Late October 1991
The Thai Airways flight finally breaks through the monsoon cover and there below me is what can only be Saigon.
It’s pouring and beads of rain skitter horizontally across the window. Craning my neck, I peek down at stained, cluttered buildings and streets that make up a small part of the city. More clouds–very low clouds filled with water–and the buildings drop out of sight as the earth pushes quickly up toward the plane. We pass over some rice paddies now and descend even further. I look out and see a man on a bicycle–or is it a woman?–wearing a conical hat and a sheet of plastic. He’s stopped in the downpour to admire the plane’s descent. For an instant I’m convinced he’s seen me, has recognized me as an American, and wonders why I’ve come back.
But then the plane moves lower and he’s past. I look hard now for an airport or runway but all I see is this growing rice. The thought of being here suddenly makes me gulp. We’re so close to the ground I can see the rice on its stalks. Lower and lower, where in the hell is the runway–we’re going to land in the paddies! Then, suddenly, a spot of white pavement. The wheels touch. Once, twice, and I’m in Vietnam.
The plane bumps and rolls on the landing strip. Rice paddies are still outside my window. The monsoon is dumping sheets of water on the taxiing plane. In the aisle a group of Taiwanese wheeler-dealers in garish shoes and wide ties are being told to remain seated. I stare out, looking for something profound. An abandoned B-52 or a wrecked tank or a bomb crater would be great. But I see only the rice and a far-off shabby building. The plane stops and the other passengers quickly disembark, knowing far more than I about the torturous customs procedures that await.
I reluctantly lift myself up, peeking out the window one last time. I try to think deeply about my being here but can’t get beyond wishing for an umbrella and wondering why they would be cultivating rice in their international airport.
That was the last day of the rainy season.
I was about to become one of the first Americans in 17 years to spend an extended amount of time in the country our country once knew so well. Describing it now isn’t easy. It is a hard land to know and perhaps America never really knew it at all.
Vietnam to me–born two days before the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969–was always a cloudy cluster of bitter facts, a syndrome to get over, an event that no longer deserved discussion. It was the war we never reached in our history classes, the bad apple in our Ronald Reagan-baked American pie.
Eventually though, thanks to Chuck Norris, Rambo, Oliver Stone, and a few other American heroes, we learned anew about Vietnam. We learned how “we could have won if they had just let us fight,” and how “Nicaragua is another Vietnam.” We may not have learned that long before U.S. marines landed in Danang, Vietnam was a country–not a war.
It is about the size of New Mexico but it has 68 million people. Its population centers are its two river deltas, the Mekong in the south and the Red River in the north. The capital is Hanoi, but Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and still popularly called that, is where all the action is.
I booked into a shabby hotel far from the center of town, near the airport. I think I was the first foreigner who ever stayed there. The room was $8 a night, three times the official rate (I was always getting overcharged). On my second day someone came into my room and stole $40 in Vietnamese dong, my camera, and a small tape recorder. After two weeks I moved to a less expensive guest house in a much better location.
As I try to write about Saigon today, it strikes me that the same thing was once a commonplace job for Americans in Vietnam. Lots of men and women who served in Vietnam were not (despite the movies) getting their butts shot off in the paddies or jumping out of airplanes in the DMZ or training the hill tribes of the central highlands. Many were bureaucrats; pencil pushers who sat behind little desks in high-ceilinged colonial French villas in Saigon. They spent their time and the U.S. government’s money sweating, screwing, propagandizing, and trying to collect information that could answer one pivotal question: What’s really going on here?
Twenty years later, the question remains. The legacy of America’s Vietnam war, the French war that ushered it in, the Cambodian war that followed it, a thousand years of Chinese subjugation, 200 years of French colonialism, 20 years of American advisers, and 15 years of so-called Russian camaraderie is a Saigon that is invigorating yet weary, indelible yet forgotten, optimistic yet desperate, and very much on the move.
Saigon is raw. Raw like the open wounds on the forearms and calves of the heroin addicts who live in the park near the central market. These addicts have been getting cheap, pure heroin since it was introduced by the gangsters who first started pushing it on GIs 30 years ago. The drug users get no aid, no needles, and little sympathy. They cut open their skin with razor blades and smear the wounds with smack. Infection sets in, and the festering flesh gives the addicts better results when they go out begging and a quicker death in the streets.
