We took off from Hanoi in a Soviet-built airliner and traveled down the coast over Hue, Danang and the rugged passes and valleys where so much French, American and Asian blood was spilled over so many years. It was at last a country in repose, without a sinble puff of explosive powder or the sound of a single cannon, and without another aircraft to be seen in the sky all the way down the dragon-shaped country which stretches over 1,000 miles.
Tan Son Nhut airport, once amont the busiest in the world, presented empty runways. A few Air Vietnam trucks were parked lazily under concrete revetments which had been built to shelter American warplanes.
Inside the terminal, a government official was waiting to guide me to a Volga automobile for the ride over a stretch of road I knew well. I had made this trip downtown for the first time in early 1966, when the American escalation was just underway, and traveled from town to the airport for the last time in April 1975, a few days before the "fall" or "liberation" of Saigon, depending on one's point of view. Between those landmarks there were many trips, including a stark journey under heavy military protection shortly after the countrywide attacks at Tet, 1968.
This visit was very different. It was my first since the departure of the Americans, the unification of a divided Vietnam and the installation in the south of communist rule. It is very hard to lose a war, I found, and then come back to see what the victors have wrought.
The name of Ho Chi Minh City blazoned on the airport terminal was only the beginning of the changes. (Partically everybody still calls the city Saigon, except officials in their most formal moments.) More telling was the systematic removal of every symbol of American and "Saigon government" presence -- sideboards, building names in English, plaques and even war-era monuments.
Buildings, roads and depots of the American present in the city of 3.5 million people during my stay. I neither met nor heard of any other.
The man behind the front desk of the Khach San Doc Lap (Hotel Freedom) -- the familiar former Hotel Caravelle -- uttered a word of surprise and questioning on seeing my U.S. passport. My officialk guide assured him I was authorized to stay there. "Welcome," said the clerk in English, and for the first time I felt at home.
The Caravelle, which had been wartime headquarters for American correspondents and many other western travelers, was closed for the first year and a half of the new era. The Roman Catholic Church, part owner of the hotel, continued to pay its staff and keep up the place. Late in 1976 the government took it over to accommodate tourists and foreign transients. The hotel is prominently depicted in Ho Chi Minh City tourist brochures.
Many of the old members of the hotel staff -- the cashier, dining room waiters, room boys -- were familiar faces from the old era. Others have departed, like the popular former front desk manager, Mr. Qui, now behind the desk at Washiungton's Sheraton Park Hotel. Another former front desk clerk, a rascally sort always asking for bribes or PX favors, was sent to a "new economic zone" by the communists and is said to have returned home very thin.
Prominently displayed in the Doc Lap lobby was a poster in Russian announcing a weekly Saturday night dance for foreigners, apparently an authorized meeting for Russians with Vietnamese women. The dance is held down the street at another torist hotel, the former "Rex," an American billet with a popular rooftop steak cookout. The propaganda headquarters for the U.S. effort, including the "five o'clock follies" at which official war communiques were issued, was on the Rex street level now inhabited by a Vietnamese restraunt.
In the fading elegance of the Doc Lap's 9th floor restaurant, with its outside terrace where correspndents used to watch artillery flashes and tracer bullets over brandy and cigars, three Russians were enjoying kja foiur-course western meal and energetically eyeing the pretty Vietnamese waitress. They were joking and smirking, as if they owned the place.
I felt angry and even bitter at this Russian cheek, but I soon realized that I had seen it all before in decades past, with the nationality and the language changed. I wondered why 2 so resented in them what was commonplace among Americans in the bygone era.
The Soviet presence was evident and notable, from the hotel dance poster to Russian signs concocted by a few enterprising merchants, to Ilyushin airplaines, Volga cars and Slavic faces of big boned Europeans. But the presence is far less striking and its physical and cultural impact far less great than that of the United States a decade ago.
An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Russian advisers and technicians are in the country, none at the strategic decision-making level, according to Western sources. This compares to U.s. troop strength at the high point of more than 50,000 men plus many tens of thousands of civilian in key advisory, support and construction roles.
