We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.
The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?
1: The Train
The Special Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is 48 hours of clackety-clack, the Ages of Man begging in every way station, an endless tableau of conical hats, water buffalo, and rice paddies that stretch toward the horizon like green Velcro. The journey covers a dreamy thousand miles–the countryside’s every bit as gorgeous as our bomber pilots claimed–and, once past Hue, it turns ever so slightly hazardous: poor and pissed off, northern teenagers cast stones at passing trains, especially any blue-and-yellow express rushing tourists and Party cadres between the centers of power. Our sleeper window had plyboard where the glass used to be.
Unguided American tourists are still an attraction in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Our fellow passengers treated us as adoptive children, alerting us to bomb craters and mist tumbling down hillocks, hailing the bleached sands of Cam Ranh Bay; they woke us from deep sleep to ask if we wanted our morning coffee. Our favorite was Kiem, an ebullient cutup whose American PhD hadn’t stopped him from becoming a big shot in the Department of Industry. Kiem made everyone laugh.
“What do you think of Vietnam?” he asked with a sly grin, and proceeded to answer his own question: “It’s very poor, isn’t it? The UN says we’re one of the ten poorest countries in the world.” He recited this sad statistic almost lovingly. “The average income is only $10 a month, U.S. Not very much.”
Your countryside is beautiful, Jane said gamely, and no pollution on the beaches.
“That’s because there is no industry to pollute them! It would be better to have the pollution if we could have the industry, too!” Delighted with his own naughtiness, he flicked out his tongue until it touched the end of his chin.
The train chuffed through a reforestation area. Where Agent Orange once poisoned the soil and napalm turned foliage to blooms of flame, the shadows of eucalyptus trees now angled toward the sea. Soon, the wood would be sold to the Taiwanese for the hard foreign currency Vietnam desperately needs. Or so we were informed by Toan, an agricultural engineer whose conversational notions were exhausted by rice-production statistics and the narrow-gauge rails that keep Vietnamese trains so poky.
Kiem’s eyes grew glassy with boredom during Toan’s eucalyptus-scented hymn to his country’s arboreal enterprise. Though high up in the government, he was not a believer; remarkably enough, he wasn’t a cynic either. He was a happy-hearted realist–there was no bitterness to him. When he talked of corruption, black marketeering, or the Party leaders’ abject lack of business acumen, he was amused at his country’s follies without being indifferent to them.
I asked how people felt about the big changes in Eastern Europe. “Excited. Don’t quote me!” He nudged Toan with his shoulder and they shared the conspiratorial laugh shared by so many people in this country. And then he rose: “You don’t happen to have a Time or Newsweek, do you?”
I gave him a weekly magazine with Gorbachev on the cover, and he hurried back to share it with his compartment mate, an eminent Party historian who spent the whole trip in pajamas. Later Kiem told me that the magazine didn’t give him much new information; he’d already heard most of it on the BBC World Service.
The trip seemed much emptier when Kiem departed at Hue, taking exuberance with him. And his absence wasn’t filled by the conductor’s courteous nod to his American passengers: a piped-in tape of pop favorites (“A friend who taught me right from wrong/And weak from strong/That’s a lot to learn”). The trip dragged until sunset, when a scruffy, moon-faced Vietnamese burst through our door and, proffering Japanese cigarettes (“very light”), popped onto the near bed, words already unspooling: “I’m schizophrenic,” he announced proudly. “Everybody is a little, right? But I really am.”
He flicked his ashes onto our floor.
“I was a medical student in Paris”–here his hands began to grow agitated–“and I work toohard toomanyhours–mademyselfcrazy. It is necessary I go to Hanoi because my head . . .” He raised his hands to both sides of his skull and shook them rapidly, as if massaging his scalp from a distance. “I am going to have needles put in–” Acupuncture? I prompted.
