Searching for Binh Hoa

Hoping to find an obscure Vietnam War killing field, our correspondent discovers that some lessons of history teach themselves.

Topics: Travel,

I was in Danang, Vietnam, with a day to kill before heading overland to Laos, so I decided to try to find Binh Hoa. The problem with this plan was that nobody in Danang seemed to know what Binh Hoa was.

Nguyen, a handsome, youngish guy who ran a travel office near the Danang riverfront, was the fifth tour operator I tried.

“Binh Hoa,” he said. “Is it a place?”

“It’s an old massacre site from the war,” I told him. “It’s not far from My Lai.”

Nguyen brightened a bit. “My Lai! I can take you to My Lai, but I don’t know Binh Hoa.”

“Well I’ve heard that the two places are in the same area. Do you think we can go to My Lai first, then ask around until we find someone who can show us to Binh Hoa?”

“We can try, but even My Lai is not very much. Just a small park with a museum and some paintings. And it’s very sad. Maybe it’s better to go to the beach. The beach is more interesting.”

“For me, Binh Hoa is interesting.”

“If you want to see war things, maybe you should go to the DMZ. Camp Carroll, or the Vinh Moc Tunnels. These are closer and cheaper from Danang.”

“How much is it to Binh Hoa?”

“For a minivan to My Lai, $50, plus more to find Binh Hoa. Maybe $25 extra. If you know other people who want to go, you can split the cost with them.”

I already knew that my odds of finding other people to go with me — even to My Lai — were pretty slim in Danang, since the tourist high season in Vietnam was over. And $75 was more than I cared to spend on a day of sightseeing. So I thanked Nguyen and headed back onto the streets.

Every student of the Vietnam War knows that on April 16, 1968, American soldiers under the command of Lt. William Calley killed 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in a series of hamlets near My Lai. The subsequent cover-up, investigation and court-martial hearing had a profound effect on the American perception of the war.

Few people know, however, that — 15 months before My Lai — 502 unarmed Vietnamese civilians were similarly murdered in an area called Binh Hoa. The incident is well documented, but few parties — even Vietnam’s Communist government — have made much of an effort to preserve its memory. This is because, unlike My Lai, the Binh Hoa massacre was carried out by South Korean mercenaries.



To be honest, I didn’t know much else about the Binh Hoa massacre at the time, and maybe that’s why I’d suddenly decided to go there. Perhaps, I reasoned, there would be more to learn from 500 people who were killed and forgotten than from 500 people who were killed and immortalized in the American conscience.

Walking back up the riverfront, I returned to the Danang Hotel, thinking perhaps one of the moto drivers there would be willing to take me to Binh Hoa. I didn’t relish the thought of riding two hours down the madness of Vietnam Highway 1 on the back of a motorcycle, but it seemed to be my only option.

When I arrived, I was immediately accosted by Khue, who’d motored me around in search of an Internet cafe the previous evening. He greeted me the same way he did the day before: “We go to China Beach now? Marble Mountains? Very beautiful!”

“Not today,” I said. “How much to go to Binh Hoa?”

Khue wrinkled his brow. “Binh Hoa?”

“It’s the site of an old massacre from the war,” I said for the sixth time that day. “It’s not far from My Lai.”

“My Lai is very far,” Khue said. “I don’t like to go there. China Beach is better. Maybe you saw China Beach on TV. Very beautiful!”

I gestured over at the other moto drivers lounging just off the hotel entrance. “Will any of those guys take me to Binh Hoa?”

Khue shrugged and walked over to them. He returned with a mop-haired fellow who sported a wispy mustache and sunglasses. “This is my friend,” Khue said. “He can’t speak English, but he knows Binh Hoa. Only $30 to go there. Very cheap.”

Indeed, the price was cheaper than what Nguyen quoted, but Khue wasn’t offering me a minivan. Plus, the language barrier was a definite downer.

“How about $15?” I offered.

Khue conferred with sunglasses, and they talked for several minutes. Finally, Khue smiled and turned to me. “OK,” he said. “My friend told me the way to Binh Hoa. I will take you for $20, but you give me half now.”

Surprised with this sudden turn of fortune, I gave Khue 130,000 dong (the rough equivalent of $10) and climbed on the back of his motorcycle. Ten minutes later, we were out of the city, cruising down the gorgeous emerald curves of the Vietnamese coast.

