Which Way is East, 16mm, color, sound, 33 min. 1994
by Lynne Sachs
LYNNE: When I was six years old, I would lie on the living room couch, hang my head over the edge, let my hair swing against the floor and watch the evening news upside-down.
A frog that sits at the bottom of a well thinks that the whole sky is only as big as the lid of a pot. (in Vietnamese text, read by Viet woman in English)
Which Way is East
a film by Lynne Sachs
in collaboration with Dana Sachs
LYNNE: It rains all night. After five years of draught at home, I’m awake and listening, starring out the window at a darkened Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City. At 4:30, I hear a rooster crow from somewhere deep in this cluster of apartment buildings. Slowly sunlight spreads across the cement wall in my room, turning it gold.
I watch an elderly man in blue boxer shorts fold up his bedding and begin to do Tai Chi. A teenage girl turns on her radio. In my mind this gives the woman across the courtyard the cue to begin sweeping. I wonder then about my sister, Dana. After almost a year here, does she still notice all this?
DANA: My friend Thu and I take my sister Lynne to visit a pagoda in the Chinese neighborhood of Cho Lon. Thu takes Lynne’s hand and leads her through the sanctuary, making sure she puts three sticks of burning incense at every altar. Then Thu places oranges on the carved wooden tray in front of one of the Buddhas.
THU: “When the communist party took power they didn’t like Buddhists, and they didn’t like Catholics, so my family stopped coming here. We forgot about it for many years. Now the government says it’s okay. So we’re all starting to remember again.”
DANA: Thu closes her eyes, places the palms of her hands together, and raises them into the air. I look into the bronze eyes of the Buddha, and make wishes instead.
(Conversation in Vietnamese, English subtitles)
H: Your older sister is in Vietnam?
D: Yes, we’re going to travel together.
H: From Saigon to Hanoi?
H: How old is she?
H: Is she married?
H: Thirty-one and she’s still single! Why do American women get married so late?
D: As Ho Chi Minh said, “There’s nothing more precious than independence and freedom.”
LYNNE: May 15, my third day in Vietnam. Driving through the Mekong Delta, a name that carries so much weight. My mind is full of war, and my eyes are on a scavenger hunt for leftovers. Dana told me that those ponds full of bright green rice seedlings are actually craters, the inverted ghosts of bombed out fields.
LYNNE: At Cu Chi, we pay three U.S. dollars so that a tour guide will lead us through a section of this well-known 200-kilometer tunnel complex. This is the engineering masterpiece of the Viet Cong, a matrix of underground kitchens and living rooms and army headquarters. . As I slide through the narrow, dusty passageway, my head fills up with those old war movies Dad took us to in the ’70’s..
My body is way too big for these tunnels. I can hardly breathe. After five minutes, I come out gasping.
We decide not to spend the extra ten dollars it costs to shoot a rifle.
Sitting at a thatched-roof hut, sipping milk out of coconuts, I listen to Dana chat with the woman who runs this drink stand in the middle of the jungle. “Ask her,” I say.
CU CHI WOMAN: I’ve been in this area all my life. For twenty years, I stayed below ground, living in the tunnels. It was the only safe place during the war. I even gave birth to my daughter down there. My husband was a soldier. One day he crawled out of the tunnel, and he died right over my head. (In Vietnamese)
“Dont’t drop the bait to catch the shadow.” ( older Vietnamese woman reads English text in Vietnamese)
LYNNE:We’ve gotten lost somehow and are beginning to realize that we’ve walked past the same bush three times. In a nearby field, we spot a one-legged farmer with his two sons. They lead us in silence through dense brush to the ruins of My Son, once the intellectual center of Vietnam.
My Son survived centuries of monsoons and war before a US bomb scattered most of the ancient Cham stonework like gravel across the hillside.
We stand inside the tallest remaining tower listening to the birds. It’s very cool, almost damp. One of the boys offers us a hot soda pop.
DANA: I’ve been thinking about the way people talk about time here. All you have to do is mention a particular year and whoever’s listening already knows the whole story.
