SEEING THAT big red American car, the 1958 Plymouth at right, somehow brought it all back to me: Saigon in the 1960s, when Vietnamese would hire such auspiciously colored cars for a wedding or a festive outing; when a million American soldiers passed through what was then the capital of South Vietnam; when I, a frequently visiting reporter, kept wondering how long this war in Vietnam would last and what changes its end would bring.
The end came one April day in 1975 as a tank of the North Vietnamese army forced the gate of the Independence Palace, now the Reunification Conference Hall. And here I am back once more in what is now the biggest city in all Vietnam, looking out at the wide Saigon River from my huge room in the old Majestic Hotel where I first stayed 28 years ago.
In those days the Saigon way of life still had a lot that was French about it, with foreigners walking around in shorts and everyone taking a siesta after lunch and fast loans. After getting up I’d look at my little Siamese fighting fish, bought from a street vendor; one was blue and one red—and I kept them separate, each in a glass jar, and if I moved the two jars close together they’d get madder and madder. But never mind looking back, I’m here to go around and find out what’s up, what’s new. . . .
All these women driving motorcycles and scooters—why do so many wear elbow-length gloves, black, blue, beige? For protection against the fierce sun, I’m told. In the past that was done by the long sleeves of the ao dai, the once ubiquitous national dress; in this time of sleeveless blouses and T-shirts, the ao dai is only for rare occasions—or for hotel desk clerks and sales ladies in souvenir shops.
The new communist rulers gave the place a new name—officially it became Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh, or Ho Chi Minh City. But the local daily calls itself SAIGON, in huge type, while tiny type just below adds the words giai phong, meaning “liberated.” I see that the best local beer is labeled Saigon Export. Could it be that quite a few things here really haven’t changed all that much? That even the massive American presence here a quarter of a century ago—fought so bitterly by so many—has left some memories that are now regarded as positive? We’ll see. . . .
BUT FIRST a glance at the city’s history, what there is of it—for unlike Hanoi, Saigon is not very old. A wooden Vietnamese fort and nearby a little thatch-roofed settlement of Chinese merchants trading for rice, that’s all there was to Saigon when the French came in 1859. Their men-of-war made short work of the fort, and in 1862 they exported 42,000 tons of rice. And they built prodigiously: a grand residence for the governor, now the National Museum. A Roman Catholic cathedral that still offers three Masses daily. And an ornate city hall, now the seat of the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City; it administers 12 urban and six rural districts—the population is four million and rising.
Question: When do you say Saigon and when Ho Chi Minh City? OK, when speaking to an official, officially, it should be the latter; with others, say Saigon if you mean the inner city, districts one and five and six. . . .
IMAKE an updating tour of some more Saigon landmarks (map, page 610). The massive U. S. Embassy building, whose bronze plaque I’ve seen as a museum trophy in Hanoi, now is the head office of the Vietnam State Oil Company. At the former Cercle Sportif, the French-built sports club, 11 tennis courts are as busy as ever. Now this is the Workers Club. Annual membership costs less than a loaf of bread; what you give to the ball boys is up to you.
And the old Rex Hotel, once bachelor quarters for American officers? It’s the new Rex, tastefully renovated, buzzing with purposeful activity. On the fifth floor, three dozen businessmen from Taiwan are lunching with Vietnamese thuong gia, “trading persons,” while a trio plays the “Blue Danube.” On the third, a hundred delegates meet for an international symposium on the health of mothers and children; half came from Western Europe and a dozen from the U. S. —including one from Atlanta, from the Centers for Disease Control.
At night there’s a cultural show with traditional dancing and music. A singer in a white ao dai does a soulful Russian song, a Russian tour group in the audience claps along enthusiastically. For Americans there’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” The climax is strictly Vietnamese: wild gongs and drums, commemorating the battle at Dong Da, where the Vietnamese crushed the Chinese 200 years ago.
There’s nothing like the Rex in Hanoi, at least not yet. United Nations officials tell me Saigon is a much better place to be stationed than Hanoi, not only because it has hundreds of good eating places and Japanese elevators that work. If a copying machine breaks, you can get it repaired easily; in Hanoi you’d have to get a serviceman from Bangkok. And for daily family needs so much more is available in Saigon. “But compared with Bangkok, nothing is available.”