“Akewpuntewr, yes.” He jerked at the sleeves of his misshapen sweatshirt, hair spilling into eyes that glittered like mica. “I do not like Hanoi. It is a bad city. Verycold veryviolent a political jungle.”
And while Jane and I sat silently, our friend–he did not give his name–babbled on about his life. How he was the student president of some university in Paris. How he was famous on French TV. How a gangster had conked him on the head the last time he’d visited Hanoi. How the German rock band Modern Talking is “very big” in Saigon. At one point, he dashed from our car and returned with a Paris Match article praising Saigon’s renaissance. After the first paragraph, he said, he could not stand to read anymore–“It is all lies.”
Just as his monologue began plummeting into complete impenetrability, he stopped dead–and began staring out our window into the darkness. His expression was blank.
“I saw the Louvre,” he said, “or maybe Versailles!”
“Just now?” I gasped.
“I’m scared. Now I must eat and go to bed.” He sprang to his feet and bulled down the hall.
I looked out the window. When I’d woken shivering at six that morning, my first sight was of farmers already knee-deep in their paddies, perspiration staining their shirts. Now, more than 13 hours later, their northerly counterparts were just beginning to head home; one by one gaslit cottages began to glimmer in the darkness. Off in the distance, a field fire burned an orange hole in the twilight. There was no sign of the Louvre or Versailles.
Like most men my age, I spent nearly a decade trying not to go to Vietnam. And, like most men of my age who remained in the States, I spent years wondering if I’d missed something important: A test of masculinity? My generation’s look into the abyss? Or something grimmer and more serious: the reality of unnecessary suffering and death? Whatever it was, when I was in Bangkok and saw an ad urging me to “Visit Vietnam for Tet”–Tet! now there was a word to conjure with–when I saw that ad, I had to go. But there would be more to this trip than the past: this spring it’s 15 years since the tanks crashed through the gates of Saigon’s Presidential Palace. (The last Americans had been choppered off the embassy rooftop a few hours earlier.) Getting there couldn’t have been easier. Though the USA still has no diplomatic relations with Vietnam, I simply went to Vietnam Airlines, bought two ten-day visas for $100 apiece, and booked a round-trip flight to Ho Chi Minh City. (“Saigon,” the Air Vietnam agent corrected me: “Nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City anymore.”) Vietnam, she said, has really opened up. No hassles, no tour guides, no restrictions. Go where you want, visas extended pro forma, and if you decide to fly back from Hanoi, just change your reservation. No problem. Vietnam had proclaimed 1990 the Year of the Tourist. Meaning: “They want U.S. dollars very, very much.”
Our plane landed among propellered hulks at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport–would every name in this country fill my head with old pictures?–and soon we were cruising down wide French streets shaded by mango trees, tamarinds, coconut palms. My first impression: that the dust had been settling for the last 15 years. I’d never seen a city so caked with it. Russet dust, orange dust, dusty brown dust, dust on the buildings, dust on the cars, dust on the trees–a coppery matte coated the low-hanging leaves. Later I learned that the dust was normal; this was merely the dry season, not the verdict of history. And still later I learned that my first impression was correct after all. There’s been very little construction since the war. The buildings are the same, but their meanings are different; the pictures in my head are accurate, but the captions have been changed.
The U.S. Embassy is still standing. A hammer-and-sickle banner drooping over the driveway, it serves as the HQ of a Soviet oil company. Out the Xo Viet Road, the apartments erected for U.S. personnel now house the Party cadres. (They’re relatively nice, you see.) And the old Presidential Palace, which boasts a party room worthy of a Connery-era Bond film, now goes by the name of Unification Hall. (“They don’t want you to know this,” said our epicene guide, a dead ringer for The Year of Living Dangerously’s Billy Kwan, “but the man who drove the tank through this gate has moved out of the country.”) Amid the countless architectural follies left behind by America’s imperial hubris, the only striking new building is the greatest folly of them all: the five-star Floating Hotel, which charges $250 a night (you can get a good room elsewhere for $15) and features a staff clad, none too happily, in mint-green sailor suits. Nobody goes there except Saigon’s nouveau riche capitalists, who drink $5 Cokes and hope to be seen.