HA: “My parents came to the South in 1954.” (Vietnamese)
DANA: Behind that date lies the image of families leaving the land they’d farmed for generations, and turning their backs on the graves of their ancestors. Vietnam slit itself across the belly then. Hundreds of thousands fled north or south, depending on which ideology they trusted most.
DANA: Huong told me her father headed North in 1954 to fight with the revolutionary army. He thought Ho Chi Minh could reunite the country within two or three years.
HUONG: For two decades he couldn’t get a letter to his family in Saigon! (Vietnamese)
“When a water buffalo and a bull are fighting, the mosquitoes and the flies that follow them will die.” ( Bac teaches Dana as she reads parable in Vietnamese, has problems, english text)
LYNNE: In the old capitol of Hue one night, I take a meandering bicycle ride with Khoi, a university student friend of Dana’s.
During the 1968 Tet offensive, Hue became a battlefield, and the Viet Cong, thinking Khoi’s family was harboring South Vietnamese soldiers, burned down their house. Khoi’s father had been collecting books since he was a child, and when the house burned, his books burned with it.
Khoi says his father went crazy after that.
Past the hospital, we take a turn off the main road which winds along the Perfume River. We travel down a dark lane, where there are no people, no cafes, no open doors onto living rooms and t.v’s. This is the quietest, most peaceful street I’ve seen in Vietnam. Khoi tells me that this was the street where soldiers brought prisoners to shoot them. No one wants to mingle with their ghosts.
“When you love someone, you love everything about them, even their footsteps. When you hate someone, you hate everything about them, even their ancestors.”(Youngish man reads in English from Vietnamese text))
DANA: At a pagoda in the countryside, I meet another one legged man on crutches. He has on the most formal military attire, like a soldier on parade. He tells me he lost his leg in the American War, and asks where I come from. “I want to go to America,” he says. And, as if I would understand completely, he adds, “Everyone is rich, and business is good there.” We stand for a moment, face to face, surveying each other. I finally raise my hands together, as if in prayer. “Xin loi Bac, ” “Uncle, I’m sorry.” He looks at me uncomfortably, and shrugs. “Khong sao, Khong sao,” — It doesn’t matter, he says, waving his hand like we’re talking about a mistake I made years ago that he’s long since forgotten.
A few days later I tell Phong, who comes from a long line of revolutionaries, about my encounter with the veteran.
But Phong hardly listens.
He once told me that war is like a volcano. You can’t control it, so you do what you can to save yourself.
“Don’t feel too bad,” he tells me now. “That man probably killed some American soldiers too.”
LYNNE: Sick and dizzy for days, I see no more of Hue than what’s outside my window. Dana brings me a daily bowl of noodle soup and spends her time hanging out with the cooks downstairs. Without me around making her speak english, she’s come to know them quite well.
I feel trapped. Right now, I wish this sweltering hotel room were somewhere else. Home. Unable to film, I hand Dana my camera.
DANA: Lynne can stand for an hour finding the perfect frame for her shot. It’s as if she can understand Vietnam better when she looks at it through the lense of her camera. I hate the camera. The world feels too wide for the lense, and if I try to frame it, I only cut it up.
LYNNE: Lu strikes up a conversation with us as we walk one evening along a quiet, tree-lined street in Danang. He wants to practice his English.
We invite Lu to dinner. It’s his first time in a restaurant, so he’s bewildered by the menu and offended by the prices. He tells us about an American doctor who came to Danang to find the remains of a friend, a soldier lost in the war.
Lu’s older brother sold the doctor some human bones for $6.
LYNNE: I’m here such a short time, a bone collector who knows nothing about anatomy.
DANA: Back in Hanoi, we show my friend Hoa the photographs we just picked up from the one-hour developer . She sifts through all the famous sites of Vietnam, and then stops suddenly at a picture Lynne took.
HOA: “Where did your sister take this picture? That’s my grandmother! I’ve never introduced you to her. She’s not a very nice person. Always complaining.”