What does Saigon have to offer to the bargain-hunting foreigner? Good paintings. Genuine tortoiseshell combs. Lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl. If you want first-rate Cuban cigars, Russian caviar, or Veuve Clicquot champagne—all that is available in the back room of a little shoe shop on Le Thanh Ton Street, at astonishingly low prices. In “do la”—that’s right, dollars. The multilingual proprietor offers me a genuine elephant-hide belt; a Russian hands him several bills and walks off happily with a Pasternak novel in a brown paper bag.
Saigon is once again a citadel of enterprise. A Vietnamese official calls it the country’s secret capital, its commercial mainspring, the home of the entrepreneurial spirit that may yet point a way out of the nationwide economic mess.
I get a whiff of that spirit in the so-called golden market, half a dozen blocks of busy shops and stalls with goods made or assembled here, or more likely smuggled in. Generators and electric chain saws, TVs and VCRs. Quaker Oats. Shiny red apples—from Oregon? Yes, via Singapore.
I catch a full blast of that spirit from Le Cong Thanh, the very model of the modern Saigon entrepreneur. His company (“founded 1988, I’m the sole owner”) produces furniture, ceramics, and a hand-generator-powered flashlight (“I’ve got orders from Honolulu and Cuba”); machines that make and bottle soft drinks; and ship paint (“better than from Germany”). Soon farmers in central Vietnam whose land is unsuitable for rice will grow certain trees so he can make perfume essence (“I’ll pay them in rice”).
IN THE EVENING, well-heeled entrepreneurs enjoy the food and the band at Maxim’s on Dong Khoi, meaning the street of the General Uprising. It used to be Freedom Street, or Tu Do. . . . Tu Do Street! Twenty years ago those three blocks running north from the Saigon River were teeming with American servicemen and aggressive bar girls. Now it’s quieter here. You’ll still see a few beefy foreigners with tiny Vietnamese women—but the women are demure guides and interpreters. Some of the foreigners are from the Soviet Union, usually serious faced. A few are Americans, often former servicemen who’ve been here before, acting extra friendly.
Invariably the Americans are waylaid by young Vietnamese of unmistakably Caucasian or black ancestry, some saying, in English, “I’m hungry, give me money.” Those are Amerasians—now 14 to 24 years old, fathered by Americans. To the Vietnamese they’re con lai, half-breeds, and they tell sad stories, of discrimination and hardship. They’re eager to go to America, to find their fathers. . . .
SUNDAY NIGHT it’s time for shay rong rong, the big ride around! It’s a postwar Saigon ritual—an exuberant showing off, a letting off of steam. Young men and women on hundreds of motorbikes clatter south on Dong Khoi, then along the river, then up Nguyen Hue and so on, around and around for hours. “We do it in groups,” a young man explains as he pauses along the curb. “If you don’t go too fast, the cops won’t bother you.” He’s got a 55cc Suzuki and dreams of a Honda 100. While we talk, the usual urchins crowd around—and after the young man and his girl roar off, I find my money gone from my buttoned bush-shirt pocket. I guess I’ve just met one of Saigon’s—maybe the world’s—most accomplished pickpockets.
IT’S 4:30 P.M. and it’s hot. It always is here in the south, where there are only two seasons—rainy and hot; dry and hotter. Outside the central market I see people standing around a blaring radio—it’s the Voice of Ho Chi Minh City, announcing winning lottery numbers. I buy a ticket for the next drawing, number 434923. With luck I could win 12.5 million dong. I found a bat flying around my hotel room this morning, and in Vietnam a bat means luck.
What’s this across the street? A dozen men and two women sit on mats and lean against a wall. A young man, squatting, just jabbed a syringe into the calf of an old man, standing. “They do it from morning till night,” says a woman selling cigarettes. It isn’t heroin, that would be too expensive; it’s liquefied opium. That’s illegal, of course, but you know how it is. . . .
Prostitution is illegal too, and officially there isn’t any; the once notorious Tu Do Street bars have turned into food and souvenir shops. But maybe a girl will pass on a motorbike—then two men on another, asking do you like her? If yes, all move on to one of the empty houses set aside for the purpose.
Is there anything left of the old Saigon of rumor and innuendo, intrigue and deception?
Oh, sure. A lady powerful behind the scenes during the former regime now has a restaurant where she welcomes foreigners;
then she’ll make up stories about her guests—this Mr. So-and-So, do you know who he really is? Ah, the things I could tell you about him. . . .