Everything in Saigon happens in the streets. Officially, there are 3.5 million people in Ho Chi Minh City, but anyone who knows will tell you the number is closer to five or six million, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
I had just graduated from college with a degree in Asian studies and didn’t want to face the bleak job market and workaday world. I wrote some letters, asked for a little inside help, and looked into obtaining a business visa to enter Vietnam. When the visa finally came, I quit my part-time jobs at the Cubby Bear and a failing Chinese restaurant on Clark Street and took off.
I stopped in Thailand, where I had already spent a successful junior year abroad. That had been a well-planned exchange program with leaders, counselors, and a family that housed me, fed me, and disciplined me when necessary. Now it really hit me–in Vietnam I would know absolutely no one. I could get robbed of the little money I had. I would most definitely get sick. People were going to hate me because I was American. How could I earn a living? Where would I live? How would I communicate?
I decided to visit the U.S. embassy in Bangkok. I went looking for reassurance and to give them my name in case I became another one of those MIAs. I waited in line behind an older American man with a Jack Daniels wallet chained to his belt loop and a pregnant Thai girl wrapped in his arm. A junior officer who sat behind bulletproof glass took my name, listened to my plan, and said, “Go if you want, but there is nothing we can do for you.” He then warned me that working in Vietnam violated the trading with the enemy act. As I tried to think of something to say he looked past me and said, “Next.”
The streets flooded on my first night in Saigon. The French-built drainage system can’t handle the big rains anymore. I waded through the streets, loafers in hand, chinos pulled up over my knees, a notebook under my arm, and what must have been a look of pitiful bewilderment on my face. A bunch of naked kids were running and sliding on their bare bottoms along a stretch of slick marble in front of a statue of Ho Chi Minh. They stopped their splashing long enough to cry out, “Lien Xo, Lien Xo!” as I walked by. Although my Vietnamese would get better with time, an intensive three-month course at Cornell University had taught me enough to recognize “Soviet, Soviet!” I also knew a proper response, “Khong Phai Lien Xo. Toi la ngoi My.” “Not Soviet, American,” I shouted. They pondered that a moment and went on with their horseplay. As I turned back to the busy, flooded street I caught the eyes of an old lady who was standing over a basket and fanning flies off her produce with a conical hat. She was staring at me.
I had just announced my nationality to the whole street! I saw a group of young adults whispering and looking me over. I wondered if an American had killed their father or napalmed their village.
Suddenly from behind I heard a “You! You! Where you go?” It was an older Vietnamese man atop a cyclo, the overgrown tricycle-rickshaw that is the main mode of transporting people and produce on the tree-lined streets of Saigon. He was wearing a cap that said “Bill’s Air Conditioners, Tuscaloosa Alabama.” He cracked a big smile, gave me a thumbs-up, and said “America number one.” I looked back at the old woman, who also flashed a toothless grin. Encouraged, I climbed into the cyclo and made the first of what would be a long line of friends on the streets of Saigon.
Children play marbles, old women squat and gossip, young men make flip-flops from inner tubes, girls put on Russian makeup, old-timers chat over strong coffee while they play Chinese chess on box-top boards. People die, people eat, people fight, people marry, and it’s all right in front of you in the streets. As I began to understand what I was hearing, seeing, tasting, and smelling there, Saigon fell into place.
Instead of looking for work teaching English, this work looked for me. My biggest problem was telling people I didn’t have time to teach them all. In the course of a year I worked in scores of classrooms and taught thousands of students around the city. My pay was always around $2 an hour and I often hosted English-speaking clubs for free. Two dollars–25,000 Vietnamese dong–isn’t much. But it’s three times more than a Vietnamese teacher makes, and most of them have large families to support.
I didn’t have enough money to eat at the expensive tourist hotels or hang out with the other Westerners in their villas in the suburbs. The Westerners–or “ex-pats” as they liked to call themselves–tended to be young. Many were novices in the oil business or large trading companies. They had big expense accounts and cars with drivers and they drank black-market wine in foreign-run restaurants while they talked about going back to Sweden or Italy or England or wherever as quickly as possible. Some became friends and we did occasionally live it up. The Swedish contingent held a Midsummer’s Eve party, and at three in the morning ten of us ended up in the swimming pool at the Saigon Floating–the poshest hotel in town–in our underwear, with a big bottle of gin and a couple of nervous security guards trying frantically to get us out.