My search for Binh Hoa was not my first journey to a Southeast Asian massacre site. One month earlier, while traveling through Cambodia, I’d visited the old Khmer Rouge killing field at Choeung-Ek. There, in a grassy field dotted with stagnant pools of water, small bits of bone and clothing from some 9,000 victims still clotted the soil. Small, hand-painted signs bluntly categorized the watery pits: “Mass grave of 166 victims without heads,” one read. Nearby, a macabre cement-and-glass chedi displayed hundreds of exhumed skulls, stacked up like dusty eggshells and categorized by age and gender.

Unsettling as it was to walk the grounds at Choeung-Ek, it was a fascinating time to be there — since the drama behind the killing fields was still unraveling. In Phnom Penh, Ta Mok (nicknamed the butcher, Pol Pot’s No. 2 man during the Khmer Rouge regime) awaited his local trial, while human rights groups called for an international tribunal to determine his guilt. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly balked at such an idea, claiming that an international tribunal would only be fair if Henry Kissinger was also called to trial for initiating the indiscriminate bombing of the Cambodian frontier in the early 1970s. Meanwhile, in western Cambodia, Khmer Rouge cronies Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea received summons to appear before the military court just a few days before Deuch (Pol Pot’s old torture chief at Tuol Sleng prison) suddenly turned up in Battambang and announced that he was a born-again Christian, and “deeply sorry” for ordering the torture and execution of 14,000 people.

To add to this atmosphere, my visit to the killing fields coincided with the height of NATO’s air raids on Yugoslavia. Some Cambodians expressed skepticism at NATO’s actions (“Kosovo ‘Does not compare’ to Khmer Rouge Horrors” read one Cambodian Daily headline), but as I walked over the shattered bones at Choeung-Ek, NATO’s far-off actions in defense of the Kosavars seemed to imply a kind of hope — a Year Zero (to use a term coined by Pol Pot) for global morality; a new prototype for international justice: Human Rights 1.0.

Could this newly minted solution to human brutality, I wondered at the time, have saved Cambodia from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge?

In retrospect, I know only that such comparisons quickly lead to the tangent-bending brand of rhetorical badminton that has made Noam Chomsky a campus cult figure. To hold Human Rights 1.0 up against the events of the past invites an almost endless slew of reassessments.

After all, one might point out (as Philip Gourevitch did in “We Regret to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families,” his book about the 1994 Rwandan massacres) that genocide has historically been a cornerstone in community-building — that groups of humans have always had the tendency to define themselves by elimination. Few time-honored historical figures would be able to pass the standards of Human Rights 1.0.

Moses, for instance, ordered the ruthless and total slaughter of unarmed women and children at places like Midian and Heshbon and Bashan. Was Moses less human than we are now? Should his memory be stricken from the Judeo-Christian record and re-categorized with the likes of Slobovan Milosevich? Should Genhis Khan’s mug be removed from Mongolian currency and his memory pigeonholed with that of Lt. William Calley? Should Angkor Wat and the Great Wall of China be razed as a gesture against slave labor? Should NATO bomb Washington as an ex post facto retaliation for the Trail of Tears?

Eventually, the objective logic of Human Rights 1.0 doesn’t seem quite so clear. Why, after all, did we bomb Serbs over Kosovo when we didn’t bomb Turks over Kurdistan? Why was South African apartheid the hip human rights cause of the 1980s when Sudanese slavery barely garnered a public mention? Why do we mourn the Cambodia of the 1970s when we can’t even find East Timor on a map?

Why do the 504 civilian victims of My Lai so succinctly symbolize the brutality of an attrition war, when the 502 civilian victims of Binh Hoa represent little more than a small-print statistic?

Less than 30 minutes into our cruise down the Vietnamese coast, Khue slowed down and made to leave the highway.

“Where are we going?” I asked him.

“Problem!” he said.

Ten minutes later, he pulled us to a stop at the edge of a wide, yet unremarkable beach. Restaurants and food stalls lined the street along the beachfront. “Where are we?” I asked him.

“Problem. I must check the weather.”

“Yes, but where are we? What is this place?”

“China Beach,” he said. Not waiting for my reaction, Khue trotted off and disappeared into a restaurant. A few minutes later he came back out with an exaggerated look of sorrow on his face. “We can’t go to Binh Hoa today,” he said. “The weather is very bad.”