Then there’s Pham Xuan An, who during the war made himself useful to numerous American journalists. He was always so cheerful, so reliable. After 1975 it turned out that Mr. An had been a senior Vietcong agent. Now he lives in a spacious villa and breeds German shepherds. “A very good market,” he tells me—people buy them as watchdogs; a good litter will bring a small fortune. Doesn’t he still have a government job? He says no, he’s retired. But that isn’t so; he’s in charge of keeping tabs on foreign journalists. How do I know? His present boss, high in Vietnamese military intelligence, says so.
In the garden of a still more spacious villa I listen to Tran Bach Dang, the wartime first secretary of the Communist Party in Saigon, who planned underground activities in the city including the attack on the U. S. Embassy during the 1968 Tet offensive. “I had 20 identities in those days. I was a businessman, a teacher, a banker, a mechanic. . . .” And with a big price on his head he lived right in this villa, next door to the U. S. deputy ambassador.
He’s still high in the party, an adviser to the minister of the interior, and a popular author of spy thrillers. He has a cordless telephone, uses a chauffeur-driven white Mercedes-Benz, and plans to start a business newspaper to be printed in English, in Bangkok. What obsesses him is what happened after 1975 —that the victory in the war didn’t turn into peacetime economic success.
“The Americans left us a very good infrastructure, roads, bridges, a wonderful airport,” he says. “Only now does Thailand have the infrastructure we had.” But it’s all gone to pot. “Our machines are rusty or gone, those with high skill in management and production have gone away.” He says it’s hard to get an air ticket to Ho Chi Minh City because Tan Son Nhat, once one of the world’s busiest airports, has only one runway in operation. “We hope to open another soon, but imagine—we must bring in Filipinos to help us train air controllers! Before, the Filipinos were trained by Vietnamese. . . .”
Another long-term change for the worse is noted by Dr. Duong Quynh Hoa, a veteran communist who was a leader of the NLF the National Liberation Front, as the Vietcong called itself—and is now in charge of the Pediatric Center: “You see a child, you think he’s five or six, but in fact he’s nine or ten. This is chronic malnutrition.”
From 1960 to 1975 Vietnamese children in Saigon were bigger, she says, because of the Americans. “The Americans spent billions of dollars, and the people had butter, condensed milk, all they wanted!” She adds that one may have been against the American presence, as she was, but must recognize that it brought some material gains, both in Saigon and in the countryside. She worries that many children born now may not have normal development, mentally as well as physically, because of malnutrition—that this will affect a whole generation.
Dr. Hoa was minister of health in the Provisional Revolutionary Government of 1975 that was quickly shoved aside by the North Vietnamese—leaving many southerners, NLF veterans, bitterly disappointed; they’d been promised that reunification would come gradually, step by step. . . .
Alas, how many thousands there must be in this city who’ve been left embittered by the turn of political events. That pedicab driver, so proud of his broken English; he’d been a lieutenant in the old South Vietnamese army. Or the dignified old man who was a minister in the old regime but didn’t leave in time and spent 12 years in trai cai tao —literally “camp/transform/re-create” —meaning a reeducation camp. He won’t say anything bad about his experiences there, but just imagine how he feels. . . .
No wonder so many are anxious to leave secretly, by land across Cambodia to Thailand or by boat. I hear there’s a chance you’ll be arrested before ever getting off the beach; then you’ll stay in jail until your family can buy you out. There’s a legal way to go, the Orderly Departure Program, but it can be an awfully drawn-out process. . . .
T0 A SMALL OFFICE at the airport a Vietnamese-speaking U. S. consul from Bangkok brings his thick files of long-pending cases. Many concern Amerasians; under a special program they may be admitted to the U. S. along with their mothers and siblings—and stepfathers too. There are also family reunification cases. A lot of these people have had exit permits for three years or more. The consul speaks to a nervous old lady and her daughter, in a manner both businesslike and kind.
“In your family, are there any Communist Party members?” “Any convicted criminals? Any drug addicts? “Tthe answers are no. “Any relatives in the United States?” The answer is yes. “Please sign here. And here. . . .”Now there’ll be more waiting, weeks or months, for places on a plane to Bangkok.
In the departure hall I ask today’s lucky passengers about their eventual destinations. Not only the U. S. —but France, I’m told, and the United Kingdom, West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Finland. Finland? An old man says his son was wounded in the war; a Finnish hospital took him in and cured him. Then an uncle escaped by boat and waited in a camp in Thailand for years until he too could go to Finland. “And now my wife and I can go also. One goes where one can.”
