I rang the discreet doorbell at number 6 Rue de Venuse at 5:00 pm full of expectations.
A small Vietnamese man, dressed casually in slacks and a light brown shirt, cut square and hanging over his pants, opened the door. He smiled and ushered me into a meeting room where three other young men my age were waiting, sitting in padded easy chairs. The room, in various tones of brown, had the faded elegance of another age, with tea tables and dusty chandeliers.
Everyone looked slightly uncomfortable as we introduced ourselves. Harold Supriano was a young African-American social worker from the Bay Area, Mike Meyerson was international secretary of the W.E.B. DuBois Clubs, and Richard Ward was a Canadian editor of a peace magazine. The North Vietnam Youth Federation had invited us to visit Hanoi.
The invitation put me in an awkward position. I explained that as a journalist I couldn’t be part of any delegation. I thought it would affect the perception of my work when I returned to the United States. Journalistic independence was a difficult concept for the Vietnamese, but Mike, who emerged as the delegation leader and the most interesting of my companions, agreed with me. Mike was tall, good-natured, and very smart. After additional conversation we agreed that I could accompany the youth delegation as a journalist.
We had tickets and visas to Moscow and reservations at a Moscow airport hotel. “You will receive further instructions there,” the Vietnamese told us. I wasn’t happy with all the security, but the North Vietnamese seemed to feel that we were at risk of being stopped along the way. The trip remained a complete secrete until we returned to the United States.
At the Moscow airport North Vietnamese representatives met the plane and escorted us to our hotel where we received tickets and visas to China. “As you leave tomorrow, tell our Soviet comrades only that you are going to Beijing,” the North Vietnamese advised. “Unfortunately, our Chinese comrades will have to know more about your ultimate destination than our Soviet comrades.”
Not being officially in China, the Chinese would not provide us with a translator or guide. A friendly employee of the Hsin Chiao Hotel where we were staying gave us a laundry list of Chinese characters. “Show it to anyone on the street and they will send us in the right direction,” he said. Everyone to whom we showed the list was extremely friendly.
In 1965, the Chinese on the streets were wearing blue Mao uniforms. At dawn, old people filled the parks, exercising as early mist drifted through the trees. Later the streets filled with bicycles, blue uniforms leaving for work. The only break in the color scheme were the children’s clothes. Every child under ten was dressed in bright, cheerful colors
We made the last leg of the trip over the mountains from China to Vietnam three days later in the midst of a late August monsoon. The wild clouds cleared over the Vietnam foothills. Dark brown crags rose out of miles of lush green rice paddies. The Red River Delta stretched to the West in patterns of green and gray. The Vietnam that lay below held all the strange familiarity of a land pictured in childhood fairy tales.
The comfortable illusion of peaceful tranquility was shattered on the trip from the airport into
Hanoi. Vietnam was a country at war. The road was filled with young people coming home armed with rifles. Trucks and cars were camouflaged with fresh foliage. The bridge across the Red River was heavily fortified with anti-aircraft guns. Slit trenches and fox holes lined the country roads and low, ugly bomb shelters squatted on city streets.