I looked up at the sky, which was perfectly clear. “The weather looks fine to me.”

“Yes! The China Beach weather is beautiful. But it is raining in Binh Hoa.”

My suspicion was starting to grow. “How do you know that it’s raining in Binh Hoa? An hour ago you didn’t know what Binh Hoa was.”

“It is raining in Quang Ngai. That is very close to Binh Hoa.”

“No problem,” I said. “I don’t mind the rain.”

“But that is very dangerous!” Khue said, attempting, unsuccessfully, to look horrified. “Last year many tourists died from riding in the rain!” He gestured to the beach. “Here, China Beach is very beautiful. Like on TV!”

I no longer believed anything Khue was saying. “Take me to Binh Hoa,” I said.

“It’s against the law. If the police see you riding in the rain, they will put us in jail!”

“Take me to Binh Hoa, Khue.”

“China Beach! Very beautiful!”

Figuring it my only leverage, I took a wad of Vietnamese money from my pocket. “If you don’t take me to Binh Hoa,” I said with a touch of menace, “you’ll never see the rest of your money.”

“OK!” Khue exclaimed. Before I could reply, he had turned around and was happily headed back to the restaurant.

Paul Theroux once wrote that the traveler is generally “ignorant, easy to deceive, at the mercy of the people he or she travels among.” In few places does this become so painfully obvious as in Vietnam. With half my money already in hand, Khue had never intended to take me past China Beach in the first place.

Angered, I followed Khue into the restaurant. By the time I caught up to him, he had already flopped himself into a hammock in the kitchen, and was chatting with the cook. Since slapping Khue around (admittedly, my first impulse) was not such a good option, I tried to reason with him. Our argument was tiresome and repetitive.

“The deal was to take me to Binh Hoa, and I sure as hell don’t see any rain!”

“China Beach! Very nice!”

“I know what you’re up to Khue, and I won’t stand for it. Either take me to Binh Hoa or give me my money back.”

“China Beach is better than Binh Hoa! Very beautiful. And no rain!”

After 15 minutes of this, Khue refunded 50,000 of the original 130,00 dong (“because I like you,” he told me), but he refused to take me to Binh Hoa.

Khue was being lazy, to be sure, but I sensed that he was not as malicious as his actions might have suggested. In Khue’s mind, he was doing me a favor: He was not actually cheating me out of $10 or so, but rather saving me the $10 it would have cost me to continue down the coast. An afternoon at China Beach, he reasoned, would make my day much more enjoyable and meaningful than an hour or so in an old killing field. For Khue, it was a simple equation of convenience — for me as much as for him.

Looking back, it occurs to me that if I had really wanted to see Binh Hoa that badly, I could have ponied up $75 and gotten a legitimate tour from someone like Nguyen. Or, for that matter, I could have invested a bit more money at China Beach and hired a new moto to take me to Binh Hoa.

But the fact was that I didn’t want to spend more money to go to Binh Hoa. Bin Hoa had suddenly become too much trouble. As interested as I was in Binh Hoa, I realized that — despite its ironic appeal — it was just another tourist stop. Reprioritizing my day was a much simpler option.

Perhaps this dull instinct is the very reason why people remember My Lai instead of Binh Hoa: Some human tragedies are more convenient to access than others — in the psychic sense even more than the physical.

My Lai was a sobering wake-up call for an idealistic superpower — a stark lesson in just how cruel and brutal a wealthy and seemingly enlightened people could be. Binh Hoa, on the other hand, was more difficult to sell: a mere case of Asian-on-Asian violence — the soldiers of one poor country (as South Korea was in 1966) brutalizing the citizens of another. The death of 502 civilians at Binh Hoa was — in a very basic way — not marketable; it was too ambiguous.

In the end, examining the horrors of the past — wherever we find them — turns into a reductive ritual of human interest: a search for drama or irony or a sad story with a concise moral; something that can be wrapped up into an impulse and filed away for reference. Even my whimsical search for Binh Hoa was little more than an exercise in what I had already come to accept.

Truly understanding such human horrors, on the other hand, is as difficult and complicated as understanding the self — and each grand new solution to human misery (Human Rights 1.0, or whatever hits the market next week) carries its own latent dangers.

Realizing that it was the easiest option, I left Khue in the restaurant and started walking — wearily determined to make the most of an afternoon at China Beach.

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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