The Floating Hotel would be a laughingstock anywhere, but the surroundings make it obscene. Top to bottom, Saigon was the poorest major city I’d ever visited, until I reached Hanoi. A city of slums, endless work, and just scraping by. A city whose nearly four million people are as skinny as beggars. A city of hungry rats, sidewalk sleepers, and infinitely divisible menial labor. One man snips worn-out inner tubes into two-inch patches; his partner does the patching when a bicycle tire goes flat on the street; of course, there’s always a competitor just up the block. The city center is teeming with beggars and pickpockets and long-lost friends who remember you from–where? Outside the Caravelle Hotel, once bombed by the VC, a cute six-year-old boy snaked his hand into my pocket. When I caught his arm, he smiled angelically and tried to sell me a city map.
I admired the kid’s gall, but soon felt drained and unnerved by the incessant grabbing after me. I grew churlish with all the implorers and wheedlers, and, despite myself, I began to mistrust everyone, most of whom were decent, friendly people who wanted nothing more than to say hello, practice their English, or sell me a few bananas. I imagined how it must’ve felt to be an American soldier in Saigon–just a kid, 20 years younger than I am today–never knowing if the hand tugging your arm was asking for help or somehow trying to do you in. I realized to my shame that I could have been guilty of terrible things.
If you happen to be an American, Saigon’s poverty is bound to fill you with enormous regret that deepens the more people you talk to. The government doesn’t appreciate Americans conversing with the locals; ironically, however, tourists usually deal with just the people most hostile to the state: South Vietnamese soldiers sent to reeducation camps, interpreters forced to toil for years in the countryside. Today, these men take your order at the better restaurants or pedal you around in a cyclo all afternoon for three bucks (if, that is, you’re feeling generous). For them, Western tourists have become an industry.
On my second day in Saigon, a scarecrow of a man in a threadbare brown suit tried to sell me U.S. military scrip left over from the war. I said I wasn’t interested. He followed me for blocks pitching his wares in impeccable English. He waited as I went to the post office. He trailed me to a cafe. He was standing there when I emerged from my 80-cent lunch, and grabbed me. His arm was as thin as a dog’s foreleg. “Don’t you understand?” he cried. “I worked for your country, your country, and now I’m poor. Can’t you see that I’m poor and need money to eat?” He clutched my arm tightly. “How can an American leave me here with nothing?”
A human moment. I looked into his eyes, red with desperation. He looked at my money belt, which, we both knew, held more cash than he’d make in the next five years. I sighed, and three dollars changed hands. He asked if I wanted some stamps . . .
Not everything in Saigon was so bad. People kept saying that the worst was over, that the city was showing some flickers of life. This wasn’t simply a matter of an increase in commodities–Maradona jeans, Simply Red T-shirts–although everybody was happy that the street stalls had meat, and that the black market provided (via Cambodia) a steady supply of Heinekens, Marlboros, and Sharp electronics. The renewed energy didn’t come simply from things. You could feel it in the teenagers grooving to the “Leave Me Alone” video at the corner VDO cafe, in the incessant jawing jostling milling hugging–the human friction that gives Vietnamese street life its spark. Yes, Saigon was definitely on the move.
Half mocking, half proud, the locals have even nicknamed their city Hondaville, in honor of all the motorcycles buzzing through the streets. Night after night, the young and the middle-aged flood into the city center. Beneath dim fluorescent lights and rare bursts of neon, they carve a great, circular route past the Rex Hotel, the national theater, the riverfront, and start all over again. A dazzling scene: Hondas zooting, bicycles whirring, cyclos gallumphing, the infrequent cars beeping and bullying, pedestrians inching, pausing, sprinting for safety, collisions perpetually imminent but never quite happening, an intricate interweaving of bodies and metal that steals order from the heart of chaos.