But in general my life-style was different from theirs. I could speak Vietnamese and wasn’t there to make money or protect the interests of some foreign company. My lack of money, my living habits, and the bond with Vietnam I felt as an American put me in a special position. I was accepted by the Vietnamese and for that reason I learned much.
As I began a lecture on Thanksgiving Day I felt my first twinge of homesickness. I described this uniquely American holiday to the class, which was a special group of students who were to emigrate to America. Their families had already moved here. I told them about families coming together to share meals and thank God for the food. I described the meal that would be served up in my house–the turkey and all the trimmings. I spoke fondly of cold weather and the start of winter and the Christmas season. The heavy, humid air in the classroom didn’t interfere with my dreamy description of snow, something none of them had ever seen.
I explained that America was originally settled by people who left their native land by boat on a dangerous journey to start a new life in a strange land. I told them America is still made up of people like this. It dawned on me that the families of these students, now living perhaps on Argyle Street or in places like Garden Grove, California, were no different from the Pilgrims. My lessons always seemed to be filled with subtle propaganda.
That evening I stood on my balcony watching the familiar action in the street. A line of motorbikes suddenly came around the corner, about ten of them, and maybe 15 of my students gathered in front of my hotel. I often had visitors but never unannounced. I rushed down to meet them and they said that they were taking me out for a Thanksgiving dinner. We went to my favorite kind of restaurant, something called a bia hoi (which means “beer on tap”). A bia hoi serves cold beer in big plastic jugs drawn from kegs at the Saigon Beer Factory. It’s dirt cheap and the food is always delicious. We ate the usual beef cooked over a small barbecue placed in the center of the table then rolled up in rice paper and dipped, of course, in nuoc maam, the notorious sauce made from the distilled juices of rotting fish. It’s an acquired taste.
After the beers were poured everybody made toasts. After each one we’d all have to cham fung cham, or chug a beer. As the speeches went on and the jugs of beer rolled out, even the quietest students began to talk. And the food never stopped. There was eel, frog, even a couple of expensive dishes involving snake and giant river prawns.
My nights out were all a lot like this: drinking watered-down beer and rice whiskey; learning to dance the cha-cha, tango, and rumba; eating at hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve just one delicious dish; getting drunk enough on snake-blood wine to eat dog cooked seven ways.
It was a rare evening I did not share with a student, another teacher, or someone I had met on the street that day. The Vietnamese love to invite. I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, not because I bought them but because every time I met people they would offer me a smoke. It was the same with coffee, which in Vietnam is exquisite–strong as hell but like nothing else in the world. The cigarettes are atrocious.
The biggest mistake I made in the beginning was to try to share the cost of a meal. It was unheard of. If I wanted to pay I had to do the inviting. So every time someone took me out, I had to pay him back with a return invitation.
Besides the socializing, my basic expenses included rent–150 U.S. dollars a month–food, coffee, cigarettes, a weekly payment to a special friend who got ahold of a Herald Tribune for me every day, and various payoffs I had to make for visa extensions. I taught close to 35 hours a week. This was a lot of time in the classroom, but it was the only way to make enough money to survive and enjoy some small comforts.
The guest house I eventually settled in was shaped like most buildings in Saigon–about 15 feet across but close to 75 feet deep, and six floors high. Inside were a 12-member extended family, plus six rooms for rent. The owner of the building was a big woman everyone on the block called Ma–a true pillar of society. During the day she stood proudly in front of her old building with a fan in her hand, shooing away kids when they got too noisy.
Each night doors were closed at 11, and guests who returned later had to pound and hammer to get in. The penalty for coming home late was a scornful look from the half-asleep family member forced to get up to open the door. My most vivid memory of Ma is of her standing in front of the building, her eyes scanning the dark street, her arms folded across her chest, the fan in her hand and a big clock on the wall behind her as I rushed to get home before she locked up.
