A Screaming Man Is Not a Dancing Bear

Gus O'Connor


1. Today in 2023 I am in a rowboat, floating quietly down a tributary of the Mekong River Delta. The stalks and green foliage of water coconuts form a canopy above me. A frog licks the air. In the distance, a motorbike engine stalls. I look at the silted water and remember a scene in The Deer Hunter (1978), which is set in 1969 at the height of US troop deployment in Vietnam. In the scene, a helicopter comes to rescue three American soldiers from their Vietnamese captors. Mid-flight, one soldier, played by John Savage, falls into the river; the second, Robert De Niro, jumps in after him. De Niro grabs his comrade and guides him onto the bank, saving him from certain death.
It’s because of this movie, which was not even filmed in Vietnam but in Thailand, that the landscape around me is strangely familiar. I have the distinct sense that I have been here before. I haven’t. The river in front of me has been overlaid by an image, stitched together so well that there are no visible seams. I don’t want to think about Robert De Niro. But there he is in my mind’s eye, putting Savage on his back and walking into the mangroves.

2. In 2023, as in 1978, as in 1969, there’s money on the line. I’m on the tour with two friends, and we’ve each paid $20 USD in order to see the Bến Tre province in the Mekong River Delta. The company promises “the heart of Southern Vietnam,” where all things are “iconic,” “traditional,” and “beautiful.” They call it the Coconut Kingdom. 1.6 million people probably just call it home. The tour company and The Deer Hunter, then, represent two major visions of Vietnam that exist in the public imaginary. The tour promises unvarnished and peaceful beauty which is untouched by modernity. The movie presents Vietnam as a place of violence and exciting savagery. Today in the boat, I see each distinct vision meeting in the middle: this place is for me and my personal adventure. And it seems above all that, on this tour, I’ve been promised a genuine experience, and the value of that experience is in its genuineness.

3. An older man rows our boat. He has a serious and kind look, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He wears a baseball cap, dark blue, GAP brand. Just before we boarded, he handed us conical straw hats without much fanfare—these nominally to shield ourselves from the sun but really because, I suspect, it’s all part of the experience. And I also suspect that the “genuineness” of this experience, a search for something mysterious or impressive, is premised on this man’s erasure, his silence, his quiet availability to us. For the tour company’s vision to work, he must be cropped out of the frame. I know I can’t seize the oars, or invite him to sit down. He is working, after all. He is working for me. And so, driven by thoughts of my own complicity, or by some sense of justice, I talk with him. I call him chú, a pronoun which means uncle, and I ask him if it’s hard to guide the three of us—big, heavy foreigners—through the water, and he shrugs and says, frankly, that it is. So we are a kind of burden, more than a weight in the water.

4. The tour began early that morning in Saigon, when two Italians, one Singaporean, us three Americans, and two Vietnamese men got in a van. I had worried for the previous weeks about what to show my friends and how to go about it. I have lived here over a year; I speak Vietnamese; certainly, I must know some things. But still I am desperate to disclaim authority, uncomfortable with the whole idea of showing, of turning someone else’s life into a spectacle, into something essentialized or representable. But in my running from this discomfort, I came full circle. Instead of refusing to turn life to spectacle, I passed the buck and let someone else do it instead. I booked the tour for us.

5. That morning, on our way from Saigon to Bến Tre, our guide Minh introduced himself and Vietnam. He talked about the importance of rice—the Mekong River Delta contributes over 50% of domestic rice production in a country where life, economic, political, rural, and urban, hinges precisely on the grain—about the five elements central to Buddhist thought, and about how he is studying for his master’s degree in tourism and hospitality here in the city. Suddenly he held up a series of laminated photographs above his head: Kim Phúc burned by napalm, the final American helicopter escaping Saigon in 1975, South Vietnamese General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan shooting a member of the National Liberation Front in the head. It was a striking image, our smiling young guide holding the violent, black-and-white photos above him, lurking like ghosts. I looked away and waited until he put them down. Maybe discomfort was Minh’s point. But I don’t know. There always seems to be a strange hunger in the air for photos like these, a craving that leads to endless reproductions, despite the photo subject’s or photographer’s feelings about them. In this way we have created our own ghosts and ensured that they will haunt us—you, reader, Minh, me—until we, as Viet Thanh Nguyen argues, remember or forget them ethically. The press, government officials, royalty, and many others remembered Kim Phúc as a symbol instead of a person. “I am not ‘Napalm Girl’ anymore,” she wrote for The New York Times. In order to remember the sacrifices of 58,281 Americans, Washington erected an image, a memorial that forgets an unconscionable number of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian lives. We have remembered things that should have been forgotten. And we have forgotten things that should have been remembered.

