A NOSTALGIA TRIP SAIGON – THIRTY YEARS LATER
After serving seven wartime years in Vietnam (1967-74), I recently returned to seek the remnants of my old life there. The trip revalidated for me what I remembered: what a lovely country Vietnam was (and is) and how handsome the people are. Overlying these factors -- still today –is the French influence that gave the Vietnamese their many lovely old buildings, cuisine, sense of fashion, and language (alas, now spoken only by the older generation). But now, as then, the Vietnamese people are getting so much less than they deserve.
My first jolt of recognition came when we landed at Tan Son Nhut Airport, from which I had departed Saigon on a fall day in 1974. The Quonset-roofed revetments were still there, left over from a time when they protected our planes and helicopters from rocket and mortar attacks. Nothing else looked familiar at the airport, but when we started our drive into town it all came back to me. Not the buildings, as they were much modified, but the feeling of the place. I simply knew I had been there before.
It started with the swarms of motorbikes (the current curse of Vietnam). The women drivers still wear their white gloves and cover their faces with masks, veils or scarves to protect their skin. The slender young men still speed insouciantly in and out of the melee (unencumbered by safety helmets, of course). Then there are the families, all ingeniously wedged into a configuration that filled every available inch of the motorbike’s upper surface: young children between the legs of the driver, a mother with babe in arms behind him, and extra children perched on the luggage rack at the rear. I once saw a family of seven, somehow not even looking crowded as they sat serenely putt-putting along in a cloud of smog.
Unlike Shanghai streets, where cars get two lanes and bicycles and motorbikes must make do with one narrow corridor, in Vietnam the number of motorbikes is so overwhelming that only one lane is allotted to cars and two to motorbikes – and even that is not enough. As in Shanghai, motorbikes also choose the option of considering themselves either pedestrians or vehicles, depending on which has the go-ahead. They weave in and out between the cars with the same total disregard for the rules of the road as in China. Surprisingly, however, the whole time we were there we did not see a single accident involving a motorbike. Despite the critical mass, they seamlessly meld from all angles into the traffic flow, without a backward or sideward glance. Miraculously, it somehow works.
The drive to our hotel was a short one, to the former bachelor officers’ quarters (BOQ) on the main road leading into town. Although any resemblance to it had been obliterated in the renovation, the location was just as I remembered. The manager told us that first the North Vietnamese had moved in, then the Russians, then the Vietnamese again, each doing more damage than the previous tenant. By the time the hotel’s investor (an early and astute Japanese) bought the building it had become a hollow shell, stripped of everything, right down to the metal window frames. It is now a glossy five-star hotel.
Saigon was for me a trip down memory lane. Now with double the population of the 1960s, it is too congested and smog-ridden (those motorbikes again) to qualify as beautiful. Of course there are scattered little islands of beauty and charm, an old villa here, an elegant old hotel or government building over there, some broad boulevards and spacious parks, but it was not the lovely Saigon of old. But then, it was not that during the war either, just a vibrant and exciting metropolis.
Our first stop was in the old city center, a block north of the Saigon River and near the now garishly renovated opera house. It was at the old French hotel nearby, the Continental, that we used to sit on the “Continental Shelf,” their shaded streetside terrace, and drink our iced coffees as child beggars, jasmine sellers and peanut vendors fought for our attention – as did the many military types walking past. If a female was not sitting with a date she was fair game; soon bottles of champagne, flowers or other goodies would be sent over to the table, soon followed by their donors. I used to occasionally go there with a colleague, the beauteous blond Linda, and my pilot boyfriend would always tell his buddies that I had gone “trolling with Linda” --and I do attribute the champagne and flowers mostly to her.
Now the Continental is murderously modernized, its old shutters and deep overhanging roof gone, another story added atop it and its street terrace now walled in. This was not true of our next stop, the Rex Hotel. If there is one icon that almost every officer in the Saigon area remembers it is the open rooftop of the Rex, then the largest and most diversely equipped of the downtown BOQs. Besides the usual bars, restaurants and the roof garden, it also had souvenir shops, tailors, massage parlors, and everything a young American could possibly desire – if not inside, then in a competitive confluence just outside the front door. But the roof was the main attraction. It was there that we all gathered in the evening to watch the rocket and mortar attacks taking place just across the river. Sipping ten-cent beers and twenty-five cent hard drinks (all paid in dollar-denominated U.S. military “script,” a hot item in the ubiquitous black market) we sipped and sat, watching the war with serene detachment. This was a trait that I rapidly lost a few months later when I requested a transfer to serve “in the field” with a charismatic American, the III Corps advisor John Paul Vann.*
The view from today’s rooftop terrace, now tarted up for the tourists, is spoiled by intervening high-rises that block the old view of the opposite river bank – and the drinks are a great deal more expensive. We consoled ourselves by strolling the nearby streets, now lined with sophisticated (but no longer French) restaurants and boutiques. Now it was gaggles of lycra-clad tourists who meandered along seeking bargains, not the carousing GIs of the earlier era. Needless to say downtown Saigon does not have the vibrancy it once had, but it is a great deal more tidy -- and somnolent.
The old Chinese market hall in the city’s Cholon district was anything but; I thought I was back in bustling Shanghai. The mellow old colonial building was still a beehive of buying and selling, shouting and shoving. Merchandise spilled out onto the passageways, deliverymen pushed carts through throngs of shoppers, banging legs and running over toes. It was the same frenetic market I remembered and loved. This time I heard no Chinese spoken, but the Chinese were already on a path of assimilation some thirty years ago, so with the arrival of a communist’s the process must be complete. Language aside, there were still signs with Chinese characters, now fading, and the whole neighborhood still had a very Chinese feel.
My days in Saigon were spent in similar searches for the past. The final day was the high point. Driving down old Cong Ly Street (now renamed) I knew I would recognize my old home. And it was still there, behind the veranda’d villas of my memory, the long low apartment block where I lived my last year in Vietnam. The compound’s gate was locked, with a guard lazing behind it. Although my Vietnamese fluency was totally eradicated when I started to learn Chinese (both languages are monosyllabic and tonal), with a few remembered words and much sign language I managed to convey that I had once lived there. The guard grudgingly unchained the gate and as I gazed up at the second floor balcony a scene flooded back to me; a photograph in my old Vietnam photo album was taken from where I now stood, only then there were two black dachshund faces peering out at me from above.
Now there was nothing but decay and decrepitude all around me. The wide front door was bricked up and two side doors now led to the two flights of stairs. The entrance portico roof now sprouted mossy mold with plants growing out of it, and the rubbish piles along the circular driveway appeared to hold years’ worth of accretion (perhaps thirty?). The building was empty and apparently was about to be torn down -- I had arrived just in the nick of time.
We went up my old staircase, no longer ceramic tiled now just rough concrete, to where my apartment door 8stood open. Beyond it was a sprawl of dirt and squalor, broken glass, discarded clothes and general debris. The rooms’ fine proportions were no longer apparent; the spacious four-room flat had been subdivided into two smaller flats by a crude unpainted concrete wall. Electrical wiring dribbled down from ceilings and walls (where the servants’ call bells had been?) and all ornamentation had been ripped out. As a final insult, a kitchen sink and stovepipe had been added in a corner of my favorite retreat, the balcony that once had flowers, caged birds, wicker furniture, and my hammock.
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It was difficult to discern what a lovely flat this once had been. If I had any doubts that these shabby rooms were once my home, however, the doggy door confirmed it. The small square hole in the balcony’s French door was still there, now covered by a sheet of plywood. (The subsequent – perhaps peasant – tenants must have wondered what on earth the small door was for.) Standing amid such depressing debris, I could still see in my mind’s eye a kitchen scene: my Chinese-Vietnamese amah asleep on a straw mat on the floor, a dog stretched out and snoring on either side.
As I gazed around me I was suddenly engulfed by a wave of longing, to turn back the clock for thirty years and to be there, back in the land of my youth -- and the most exciting and challenging time of my life.
* His biography, A BRIGHT SHINING LIE by Neil Sheehan, is one of the definitive works on the Vietnam war – and, in my opinion, the best.