A far more difficult experience awaited me a few blocks away on Vo Van Tan -- formerly Tran Huy Cap -- Street. (The new regime renamed many streets, in this case substituting the name of a former Laodong , or Communist, party chief for the name of a former French civil servant.) Here, in a spacious villa, is the pernamenent "exhibition of United States and puppet war crimes."
On display in the courtyard were giant U.S. anti-personnal bombs designed to send shards of deadly metal in every direction. Nearby were powerful howitzers and armored vehicles, along with ancient guillotine, which, it was claimed, was used by then president Ngo Dinh Diem to execute revolutionaries in 1954-60.
Inside the exhibition halls were scenes, faces, weapons, models, statistics, names and dates I would like to forget -- and most of which I thought I had. n
Here was Lyndon Johnson signing the Tonkin Gulf resolution in 1964, backed by Everett Dirksen, John McCormack and William Fulbright (who later changed his mind about the war.) Here was Robert McNamara with his pointer, explaining how bombing would surely win the war. And here were the photographs of the dead, the disfigured, the maimed, the manhandled prisoners and even a "stragetic hamlet," with the people hemmed in, from the early days of the war.
Here was a photograph and model of My Lai, where an American lieutenant supervised a massacre, and the names of each of the dead villagers inscribed on the wall.
Here were torture artifacts and a life-size replica of isolation cells from the prisons, and the list of the names of all the superintendents of the Con Son Island prison going back to 1862 -- 37 Frenchmen in the French era and 14 Vietnamese in the American era of 1955-75.
Only one side of multi-sided brutality was on display. There was no mention of the massacre in Hue, nor terrorist bombings in Saigon, nor the cases in which American prisoners were kept. Yet there was much truth and little comfort in the powerful if selective display.
Several rooms depicted social evil -- drug addiction, gagnsterism, prostitution, the faces of mixed-blood children left to survive in a new world as best they can. On the way out of the museum villa -- perhaps planned, perhaps not -- a mixed blood child, a little boy of seven or eight, stood on the sidewalk with his mother looking at me in living reproach.
Just as agonizing if less one-sided in its messags was the ailing, grieving and still declining city I found outside the hotel walls and exhibition villa gates. It is a city living on a sagging economy of subsistence and scarcity and an ever-thinner margin from its past, with no sign in sight of outside resources or a working internal economic system which can reverse the trends.
Officially there are 200,000 unemployed or only marginally employed people, compared to a mid-1975 unemployment level of 1 million, but I would bet on the larger figure as closer to the present fact. Many Saigonese who are theoretically employed have nothing to do -- vendors in the market place with nothing to sell except local fruits and produce which everyone has, bicycle pedicab drivers with no customers to transport, dozens of stores with the same local handicraft items to sell but no customers to buy.
The assistant manager of a large store said he makes 70 Vietnamese don a month, which is about $20 at the official tourist rate of exchange and far less on the still flourishing black market. "You can hardly go to the market place three times a month on what I make," he said.
At least he has a regular income and is eking out. A woman who used to work for Americans said she has no job and no place to stay. She has lost more than 20 pounds. She tries to get by as a street hawker for tourists, of which there are few, but now has only two blouses left presentable enough to wear. She spent all that she had, she said, to help her daughter escape -- and the daughter died in a refugee boat at sea.
A man I had met in the old days told me, "Saigon is very sad, everyone is very sad." People live from hand to mouth, from day to day, without plan or much hope for impromement, he said.
He is lucky enough to have a paying job but cannot get by on his pay plus that of his wife. They have four children in schools, which are "no good -- not like before." To make ends meet he has sold off his possessions, one by one. He was not wearing a watch, the most recent thing to be sold. There is not much left.
What was whispered is compelling, and sometimes what was not said, equally touching. A young woman who learned I was an American asked me how I could possibly learn what Saigon life is really like without being able to speak Vietnamese. "Nobody will tell you," she blurted out. As she spoke, her eyes filled up with tears.
A few people are reported to have lots of money and gold, too. "Corruption is worse than under Thieu," I was told. The price of "the paper," bureaucratic permissions of various sorts, is said to be high.
