I once spent over seven hours on the back of a motorbike to go from the tourist town of Hoi An south on National Route 1 to Son My in central Vietnam, and back again. The trip was an endurance test in how uncomfortable small motorbikes can be on large European frames on Vietnamese roads. Travelling on National Route 1 (or 1A), which runs 2300kms from near the Chinese border to Ca Mau Province in the Mekong Delta on the Gulf of Thailand, was an education in Southeast Asian driving habits. After dark, the roads are a dangerous place to be with local traffic being what it is. Road fatalities are all too common during daylight and worse at night. It was a long day in the saddle all to see a memorial to a brutal massacre.
On that occasion back in 2006, I’d gone because when in Ho Chi Minh City I had read an article in the English language newspaper, the Viet Nam News, that 15 students from US high schools were engaged in volunteer work in Quang Ngai Province, central Vietnam. The programme, part of a Vermont-based organization, sends US students to developing countries to teach English, build houses for local residents and to do charity jobs during their summer vacation, paid for by their parents. When they arrived in mid-June to stay at Son My village, none were aware that more than 500 civilians were massacred there by US soldiers during the American war. Whether this was an omission on the part of the organizers or the Vietnamese is unclear, likely the name Son My registered no alarm with those in the US, for the massacre is known incorrectly, as the My Lai massacre. Later all were taken to the local museum commemorating this shocking event, resulting in many being reduced to tears, the article said.
In 1989, Yorkshire Television made a documentary called Four Hours in My Lai. There’s also a book with the same title. I’ve not seen the film, but I can only assume it would make for harrowing viewing. The US war in Vietnam was all the more graphic because it was a superpower against a largely peasant nation and was covered on film like no other war to that time, where the citizens of a democracy were destroying another country in order to “save it”. The French war in Indochina was depicted largely by stills photography by the likes of Magnum’s co-founder, Robert Capa, who was killed there, whereas the American war was beamed live globally on television with home audiences exposed daily to stories and pictures of atrocity and terror.
Son My is 130kms south of Hoi An, one of the places where I stayed during my first visit to Vietnam. During the American war Son My was located in South Vietnam. The museum at the site, the Son My Vestige Site, is sometimes visited by tourists, but more usually by the Vietnamese. Thang from Hoi An agreed to take me on his motorbike. We swung by his house to pick up the helmets. His wife and daughter, a pretty teenager, were doing the laundry on the porch in a series of plastic buckets. Thang announced where we were going and his wife smiled and nodded at me. We headed off on the same route I’d taken earlier to the nearby World Heritage site of My Son, only this time we were going much further.
After an hour my backside was killing me, no matter how I moved around I just couldn’t get comfortable. A small moto, or scooter, may be okay for local travel about town, but is not ideal for provincial travel. We stopped for gas and I welcomed the opportunity to stand up and relieve the pressure. Unfortunately, a moto only holds three litres, so the welcome relief was short lived. Later we stopped at a roadside juice bar, a hand operated juice press used for sugar cane. Here I encountered a delicate problem. Cane is squeezed through the press and out comes the juice. Ice is then cut from a block with a rusty saw and placed by hand into a sack, where it is beaten with a wooden club, crushed and then placed, again by hand, into the glass with the cane juice, a straw and dash of lime.
I sat down at the roadside, there being no seats, and watched this process intently. Thang told the seated Vietnamese where we were going. None spoke English. They stared at me and I became rather self-conscious. Before I realized, Thang had ordered cane juice and I was presented with a full glass of saleable product. He was paying, and I was reluctant to refuse least I offend his sensibilities. I was also conscious of being stared at and spoken about and also of our destination, then known by all.
Here was my dilemma, to drink this risked almost certain gastro enteric suicide, for no tourist stomach could possibly withstand the potential hazards lurking therein. To refuse seemed rude. I realized my best option was to drink the juice before the ice melted, so I did, horrified, leaving as much residue behind as possible. For the rest of the trip, and for 36 hours afterwards, I envisaged red hot lightning bolts tearing my intestines to shreds.