Like many bosses, Ma does little of the work. Her husband died long ago and her oldest children are living in America. But she has three younger daughters–all of them smart and hardworking. They and their husbands have government jobs. One daughter is a teacher, one son-in-law a police officer, another an accountant. The others are what the government still likes to call workers–in factories, markets, and state-run institutions. But in their free time they manage the guest house and run a makeshift pharmacy that occupies the front of the building. Ma herself is what the Vietnamese secret police would call a B-54–a person who lived in North Vietnam before the 1954 peace accords and elected to move to Saigon rather than live under the communist regime in Hanoi. The joke goes that the communist hard-liners consider only one thing more dangerous than an American B-52 bomber (a plane used extensively in the war), and that’s a B-54.
All homes and buildings in Saigon have some sort of business in front; government jobs simply don’t pay enough to survive. A doctor makes $30 a month. A policeman makes $20, a grade school teacher $10 or $15. Everyone has to have a second, third, or fourth job, and everyone in the family works, no matter how young or old. If you have a tape player and speakers, a few stools and a couple of small tables, you open a coffee shop. If you have an air pump, an old army helmet filled with water, a spare strip of rubber, a flame, and an unclaimed street corner, you have a bicycle tire repair shop. People have been living this way since 1975.
Vietnamese economic theory has an axiom: if you’re white, you’re rich. This theory is accepted by all, from the lowly beggars in Saigon all the way up to the economic czars and decision makers in Hanoi. With my Vietnamese friends, money wasn’t a big problem. We could do things cheaply. When I was alone it was a different story. I was constantly being overcharged. My first big purchase was a bicycle. A friend and I went to the bicycle market. After casually looking over a few bikes I settled on an inexpensive Vietnamese-made bike with a shiny Peugeot sticker. The seller wouldn’t hear of it. “Vietnam no good!” he kept repeating–his only English phrase. He was insisting that I buy a more expensive and better-built Chinese bike. Using my friend as the interpreter, he said I was too fat–I’d break it. (In Vietnam anyone whose ribs don’t stick out is fat.) I asked if the Chinese bike was really better. He asked if I’d ever seen the Chinese circus. “They can ride nine people on one of these bikes,” he said. I was sold.
An hour later I ventured into the madness of the traffic. In Saigon the traffic rules are: (1) no rules, (2) show no fear, (3) pick a hole and go for it. Not knowing the rules on my first day, I ran straight into a three-wheeled vehicle, something akin to a motorized wheelbarrow, that was carrying various pieces of a car. My Chinese bike was never the same after that.
Eventually I invested in a motorbike, a 1979 50-cubic-centimeter Honda Supercub. By then I knew the traffic, I knew the prices, and I knew one trick: if you’re a foreigner buying something and you don’t want to pay full price, tell them you’re Russian. They don’t like Russians but they pity them. “Oh, Russians are very poor,” I’d hear them say as they discussed the price to charge me. And I’d always walk away with a smile, a wave, money in my pocket, and a “Dosvedonya!”
The Vietnamese who knew me understood my financial standing but most could never grasp why I ever wanted to be a teacher there; all they wanted to do was go to America. Nevertheless, in a Confucian society all teachers are respected, and I was too. But because I was younger than many of my students the deference they paid me could make me uncomfortable at times.
My first job was at the University of Economics, where I taught bright students business English. My first class was all beginners, I was told. I asked the students to think of questions to ask me. One asked me my name, another asked, “What are you?” One boy asked if I wanted to marry a Vietnamese girl. Then one clean-cut young man stood up confidently and in perfect English questioned me about why Americans hated Vietnamese and mistreated them in America. He said that Americans were by nature greedy and wondered why I would want to work for nothing in a poor country like Vietnam, asking “Who sent you here?”
It wasn’t hard to figure out this guy’s role at the government university. He was attempting to catch me feeding the bright young minds of Ho Chi Minh City anticommunist propaganda. I told him I liked Vietnamese and had Vietnamese friends at home. I said I came to Vietnam to learn about the country and then I asked him how he knew Americans were greedy. Had he ever met an American before? The rest of the students were lost. He looked a bit embarrassed and didn’t respond. He never came to class again.
One dull but well-paying course I taught for a while was to the board of directors of Vietnam’s biggest state-run company, Legamex. Legamex stands for “leather/garment export.” Every state-run business has been given a comparable English name. Animex equals “animal import-exports,” Textimex is textiles, Cofico the construction finance company. Undimex–yes, it’s undies. The students there were about as imaginative as the name.
By far the best and most rewarding work I had was teaching evening courses at a small language center on the outskirts of Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown.
