I had known my neighbor Dan Adam nearly 30 years the first time I asked him about the Vietnam War. I knew he was a veteran. For decades, his wife had sat in a pew near my family in our small Vermont church. The two of us were having lunch at a local restaurant that has the word “pizza” in its name, but in fact has a menu as encyclopedic as a Boston diner. I brought up the nearly 50-year-old conflict because Ken Burns’s documentary about the war had recently aired on PBS. I was hesitant, either because I had known him so many years and never asked him a single question about his experience or because I thought I might be approaching a part of his life that was none of my business. Certainly, he had never volunteered a memory or anecdote.
He had seen the documentary, all 18 hours. “I always felt that I didn’t need to go back there,” he told me, “but the Ken Burns history showed me things I didn’t know.” He elaborated: “I came home and was really angry at the antiwar protesters. But now I know they were right. We were wrong to be there. I was angry at the wrong people.”
There are roughly 610,000 American veterans of the Vietnam War alive today, according to the American War Library. The vast majority of them, like Adam, are in their 70s. Many of them – again, like Adam – wonder if their respiratory problems or heart disease or myriad other ailments are the result of exposure to Agent Orange or attributable merely to the way age ravages us all. (In Adam’s case, the Veterans’ Administration ascribes his ailments to the defoliant.)
Adam saw a lot of combat because he was, among other things, a helicopter gunner, flying throughout 1965 and 1966. He was one of those young men who sat on their flak jackets or helmets while riding inside the choppers to protect their most private parts from ground fire, and who would land in a hot zone to retrieve the wounded. He saw friends killed and he saw helicopters crash.
“You’re in shock,” he recalled. “You were always scared, but something takes over and you do your job. You do whatever you’re supposed to do.”
My new novel, “The Red Lotus,” had been germinating for months before that lunch, but it began to poke its way up from the mud after I met with Dan Adam.
There are a variety of reasons I decided to write a novel about, in part, the legacies of the Vietnam War, but women and men like Adam are among them. There are people like him in both the United States and Vietnam, though the Vietnamese experience is worse in every imaginable way – for both the winners from the north and the losers from the south. For the noncombatants as well as the fighters. One thing I knew for certain before I started to write, however, was that Tim O’Brien and Karl Marlantes had already given us wrenching and powerful fiction about the experience of battle 50 years ago. Likewise, Bao Ninh and Viet Nguyen had written about the war and its aftermath from the Vietnamese perspective in such poignant novels as Ninh’s “The Sorrow of War” and Nguyen’s magnificent “The Sympathizer.” No one needed me to add to that shelf.
I was after something different, though when I started imagining the novel, I wasn’t sure precisely what. But I knew that I needed to see what Vietnam looks like today, and how it is different from the country where Adam — and the other American veterans I interviewed — once were deployed. And I needed to see it on the ground, the way I see the Vermont I call home: on a bike. And so my wife and I went on a bike tour in Vietnam.
There are a lot of reasons why riding has a profound effect on my writing. Someone — I’m no longer sure who — once suggested that the most undervalued tool a writer can have is a walk. For me, it’s a ride. When I’m alone on my bike in Vermont, I am always contemplating the novel I’m writing. My mind clears and I figure out how books will end and whether characters will live or die. Often, I’ll pull my iPhone from my cycling jersey and write entire scenes on the device.
It’s easy to find travel companies that manage bike tours in Vietnam. My sense is that if you’re capable of riding 20 miles at a time in the United States, they can accommodate you. The most I rode on any day in Vietnam was 35 miles, less than I ride most summer days when I am home; the most aggressive ascent was about 3,000 feet. There are tours where the accommodations at night are five-star resorts and ones where the hotels are basic. Vietnam values its visitors: One of my guides told me he had a five-year university degree in tourism.
Riding in Vietnam proved instrumental to “The Red Lotus.” First of all, I saw the country in ways I never would in a tour bus or car. My wife and I spent not quite two weeks there, cycling mostly near Hue and Hoi An. We were outdoors, biking among rice patties and water buffaloes, chatting through translators with the people who lived and worked in both the villages and the cities. Among them? The architect whose home was destroyed during the Tet Offensive in 1968, and would spend nearly a decade after the war in a reeducation camp. The bicycle guide whose parents were both Viet Cong and worked for years constructing the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (“They’d build it,” he said to me as we rode side by side, “and you’d bomb it. They’d build it, you’d bomb it. That was their life.”).
I had wondered if the Vietnamese might harbor a grudge against Americans after what we had done to their country. Most historians agree that we dropped 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos — perhaps twice the tonnage the Allies dropped on Asia and Europe during the Second World War. We deserted our allies in the southern half of the country. And we unleashed roughly 13 million gallons of Agent Orange on the fauna and any humans who happened to be on the ground. (The Vietnam Red Cross believes that easily 3 million people were sickened by the defoliant and at least 150,000 children were born with profound birth defects. Some estimates are much higher.)
But neither my wife nor I met anyone there who was offended by our presence — and we asked. “We fought the Chinese for 800 years. We fought the French for 80. We fought you for eight. You were just the last chapter in our battle for independence,” one man told my wife in Hoi An. (Yes, the American military was there for more than eight years, but we understood the poetry of this point.) And while Americans managed to cause a hell of a lot of damage while fighting communism, I found it interesting that when my wife and I visited one of the principal tourist “attractions” in Hanoi, the Hoa Lo Prison — or what captured American airmen would christen the Hanoi Hilton — the vast majority of the displays chronicle the French barbarity toward the Vietnamese who fought for independence against their colonial occupiers, not the confinement of US pilots. (It’s worth noting, as our docent did, that the exhibits about the American POWs suggest their stay was far more pleasant than it was. Torture was customary and starvation was common.)
Now, “The Red Lotus” is a thriller: An American man vanishes on a rural road in Vietnam and his girlfriend, an ER doctor, follows a path in search of him that leads her home to the very Manhattan hospital where they met. She knows she’s in danger, but not precisely how much. It’s set in the present. But the Vietnam War infuses the narrative, and one of the principal characters is a Vietnam veteran and retired NYPD cop. At one point in the novel he’s chatting with his wife about her idea that it might be healing for him to return to the country before he dies — a conversation inspired in part by my lunch with another American veteran and his Vietnamese wife. (They have not been back since they left in the waning days of the war.) In the novel, the couple’s discussion of the character’s demons was always in my mind when I was exploring the legacy of the conflict. Their conversation, though intimate, was meant to be a metaphor for the larger national trauma and the PTSD that dogs so many Vietnamese and Americans.
“The worst for me didn’t happen to me: It was when I heard a good friend had been killed a week before he was supposed to go home,” Adam said as we were leaving the restaurant. “You don’t forget that.”
No, you don’t — which is why I’m so glad I spoke to people on both sides of the Pacific who experienced that particular nightmare. And that’s why “The Red Lotus” quite literally blooms in Vietnam.
Chris Bohjalian is the author of “The Flight Attendant,” “Midwives,” and 19 other books. His new novel, “The Red Lotus,” is now on sale.