6. In the boat, chú’s cigarette burns to its nub. He says that he’s from here, that this is his quê, his hometown. He lives only 10 minutes away by walking. I ask if he goes to Saigon often and he says no. He likes to stay here in town because the city is too crowded and too far away. He prefers the peaceful quiet, he says, living alongside nature. He has only one child because the economy keeps getting worse—this is because of the precipitous drop in tourists after COVID—and it’s hard to make enough money to support everyone. I ask how he feels when foreigners come visit his hometown, and he tells me that they will come whether he likes it or not; it doesn’t matter how he feels.

7. De Niro raises a gun to his head, forced to play a game of Russian Roulette while his Vietnamese captors place bets. Savage shoots his round to the ceiling and is forced into a cage with dead men and rats as punishment. These images, moving or still, seem invested not in directness, clarity, accessibility, but rather manipulation, mystery, obfuscation. How can I strip the false mystery away, in life or in writing? I can speak with chú in real-time, but on the page he speaks only through me, words in double translation. So be skeptical of me when I write, for I create an image, too.

8. Chú says something I can’t understand, then puts his hand to his mouth and pretends to take something out of it, making a face and throwing the imaginary thing in the water. I wonder what he’s just said, whether perhaps his gesture is to show what too many foreigners do, consume his home and, not liking the taste, spit it out. And as we get off the boat, I take off my conical hat and hand him a 20,000VND note—about one US dollar. I slip it into his palm as I shake his hand. I realise I never asked for his name. He nods without smiling and says goodbye. Chú touches the brim of his hat, puts a fresh cigarette in his mouth, and stretches his shoulders. His mouth moves; he says something to another rower and points a finger toward the water.

9. After the boat ride, I will ask Minh himself the same question I asked chú, and he will reply that the people here are happy, that tourism is developing the area and that if the local people weren’t working on the tour circuit they’d have to work on farms. It’s at least true that in Vietnam, tourism has become integral to the economy. In 2019, before the pandemic, 18 million tourists visited the country, spent billions of dollars, and contributed over 9% to the overall GDP. But still I think of chú telling me about the trouble of raising even a single child here. In the name of GDP, his home has been turned into a spectacle. What’s 9% GDP got to say about his family and his life? What’s it got to say about his home? Tourism, overfishing, and heavy industry have contributed to the demise of a growing number of ecological sites across the country, like Hà Long Bay and Nha Trang and now Bến Tre. We make our way to the van again. A dragonfly passes. A tourist laughs. I look back at the water remember Bill Hayton’s book on Vietnam: “the shit of a million and a half boat passengers a year is being dumped directly into Ha Long Bay.”

10. We drive to our final stop of the afternoon, which is the backyard of someone’s home. My friends and I sit on a raised concrete platform and eat cut fruit while a group of people play some “traditional” music with “traditional” instruments, sitars, flutes, and modified guitars. They are in their 50s and above, and every single member of the group save one smiling woman has a grim, detached look. They sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” stiff and staring into the middle distance. Halfway through the song, the one smiling woman brings out a cardboard box with “Tips” written in sharpie, a plastic flower taped to the side. When they’ve finished playing, the musicians sit on stone chairs right beside us. They scroll on their phones, or else start napping, or look out into the green groves through the heavy rain that has begun to fall. To the left of the platform is a house, where a young woman with long hair has come to the door, perhaps to look out at the rain. She leans on the doorframe, her eyes above the heads of the foreign tourists who have come for a show in her backyard. The rain pounds against the corrugated steel. She yawns.


Gus O'Connor

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Gus O'Connor is a writer based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam