Every American who comes to Vietnam hauls some sort of emotional baggage. The most usual is the terror and anger that veterans -- the advance wave of Vietnam tourism -- bring to exorcise on their old battlefields. I bore a different, lighter burden: I was returning to the land of my most radiant and, I sometimes think, definitive childhood memories.
My family lived in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) from 1957 to 1959, in the blithe intermission between what the Vietnamese call the "French War" and the "American War." People now doubt I can remember anything of that time. In fact, images of it, oversized as the world looks when we're 6, still stick much more vividly in my mind than those from the years that came after.
Saigon in the late 1950s was still "the Paris of the Orient," wide tree-lined boulevards and ornate colonial facades draped in bougainvillea. "Bandits," we were told, were making life dangerous in the hills, but Saigon itself seemed a peaceful, exotic idyll. Women still wore the traditional conical straw hats and long, form-fitting satin tunics, slit to the waist on the side over gleaming white trousers, called ao dai. As they bicycled past, the tails of their ao dais fluttering in the breeze, they looked like flocks of butterflies riding the breezes off the Saigon River.
French was still the lingua franca of cosmopolitan dealings in the city, but English was beginning to insert itself; a small contingent of American academics (including my father), technicians, clergy and spooks was working to make a nation and a bastion against world communism out of the territory that had been temporarily designated "South Vietnam" in the 1954 Geneva peace talks.
I was as infatuated with the Wild West as any other 6-year-old; in summer, when the monsoons blew great boughs of locust and tamarind down into the streets, we would make bows and arrows of the green branches and race through the alleys playing cowboys and Indians. I always made the Vietnamese kids be the Indians, an irony I would only later appreciate.
Even at that early age, I acquired the usual expatriate's proprietary pride, the sense of an esoteric knowledge of a foreign place. And so when I returned to America, I bristled each time Walter Cronkite intoned "Veetna'am." As I watched the "Vietnam War" play out on television, the bloodshed and devastation always bore a haze of unreality, like science fiction movies about overgrown lizards smashing the Golden Gate Bridge. Even as I joined in protests against the war, I could never quite believe it was happening in a land I remembered so differently.
When Vietnamese restaurants proliferated here in the late 1970s, I reveled again in the simple pleasures of a good bowl of pho (noodle soup) and nuoc mam (fish sauce). I still cling to writing the original "Viet Nam" rather than the Westernized "Vietnam."
Despite such superficial rites, however, the Vietnam I knew and, in my childish way, loved seemed ever more distant. For years I wondered, first in the most literal and then, as the prospect loomed, in a more personal sense, whether I could ever go back again.
At the start of this year I finally made it, tagging along with a group of professors on an academic-exchange tour to Vietnam for a month.
I arrived in Vietnam with a certain apprehension, wondering how much of the old Saigon survived in the modern Ho Chi Minh City, and how much of it I would recognize.
It is telling that the local brew is Saigon Beer, that the agency that runs the city's hotels and tours is Saigon Tourist. Even Vietnamese from the North lapse into calling the town by the old name -- so redolent of corruption and imperialism on the one hand, and of freewheeling vitality on the other. Beneath a veneer of socialist transformation, Saigon is still Saigon, a cosmopolitan port full of hustle and generous exuberance, the diametrical opposite of staid, stoic Hanoi.
The look of the city has been partly altered by the building boom of the American war; brutal glass and concrete blocks, most notably the bunkerlike former U.S. Embassy, now intrude on the graceful colonial facades. Local folks complain, with the vehemence of neighborhood activists in my own town of Seattle, about how much dirtier and shabbier their city has become under communist rule.
Indeed, Ho Chi Minh City suffers from a mild case of general dilapidation. But it has none of the mountains of trash, filthy air or impassable automobile traffic of booming Bangkok. Traffic is indeed thick, but almost entirely two-wheeled; bicycles, 50-cc and 80-cc Hondas and "cyclo" pedicabs swarm with an impossible density and orderliness, flitting like moths through the nighttime darkness and miraculously avoiding collision.
The Saigon that visitors see is the 10-block triangle marked off by its three grandest hotels, which are still called more often than not by their pre-Liberation names: the Rex (Ben Thanh), Caravelle (Doc Lap) and Majestic (Cuu Long). This strip is a rogues' and ragamuffins' gallery such as a modern Dickens might dream. Amerasian kids, tiny urchins, war cripples and elderly mendicants tug at your heart and purse strings.
They vie with street vendors selling everything from postcards and counterfeit Rolexes to genuine colonial stamp and coin collections. Self-proclaimed currency traders chase you down the street, offering exchange rates that sound impossibly high, and usually are. A little fancy finger work, the con man disappears, and the mark is left to unwrap a wad of scrap paper tightly rolled in a few 5,000-dong notes.
Baseball-capped cyclo drivers perch in hungry flocks outside the hotels, where they try to command five times the going rate elsewhere in town, immediately introduce themselves as old Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers and try to take you on a two-hour scenic tour instead of the errand at hand. One late night, I stepped from the Rex bar into a spectacle worthy of Fellini: A wall of cyclo drivers charged from across the street and up onto the sidewalk, waving and hollering like a charging platoon to secure my measly fare.
The mind boggles to imagine the war years in Saigon, when Yankee dollars flowed like fish sauce. Today's hustling street crowd is the inevitable residue of the distortions the massive American presence worked on the Vietnamese economy and psyche -- an extreme instance of the usual tourist-boom syndrome.
Before you judge, I kept reminding myself, remember: We created the parasitic subculture that haunts the downtown hotels (and which is just a tiny, atypical part of this city). We nurtured expectations of eternal largess (and, on a more exalted level, of democracy and solidarity) and then bitterly disappointed them. These expectations are most succinctly expressed by a black Amerasian street kid who would point at himself and exclaim, "Look, you, me, same, same, American! Give me money!"
Most people in Saigon go about their business with at least as much dignity and honesty as citizens of any other city and with a special sensitivity to their tarnished image.
The famous Saigon pickpockets only got me once, lifting a couple of cheap photo prints as I walked into a camera store. The store's owner and a friend of his spotted the two thieves, cornered them and launched into a blood-curdling, mostly mock kung-fu assault, complete with screams, kicks and punches intended to scare the devil out of the miscreants. "I hate thieves," the proprietor muttered repeatedly. "Please believe me, we are not really like this." My vigilante guardians begged me to accompany them and their prisoners to the police station to sign a complaint, and thanked me profusely when I did.
Even the worst hustles and impositions were just business as usual, free of malice -- touched, in fact, with a certain ironic good humor. As I stayed on in Ho Chi Minh City for three weeks -- much longer than most visitors do -- and took to wheeling around on borrowed bicycles and Hondas, the same cyclo drivers and beggars who began by hitting on me would wave and joke that I would soon be joining their ranks.
Before I knew it, I'd adopted my own street kid, a cyclo driver's daughter named Co who delighted in teaching me Vietnamese words and then quizzing me. Finally, as I waited for a friend, she asked to take my borrowed bicycle for a spin.
I couldn't refuse to make this gesture of trust. But as the minutes passed, I couldn't help peering about anxiously. Her comrades teased me, laughing, "Co no good, sell bicycle on black market." Then she pedaled back, grinning even more broadly than usual, and I felt ashamed at my fretting.
Nearly everyone in Ho Chi Minh City, it seems, yearns to talk about the old days in Vietnam and the news from America and the rest of the world. And I marveled at the warmth and lack of rancor of many of the Vietnamese I talked with.
While it is true that nowhere have I been subjected to as hard and grating a hustle as in Saigon, neither have I ever been the recipient of so many sweet little disinterested acts of hospitality and generosity. Like the schoolgirl next door to the house where I stayed who, seeing me trudging the streets, offered me her bicycle anytime I wanted it. Or the tour guide for the communist youth organization who, when I could find no affordable way to get to the famous Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi, 43 miles away, insisted on driving me there, gratis, on his motorbike because "you should come to know my country." Or all the poor laborers who, discovering I was American, insisted on buying me coffee at the sidewalk stands. Or the kids tending a little amusement-park shooting gallery who invited me to take some free shots -- apparently oblivious to the irony that the targets were toy helicopters marked "USA."
I soon found myself a VIP guest at more elevated entertainments in the lively local cultural scene:
The recounting of ancient tales in the traditional royal Hat Boi and more modern Cai Long operas, in both parks and popular theaters. (Imagine our opera as a popular street-level art form.)
A Saigon circus with a human-scale vitality -- just performers, no fancy gimmicks -- that our big three-ringers lost long ago.
A festival of international plays staged by the Actors Cooperative, made up of many of Saigon's best dramatic talents who escaped the ponderous big theaters. The festival included a historic first in Ho Chi Minh City, according to director Le Duy Hanh: a performance of an American play ("The Glass Menagerie").
I also attended what was a bigger cultural milestone: a grand reunion concert, hosted by the Ho Chi Minh Party Youth Organization, of the great songwriter Trinh Cong Son and a generation of his friends from Saigon's golden age of popular and protest music. Trinh Cong Son was the muse of the non-communist student rebellions against the Nguyen Van Thieu regime, and his anthems and haunting ballads summed up his generation's experience as Bob Dylan's did ours. Kept silent by the communists, he was now being allowed for the first time to perform his pre-1975 songs. The audience, packed and rapt, included many kids who'd grown up under the new regime and were just as hungry to hear the old songs.
All this is not to suggest that everything is peace and love 15 years after the war's end. The rifts still run deep, and the South is still fiercely unreconciled to socialism. Of course, the people a Westerner speaks with are a select group: Vietnamese who speak English or French are educated and more likely to have had ties to the Americans or the old regime, to have lost wealth, power or professions under the new one, and to perceive an American as a kindred spirit and a shoulder to complain on.
Nevertheless, the sheer volume, intensity and frankness of the grievances one hears in the South are astounding. One former officer who worked closely with the Americans, as soon as he identified my origin, launched into a torrent of flawless Red-bashing that would have done a New York longshoreman proud, exclaiming, "Wow, I haven't had a chance to talk like this in 13 years."
The dislocation between old Saigon and new Ho Chi Minh City came home when I sought out old haunts. I found the French kindergarten I'd attended, now a teacher training school, and was graciously received by its headmistress, who allowed that she'd never had such an alumnus visit. But I could not find my family's old house; the cul-de-sac on which it sat apparently had been vacated to build high-rise housing for Soviet workers.
The saddest disappointment was the city zoo, which I remembered as an exotic wonderland where a terrifying footbridge crossed a crocodile-filled moat and armies of monkeys would escape from a giant cage and chatter in the treetops. The gardens of the surrounding park still gave leafy solace from the city bustle, but most of the rusting pens sat empty, as did the moat; a few scabrous crocodiles hung on in a dismal pen.
After several days in the city, I met a family that wanted to rent out a spare room for some Tet mad money. I moved in, jumping off the official tourist bus entirely, and for almost two weeks saw Saigon as perhaps no American had in more than a decade. The local constabulary was caught short -- they'd never had an American in the neighborhood -- but consented to let me stay. Trouble was, I had to obtain yet another extension on my visa -- chancy under the best of circumstances -- and braced for deportation.
But the head of the Ho Chi Minh City press office seemed charmed at the idea of my jumping out into everyday Vietnam. He asked only if I was having any trouble getting around, wangled an extension from Hanoi and gave me a little monograph he'd compiled on the Tet traditions.
I took a childish pride in making my own way around town and confounding the warnings I got that no foreigner could cope with Saigon's two-wheeled swarms. I found the experience induces a sort of sixth sense for imminent collisions, and a meditative tranquillity.
To beat the heat, I swam in the Olympic-size pool where we swam as children, in the old Cercle Sportif, now the Worker's SportsClub, behind the Presidential Palace. It was nirvana after the tiny, opaquely filthy and expensive rooftop pool at the Rex Hotel, where Westerners gathered. (The rooftop pool at the Huu Nghi Hotel, where the Russians swam, is much cleaner, and easy to crash.)
I can't pretend to have fit inconspicuously into the old neighborhood; rather, I was something between a distinguished guest and an honored mascot. Neighbors would hail me in for tea and snacks, and to meet relations who had come from across town to converse in long-unused English and French. The teenage girls up the street begged me to correct their awkward transcription of a cherished American pop song.
Amid the whirl of new acquaintances, I asked after old family friends but managed to locate only one. Thirty years ago, my parents and many other Americans in Saigon had collected the graceful, sumi-like ink paintings on silk of a young artist named Be Ky. These pictures, hanging in our houses in the bleak Midwest in the ensuing years, had loomed in my mind as beacons of a lost wonderland.
When I tracked down Be Ky, after a few inquiries in the local galleries, those intervening years seemed to vanish. She is still living in Saigon, married to one of the nation's leading painters, Ho Thanh Duc, and is the mother of a family full of budding young artists. Having long since switched from the silk paintings to more imposing lacquer painting on wood, she nevertheless dug out her old ink brushes and knocked out a couple of charming vignettes for old times' sake.
Changes were now imminent for Ky and Duc: After years of anxious waiting, they had just gotten word of their acceptance into the Orderly Departure Program for admission into the United States. Duc poured rice whiskey and we toasted their uncertain new life in the States and the last Tet they expected to celebrate in Vietnam.
The everyday conviviality of Saigon swells into a round-the-clock, citywide jubilation with Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. This weeklong revel incorporates the best elements of all our main holidays: the parades (culminating in acrobatic lion dances) and fireworks of the Fourth of July, with watermelon piled in mountains at sidewalk stands as the celebratory fruit; the midnight cacophony, ardent toasting and earnest resolutions of our New Year's; brilliant Easter-style bouquets everywhere; gifts for children, trees decorated Christmaslike with Buddhist good wishes and Giao Thua, a "midnight mass" to honor ancestors and other spirits; and Thanksgivinglike family feasting, capped with a ceremonial cake of sticky rice and pungent beans.
The old regime used to forbid firecrackers on Tet, so as not to give noisy cover to the Viet Cong. Today's government merely urges people to save their money and celebrate moderately -- to no avail. The firecrackers popped for a week before and days after the grand cacophony at midnight on Tet Eve. Everyone handed around little red envelopes of small money as gifts; strangers offered them to me on the street and invited me in to toast Chuc mung nam moi (Happy New Year). Women donned their ao dais (now everyday wear only for those who work in tourist businesses) and fluttered once again like butterflies as they flocked to the temples.
I learned to present the incense to the ancestors in the pagoda, and to honor the taboos that still attach to Tet: Don't open the doors too early, for fear of releasing your new year's wealth. Choose carefully the first guest in your home, who will bring you a year's good or ill fortune. I felt the same elation I had as a child, scuffling the leafy pink firecracker shreds that carpeted the sidewalks in the morning, chasing the bang of drums to where a lion dancer spun daring acrobatics atop a tall pole held by his mates.
Then a fellow spectator pointed out that the lion was dancing on the very spot where Thich Quang Duc burned in 1963, the first monk to immolate himself in protest against the Diem regime. I shook my head as though from sleep, realizing once again how big and perilous events circumscribe each refuge in this part of the world.
SAIGON WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Until the U.S. embargo on trade with Vietnam is lifted, tickets to and tours in Vietnam may not be sold in the United States, so most American travelers arrange tours and visas through other countries, including Thailand. Thai Airways flies to Bangkok from Seattle for a round-trip fare of $1,050, with restrictions. Thai Airways, Air France and Hang Khong, the Vietnamese national airline, fly to Ho Chi Minh City from Bangkok; the round-trip fare is about $280.
Other direct service to Ho Chi Minh City: Aeroflot from Moscow; Philippine Airlines from Manila; Singapore Airlines from Singapore; Malaysian Airlines from Kuala Lumpur; Garuda from Bata/ Batubaser, Indonesia; Lao Aviation from Vientiane; and Hang Khong from Phnom Penh and several Vietnamese cities, including Hanoi.
Vietnam claims to have much improved its railway service of late, with the Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh run reduced from 72 to 48 hours and special tourist trains planned. WHEN TO GO: Saigon's weather is more temperate than that of steamy Bangkok and hot-cold Hanoi. Spring is very warm, summer rainy and winter balmy. The Tet New Year season in February is fun but frenetic; airline and hotel bookings can be extremely tight. WHERE TO STAY: The opulent new Saigon Floating Hotel, at 1-A Me Linh Square on the Saigon River, sets a standard of luxury unprecedented in Saigon, and prices have dropped from an initial $150 to as low as $75. The wartime press and officers' quarters, the Caravelle (Doc Lap) and Rex (Ben Thanh) hotels, offer comfort and central convenience, as does the newer Continental Hotel. But the surrounding sidewalk hurly-burly may be overwhelming. The almost-central Majestic (Cuu Long) affords a little relief, plus river views and breezes. The Que Huong, about a half-mile away at 49 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, is modern, clean and a bit calmer and cheaper than the downtown hotels, with a good restaurant and lively dance bar. A 26-story Holiday Inn (Le Lai) is under construction, and the authorities have begun to encourage the conversion of idle villas to pension-style "mini-hotels." WHERE TO EAT: The adventurous can enjoy a movable feast from countless street vendors, pho shops serving reliably tasty noodle soup and varied food stands in and around the central Cho Ben Thanh Market on Le Loi Street and the Cholon market. At the other end of the scale, the Rex Hotel still sets the standard for continental elegance, complete with live chamber music, though some rate the Continental Hotel's dining room higher. Maxim's (13-15-17 Dong Khoi St.) is, as it was before the war, the favorite downtown nightclub, with dancing, floor shows and decent food. Madame Dai, a legendary doyenne of prewar Saigon society, hosts dinners, by group reservation only, at 84A Nguyen Du St. TOURS: Diva Worldwide (123 Townsend St., Suite 245, San Francisco, Calif. 94107, 1-800-875-3482 or 415-777-5351) is the U.S. representative for the East West Group, a Bangkok agency that books standard and custom tours to Indochina. Another leading Indochina agent is Diethelm Travel (544 Ploenchit Rd., Bangkok 10500, telephone 66-2-252-4041).
The U.S.-Indochina Reconciliation Project (5808 Greene St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19144, 215-848-4200) arranges academic- and professional-exchange tours. The official Saigon Tourist Office (55 Dong Khoi St., Ho Chi Minh City) can arrange tours, car rentals and reservations. GUIDEBOOKS: Two useful English-language guides are "The Ho Chi Minh City 1990 Tourist Handbook" (Youth Publishing House, 4 Thai Van Lung St., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) and (more readily available) "The Vietnam Guidebook" by Barbara Cohen (HarperCollins). INFORMATION: The Vietnamese Permanent Mission to the United States (20 Waterside Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10010, 212-685-8001) will try to answer questions. Visas are more efficiently obtained through the Vietnamese Embassy in Thailand (83/1 Wireless Rd., Pathumwan, Bangkok, 10500).
Eric Scigliano is a senior editor at the Seattle Weekly.