Joan Baez returns to past in Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam • At 72, Joan Baez is not short of events to anticipate: She has her mother's 100th birthday party, a tour of Australia and a new passion painting to explore. But the folk singer and social activist has spent a few days reliving her past, returning to Hanoi for the first time since December 1972, when American B-52s were raining bombs on it.
Each night, Baez would scurry to the bunker underneath her government-run hotel, her peace mission to North Vietnam interrupted by the reality of war. With the blast waves making her night dress billow, she would tremble until dawn, sometimes singing, sometimes praying.
"That was my first experience in dealing with my own mortality, which I thought was a terrible cosmic arrangement," Baez said last week in an interview in the same hotel in the Vietnamese capital, taking a break from a painting-in-progress on an easel beside her. "It is OK for everyone else to die, but surely there was another plan for me?" she joked.
The U.S. launched its heaviest bombing raids since World War II against targets in Communist North Vietnam, which was fighting to overthrow the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam. The bombardment, which mostly targeted Hanoi, lasted 11 days over Christmas in 1972.
Baez traveled to Vietnam then with three other Americans to see firsthand the effects of the war and deliver mail to U.S. prisoners being held in Hanoi. Many at home were angry at her trip because they believed it gave support to America's enemy. After the war, Baez spoke out against human rights abuses by the victorious Communist government.
Baez stayed this time in the same hotel where she and the rest of the peace delegation were put up 40 years ago by the North Vietnamese government, which was happy to welcome those willing to listen to its side of the story. The building is now more luxurious, and goes under a different name, The Metropole Hanoi, but much of it remains the same.
She was quick to visit the recently unearthed bunker that sits just beyond one of the hotel bars. Soon after descending, she put her hand to the cement wall, closed her eyes and sang out the African-American spiritual, "Oh Freedom," a song she often sang during civil rights rallies in the United States in the 1960s.
"I felt this huge warmth," she said of her feelings. "It was gratitude. I thought I would feel all these wretched things about a bunker but it was love that it took care of me."
On her return from Vietnam in 1973, she released an experimental album, "Where Are You Now, My Son?" The record features taped, spoken-word recordings taken from the bunker and the hotel and the sounds of Hanoi, including air-raid sirens and dropping bombs. Over a piano accompaniment, Baez sings of her time in Hanoi, including the Christmas celebrations in the hotel lobby and morning trips to see the devastation left by the American bombs.
Baez's time trip to Vietnam is just one part of a life that blazes through the cultural and political history of the United States.
She began her musical career in the folk clubs of Cambridge, where in 1961 she met Bob Dylan, who at that time was little known while she was a rising folk star. They had a high-profile romantic and musical relationship for a few years. Known mostly for singing other people's songs, she has recorded more than 50 albums, mostly recently a 2008 record that was produced by Steve Earle.
Baez has always placed her social activism ahead of her musical career, a commitment in part fostered by parents' conversion to Quakerism when she was a child. A pacifist, she was a leading voice in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War protest. She has supported scores of campaigns across the United States dealing with poverty, racism, environmental degradation and the wars in Iraq, as well as oversea causes.
She was on a private trip to Vietnam this time but visited a local international school where she sang and spoke to the children. She reminded them of her first act of civil disobedience as a 16-year-old when she refused to go home during an air-raid drill from her school in California. Asked how she keeps going as an activist, she spoke of the importance of personal "little victories" to set against the inevitable "big defeats" such as climate change and the unchecked pace of arms sales around the world, but also spoke of her need now to stay at home with her mother.
Baez had always shunned party politics, but in 2008 made an exception for Barack Obama. One year into his second term as U.S. president, she now says she is unlikely to do so again. "In some ways I'm disappointed, but in some ways it was silly to expect more," she said. "If he had taken his brilliance, his eloquence, his toughness and not run for office he could have led a movement. Once he got in the Oval Office he couldn't do anything."
To a question on the limits of her pacifism or as she says "the what-if-someone-is-going-to-shoot-your-grandma" scenario she replies:
"Anybody who says they would never do this in any situation would probably have to check themselves, but for the way I lived my life and the way I plan to live my life does not include violence," she said. "The longer you practice nonviolence and the meditative qualities of it that you will need, the more likely you are to do something intelligent in any situation."
She said America should have not responded with violence after the 9/11 attacks.
"People say if 'we have tried everything' but they haven't really tried anything, because they really want to clobber (something)," she said. "It is what we know, it is what is familiar revenge and that stuff."
Baez still tours the globe, but is now slowing down just two monthlong tours this year compared to her previous three.
But it's painting now that really fires her. She has been at it for just eight months. The acrylic in the hotel in Hanoi of a young Vietnamese boy against an orange background is her first work that has ever been framed.
"I have literally switched my interest in music to painting, which is convenient because it's been 53 years and it's not that easy to sing now," she said. "People wouldn't know it, but the voice goes down and there is huge pressure to keep it up and it means a lot more vocalizing and a lot more concentration. I'm really ready to move on."
Baez got in contact with the hotel after seeing media reports of the bunker being unearthed. She gave friends of hers visiting Hanoi in December a signed copy of "Where Are You Now, My Son?" with the instructions they should give it to the hotel management if "they are the right people" and, if they weren't, to bring it home again.
They handed it over to Metropole general manger Kai Speth, who led the hunt for the shelter and is proud of the hotel's history. He gave Baez's friends a book about the hotel with a note to Baez saying he would love to welcome her back. In February, she emailed saying she would like to come. Less than two months later she was walking through the door.
"I don't believe in coincidences," said Baez. "Something in me was ready to come back and apparently hadn't been up until now."
On the Saturday before her flight left, Baez shared tales of life of Hanoi under American attack and the hotel's history with former staff, including its hairdresser and general manager. Many of them were on double duty: digging graves for the victims of the bombing as well as serving the hotel guests.
The ex-general manager gave her an embroidered bag, which she said she would use to carry the soaps she planned to steal from the hotel. Housekeeper Tieu Phuong said she remembered Baez staying at the hotel. She also remembered seeing some American pilots, who were released from Hanoi jail at the end of the war, staying at the hotel before flying home and thinking "they looked so nice, how could they bomb our country?"
Under the hazy spring sun, Baez took her hand and tried to explain: "It's so true; they were just kids, they were just following orders."