2000 VOL. 155 NO. 15
Hillenbrand relaxing on the balcony of his Saigon apartment in 1974.
the Past to Rest
years after leaving Saigon, a time journalist returns to a city that has
lost its nasty edge
HILLENBRAND/Ho Chi Minh City
time Itried to fly into Saigon, I didn't make it. On April 29, 1975 I
boarded Air Vietnam flight 787 from Bangkok, bound for the South Vietnamese
capital. The plane got as far as the Mekong Delta, where the pilot began
circling while trying to raise the tower at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport.
The night before, communist forces had rocketed the airfield, killing
two U.S. Marines and prompting Washington to launch Operation Frequent
Wind, the final, helicopter-borne evacuation of Saigon. Fixed-wing aircraft
did not land that day. While on the ground thousands of panicked Vietnamese
clamored to find a way out of Saigon, a couple of dozen people--Americans,
Vietnamese, French--sat aboard my lumbering 707 desperate to find a way
in. Most of us wanted to help friends or relatives escape the city. In
my shoulder bag I carried copies of U.S. immigrant visas granted to my
wife's mother and father, five sisters and brother.
We were too late. Our plane--Air Vietnam's last-ever scheduled flight--was
forced to bypass Saigon and fly on to Hong Kong. That night I exchanged
telex messages with my wife Nga, who was in Rio de Janeiro, where I had
recently taken up an assignment for Time after two years covering the
war in Vietnam. We used words like bitter, sad, disappointed, fearful.
In Saigon, Nga's family stayed indoors and listened to scattered gunfire
and explosions. "So many people had fled the country, and we were nervous
about being left behind," recalls Nguyen Thi Phuong Chi, Nga's sister,
who now lives near Boston. "We had no idea that Saigon would fall so fast."
On the morning of April 30, officers from a tank company of the North
Vietnamese Army entered the Presidential Palace and accepted the surrender
of the Republic of South Vietnam from General Duong Van Minh, who had
been President for a total of two chaotic days. Tens of thousands of South
Vietnamese had fled, and many of those who remained behind were, like
Nga's family, frightened and distressed. Countless others welcomed the
end of the long, brutal war and believed that the future of a newly united
Vietnam would be bright.
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day last March, Nga and I boarded Vietnam Airlines flight 767 in Hong
Kong and, 25 years late, succeeded in landing in Saigon. This time it
was effortless. As the plane taxied to the terminal, I strained to look
for something familiar. I saw the revetments that had protected American
planes from 122-mm rockets. And wasn't that the old terminal building,
all gussied up with a new white paint job? But the guys with the red stars
on their hats--using IBM computers to scan our American passports--convinced
me that things were dramatically different.
Before I even passed through the gates of Tan Son Nhut, I found myself
once again trying to figure out this puzzling city. A quarter-century
ago we would spend hours drinking tea with the acolytes of Vietnamese
generals hoping to detect subtle shifts in military strategy or cracks
in the national will to fight. Now I was looking for some dramatic sign
that Saigon had been transformed. I should have known better. Saigon has
always resisted being parsed. The city and its people are laced with anomalies
and paradox--which is precisely why those of us who lived there during
the war found the place so fascinating. Ho Chi Minh City is still a challenge:
nothing is quite what it seems.
Take the building at 117 Le Thanh Ton, where I kept an apartment during
my time in Saigon. In the evenings Nga and I would entertain friends and
sources on the balcony, watching security flares hung from tiny parachutes
float down lazily along the perimeter of the airport. We would look over
at the Presidential Palace and wonder what the mercurial President Nguyen
Van Thieu was plotting. A decade ago, our unexceptional, eight-story apartment
building was transformed into the Norfolk Hotel--a splendid little establishment
staffed by the sort of young, bright, helpful Vietnamese who now make
Saigon a joy. "The hotel is Australian-owned," says my guidebook. Well,
sort of. The general manager is Nguyen Thanh Hoang, a Viet kieu, or overseas
Vietnamese, who lives in Australia and just happens to be married to the
daughter of General Tran Van Tra, the commander who led the communist
forces during their final assault on Saigon. The nexus seems familiar:
Vietnamese generals and profitable real estate.
In many respects the view from the balcony of 117 Le Thanh Ton hasn't
changed much either. Thieu's old palace, now an exhibition hall, is hidden
behind a screen of large tamarind trees. Only the red flag with the yellow
star pokes theatrically through the green. The former Gia Long palace,
a graceful French colonial structure, has been turned into a revolutionary
museum where busloads of high-spirited students come to view the trophies
of war. Beyond the old red-tiled roofs lie several modern, glass-fronted
high-rises that testify to Saigon's on-again, off-again attempt to catch
up with the rest of Asia.
What's changed most is the sheer size and intensity of the city. No one
would call the Saigon of the 1970s languid, but tight military security
and midnight curfews did put a lid on things. A solemn wartime mood prevailed.
These days, street life has blossomed: there are more pedestrians, more
shops, more restaurants, more hawkers, more music, more children, more
fun. In the evenings and on weekends, Saigonese cruise the streets on
their bikes--di choi they call the pastime--stopping to visit friends
and relatives, to enjoy the few patches of open space or to eat at one
of the thousands of food stalls that have multiplied a hundredfold, it
seems, from the 1970s.
Yet despite the obvious problems of pollution, poverty and chronic unemployment,
this overcrowded, frenetic Saigon is a vast improvement on the place I
remember. People are relaxed and pleasant. The city appears at ease with
itself. True, it's becoming more like other crowded Asian metropolises,
but that's a welcome change. Saigon has lost the nervous, nasty edge that
dominated life during the conflict. "For 25 years we have not had war,"
says Trinh Cong Son, a singer and composer. "Now the absence of war is
the most important aspect of our lives. It has made us happy."
Son's haunting melodies formed the background for a generation of Vietnamese
soldiers, lovers and students. Because he favored unification, the secret
police harassed him endlessly. Foreign correspondents would visit this
genial, frail man in search of quotes denouncing the venality of the Saigon
government. These days Son rails about the ineptitude of the government
in Hanoi, but he is confident that the country is at last moving in the
right direction. In 1975 many entertainers--including Khanh Ly, the songstress
who made Son's work popular--fled Saigon to make fortunes peddling nostalgia
to homesick Vietnamese in California. Son stayed behind. "Leaving my country
would have betrayed my dream of peace and reunification," says Son, who
seems even more frail now. These days he occupies himself with painting.
Composing cheerful songs to match the spirit of the times is not his style.
Saigon still has its problems, of course. In the An Dong market in Cholon,
the city's famous Chinatown, I meet a businesswoman who gives her name
only as Diep. She owns a prosperous fabric stall--and is haunted by ugly
memories of the Stalinist brutality and economic mismanagement that characterized
the Hanoi regime following reunification.
In 1975, Diep's husband, a former medical officer in the Saigon army,
was sent to a re-education camp. Pregnant with her second daughter, Diep
was pressured to resettle in a so-called New Economic Zone. "I fought
to stay in Saigon because I knew if I gave up I would lose everything--including
my future," she says. She started an underground fabric business to support
her family. During harassing, late-night visits, communist cadres confiscated
her family heirlooms. She struggled to get her two girls--stigmatized
because their father had served in the South Vietnamese army--into good
schools. Today her children are studying at universities in the U.S. "Sometimes
I feel sad because I miss my girls," says Diep. "But when I think of their
future, I am happy. I know I did well by them."
John Stanmeyer/SABA for TIME
Hillenbrand atop Saigon's Norfolk Hotel - site of his former apartment - which offers views of high-rises and the Revolutionary Museum.
sadness of separation is a common theme in today's Saigon. Yes, the war
is over. Soldiers are no longer sent off to die anonymously in jungles.
These days, one sees more guns and uniforms on the streets of New York
than in Saigon. But families have been severely fractured by the diaspora
that began with the American evacuation of 1975 and continued for nearly
15 years, with the exodus of boat people fleeing a ruined economy. In
the 1980s, tens of thousands more emigrated as guest workers to Eastern
Europe and Russia. Others--including, in 1981, my wife's parents, sisters
and brother--were allowed to join family members overseas. As many as
2.5 million Vietnamese now live outside the country.
edition's table of contents
On a hot and humid spring afternoon, Nga and I drive to a small house
on Nguyen Van Dau street for a ceremony marking the death anniversary
of her aunt, the oldest of a distinguished clan of 15 brothers and sisters.
It is a lovely, simple service: a picture of the formidable Tata Hai is
displayed, incense sticks are burned, a group of nuns sing a Roman Catholic
Mass. The host is another of Nga's paternal aunts, Nguyen Thi Oanh, the
only member of the family still living in Vietnam. Oanh is a social worker
and member of a group of left-leaning South Vietnamese women widely recognized
for their contributions to the country's intellectual life. She does not
relish being separated from the rest of her family. Yet she says that
staying in Saigon was not just the correct choice, but the only choice.
Like others of her generation, she wanted to play a part in fashioning
a united Vietnam at peace with itself.
Those former South Vietnamese I know who stayed behind out of conviction
rather than happenstance similarly feel that their decision has been vindicated.
When we walk together around the streets of Saigon they exude satisfaction
in what the city--and, to some extent, the nation--has become.
Of course, there are still gremlins--even monsters--that are profoundly
disheartening. Everyone complains about corruption, which is eating away
at the soul of the country. "It's much worse than before," says an old
friend who laments that the revolutionary cause he supported at considerable
personal risk has failed to eliminate this ancient malady. Another friend,
a journalist who spent time in a South Vietnamese prison when I was writing
about Thieu's intimidation of the press, says freedom of speech is still
a major problem. The thumb of the Communist Party--some would say its
entire fist--lies heavy on the country's newspapers.
As always I find it difficult to come to a definitive judgment about Saigon--to
separate the yin from the yang, the good from the bad, the real from the
ethereal. As always the people I speak with offer opinions that are often
contradictory. But it is clear that nostalgia doesn't suit Saigon these
days. Half of all Vietnamese have been born since 1975. Those of us coming
back to the city looking for fragments of our old lives are politely received
and assisted. But young people in Saigon--ambitious, yet relaxed in a
way that the previous generation could never be--have a forward-looking
agenda and no time for nostalgia.
Which is fine with me. Saigon was a pleasure in many ways: great story,
wonderful friends, a happy, enduring marriage. And I did enjoy sitting
on the balcony of 117 Le Thanh Ton and playing with the memory machine.
But bring back the old Saigon? No. That city was filled with death and
uncertainty, which made the place and its people fretful and unhappy right
up until the end. The new Saigon is better. Waiting 25 years to come back
for a visit wasn't so bad, after all.
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