The White Flower of Bach Mai, 2015
acrylic on canvas
36 x 24 in
Joan began painting this portrait of a boy monk in her hotel room during her return visit to Hanoi in 2013, 40 years after she went there on a peace mission near the end of the Vietnam War. It’s from a photograph that happened to catch her eye while she was there. She painted the Vietnamese national flower in an upper corner in honor of the Bach Mai Hospital, which was nearly destroyed in the Christmas season bombings in December 1972 that killed 28 hospital staff members while Joan was in the capital. American officials said that bombs meant for nearby Bach Mai Airfield somehow missed their target and hit the hospital instead.
American B-52s pounded Hanoi for 11 straight days, sending everyone scrambling for safety into the bunker underneath Joan’s hotel, the Metropole Hanoi, the same one she would stay in on her return trip.
“When I went back, there were a few employees of the hotel left from the first time I was there,” she says one afternoon in her studio. “I told them the story of how I decided to be brave and wasn’t going to run to the bomb shelter. That was until there was this huge blast and people were passing me on the stairs right and left. After that, I was gone like a shot.”
Back at home, Joan recorded an album, “Where Are You Now, My Son?” that included the sounds of air-raid sirens and bombs exploding. “That was my first experience in dealing with my own mortality, which I thought was a terrible cosmic arrangement,” she told a reporter for the Associated Press. “It is OK for everyone else to die, but surely there was another plan for me?”
The bunker that everyone huddled together in during the bombing is now a memorial to those killed in the siege. When Joan stepped into it on her return trip four decades later, she placed her palm against the cement wall, closed her eyes and sang the African American spiritual “Oh, Freedom.” “I felt this huge warmth,” she said. “It was gratitude. I thought I would feel all these wretched things about the bunker, but I felt love that it took care of me.”