To the person who told my friend “I thought Vietnam is a war, not a country” — this piece is for you.
Since I’ve been watching films, casually and critically, I’ve been waiting for a film to end the trope “Vietnam means War.” In passing and in depth; in grounded and fictional settings; as a character’s building block or their definer; if not subplot then plot. Through constant reinforcement, cinema ensures the “No” answer to the following questions:
Can my birth country be more than ravaged jungles and settlements?
Can the people be more than just victims — and for lives tied to Vietnamese, more than just fighters?
Can the Vietnamese focus on matters beyond their own?
My wait ended with Da 5 Bloods, the Spike Lee and Netflix production that said “Yes” to the all of the above. It did the damn thing by doing the right thing!
[Spoilers about the film, my life and a few close to me to follow.]
Surprise, Vietnam’s a place
Confession: I was prepared to watch this joint, only to still be startled at the end. But it has to happen, since this trip of four Black veterans (Otis – Clarke Peters, Paul – Delroy Lindo, Melvin – Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Eddie – Norm Lewis) to Vietnam to collect the bones of their friend-slash-leader (Norman – Chadwick Boseman) and the cache of government gold they’ve all buried is more than a Spike Lee fare. There is the advertised film. Within it, for sure, an uber-blunt and Black-led expression of the U.S. climate (or how that climate came to be, or how that climate can be perfected, or all of the above). My shock comes from how Da 5 Bloods also, in an imperfect-but-commendable way, attaches an adieu to Hollywood’s seemingly eternal love for Vietnam as a battleground.
Right after the harrowing montage of napalmed greenery, evocative photos and protests meeting violence from peacekeepers, the welcoming respite: A match cut changing the iconic riverside Majestic Hotel from its 1975 version to the present-day one. A flip of the page turning the Vietnam that Hollywood sees to the Vietnam that reality sees, accompanied with a switch to a modern film format and a wider aspect ratio. Just a style thing, true, but also equally so is Lee and company’s assertion that Ho Chi Minh City — and, by extension, Vietnam — does indeed have a different light to see in after all, a point the Bloods’ local tour guide, Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen, a Hollywood stuntman prior to becoming a local actor) also echoed. Notice as well that Vinh’s line precedes the Bloods’ “oh, wow!” reactions; Paul may have said nothing, but his widened and mesmerized eyes betray him. Even Vinh’s company’s name, “Vinh’s Vietnam,” visible in the film’s final minutes, is a sighting of this new light. What Vietnam is now is what is seen through his eyes and that of people coexisting with him. Period.
I’m not minimizing, diminishing or imploring a mass “Move On!” from the Vietnam that Hollywood has been showing you. The history that marked us and is then dramatized into the greatest hits — it is just too storied and too iconized to eventually fade like most memories; most times the accounts are too personal to never be out of reach if cued. This history was intense enough for Vietnam to fly two different banners, one golden star-on-red and one three red stripes-on-yellow, with each banner flying on a different continent. I’m aware of and respect this notion.
But feelings aside, there has to be an acceptance that the scenery of Vietnam did change. Has changed. There have been enough alterations since that fighters then are either memories or elderlies now, and if they’re the latter then it’s entirely possible for former North Vietnamese soldiers they would like to buy drinks for former U.S. servicemen, Paul! And none of the noises blanketing the city’s first pedestrian street of Nguyen Hue — where Vinh and the Bloods reminiscence on past tours — is a siren or a broadcast notifying an imminent air raid, correct? Clearly these gentlemen’s relaxed pacing between vendors and citizens is world’s away from the do-or-die dashing toward a bomb shelter at the far end of a stranger’s house that my mother, all her sisters, her late eldest brother, her father and her two mothers (note: grandfather was polygamous) had to do one night during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
My mother was 2 years old. Yet, she and all her sisters, my Dì, can remember everything with today’s clarity. My fifth Dì also recalled, and this was the prompt for the run, that Ben Tre was heavily bombed, so much so the family’s multi-generational pharmacy at the market and the house were gone. Even if a misquote — the popularized “destroy to save” line in AP journalist Peter Arnett’s dispatch of the Battle of Ben Tre — the gutting nature within the words is applicable to these scenarios.
But none of these women, despite their strong recall of the images of the past, choose to keep living in them. What they have now are sharable nuggets of “Do you remember…?” to each other or “Did you know that…?” to the children. The prerequisite is to ask them nicely. How’s that as proof of change?