Hour after hour, night after night, everybody keeps on going. But this isn’t the cruising of bored American teenagers attempting to forestall the onset of adulthood. This is adulthood in a land where textile workers make 30 cents a day, where young people can look forward to a lifetime of drudgery. It’s heartbreaking to see a whole city going in circles.
3: I Think of You All the Time
As you walk down Bangkok’s notorious Patpong Road (“Pussy open bottle show, bahs?”), you eventually come across Blu Jeans Country Bar–“Hangovers Installed and Serviced.” To the left of its entrance is a bumper sticker urging the reader to Boycott Jane Fonda: American Traitor Bitch. What’s striking about this sign is not its bitterness, but that it’s brand-new.
No doubt because we lost it, Americans have had trouble forgetting the war. And the Americans who visit Vietnam these days are obsessed by the past. They want to refight lost battles, bury dead souls, or simply see what they missed. They pump the Vietnamese for their horror stories. It’s one of the privileges of empire that Americans can be tourists in history.
The Vietnamese people enjoy no such luxury. They have to live with the war’s abiding realities: hundreds of thousands dead, a ravaged countryside, the poverty in the wake of the heaviest bombing in history. Not surprisingly, most Vietnamese set their sights on the present and future–they want to forget about the war. One day we visited some students who were four years old when Saigon fell. They said their parents never ever talk about the war: “Oh, maybe once a year, if somebody else brings it up.”
For an American tourist, the war is everywhere and nowhere. The government doesn’t let you see much. A War Crimes Museum. The fence around Danang Air Force Base. The tunnels of Cu Chi where the Vietcong lived underground for nearly 20 years. Just seeing these dismal warrens, too narrow for Caucasians, studded with enormous spiders, you know why they prevailed. To live in such conditions, they had to know what they were fighting for. For all its highfalutin rhetoric, America never did.
Our first afternoon, we scoured Saigon for an English-Vietnamese phrasebook that would let us say hello, thank you, a cup of coffee, please. We had to settle for a yellowed little book, Hoi Thoai, which is ostensibly a language text for Vietnamese wanting to speak American: Vietnamese sentences are translated into something resembling English. It is one of the most chilling volumes I’ve ever encountered.
This is not a language text as any of us know it. You will find no chuckleheaded dialogues about buying a pencil or discovering the names of your classmates. To open this small volume is to step through history’s looking glass and emerge as a Vietnamese citizen caught in a nightmare. You speak in the sentences of a dreadful tongue: “Two persons are broken heads, and one is dead.” “There is a mine explosion at street.” “Lieutenant is an amusing man.” “I do it unwillingly. It’s a matter out of my control.” “Which the way to the U.S. Embassy?”
Wander the back alleys of Hoi Thoai to page 86 and you are suddenly a shop girl, a bar girl, somebody’s sister, learning to conjugate the tenses of GI love: “Oh, I want a lipstick.”
“Do you think of me sometimes?”
“You make me fully amorous of you.”
“You are the first man who wins my heart.”
“Are you sure you will keep your promise?”
“I will die if I lost you.”
“I am awaiting your letters.”
“The liar, this is the man I dislike the most.”
In recent years it has become acceptable for Americans to portray the war in Vietnam as a noble cause. Hoi Thoai eloquently puts the lie to such nonsense. So do the Vietnamese themselves. I encountered not one Vietnamese citizen, Communist or otherwise, who referred to April 30, 1975, as anything but “Liberation.” And there was no ambivalence or irony in this term. They were proud that their country had thrown out the foreign invaders. Even those who believed the communists were ruining their country were pleased that Vietnam was finally being screwed up by the Vietnamese. As usual, Hoi Thoai knows exactly what to say: Khong al co the tot xau moi loc cuoc–“No man can serve two masters.”
4: The Withering Away of the State
Hanoi often seems like the land that time forgot: old men still walk around in berets, while young ones are just meeting the Beatles. The city’s architecture retains numerous traces of French rule, especially in its splendid houses–all shutters and balconies and wrought iron grates. This pastel-colored Old Worldliness is Hanoi’s great charm, and also one of its problems. Many roads are muddy, most buildings in disrepair, huge buckets of garbage are thrown onto the street and picked over long after it has reached the consistency of mince. The tang of urine hangs in the air.
Saigon never feels like a socialist city. For both good and ill, Hanoi inevitably does–I saw a mother teaching her toddler to blow kisses at a statue of Lenin. The Hanoians have a discipline and restraint missing from Saigon–there are very few hustlers and even fewer beggars. There are also fewer and crummier goods in the stores and street stalls. (It’s easier to buy a smuggled-in Heineken than a functioning state-manufactured electric plug.) Worse still, the mental atmosphere of Hanoi gives off more than a whiff of its patron city, pre-glasnost Moscow: secret police are always palpably present (people are afraid to invite you into their homes), and the state-owned enterprises are largely staffed with those who couldn’t give less of a damn.
When we first arrived in Hanoi, we were rattled by kids who constantly trailed behind us crying Lienxo! Lienxo! Lienxo! in taunting voices. But it turned out that this word means “Russian,” and we were being heckled by mistake. Russians, we learned, are widely disliked in Vietnam; people resent their bully-boy swaggering. In fact, a street slogan goes simply, “America, Number One–Soviet Union, Number Ten!”
Because this was the North, we were eyed with hostility by a few people, mainly older ones who had felt the brunt of the war. (It may have mattered to me that I opposed the war, but it didn’t to them: I hadn’t stopped the bombing, had I?) But these were the exceptions. Most people in Hanoi were much friendlier to Americans than people are in, say, Seoul. They wanted to talk about Steven Wonder, show us their wedding photos, tell us about a cousin living in Glendale. We spent one afternoon at a teachers’ training college–a ramshackle campus–and the students didn’t want to stop talking. They wanted us to sing American songs (Jane knocked them dead with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”); they made me tell the story of my life. Their professor said, “The bombing was terrifying, but both sides make bad mistakes in a war.”
Such generosity couldn’t have been more distant from the West’s recent gloating about the triumph of capitalism, an orgy of back-patting that blames socialist ideas alone for Vietnam’s economic disaster. Forgotten, of course, is America’s own role in making Vietnam poor. Not only did the U.S. bomb them like mad during the war–an assault that kept the country from modernizing–but our government has behaved vindictively ever since. It has worked against Vietnam’s attempts to build international trade and vetoed efforts to give it the International Monetary Fund loans it so desperately needs. Leading to a popular local joke: “Let’s fight the Americans again–and lose.”
Conservatives invariably brush aside the American war’s devastating effects. That’s ancient history, they say. Just look at what capitalism has done in South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong . . .
As it happens, I had spent two months in Asia before reaching Vietnam. And for all the misery I encountered in Saigon and Hanoi (and saw in the countryside), I must say that in human terms Vietnam is not much more distressing than its more prosperous Asian counterparts. Vietnam may lack adequate housing, but at least it isn’t Korea, where gangsters and cops work side by side to burn out poor people’s neighborhoods, with the national government’s support. Vietnam may be short of good jobs, but it hasn’t stooped to the level of Thailand, where hundreds of thousands of country girls and boys sell themselves to foreigners, with the government’s tacit encouragement (it’s good for tourism). The average Vietnamese family may be shockingly poor, but no poorer than the slum families of Hong Kong (much less India) living right next to millionaires who don’t even pretend their lives matter.