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening at five, 25 aspiring English speakers would meet in a small room on the top floor of a former French academy and wait for me. It was the one class I held onto for my entire stay in Vietnam. In the course of a year we made terrific progress. The students, most of whom had some background in English, learned to discuss ideas in English, listen to each other, debate, and celebrate. I, however, learned more. My students had one teacher but I had 25.
Power cuts often limited us to an hour of light in the hot, dingy classroom and forced us to study by candlelight. We often organized picnics, trips to the zoo, and other outings. Before class I would arrange to meet with one or two students for coffee, a way to get some of the quieter students to practice speaking with me. There were parties at students’ homes and in the classroom.
It was a dream class, a perfect cross section of Vietnamese society. There was Mr. Pham, an outspoken old man who had worked in the old regime. He would stand up when asking questions and respond to the drills as if he were in front of a congressional subcommittee. He was constantly arguing with Miss Thuy, a young law student. Thuy was pretty and bright and did not disguise her opposition to the traditional role of women in the patriarchal society. In a recent letter from Miss Thuy I learned that she has given up English lessons for Japanese because of a job she might get with a Japanese company.
There was Mr. Kanh, an unemployed pilot who learned to fly MiG’s in the Soviet Union and wanted to talk about love and broken hearts. He spoke Russian very well but could not for the life of him find a job in Saigon. There was a quiet girl no older than 12 who never said a word but wrote exquisite compositions.
Mrs. Phi and Mrs. Lieu sat in front and never stopped talking. In Vietnam Mrs. Phi, who was in her late 30s, had little chance of ever finding a new husband, but she was always looking–especially at me. Mrs. Lieu was waiting for her husband, who had fled by boat to America in 1985, to send for her and her daughters. One month she stopped coming to class and I visited her to see if she was all right. She was, but she had received a letter from her husband. He was in California and had married someone else.
Mr. Thang was a pharmacist. A captain in the former ARVN–the southern army–he had a bullet hole in his neck. He was the most positive, friendly man in the class. Sitting next to him was Mr. My, a northerner who settled in Saigon after ’75. He brought a tape recorder to class in the beginning, maybe to review my lectures at home and maybe to pass them on to a higher authority. Mr. My wasn’t a great student but he tried hard. He and Mr. Thang, men who at one point fought against each other in war, now whispered and gossiped and copied each other’s exercises. I figured harmony and reconciliation were more important than academic integrity.
Some of our best parties were held on the roof of Mr. My’s building. The whole class was invited and I was always treated as the guest of honor. While the hazy sun set over the bustling city the students came together to eat, drink, dance, tell stories, and put the trials of life behind them.
Mr. My once told me when I was at his home for dinner about his ten years of service during the war. He walked the entire length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail five times. He was with the NVA battalion that broke through the Khe Sanh pass in one of the bloodiest battles in the war. Mr. My was rewarded for his service and given his big empty house, but he was sad. He gave his best years to his country and now he had no wife and no family. He never got what is most important to a Vietnamese man, someone to take care of him when he’s old.
One private class I was invited to visit was being conducted by a middle-aged man who later confided that in his heart he was “not bullshit Vietnamese, man” but “an American, man; you know, a Yankee son of a bitch, man.” He was teaching his four or five beginning students “not English–but American.” He’d say that word–“American”–and then give me a big thumbs-up.
“Repeat,” he’d say in his thick accent as he pointed to the words scrawled over a cracked piece of slate that barely functioned as a chalkboard.
The young students echoed him respectfully. “I gotta go see the flick,” one would say. “You wanna go see the flick?” another would ask. A third struggled with “He ain’t gonna see the flick.”
He was–and remains to this day–convinced that I am a spy who returned to Saigon to overthrow the communists. Eventually I played along with him. I told him that for his own safety and the success of my mission it’d be better if he stopped dropping in on me daily, unannounced, at six in the morning. I think I let him down. He was so glad to see an American come back, but I was not the sort of American he remembered.
He had suffered too much for me to resent him. Like most ex-officers of the old Saigon regime, he’d gone off to a reeducation camp in 1975. His wife baked baguettes and sold them on the street to hold the family together. She told me he wasn’t the same when he came home 12 years later.