Da 5 Bloods’ showcasing of the current Ho Chi Minh City also allows mainstream cinema to log down the transformation of the city — and the nation, to an extent. You would have been given a preview if you have watched the — gasp — subtitled 2019’s Furie (Hai Phuong), the actioner featuring The Last Jedi’s Veronica Ngo (in Da 5 Bloods as the empowering radio propagandist Hanoi Hannah/Trịnh Thị Ngọ) attempting to disrupt an expansive child-trafficking ring. The neighboring Kingdom of Thailand and its cities have been go-to stand-ins for narratives featuring my birth country and city — not a single Vietnamese scenery in Good Morning, Vietnam and Tomorrow Never Dies is in Vietnam — which, while a demonstration of exceptional graciousness, represents missed opportunities. Even this joint has one when our Bloods arrive at the floating market of Damnoen Saduak in northern Thailand and not, say, Cái Răng. I’m willing to let that go, though; I understand that our floating markets’ hectic charms can become a film crew’s worst nightmare.
But I can only hope that an attempt to film, or at least some prep work, at one was made before ultimately settling on Thailand. One thing I can’t go around, however, is the construction of the beggar sequence in the Apocalypse Now nightclub. No, the city does have beggars, so it’s not a portrayal issue — it’s just that, having been there twice and knowing that it is two of my cousins’ frequent haunt, it’s really an impossible mission for him to greet our G.I.s. To get to the Bloods’ table in the venue’s outdoors area, he would have to go past the bouncer at the entrance, across the dance floor (facing more security) and then to the back. This encounter would have been less of an immersion-breaking issue had it been moved to a late-night noodle or sidewalk coffee joint. Come on, Netflix’s own Street Foods has an episode in Vietnam! Inspiration’s right there!
But forgiveness is in order because Lee and company have done something much more deserving of notice: to go the distance in rendering Vietnam a locale. A living, shifting entity that can welcome total strangers and once-armed familiars. A time frame is just not that flexible.
Layers to the people
Generally, if a place has been renovated, so too the population. In Da 5 Bloods, you’ll find few-to-none of the revolving selections of nondescript insurgents (pick any film featuring the Vietnam War), anonymous bodies (again, pick any — or go for the 123 in Bad Times at the El Royale), mutes (the Iwis in Kong: Skull Island), mellow farmers (the love interest Trinh — Thai actress Chintara Sukapatana — in Good Morning, Vietnam) and entertainment for G.I.s (those peppering a film’s opium-den sets — or the former taxi dancer Phuong — Vietnamese actress Do Thi Hai Yen — in 2002’s The Quiet American). Instead, we have an owner of his own business (Vinh), a tenant of a city-view apartment and has language skills to be in the international exporting business (Tiên – Lê Y Lan), and a henchman with enough U.S. history and vocabulary to debate with an all-American G.I. (Quân – Nguyễn Ngọc Lâm).
If we’re discussing technicalities, Tiên would still fit in the “entertainment for G.I.s” category. In her conversation with her lover Otis, she reveals her past as “a prostitute,” which Paul later expanded upon with his “Soul Alley ho” remark. Since one of the character traits written for Paul is using the past as fuel, it’s fitting to have him refuse to see Tiên as someone, a Vietnamese, who has capitalized on the human’s capability to change. Not that Paul would care, but his rigid and antiquated perspective allies him to the “Holly-weird producers” his friends ridiculed. It’s nice of him, still, to give us an oft-unmentioned narrative about the war: There was once a local hub of food, women, music and more for Black soldiers to enjoy away from the war and the hate their Caucasian squadmates give.
Said Ted Irving, a Houston-based filmmaker who directed the documentary Soul Alley: Children of the Dust, Streets of Ebony, to the Houston Chronicle: “Some of the vets that I interviewed, if you mention Soul Alley or 100P [price for a sex act with a prostitute, approximately $1 then], they’d lighten up and say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that place.’ In most movies, like Apocalypse Now and Full-Metal Jacket, you don’t hear about 100P Alley. These terms were in use for (the soldiers) but in terms of American culture in cinema, nobody’s ever heard of them.”
Irving’s project also focuses on another “forgotten” element: biracial children with Black and Viet bloodlines. Stateside they are called Black Viet-Amerasians; in Vietnam they are either bụi đời (“dust of life,” as hinted in the documentary’s title) or lai căng (“mixed breed”). All pejoratives. Cues to be deprived of an education when young, of employment when grown and of love throughout life. This is why it’s just downright beautiful for Da 5 Bloods to close Otis’ arc with an embrace from his creation with Tiên, Michon (Sandy Huong Pham) — with the cherry-on-top being the smiling daughter and father as the film’s double dolly shot. On one hand, the reunion dispels the anti-Black “absent father” myth, something Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time — another mainstream release — also presented with absolute power; on the other, it teases the end of an enduring and familial-related post-war struggle for too many Viet-Amerasians and American fathers who genuinely seek a family reunion, something the real-life nonprofit Amerasians Without Borders has been working toward since its inception in 2015.
This detail is why I wish it had been a Black Viet-Amerasian playing the role of the tourist in the Bloods’ search for riches and remains. On paper Paul’s son (David – Jonathan Majors) makes a great addition — the father-and-son generational difference and attitudinal indifference supply a trove of credible rifts as well as moments for deeper interpersonal understandings (landmines, anyone?) — but that greatness struggled to manifest because he was underwritten. Still, Majors, who was such an ace when co-leading The Last Black Man in San Francisco, manages to at every turn energize the disappointingly little that was given to him. A fix, possibly, would have been to switch the son’s father from Paul’s to Norman’s? Write and direct Majors in a way to make him a Viet-Amerasian? Actually hire a Black Viet-Amerasian actor?
Alternatively, don’t change or remove Majors from the ensemble; maybe let Vinh follow from the beginning so that his character isn’t another case of “leave the Asian behind when the adventure begins” as Tomb Raider had done for Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) or — trời ơi — Star Wars for Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). Anyone who has seen Johnny Tri Nguyen in 2007’s Dòng Máu Anh Hùng (The Rebel) knows that he will be the expedition squad’s butt-kicking godsend when need be!
And if there’s a fear of him undercutting the gravitas of a Bloods-centric — going down a brutal memory lane to leave it for good and finally unearthing the gold-paved road to purpose — just place him at the rendezvous like normal, but have him be the one who stares down the AK-toting “officer” Quân. Unlike Paul, Vinh is a fellow countryman, but the marked difference in his allegiance — the G.I.s whom he guides are murderers to Quân — offers a flashback to the war’s ability to turn “Vietnamese family against Vietnamese family” first mentioned in the nightclub sequence. Moreover, Vinh is also a fellow historian, so not only he can answer who Lt. William Calley and what My Lai is — maybe a nod to Oliver Stone’s languishing project about this ghastly incident, even — he can try to appeal to Quân about how Vietnam has turned the page.
Hopefully that is still an adequate-enough lead-in to Quân’s eventual lashing out at Vinh, the Bloods and the three from the demining team LAMB (Hedy – Mélanie Thierry, Simon – Paul Walter Hauser and Seppo – Jasper Pääkönen), beginning with the snatching of the “Make America Great Again” hat off of Paul’s head. It couldn’t be clearer that Lee is living through Quân, particularly the disdain in the character’s diction, to execute the film’s most forceful jab at President Donald Trump, swinging directly at the catchphrase that has been the core of his base and his self. What is way more fascinating, but less apparent, is when the hat appears on the head of the big bad (Desroche – Jean Reno) after Paul was shot down (and after delivering two of Da 5 Bloods’ best sequences, a potent poem disguised as a fiery monologue and earning forgiveness from Norman — in the grandest aspect ratio — whom he accidentally killed).
Now where is the Quân from earlier, enraging that the accessory is a reminder of all the men, women, children and babies of My Lai? Obviously, as a lackey to a French boss (or a coolie, if we are to notice the parallels between a French imperialist and the laborer who is enslaved to enrich him), he wouldn’t dare trying to touch Desroche’s sweaty head. However, that inaction coincidentally mirrors the white favoritism both native Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans of modern times seem to share. For the former, it’s the belief that if a thing is America or American, or Tây (lit. Western, but usually means U.S. or U.S.-adjacent), it gets the seal of approval or is spared the rod. For the latter, it’s the perspective that the nation is in a better shape when it’s overseen by the old, the moneyed, the white, the male and, if possible, all-the-above.
Otis, Melvin, Eddie and Norman check none of these boxes. Paul, too, and there’s no forgetting how hardcore of a supporter he is in this hope that he could pass the test despite being an exception. He was bamboozled to believe that he could. Same for all the Vietnamese who aren’t even aware how instantaneous they are attaching the welcoming-and-correct “người” (lit. people) for “da trắng” (lit. white-skinned, or Caucasian) and the more isolating-and-antagonistic “tụi” or “bọn” (think saying those or them but with more aggression) for other peoples (in this case it’s “da đen,” lit. black-skinned, or Black). I see all of you, by the way. How are y’all in your pursuit of being the (mythical) model minority while, like a particular Texas-based cousin of mine, loving hip-hop and speaking in Blaccent? How are y’all souls of late wearing the hat, even if just symbolically, and embracing its anti-Black values?
Simply put, not all renovations are good, as you can see. And it’s not just their cores but also how they’re written. Like all Spike Lee joints, most characters in Da 5 Bloods are also teachers, though their switch from dramatizing to educating lacks the organic quality seen in the director’s defining titles. BlackKklansman isn’t the best, either, but it does the job miles better.
Still, show me another film about this war where the teachers are actually Vietnamese. (Also, if you would like Lee to stop being pedantic, tell the world to stop being so chaotic!)
Anyway, here’s to us being more than farmers and bullet-ridden bodies. Một, hai, ba, dzô!
Mo’ blues elsewhere
It’s not news that anti-Blackness is rampant among Vietnamese. It will definitely be news to some of them, though, that they wouldn’t be able to have their bearings today without the help of Black protesters then.
This is an invaluable education I’ve received from researcher Trinh Q. Truong, whose article for PIVOT — The Progressive Vietnamese-American Organization — dated June 3 details the efforts of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin in shaping the U.S.’ acceptance of refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Also featured here is a 1978 full-page ad on the New York Times from the International Rescue Committee (of which Rustin was the vice president) that drew similarities between the hardships of Black people in the U.S. and that of Southeast Asians seeking resettlement. Dare I say this is an even more striking example of the ties between Black and Vietnamese communities than Muhammad Ali’s anti-war interview that opened Da 5 Bloods.
So why in the hell are some of you not there for imperiled Black lives now when they did for imperiled Asian lives then?
“Because all lives matter.” I would appreciate the commitment to inclusivity when it’s not representative of your failure to read the room in its entirety. The slogan’s intent is to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement and Black lives. How is that “all”?
“Are you supporting the looters?” If you were able to bend over backwards that Patreon user “JoeySalads” has more journalistic standards than the Washington Post, why is it impossible to distinguish who’s using peaceful assembly to fight the good fights and who’s taking the opportunity to play The Price is Right.
“Well, if they had lived better…” Breonna Taylor was an EMT; Atatiana Johnson was video-gaming with her nephew; Viktor Stevenson isthe owner of the business he was suspected of burgling into (he’s still alive, thankfully). Just three of n-th lives. Most tend to be memorialized.
“But that Black was a criminal!” For argument’s sake, let’s say George Floyd did use a counterfeit $20 bill. If so, is kneeling on his neck still the fitting reaction from law enforcement? Is there actually de-escalation training, or is it really like the movies where aggression makes the profession? Can you answer this, Sen. Tom Cotton, since you like to send the troops in so much?
“So you’re anti-Trump?” Lately, all it takes for a Vietnamese to receive this comment from another Vietnamese is to debate. To think that brutality is wrong. To say that a Democrat’s action has some sense in it. For BBC Vietnamese, Thang Do, a board member of PIVOT, explained it best that equating being against Trump with being against America is a misconception. “If we compare the U.S. and Vietnam, then the U.S. is truly greater and better than a developing nation. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. is perfect and is above criticism. In reality, the strength of the U.S. stems from a population who isn’t afraid to keep the government in check and encourage progress,” Do said.
All in all, there are just too many answers for the community to go all “quid pro quit,” but at the same time all are just branches on the tree that is “người da trắng, tụi da đen.”
The selective bias is also acute enough for many Vietnamese to not realize that the very same “người da trắng” they can passionately imitate have the capacity to target them. Or “had,” really, if they know about Seadrift, Texas. As detailed in the 2019 documentary Seadrift from Tim Tsai, the “America First” and “they’re taking our jobs” viewpoints of the citizens (this is during the mid-‘70s!) against Vietnamese fishermen refugees led to a fatal incident that primed the KKK to prey on Vietnamese. I never knew about this, and I sobbed when I did; it seems that U.S. history has toned down the crimes of the white hoods by exclusively pitting them, at every turn, against Black lives.