Vietnam has not yet become “developed” like so many other Asian countries, and this offers as much reason for hope as for despair. It would be tragic if, after all the years of war and deprivation, Vietnam were to become yet another NIC (or “newly industrialized country”) that keeps the majority poor while a wealthy minority revels in the consumer benefits that are nowadays taken as the measure of civilization. Vietnam’s future is wide open, and I like to imagine that, in 20 years’ time, it will be a better society than those that are richer today.
And yet–when I think of Vietnam, there’s always an “and yet”–I don’t completely trust my dreams. I’m a tourist, after all, and already own the material goods I’m inclined to undervalue. I don’t have to live with the consequences of my dreams, or with the present Vietnamese government.
Many who do are unhappy–not as miserable, perhaps, as my acquaintances in Moscow, but fed up with economic backwardness and political repression. Every Vietnamese I talked to–Northerner or Southerner, intellectual or worker–had at least one friend or relative living abroad: most expressed a desire to leave the country, at least on a holiday. Many wanted to move west and get rich; they felt it would be impossible in Vietnam.
“The economy is a mess,” Kiem had told me on the train. “And the government will have to change.” Or else?
Led by 74-year-old Nguyen Van Linh, the Party, humiliated by its economic failure, has been gradually liberalizing the economy. Since the end of 1986 it’s followed a policy of doi moi (Vietnamese perestroika), cutting off subsidies to state industry, encouraging managers to make profits, seeking to lure foreign investment. And it’s had some success, slicing inflation from 700 percent to 25 percent and devaluing the currency. Embarrassingly, however, its greatest triumph came when it abandoned cherished Party policy: after 14 years of insisting on state ownership, the Politburo last year grudgingly permitted farmers to have land of their own. And for the first time since Liberation, Vietnam didn’t need to import rice. (Another joke. Q: “Why won’t the CIA kill the leaders of the Politburo?” A: “They don’t want to do anything to help the Vietnamese economy.”)
Already there’s a widespread awareness that the South, fueled by expatriate dollars and privately owned business, is generating wealth much faster than the more Communist North. Many people worry that the Party will feel threatened, panic, and insist upon its control. At the moment there’s very little open political dissent, but the economic pressure keeps building. Everybody’s sick of working 70-hour weeks and not having the things that people all over the world seem to have. Most are no more committed to capitalism than they are to socialism–they only want a system that will deliver the goods. Which, of course, poses a threat to the Party. Vietnam may seem quiet today, but it’s clear that, much sooner than it likes, the Party will be faced with a decisive choice: Eastern European liberalization or Chinese-style clampdown.
Nguyen Van Linh is reportedly haunted by the photos of Nicolai Ceausescu. Then again, Asian rulers seldom go gentle into that good night. What’s frightening is that the Politburo seems imprisoned in denial. The January issue of the Party-sanctioned Vietnam Courier contains a ranking of the “10 Most Important Events of 1989.” “Crises in Eastern European socialist countries” comes third–right behind the Soviet-American summit on Malta.
5: “An Old War in America”
Two days before we left Hanoi, a bureaucrat from Vietnam Tourism discovered some “irregularities” in our documents. “Luckily” (as he put it), “this can be straighten out.” It would cost me $130–please come back at four o’clock.
At four o’clock sharp he was waiting at his office gate, small and smiley, the impish twin of the writer V.S. Naipaul. He tapped our passports nervously against his leg.
“We must go to police,” he said, his rolling baritone abruptly leaping into a falsetto squeak on the final word. “They want to interrogate you about why you break so many laws.”
As we walked to the station, he coached me on how to behave, his voice lurching eerily between Man of the People and Mighty Mouse. “Do not get angry with them,” he said, “or it will not go well for you.”
I asked if everything would be OK, and he beamed his solidarity. “It will be OK. They only want your money, I think.”
On that heartening note we arrived at 83 Trang Hung Dan, a police station notable for its absence of uniformed policemen. I was ushered to an office painted in the hideous green hue you find everywhere in Hanoi–sort of Industrial Mint–and an unsmiling man told me to sit next to a wooden file cabinet with papers spilling out.