This man made it apparent that English schools can be profitable for anyone. Every joker who ever learned to say “Far out, man” or “This hooch got boo-coo VC” can offer himself as a teacher. Vietnamese who want to learn English range from the ones planning to join their families in America on the Orderly Departure Program to party officials who studied for years in Moscow and the Eastern bloc and just discovered their knowledge of Russian and Bulgarian isn’t going to get them a job. Even some Vietnamese who have never studied English are surprisingly familiar with expressions like “We make joint venture” and “You sign contract.”
The whole country is engrossed with the thought of getting rich. It’s what makes business-card production the most profitable business around–everyone has at least one. Chances are if a man passes you his card he will follow it up by telling you he is unemployed, blame communism for that, and then ask that you remember his name if you ever need a worker, driver, translator, interpreter, nuclear chemist, or NFL linebacker.
This is the Vietnam that is raw, ripe, and ready for investment. With no place to go but up the country is transforming itself at an astonishing rate. In my year in Saigon I saw hotels go up, discos open, bicycles get replaced by mopeds, Vespas by modern crotch rockets, and beat-up old Fords by new Toyotas, while run-down and deserted villas became flashy offices for representatives of foreign companies.
Most investments being made these days are in the tourism industry. Saigon has a pathetic infrastructure. There is no electricity four days a week during the dry season because the Russian-built hydroelectric power plants stop working when water levels get too low. The tourists who are slowly starting to arrive must also put up with the dust whenever there is a strong wind from the delta, with the reek of urine and sewage after the first rains, and with the incessant clatter of bicycles, street hawkers, Vespa horns, and haggling buyers and sellers. Few of the wealthier vacationers to the Orient include Vietnam in their itinerary. But backpackers and adventure seekers have discovered it. The white beaches of Nha Trang and the grassy banks of the Perfume River in Hue are popular hangouts for young Europeans and Australians, who take advantage of the fresh seafood, cold beer, and cheap ganja available upon request.
American tourists tend to stick to the places made historic by the war–to the recently renovated Continental and Rex hotels, the underground tunnels of Cu Chi, or China beach in Danang. Many are returning veterans.
One rainy night at Apocalypse Now, a small but always crowded bar where foreign tourists spill out onto a deserted side street that 20 years ago was hopping with go-gos, pubs, dancing girls, pickpockets, and pushers, I bought a 333 beer for a middle-aged man from Montana. The sound track to Good Morning, Vietnam blared overhead and young Swedes and other smelly Europeans smoked pot and argued with cyclo drivers about the price of a girl or planned a trip to the DMZ. Although this guy from Montana had spent nearly eight months in Vietnam, that night was his first ever in Saigon. Like most arriving GIs, he landed at the Tan Son Nhut air base and went straight into the field. He served in Pleiku and the central highlands before being sent home with an arm full of shrapnel. He mostly told me about the places he’d been, his memories of the natural beauty of the land, his Vietnamese contacts, and so on. I listened and resisted correcting his Vietnamese pronunciations. He said somberly that Vietnam seemed different today. He finished his beer, refused another, and went back to his hotel.
It must have been three weeks later that I ran into him again. He yelled out to me and I was surprised to see the same face, now sunburned and smiling. He wore leather sandals, a loose-fitting shirt, and pressed white trousers. Standing next to him was a beautiful Vietnamese woman. This time he bought me a beer and told me all about his trip back to Pleiku. The woman sipped a lemon juice and chirped up occasionally, helping him pronounce all the places they had been to together. She had been his tour guide but their relationship obviously had taken some turns. He laughed and told stories of the friends he’d made in Hue and the surfing in Danang and the villages and mountains that were more beautiful than he remembered. Occasionally he’d put his arm around his guide or tickle one of the street urchins who’d come up and sit on his lap, refusing to move until we bought some more of their peanuts. More than anything, he talked about going back to his job as a carpenter and saving his money and coming back to Vietnam as soon as he could.
In most Americans I sensed a bit of disappointment when they could not detect more scars, more unhealed wounds of the war. They were still wounded; the Vietnamese were too busy rebuilding to dwell on the past.
A new hotel was going up in the center of Saigon–by far the biggest project in the city. Traffic came to a standstill in front of the construction site every day and passersby watched in awe as machines pounded in the pilings for the foundation.
