Hidden Treasures: The Sorrow of War
Sometimes in travel you meet a local who shares his soul with you, who paints evocative images of a place and time and invites you to see it too, even if only through words on a page. In January 2004, thanks to a kid selling pirated books on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam, this happened to me.
I would never meet Bao Ninh in person. But through his first novel, The Sorrow of War, I met him nonetheless. Born in 1952, Ninh served in the North Vietnamese army. Of the five hundred men in his brigade, only he and nine others survived the conflict.
In his book—which some compare to Enrique Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front—the main character, Kien, says things like, “Under the ground in the grave human beings aren’t the same. You can look at each other, understand each other, but you can’t do anything for each other.” And, “People in hell don’t give a damn about wars. They don’t remember the killing. Killing is a career for the living, not the dead.” For Kien, trying to regain his place in the world now that the war is over, it is “hard to remember a time when his whole personality and character had been intact, a time before the cruelty and the destruction of war had warped his soul.”
War wreckage at the Army Museum in Hanoi
In reading The Sorrow of War, I felt I was developing a deeper sense of Vietnam. Most Vietnamese alive today were born after the war, and in many ways the conflict—which took 58,000 American lives and millions of Vietnamese (the exact number varies wildly, depending on the source)—seems like ancient history. The youthful, energetic vibe that now prevails in Vietnam gives little hint that it was preceded by years of war. But it was, and in reading Bao Ninh one remembers the history. Even more, one looks differently into the faces of older Vietnamese, for the book gives you a sense of what some in that generation experienced, of what shaped them.
Woman in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
As I type now, with my tattered copy of The Sorrow of War beside me, I pause to flip through it one more time, to examine what I underlined and where I made notes. I’m struck anew by the narrative’s poetry, as well as the searing brutality of a war. I see Kien remembering the days before the war when he was in love with a girl named Phuong, and I see him after the war as he sits alone in his room drinking, or while he is out on old battlefields, tasked with collecting the remains of those long dead.
These things then weave into my memories of traveling through the country in 2004, and then again in 2005 and 2007. Ninh’s book—and other books I read about Vietnam—shaped how I experienced the land and its people, how I saw the fields and villages, the museums and statues. Likewise, what I experienced in the country also shaped how and what I read. The two things then, the book and the place, were in a sort of symbiotic relationship while I was there.
And as I type these words, they are again.
Joel Carillet, chief editor of wanderingeducators.com, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, visit www.joelcarillet.com.