DANA: Once the photo lost its anonymity, it lost its meaning. it wasn’t the long suffering face of Vietname anymore, the trophy face a tourist loves to capture. It was just Hoa’s crabby grandmother.
DANA: When I first got here in winter, every proper coffee table had a bowl of mandarin oranges on it. I thought people must really like mandarin oranges in Vietnam. But no. That was mandarin orange season, so that’s what you do. Eat mandarin oranges.
Since then, we’ve been through sugar cane, apricots, mangoes and watermelon. During each period, I reach a point when I never want to see that food again. And then, miraculously, it disappears. The same woman who roamed my neighborhood with her two baskets of mangoes balanced on a bamboo pole across her shoulders reappears hawking pineapples.
It’s June now, the beginning of the rainy season, and the end, thank god, of lychee season. Lychee season is very short, as everyone I know has explained to me, and so lychees are a delicacy. Someone gives you a kilo of lychees and then you give them a kilo of lychees, and together you must eat 8 million of them. I’ve never particularly liked this fruit, but it’s impossible for me to tell someone I’ve had enough. You’ve got to go with the spirit of the thing, relish every juicy bite. I try to eat as slowly as possible, and make good use of one popular Vietnamese eating habit — preparing a morsel of food and then giving it to someone else. I peel the lychee, then hand it to a neighbor to eat, praying she won’t do the same for me.
DANA: Phong drove me home on his motorbike after the symphony. A storm had rolled into Hanoi while we were sitting in the opera house. I leaned into his back, bracing myself from the wind. The rain, illuminated by the light of our scooter, looked like a million shards of glass. Above us there was a loud blast in the sky.
PHONG: It’s raining so heavy. More and more thunder and lightning.
It reminds me of the war we fought against the American B52’s. Back then, American war planes kept flying over Hanoi everyday. They dropped so many bombs. The explosions sounded like this. (In Vietnamese, subtitled)
DANA: I wonder if he told me because he knows I want to know these things, or because everytime he hears thunder, he remembers the bombs.
DANA: Lynne and I are sitting in Hoa’s living room. We have the TV off, so none of her neighbors are standing out on the sidewalk, peeking in. In this unfamiliar quiet, we begin to talk about the United States.
HOA: “I think I understand homelessness, Dana, but I don’t understand why your government spends so much money trying to find the bodies of soldiers that they know are dead, when so many other soldiers are still alive and sleeping on the streets right there in America.”
DANA: I feel weary, maybe it’s almost time to go home.
I can’t. I’m not ready to leave the children I teach , the way they look at the ceiling when they are trying to remember an English word, or the way their eyes get bigger when they finally do remember.
I can’t leave Hoa’s son Viet, the wild child, the five-year-old with the gravelly voice of an older man.
I haven’t learned all the words for rain or the words for art, and I don’t know all the ways to talk about love. I still want to hear the firecrackers at Tet and taste the new rice, during those brief few weeks when it’s green and chewy.
“A leaf that is whole should protect a leaf that is torn.” (In English Dana translates)
LYNNE: OJ is a family friend and the only veteran I knew as a child. It seems strange to him that Dana has been living in Vietnam. Before I left, he told me he’d like to sit on the white sands of the China Sea again, to hear the strange chirping sounds of the birds in the jungle near Pleiku, to look for a south Vietnamese nurse he worked with pulling teeth. He doesn’t even know if his friend is alive. He imagines she’s a dentist by now.
But there is something that keeps OJ from coming back here. The same thing that keeps him from telling the owners of his favorite San Francisco noodle shop that he was stationed just miles away from their family farm. For him that old adage still holds, “You can’t get there from here.”
DANA: Lynne left for San Francisco this morning and Hoa can see it in my face. She hands me an ear of boiled corn she bought from a passing vendor, and we eat quietly, staring out at the traffic on the street. “Chia buon, do buon”, she says. “When you share someone’s sadness, you lessen it.”