Son My lies 14kms east of the provincial centre of Quang Ngai town, capital of Quang Ngai Province, towards the coast. Two thousand years ago this area was home to the Sa Huỳnh culture, thought to be predecessors of the Cham kingdom. In this part of Vietnam, the South-Central Coast, the land is flat, the coastline straight, and to the west, bound by mountains. We turned left at an intersection marked by a huge tree. Thang’s phone rang, he apologized and pulled over. I got off the bike, any excuse fine by me, and waited. I heard a terrible screech of metal on road. I turned to see a Vietnamese lying on the road, his bike several metres away. In negotiating the same corner but coming from the opposite direction, he had lost control and fallen off his motorbike. Bystanders rushed to help. He quickly got up indicating he was alright. He appeared uninjured. It was the first of four accidents I would see that day, and easily the least serious.
We continued down a busy side road lined with shops, an internet café and passed a small market. After that we were surrounded by rice fields on both sides, all a brilliant green in the sun. It was late afternoon and school children in their gleaming white uniform shirts and dark blue bottoms, many on bicycles, were going home. We passed the Son My Health Centre, a two-storey white structure before pulling up outside a large square marble building set back from the road, the area paved with concrete bench seats all named, potted bushes and flowers, the Son My Vestige Site, a solid block building.
I bought a ticket and two bottles of water, one for Thang, all of which cost 18,000 VND, less than USD1. It was ten past four and the site closed at five o’clock, I didn’t have long. The My Lai (pronounced Me-Lie not My-Lay) massacre, took place near here on the morning of 16 March 1968. My Lai is the collective name given to several villages in the area. The massacre at My Lai, one of several horrific massacres reported during the American war, actually occurred at Tu Cung, one of these villages. It was a watershed in the history of modern US combat, and a turning point in US public perception of the Vietnam War.
The museum is on the second floor. I climbed the steps inside and on reaching the top was confronted by the wall of remembrance listing all the names of the victims. I was immediately struck by the sheer number. They are recorded by family groups; their ages are also given. The names are engraved in five columns on black marble. Some have their age given as one year, though many were younger, being just months old. The oldest person I saw was in their late 70s. Entire generations of some families were wiped out.
Adjacent to the wall of remembrance are photos of two US servicemen, Thompson and Colburn, the helicopter pilot and gunner who interceded to prevent more civilian deaths as though given a place of honour. Aerial photos of Son My before the massacre and models of some hamlets are displayed. Display cases with artillery shells, mortar rounds and ammunition fired by US soldiers at Tu Cung line one wall. A 500kg bomb dropped on Tu Cung by US planes after the massacre to level the crime scene yet failed to go off sits in the corner. There are helmets left by the troops, and Inox mugs, the aluminium drinking containers, standard issue for US forces; looking as new as the day they were issued. There are photos of the leading culprits; officers and soldiers, the rogue’s gallery.
On the wall hung family portraits of some of the victims. Earthen cooking ware, all that remained of villagers’ homes after they were torched and some crockery from the Nguyen Thi Tham household, are displayed. At this point a Vietnamese man approached me and asked what I was doing. I was suddenly concerned that I’d committed some egregious error in taking notes. I replied that I wished to know what had happened. He considered this response thoughtfully. He then asked where I had come from that day to get to the museum, and where else I was going in Vietnam, which I answered truthfully. I asked where he was from and he told me he lived near HCMC and was traveling north visiting some of the significant sites in Vietnam. He asked where I was from, so I told him, which he repeated out loud twice, smiling he then nodded and walked away. Days later I saw him again at the Vinh Moc tunnels near the former border that marked North and South Vietnam, where he said hello. During my tour another Vietnamese looked at me note taking but said nothing, just smiled. I was the only Westerner visiting the museum that afternoon.
