hard for him to keep up the pretence of asserting these were genuine war relics. A niggling smirk kept re-appearing suggesting a boredom with the subterfuge that went with his line of work. ‘Where you from’ he asked looking at me for the first time. ‘England. Not America’ I replied emphasising the distinction.
‘I have photographs for you’ he countered producing an old Nike Trainer box (was the box fake too?). He removed the lid to reveal a mess of old black and white photographs that were square with white trim, twice as large as postage stamps but not as expensive. ‘Look at these’ he said with the satisfaction that came from my evident interest ‘These taken from dead soldier wallets.’ I couldn’t tell whether he was saying it with a sneer or pride. Either way the statement was far more unappealing than the lie.
They were mostly of Asian sweethearts wearing sleeveless tops and short skirts, in posed angles that bordered on the verge of indecorousness. Shots that would have looked racy in the late 60’s now looked virtuous and genteel, all of which were now imbued with the sadness of hindsight. I noticed that hardly of the girls were smiling.
I picked up one of a fresh faced girl with long black hair standing in front of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Having been to the site I know how evocative and ethereal it isThey seemed realistic. How exactly can you fake a photograph? But what were they realistic about? They couldn’t have been plucked from a dead GI’s wallet on the battlefield, could they? It seemed appropriate in Saigon that even a bona fide photograph could still be mistaken for something it wasn’t.
I considered buying the Angkor Wat girl but only because my desire to own something from the war was greater than my need for its use. Thankfully, I came to my senses – for if it was real, what did I need a photo of a dead soldier’s sweetheart for anyway? Carrying it around with me in a morbid fascination was only one step up from looting the dead soldier’s wallet surely.
There were medals that looked too authentic to be real, Battalion patches that were too aged to be old, and compasses too oxidised to be eroded. Shoe boxes of GI dog-tags were marshalled for inspection. These small rectangular identifiers spoke of far more than their mere actuality, even if their veracity was uncertain. Some were rusty, others were chipped. A few had what looked like bullet holes in them. They couldn’t have been real could they? I asked one stall-holder who replied in no uncertain terms that they were. Yet his fastidious certainty was a corrupting predicament that debilitated. For if he told the truth then surely no-one would have bought the reproductions. I, on the other hand was now simply weary of being lied to by overbearing marketers.
It felt there were more Zippos for sale in this market than there had been owned in the whole war. I looked at a dishevelled cardboard box that contained hundreds more of the metallic lighters. The inscriptions were now clichés, when once they were valid aphorisms, even if the hand that inscribed them was now Vietnamese instead of American. ‘CND’, ‘Born to kill’, ‘I am the unwilling led by the unqualified doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful’. They looked too perfect in their perfectly ripened and rusted states.
In Vietnam, even in venerable fakery the truth behind these replicas held sadness. Apparently Eurasian children – the kids born from GI liaisons with Vietnamese women used to acquire these metal lighters. The reason being because they had no official birth certificate, and no official documentation, they used these embodiments of America, as a type of birth certificate. It was to claim that they were used by an absent father. The falsehood they perpetuated was so sad as to be believable.
Just like the photographs I saw of what I took to be Asian girlfriends. Presumably, they were Asian girlfriends of long dead, or long departed GI’s. These black and white squares with white trim spoke of passionate and illicit love affairs conducted during a murderous conflict. One where soldiers and civilians lived from day to day, and long distance responsibilities and relationships were trumped the immediacy of lust. Regardless of the veracity of them that was what they represented. I picked another such photo. It was of a sad looking Vietnamese girl sitting on a motorbike. On the back it simply read, ‘Saigon, ‘68’.
What creativity must it have taken to produce this enigmatic leitmotiv of the sorrow of war? Someone must have staged the photo to make it look like an abandoned lover. For, if they hadn’t, her evident melancholy would have haunted me. Or at least made me imagine the story of her of grief. I wondered how Somerset Maugham would have framed the tale?
But maybe there was a place for imitations imitating life. Maybe the fact these items had been artificially aged or staged to make them look as authentic as possible was the reason tourists bought them. It was typical of the industriousness of Vietnam that even imitations needed remodelling to look as real as possible.
After all wasn’t that what they did with Uncle Ho’s body, embalmed for public consumption in a granite mausoleum up in Hanoi?
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