AP Interview: Joan Baez returns to past in Vietnam
HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — 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.
In this April 5, 2013 photo, Joan Baez speaks to a reporter in her hotel room in Hanoi, Vietnam. The folk singer and social activist visited Vietnam recently for the first time since she came to the country in December 1972 as part of an American peace delegation. Baez painted the picture of the young boy during her recent stay in Hanoi. (AP Photo/Dinh Hau)
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.