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On a gray, overcast day I was driving by endless miles of verdant green rice paddies to the central Vietnamese hamlet of Son My. In 1968 this was the site of the notorious incident known as the My Lai Massacre; when American soldiers killed over five-hundred civilians, mostly old men, women and children and then torched the buildings. The hamlet has since been reconstructed to look as it did after the carnage.
I was only seven years old when the My Lai massacre occurred, but I still remember seeing disturbing photos of it in Life magazine. Now I was standing at the irrigation ditch where over one hundred of the bodies were found. My Lai is an emotionally tough place for anyone to visit, let alone an American.
Standing there I tried to contemplate the madness that occurred on this peaceful spot. Roosters crowed in the distance and the pungent smell of burning brush wafted over the village. It was an ordinary day, just like the one when the massacre occurred. Then I looked down and noticed hundreds of bare footprints along the path, many of them the tiny footprints of young children. They were interspersed randomly with imprints of army boots.
When the memorial was built the muddy pathways among the rice paddies were recreated out of brown concrete. Before it hardened they placed random imprints of army boots and bare feet to represent the killing frenzy that took place here. Boot prints lead up to individual houses and then build to a crescendo at the ditch.
The effect is that of the Guernica painting come to life on the ground. The imprints reflect the slaughter that took place that day; barefoot civilians being led to their death by booted soldiers. It’s a thought-provoking touch that effectively takes a visitor back to what happened here.
A small Vietnamese man tugged at my elbow as I was trying to absorb it all. He started pantomiming what happened on that fateful day, making shooting and stabbing motions. Then he pointed to the ditch and demonstrated how all the bodies were laying there. He stood behind the trunk of a palm tree, as if demonstrating hiding behind it. It occurred to me that he was about my age, was he demonstrating something that happened to him?
The man’s extended family of about twelve people walked over to us. I had been speaking to Uncle Do, the head of the clan. The family ranged in age from about six to seventy-six: children, parents, grandparents. Their age range approximated those of the victims.
His fifteen-year-old niece Mong spoke some English and asked where I was from. I hesitated. Considering where I was standing it was the first time I was tempted to say I was Canadian, but I said “US.” What happened next surprised me. The family surrounded me, shaking my hand and asking to take photos together. We were standing at the site of the worst American massacre of the war and they were greeting me like a long-lost friend.
Uncle Do took my arm and we spent the next half hour wandering about the preserved remains of the destroyed hamlet, somber Pied Pipers for the rest of the family tailing along behind us. He pointed out various points of significance along the way, even leading me inside one of the homemade bomb shelters where many of the villagers had been hiding before they were forced out by the troops. When our trek was finished each of the family members shook my hand and, through our ad hoc interpreter Mong, wished me well on the rest of my journey.
It was an experience that would be repeated throughout Vietnam. A few days later Larissa and I were deep in the jungle climbing around the ruins of My Son, a 10th-century temple complex. Parts of the temple are still standing but one area is a pile of flattened rubble due to an errant US Air Force bombing run. In halting English a local visitor asked where we were from. Upon hearing my response he stopped and said, “US-Vietnam friends” before going on his way.
Vietnam is a country that is poised between a violent history and a potentially bright future. While they remember the past they don’t dwell on it and, if our experience is any indication, they certainly don’t hold a grudge. We left Vietnam with warm feelings for all the people we met. They have replaced the pain of the past with hope for the future. In a sense they are forging new footprints.
Click the link to read more about our travel to Vietnam.