From the terrace outside, hundreds wave last good-byes to relatives headed for today’s plane. The air is thick with emotion. Many cry, some stare silently, a young man next to me bites his lip. A man stops near the plane door and turns and keeps looking back until a tiny girl drags him inside.
Many of the emigrants leaving by plane these days are Vietnamese of Chinese descent. There used to be a million of them in Saigon, mostly in districts five and six, the area known as Cholon; today there are some 500,000—among them a number of businessmen said to have considerable influence in the economy. “These men have capital, they keep their word, they are discreet,” I am told. “And they have connections in Hong Kong and Singapore. That is why every day the free-market price of the dollar is set in Cholon.” In an hour it’s all over the country.
Harassed after China briefly invaded Vietnam in 1979, ethnic Chinese left in large numbers. Tens of thousands, going illegally by boat, perished at sea, as did so many other Vietnamese. . . .
NINETEEN NINETY has been proclaimed Ho Chi Minh City’s Year of Tourism. What will be the outstanding attractions? There’s something new: the tunnels of Cu Chi, about an hour’s drive from the city center, in the north-westernmost rural district. This network of some 200 miles of passages—connecting tiny underground chambers, for meeting and sleeping and caring for wounded—enabled Vietcong forces to survive despite all the artillery fire and search-and-destroy missions overhead. The poisoned bamboo spikes and booby traps are gone. A bit of tunnel has been widened so even a relatively fat tourist won’t get stuck. Still—crawling just 50 yards in the dark, sweating on your hands and knees, is a claustrophobic experience; but it tells a lot about Vietnamese ingenuity and persistence.
And then there’s something old but good—two hours away to the southeast, the beaches of Vung Tau!
In the surf at Front Beach and Back Beach you’ll find squealing kids on inner tubes and large ladies—wives of Soviet oil experts—in large bikinis. You can buy cold beer and cooked crabs, and photographers promise to have your picture developed and printed in 15 minutes. Pineapple Beach is more sedate: Its villas, set on a green slope and once used by the powers that were, are now guesthouses for the politburo and assorted senior party members. Factory directors with big expense accounts come here with foreign customers or just with their secretaries. High on a peak in back of it all looms a legacy of the last years of the old regime—a gigantic concrete Christ, his arms outspread toward the South China Sea.
TIME FOR ONE MORE MOTOR TRIP: into what used to be the Rung Sat Special Zone, a jungly green haven for guerrillas, and is now the rural districts of Nha Be and Duyen Hai. I cross the Nha Be River by ferry, and after a while I’m on a reddish laterite road, built up through a swampy landscape reminiscent of the Mekong Delta, which begins just to the south. The man-high mangrove trees are good for charcoal, I’m told, and in the small canals there are big fat shrimp. A refrigeration truck passes en route to Saigon, with shrimp to be frozen for export to Singapore and Japan; also to Hong Kong, to be repacked for export to Europe. “To America too, but it won’t say so on the label, because of the American embargo.”
Another ferry, more bumpy laterite, and over there I see something unexpected: two dozen tiny gray wooden houses, in two neat rows. It’s a khu nha moi, literally “area/ house/new” —a New Economic Zone, baking in the heat.
In one house lives a couple with four kids. The woman says the people here were asked to move from their old homes and rice fields, “persuaded to volunteer.” Now her husband can earn money only when nearby shrimp farmers hire him, but when there’s no work there’s hunger. The man of the house, red-eyed, says nothing. He huddles under a blanket, shivering. Malaria, says the woman, half the people here have malaria; in the old place, never. . . .
As I PASS through the airport gate I wonder—how can Vietnam start to pull itself out of its political-economic quagmire? Maybe there’s a clue in the thinking of a remarkable little group of old southerners, all of them colonels and generals of the People’s Army in retirement who work a couple of days a week, in shifts, on a farm in Ho Chi Minh City’s suburban Thu Duc district.
They’re raising flowers, vegetables, and pigs —especially profitable —to help impoverished People’s Army veterans; there’ll be even more of these soon, demobilized after all the soldiers are brought home from Cambodia. The old officers, caustically critical of the economic muddle, are all good communists still, but with a touching faith in something American. They envision a bright future for Vietnam—with hard work plus high technology plus American management techniques!
They’re glad that a former minister of labor, who has taught business management at Georgetown University in Washington, D. C., has come back to help open a school of management. . . .
Well, I hope they won’t be disappointed, that on my next visit in a couple of years or five or ten, things will indeed look brighter for all Vietnam.