At the former La Pagode restaurant, I spend 32 dons on a dinner of Vietnamese imperial rolls, fried shrimp, bread and lemonade. For the first time that I can remember in Vietnam, people gathered outside the windows looking hungrily at the dinners. A small group of beggars waited just outside the door. A family of five came in, looked at the menu prices, and left silently. But at a nearby table a young man in his 20s caroused with a half dozen male and female friends over bottles of Vietnamese wine and plenty of food. I wondered who he was.
Later that night I hired a bicycle pedicab, a "cyclo," for a ride through the streets. I had been warned by a friend to stay on the main avenues, that robbers, thieves or unpredictable hostility might meet me on darkened side streets. (Another western journalist who visited Saigon a few weeks earlier had been rescued by police in Cholon, the Chinese area of the city, from a menacing crowd which apparently thought he was a Lein Xo , a Russian.)
Riding toward Cholon on the broad avenues, watching from the shadows as the driver's muscles carried me slowly along on quiet, rubber-wheeled tires, I could see Saigonese in the doorways, sidewalks and curbs under nearly every light, passing the time after the heat of the day. It was just after 10 p.m. and a few dozens of people were sleeping in walkways outside shuttered buildings. Returning on the same road around 10:30, hundreds more people had laid down to sleep, with little or no visible bedding.
Had I waited later or gone to side streets, there is little doubt I would have seen thousands more. A Saigonese told me many of these people had gone to "new economic zones" and returned to the city in despair, with no place to stay.
A large part of the blame for these conditions is assigned by Communist officials to the bloated nature of wartime Saigon, pumped up by the American presence and foreign dollars. An official who had left Saigon in 1950, after being jail and tortured under the French, said not only the face of the city but the thinking of its people had changed radically when he returned in 1975.
His own relatives had been doctors, engineers, professionals accustomed to "being rich," with all the easy living, travel and luxury of the West. They had learned individualism and egotism, he said. Now has cousins found it hard to live on 100 dons or so a month, despite his argument that Vietnam has its pride, independence and unification and that social evils such as drug addiction are being suppressed.
Le Quang Chang, deputy chairman of the Saigon "People's Committee" since 1975, in effect the deputy mayor of the city, received me in his office in the old French-built city hall, which had a new coat of paint and looked better than I had ever seen it. A founding member of the National Liberation Front and a diplomat of the Provisional Revolutionary Government prior to the new era, Chang spoke realistically of the economic, social and political problems of the city, with emphasis on efforts and accomplishments more than on infirmities.
His comments suggested that the troubles of the city and the coutnry were more economic than political in nature. This accorded with my observations. The security forces are strong and communist-style organization extensive. The possibility of an urban revolt against the current authorities seems slim.
Chang said his objective is "to transform the city from one of entertainment and luxury to a city of production." He did not expect swift accomplishment of this somewhat chilling goal, but said that "building socialism" in Ho Chi Minh City will take 10 to 15 years. I wondered if it would not take much longer.
It was clear to me that the basis for the old society has gone, but the basis for a new society has not yet emerged. Saigon is not a city that works, but one that is still living on the dwindling resources of the past.
Many things have taken a toll -- the destruction from the old wars, the drain of new ones in Cambodia and along the Chinese border, years of drought in the rice fields followed by years of flooding, the retribution of victors against their countrymen who fought and lost what was partly a civil war and partly an international war, the imposition of a communist political and economic system.
Due to military and political positioning squarely in the Soviet camp, Vietnam has become increasingly isolated in the world at large. The United States, undergoing its trauma of defeat, refused to help clean up the damage which had been left. Moreover, Vietnam's most important internal safety valve -- the exportation of its most desperate (and often most talented) people in leaky boats at sea -- made it a pariah among its Asian neighbors. The recent Vietnamese military incursion into Thailand just about completed the job of alienating the international community, with the sole exeption of the Soviet bloc.
"Saigon is finished," said a friend, shrugging his shoulders in desperation on my final night in the city. The tourist brochure I was handed on arrival put it differently, saying that "you will also have an opportunity to witness profound changes in the city through its transformation and reconstruction since liberation."
Those two views of the present and recent past both speak of a Saigon in transition. I left hoping for the best for the city and for the Vietnamese, north and south, who must make a future from what a violent history has wrought.