Next to the site was a place called the International Tourist Club. Here foreigners, mostly Asian businessmen, enjoyed expensive drinks, Western food, a disco, and snooker tables. I went in one day with a little extra dong in my pocket and a hot tip about good pizza. I was amazed to see the place now filled with slot machines. The snooker tables and video games I had seen here once were gone, replaced by over 70 one-armed bandits.
The place was a big hit with the other Asian foreigners living in Saigon, and with the numerous “kept” Vietnamese girls who spent their days there piddling away the allowances their foreign boyfriends gave them.
Later, all the machines were carried out and the club was sealed. I asked around and found out from a Vietnamese friend–a paralyzed vet in a wheelchair who’d been a sergeant in the southern army and was now my main source of smuggled Marlboros–that the place had been operated by the Hong Kong mafia. Two days earlier seven men from Hong Kong had beaten a Vietnamese worker with pool cues so badly that he was in the hospital near death. Just as significantly, more than a few children and mistresses of rich and powerful Communist Party members had been seen gambling away small fortunes on the slot machines.
There are scores of Taiwanese, Korean, Singaporean, and Hong Kong businessmen in Vietnam looking for small, quick cash investments. They can be seen entering dimly lit cafes with bottles of Chivas Regal or Johnny Walker under their arms. They open factories and sweatshops that turn out textiles and garments. In Cholon, the Chinese section of Ho Chi Minh City, these businessmen meet their contacts, sing karaoke, and pick out their second and third wives. The dollars they spend make everyone happy in Saigon, but a well-embalmed Ho Chi Minh must be rolling around inside his glass case up in Hanoi.
The Japanese are not easily detected, but they’re in Saigon too. The universities are filled with young Japanese who have been studying the language, learning the customs, and making the contacts that eventually will allow them to make the big moves they have planned. The Japanese think in the long term, and although they are moving slowly now it is clear they have big designs for Vietnam.
America is the only country not in the hunt. Plenty of American businessmen are coming over. They can look, but until we lift our trade embargo they can’t touch. The Vietnamese government is getting desperate to do business with the United States; its recent flurry of cooperation over the MIA question was an expression of its eagerness to reestablish ties with America.
With its massive, cheap work force and its vast natural resources, which include offshore oil, minerals, and what’s probably some of the most fertile land in the world, Vietnam is now the last great untapped market in the Pacific rim and one of the most promising economies in the third world. Economic reforms, claims the one and only Communist Party, are leading the country down a golden path. Little does the party care, after 18 years of utter failure, that this is undoubtedly a path of no return.
Yet Saigon’s rapid transmutation has created a sense of desperation. Everyone knows that things are on the move, and there is a genuine fear of being left behind. Many will say they were left behind once already–on April 30, 1975–and they can’t let it happen again. Sure that the slowly opening doors to economic freedom could soon slam shut again, the Vietnamese, unlike their comrades in Eastern Europe and Russia, are not just peeking through, they’re stampeding.
Money, development, opportunity. These words were once foreign to all Vietnamese, save for the ones who made it to America. Most travel abroad was restricted to high-level visits to the Soviet Union, military movements into Cambodia, and exports of laborers to the Eastern bloc. Vietnamese still are hemmed in by a rigid government. Former officials of the southern regime can’t find work; they are not trusted by the government, nor are their children. The government, mixing the kind of hypocrisy and favoritism that precipitated the downfall of the Soviet Union with traditional Confucian practices, has created a ruling class that has no intention of giving up its power or privileges.
Foreign investment is tightly controlled, and every deal that gets done must include a substantial set-aside for payoffs. Corruption is an accepted certainty at every level of society. A certain type of policeman comes out at night and stands at dark intersections forcing drivers to pull over so he can hound them for money. For a time, these machine-gun-wielding extortionists were even stopping foreigners in cyclos and holding them until they paid.
The complete failure of the centrally planned economy was a failure only of the official economy. The black market is the real economy, and although the flow of goods through it is extremely limited it’s the way most money changes hands. For example, the official procedure for changing a tire prior to the 1986 economic reforms involved first taking the tire to an official agency that would certify the tire was flat. Then the tire owner would take the signed paper and the tire to a second agency that would take the tire and the paper and issue a new sheet of paper. This entitled the bearer to pay a small fee. Then he’d return in a day or so, pick up the repaired tire, hand in the paper, get 50 percent of his fee back, then take that sum and his newly repaired tire to the agency that had certified the tire was flat in the first place. There he’d receive the rest of his money and a copy of the first paper along with the tire, which he could now take home and put back on his bike.