(The documentary is no longer viewable on PBS — somebody dial Netflix, stat!).
Ain’t this a disappointment: Vietnamese in the U.S. have endured the terror of a vision where whiteness reigns, yet we refuse to stand with Black people when it continuously – and since 2014, loudly – comes after them.
In a sense, I think the Vietnamese deserve it when so few come to our defense the moment Trump targeted the community for deportations, including arrivals before the Boat People era concluded on July 12, 1995. That news is real, by the way. I co-reported it. First in Spring 2017, then 2018, and at the moment disconcertingly quiet, the 45th administration has been flip-flopping on the move to remove thousands of Vietnamese immigrants it deems dangerous, and by doing so reversing a protection granted by a memorandum of understanding the U.S. and Vietnamese governments signed in 2008. Multiple cans of worms opened. How is “dangerous” defined? Only those with criminal records are affected, but how about those having one due to hardship? Will I lose my white ticket if I stand with them? Said Khanh Hung Le, a disabled Viet-Amerasian based in Houston and the main interviewee of the report, “There’s no living if I’m to go back.” My colleague didn’t include it in the final draft, but he also said “I’ve been punished enough.”
There’s no hyperbole here. He didn’t have to explain it to me like Tiên did to Otis, but I could see it right then: If it’s not the lack of specific treatments that perishes him, it will be the stifled-but-alive social stigma and the potential culture shock even when it’s Vietnam. A return to homelands being a death sentence is also what Rustin noted in the 1978 ad. He will be the very “dust of life” he has escaped from becoming.
The Vietnamese have been through a lot, with a lot of that ”a lot” will always be something I can only hear, see, but never live in. It’s a fact many has used and will use to say I have no sympathy for the Vietnamese who have had to see their hard-earned livelihoods crumble when “tụi da đen” riot — during the George Floyd protests, during Rodney King’s in 1992.
Most times I would struggle to defend myself. It’s not just doubting your grownups being a big no-no, it’s also because of their belief that owning a business allows them to be counted as Americans. To belong, isn’t that the greatest thing after, as most would summarize to me, being “driven out by the Communists and floating on the seas?” My heart agrees.
My heart also agrees that, no matter how much they try, I can’t adopt their scars. Visiting the War Remnants Museum in District 3, which the Bloods visited in the film, I see only remnants. In another great stylistic touch, these shots in Da 5 Bloods, interspersed with Paul’s reading of the special letter addressed to his son, are in the present day, and yet they share the aesthetics of the battle sequences. The war may never be over for these characters, and for some I know of and the incalculable many before them, but it has never started for me. And my generation. And the generations after.
Is this post-war privilege speaking? Yes. After all, I was born in 1993 — 18 years after 1975, at the tail-end of the horror stories about boat people and islanders, and the beginning of a rapid drop in the national poverty rate. More importantly, when I look at the populace of Ho Chi Minh City today, I see more people going about their day than war victims. Save for particular occasions serving as reminders, I also see the same in Houston’s Bellaire area.
And so, dear Vietnamese grownups, I don’t believe that I’m a pariah for not aligning my lens and ideas with yours. I don’t think that I am anti-Vietnamese when I stand with Black people. As I’ve mentioned, we owe the Black community, and if you choose to not address the debt then, I will. So will my generation and the generations after, I hope. Protesting. Donating. Any way to be a fine leaf that shelters a ruptured one, or “Lá lành đùm lá rách.” As the end of Da 5 Bloods shows, there are more important issues to tend with than the past, sometimes it’s because we have finished confronting it.
If we count in these past few weeks, when institutions and individuals in the U.S. and beyond are forced to be accountable for their eroding of minorities — especially Black lives — it’s about damn time for allies to multiply. And by allies, I meant like-minded Vietnamese here, there and everywhere.
When you do, Be Safe.
[Special thanks to Vietnamese writer-producer Thuc Doan Nguyen for her inputs! Follow her on Twitter, @BiatchPack, to see her campaigning for an entertainment industry with more Vietnamese and POC creatives]
Nguyen Le is a freelance film writer currently based in Houston, Texas. He is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic who is a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and Online Film Critics Society. His works can be seen on InSession Film, The Young Folks and Houston Chronicle. He likes to cook as well. Follow him on Facebook (nguyen.le.334) and/or Twitter (@nle318) — he always needs friends.