The museum contains many overseas newspaper clippings reporting the massacre, including one from the British Sunday Times. Nearby are pictures of six of the killers, four white and two black men. I was struck by the picture of one of the African-Americans. The photo was taken long after his army service had ended. In his late forties, it showed a man pudgy in the face with shoulder length permed hair, thinning on top. I was immediately struck by the look in his face. They say the eyes are the window to the soul. His eyes were blank. He looked ill. Here was a man consumed by his conscious, racked by guilt and haunted by the actions of his past. He had probably removed every mirror in his house years ago no longer being able to look at himself. He was not a man confident and assured and wanting to stand by his actions.
There are a series of photos displayed of the numerous victims from the massacre, no doubt the work of Habearle, the company photographer. Mr Truong Tho, aged 72, machine-gunned after being thrown into a well. Mrs Pham Thi Phan, an elderly woman with the muzzle of an M-16 pressed into her cheek. Mrs Chin Tau must have been on her knees when shot as she was curled up in a foetal position. In death she had slumped forward and bitten into the brim of the hat. Emerging from underneath the hat was her brain matter.
Troung Nhi was with his infant son. The father tried to shield him from the soldiers, but they killed them both anyway. Mr Pham Phuc lay in front of his house shot in the abdomen the impact of the bullets ripping open his stomach and his intestines spilling out onto the ground. The well-known photo of the mass victims where they are all lying on a path was taken at Tu Cung and is the one usually displayed of “My Lai”. In fact, the largest single killing site was Thuan Yen ditch where 170 villagers died.
The only US “casualty” shot himself in the foot with his pistol. He is seen being assisted by two others into a helicopter for evacuation. There are photos of some of the survivors including a colour photo, one of the few, of Mr Do Ba, saved by the intervention of Thompson’s helicopter at Thuan Yen ditch. He must have been very young in 1968. Later the survivors were rounded up and sent to nearby “concentration camps” according to the Vietnamese, strategic hamlets according to the US army.
Aerial photos taken by US reconnaissance planes show the area one month after the massacre took place. US troops returned later and were photographed standing among the ruins of the now deserted villages. One year later the US bombed the entire area as they sought to erase the evidence. An entire display cabinet is filled with handwritten eye witness statements from survivors attesting to events that day.
Near the exit there are photos of Ron Ridenhour—a soldier serving in Vietnam who, acting independently, who wrote to military investigators and politicians including President Nixon, outlining events from interviewing US soldiers present that day. Some of his published work was displayed at the museum. Another soldier also wrote to authorities echoing Ridenhour. The officer chosen to investigate the charges made in that letter was a young career officer, Major Colin Powell, recently arrived at the headquarters of the division whose troops perpetrated the massacre, and later to become the nation’s top soldier and secretary of state in the first George W. Bush administration. Powell wrote: “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
One would have to wonder what would happen if relations had been bad. Eighteen months after the massacre 25 soldiers were charged with premeditated murder but only one was convicted, his sentence quickly reduced to house arrest and released early. The unit’s commanding officer absolved himself of blame, fully admitting, once the statute of limitations had expired, that he perjured himself in the witness box.
Much space is given over to the rebuilding that has occurred in the area since that time. The many agricultural projects, the building of the medical centre with donated money from US individuals, US veterans visiting to lay wreaths and burn incense, visits by nearly every major Vietnamese leader since the event including Pham Van Dong and Du Muoi, the architect of Vietnam’s free market economic reforms and events of Memorial Day 16 March 2003, which marked 35 years since the tragedy.
It was five o’clock and time to go. Outside children played in the museum grounds and said hello to me. On the road back, it got dark and we rode along the shoulder of the highway on the look-out for wandering water buffalo, hard to spot, slow moving. Tank-like in battleship grey. We shuddered every time a bus passed by close enough to reach out and touch, unsure if they’d seen us or not. At one point we saw a motorcyclist prone on the roadside apparently struck by one of these passing vehicles, and later another a motorcyclist was dead in a deep ditch that marked roadworks. We got back to Hoi An tired and barely able to walk. Trang and I said our goodbyes. Seven hours on a motorbike had been a very long day, in all kinds of ways.