“Good luck,” peeped my escort and, with a toodle-oo wave, beat a hasty retreat.
I sat alone with my bewilderment, cursing the lack of an American embassy. Involuntarily recalling the high points of Gulag Archipelago, volume one. From time to time men walked by and glared my way, dulling my appreciation of the enormous faded wall portrait of Ho Chi Minh and an even larger 1990 calendar: two busty women fondling a cellular phone.
Perhaps ten minutes later, a young man in shiny brown slacks and a striped brown shirt put an accordion file on the room’s longest table and plopped down behind it. He did not introduce himself–small talk wasn’t his game. He told me to sit across from him.
“Why have you broken so many laws? It is very serious.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied feebly, knowing that nothing could sound guiltier.
“I will tell you, then.” He pulled some papers from a file and proceeded to enumerate my crimes: I had (1) entered Vietnam illegally (which was preposterous–just try it sometime), (2) illegally taken the train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi (the station manager had checked our papers), and (3) booked an illegal flight from Hanoi to Bangkok. This, it seemed, was his trump card: “You visa does not give permission. Read it.” He held it before me. “You do read English?”
The visa gave me permission to visit Vietnam and said that Ho Chi Minh City should be my point of “arrival or departure.”
“You see,” he said. I said I didn’t. And we briefly debated the meaning of the word “or,” which he defined as “and.” I lost.
“So you do not know English.”
I said I’d been acting in good faith.
Enter the pudgy woman from Vietnam Tourism who’d sold me a Hanoi map on my first day in town.
“This good faith is not true,” she said. “When you arrive at Hanoi, you say you want to take the bus to–” here she named a town I’d never heard of. “You say you have permission to go.”
And for the first time I was genuinely frightened. Why was this woman lying? She must’ve believed the flabbergasted look on my face, for she suddenly said, “No that is not right. You are the one who purchased map.”
The policeman waved the witness away with backhanded impatience and told me, yet again, that I had broken three very important laws and that this was a very serious matter. Was I aware I could be fined or punished for any one of these three crimes? On that thought, he bolted up, his chair giving a screech as it slid backwards.
“Do not leave,” he said, and marched into the next room holding our passports like a deck of cards. Someone behind a divider began whistling da, da, da, dadada, da–the long closing chorus from “Hey Jude.”
Eventually the woman from Vietnam Tourism drifted back to the table: “I see film Killing Fields,” she said, “a very good film I never forget. But I do not like film Platoon. It is all one side.”
She warmed to her theme. “I see American film, The Wind Is Gone. It is about an old war in America. It is good film. The character Mrs. Scarlett–you know her?”
Her face lit up with delighted recognition.
“Yes yes, Mrs. Scarlett. She would do everything to get what she want. Vietnamese people understand this film. It help us know the American character.”
“Hey Jude” finally ended–God, I hate that song–and my policeman emerged carrying our passports, visas, and airline tickets. He fixed me with his sternest look. “You should thank God that you met me.” He gave me time to do it. “I have approved your documentation. Understand me. I am being generous with you because you are a tourist–and this is the Year of the Tourist.”
He handed over our papers and, to my amazement, pumped my hand. “You will be on the plane, no?”
Out on the street everything was the same as before. A red-toothed old woman was selling ratty apples. A dog was sniffing about. A young man was pissing against the wall of a lovely faded-pink mansion. The woman from Vietnam Tourism unlocked her bicycle with a satisfying clink.
“Vietnamese people are very friendly,” she said, “but rules must be obeyed.”
She hoisted her hard-to-hoist rump onto the saddle and smiled as she had when she’d sold me the map a few days earlier. Then she too shook my hand. “I hope you come back to Vietnam.”
She pedaled away and, after scrutinizing my documents, I headed off to drinks at the International Club.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Smestad.