Or he could stop at a corner where someone with a pump, an army helmet filled with water, and a spare strip of rubber could repair it in about three minutes. Basically, the reforms made the second way legal.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union–its only source of income–the government had no choice but to turn to the people, lift price controls, and free the economy. For all the kinks that still need to be worked out, most people are better off today than they were four years ago.
Everyone agrees that life has been very difficult for the last 18 years. Saigon is a city whose people are homesick while they are still home.
The old American and French partisans think of the wealth, the culture, the universities, the law and order, and the money they once had. “The Vietnamese,” observed Graham Greene, “are more French than the French.” Today only a few old men can still remember studying at the famous lycee on Pasteur Boulevard in the old Saigon. And the father of a family that died at sea attempting to flee to America recalls his position as a liaison officer who traveled to Washington, New York, and Chicago. They think of the most developed country in Southeast Asia, of a time when everything available in New York and Paris was available to them, when the region’s busiest airport wasn’t in Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Jakarta but in Saigon. They remember homes taken away and given to communists. They remember freedom and economic opportunity lost to themselves and to their children solely because they supported the side that lost.
And yet the communist ideologues and their sympathizers are homesick too. Theirs wasn’t a home but a homeland, built with blood, sweat, and patriotism–a dream home designed by the master architects Marx, Lenin, and the great Uncle Ho. And the home, despite the blood and sweat, was never built. All that remains are images on currency and on posters that adorn each intersection of the city, posters heralding the worker and the peasant, the hammer and sickle, the doctor and the soldier. But this exhaust-stained propaganda has as little meaning to the common man as graffiti at an el stop.
The work of rebuilding Vietnam now lies in the hands of my generation. Many Vietnamese my age can remember some things about the war–huge Americans coming through their villages and passing out candy, tanks rolling through their streets, or the times they hid from bombs–but most feel that the war is long gone. It’s ancient history.
I describe the movies and books and the strong feelings that are aroused in America when Vietnam is even mentioned. The older generation in Vietnam wonders why we would get so stirred up now about a country we left so easily. The young people wonder why any Americans would even think about Vietnam, much less want to go back there.
I have no answer for them. The generation of Americans that grew up watching the war, fighting in the war, and hating the war still can’t seem to figure Vietnam out. My generation, as it searches for its own identity, doesn’t really care much about Vietnam beyond not wanting “Vietnam” to happen again. I end up telling them America just doesn’t like to lose. But when I look around at Vietnam, I wonder what it is that we lost here and what we could have won.
Life goes on as it has for thousands of years. The rice is planted, the rains come, the rice is harvested, dried, and eaten. It happens this way every year. People stand up for what they believe in and sometimes they run. There is peace and war but neither is perpetual. There is prosperity and failure, tragedy and romance. It’s been happening this way for thousands of years. The people, the rulers, the cities, and the governments change names but never change their essence.
Eleven and a half months have passed. I leave Saigon from the now remodeled, renovated, and significantly busier Ho Chi Minh City International Airport for my trip back to Chicago. It’s still raining a bit. And despite the construction of new runways, a few rice paddies remain. A muddy water buffalo stands dumbly at ease in the drizzle. I get one last look back at the new terminal, where an overwhelmingly large group of students, friends, and adopted family members have gathered to see me off, causing quite a stir for Vietnamese security agents and stuffy tourists alike.
The plane moves slowly at first; in a moment it’ll be soaring toward the fertile rice paddies of the Mekong delta with Cambodia beyond. A night in Bangkok, a stop in Seoul, a $4 Coke in Tokyo, a remark to a Trail Blazer fan in Portland, a breathtaking view of the Rockies in Salt Lake City, and finally the sparkling lights that shoulder Lake Michigan.
But now, one look back at the airport, a quick reflection on how Vietnam can change a 22-year-old Chicagoan and a last glance at a pile of rice drying on the runway. As the plane climbs away from the land and its people, I declare that I’ll be back. And I wonder if while I’m gone they will cultivate any more airports in their rice fields.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Chuck Nitti.