My latest notgame (interactive poem? participatory observance? call it what you want) is from Vietnam, the country I have spent the most time in during these last few months in Southeast Asia. It has something to do with the Vietnam/American War. It should perhaps be noted that I was determined not to make anything about the war. When I was looking for research materials for Vietnam, I was somewhat unhappy to find that the vast, vast majority of literature that is returned by a simple search for the country’s name is not really about the country at all, but about the war, and about America. I studied the war to some extent in high school and college, so I became determined to avoid the last fifty-odd years of Vietnam’s history, to focus instead on the nations’s long and prodigious experience before America ever came along. And I succeeded to some extent, with the aid of Neil Jamieson and others.
Until I got to Vietnam. I will not say that the country is obsessed with the war, but at the same time it is hard to avoid it if one walks around with one’s eyes open: the museums, the statues, the rhetoric are all rather conspicuous… it may not be obsession, but I think it is safe to say that the war plays a large part in defining the identity of most contemporary Vietnamese. Which makes sense, if you think about it, because of all the things that were tied up in that struggle: the uniting of a country, the victory of communism over capitalism, the victory of a people long plagued by foreign invaders over the most powerful invader of them all. The war is a thread that ties any modern conception of the country together—and especially (I would venture to say, with my limited perspective as an outsider) Vietnam’s own conception of itself.
Ho Chi Minh, of course, is a saint here, embalmed for all to see, attended day and night by ceremonial guards. I had studied the war, but never seen Ho Chi Minh’s body; never seen a little boy take his hat off as he reverently gazed at that body.
Suffice it to say that if you want to ignore the Vietnam War—the American war—it’s best not to come to Vietnam. The war started to captivate me just as I was wanting to turn my back on it. Which is not to say that I wasn’t also captivated by other parts of Vietnam’s history or culture—I found An Duong, and his accomplishments with the help of a Golden Turtle Spirit in the third century B.C.E. of particular interest—but I failed in my intention to ignore the war, and make nothing about it (I also failed in my attempts to think up a notgame about the Golden Turtle).