The Enemy Within: A Saigon Odyssey
Darkness was thick on the Mekong River delta that night, making it difficult to keep my bearings, but I was able to orient myself by the light of shell flashes to the West, near Saigon. The larger bursts were like cameraflashes, and my eye took pictures, etching onto my memory the sirensong beauty of the land we were about to quit in defeat. A hundred or so Vietnamese refugees crowded the open deck of our vessel as we made our way past the Vungtao peninsula and out to sea. They were exhausted and dispirited after the chaos and tumult of evacuation and the losses they had suffered. I was bitter and angry. As a military man, a U.S. Navy weapons specialist since 1971, I was bitter at our failure and the sudden haste of our withdrawal. At the blood, the treasure, the hopes and plans and all else we left behind. As an American I was in anguish over the ugliness we had visited upon a land and culture too beautiful for my powers of expression. It was the night of April 29, 1975, my last night in Vietnam, the last night of the war.
In my anger I cursed the enemy, and I even cursed the land. I cursed the war and defeat, and all the politicians and generals on either side. I swore I would never return. Though veterans often visit their old battlefields later in life, I vowed I would not. I would leave behind forever the land whose presence I had grown up with, and had come to both love and hate.
But while I might leave Vietnam, she would not leave me. For nearly two decades the Land of the Ascending Dragon has invaded my dreams. I awake from them with the stink of cordite in my nostrils and cries in my ears. A friend has told me that I sometimes walk in my sleep, uttering Vietnamese words that have long faded from my conscious memory. PTSD? I don’t know. But walking almost any city in California, Vietnamese restaurants send their culinary songs wafting through the streets, never letting me forget. They awaken a thousand sensual memories of the urgent fragrances of chile and garlic, the New Orleans style charm and exuberance of Saigon streets bursting with color, of steam billowing from little noodle shops and of the taste of life being savored in defiance of an evil war.
My memory floods with visions of women in the ao dai, the Vietnamese dress of knee length split tunic and sheer trousers, worn with a limpet hat or a parasol to guard the lady’s tea and cream complexion. There was never a garment designed to better flatter the female form while still covering the woman from neck to toes. The ao dai makes a woman at once as modest as a nun and yet winkingly provocative. It is to me the very metaphor of the land that has held a grip on my imagination since I was in seventh grade.
In that dizzying rush of events in 1975 there had been no time to give a proper ending to the long relationship between America and Vietnam, and between Vietnam and me. For me it began when I was 13. My Dad was on his first tour there. I watched for glimpses of him or his unit on the news every night. I told my mother that I wanted to serve in Nam, too, when I came of age. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “Wars don’t last that long.”
But it lasted so long it almost became an institution, a fact of daily life. The looming presence, and my subsequent experience, of Vietnam became a part of my psyche, like a tempestuous and demanding lover. And the severance was so quick, the parting so sudden. There was no time to say good-bye. After a long and frenzied night I awoke and she was gone. No chance to say “I’m sorry,” or “I’ll miss you. It was good while it lasted; it was Hell while it lasted. I love you and I hate you.” I left behind a great unfinished business. And I left behind a part of me.
The writer Maxine Hong Kingston has said that Homer causes Odysseus to wander for twenty years because that is how long it takes to bring a warrior home, fully and completely. That is how long the human mind and spirit need to come to grips with something as large as war. Little wonder then that it was not till recently I felt the stirrings to return to Vietnam, to somehow finish the unfinished. And to stop the dreams. For as long as I walk Vietnam in bad dreams, I am not yet fully and completely home.
I chose Tet, that span on the Vietnamese calendar where over a period of days the old year blends into the new, as the time to bring my odyssey to a close.
BAVET/MOC BAI BORDER CROSSING
Because of the U.S. economic embargo at the time, my two traveling companions and I had to send to Mexico City for visas, and take a circuitous route through Thailand and Cambodia. We arrived at the Vietnamese border by car from Phnom Penh. I felt like I was sneaking in through the back door. “Don’t let anyone know I’m a veteran,” I told my non-vet companions. “Not till I know how people are going to respond.” I was sure that response would include hostility, and I dreaded it. Not only what might be directed at me, but my own reactions to it as well.
As we left the border crossing behind I closely surveyed the greening land. For a place of so many memories it seemed strangely unfamiliar, for I saw no soldiers, no convoys, heard no shouting and smelled no smoke. And then we crossed the iron bridge. Below us flowed a branch of the Mekong river. The river that I had navigated in wartime, as my uncle Thomas had before me, and my father before him in the seemingly endless years of war. My cousin Joey, a childhood playmate, had flown helicopter missions over it and took the bullet in the spine that leaves him on crutches today. Now I knew where I was.
As we crossed the bridge the rutted and nearly empty Phnom Penh highway gradually smoothed out and filled with trucks and small cars hauling goods and crops, and with people buzzing around on countless motor scooters. Approaching Saigon at thirty miles per hour two young men on a motor scooter pulled up alongside, smiling and waving.
“Hello!” the one seated on the rear shouted. “Hello. Are you Americans?”
“Uh…Yeah, yes we are,” we shouted back.
Before we could respond the bike’s driver swerved to miss an onrushing truck. Three days would pass before I told anyone that I was a veteran.
SAIGON/HO CHI MINH CITY
Busy, bustling and pulsating with life, Saigon is a stream of consciousness made corporeal. Trees grow in their countless numbers, cathedral tall and stately. Jacaranda, palm and cypress provide a vast canopy of green held aloft by wooden columns. Restaurants and food sellers are almost as numerous as the trees, and give the city a festive air. The elegant French colonial buildings and grand hotels with their terraces and curved corners blend easily with Chinese inspired temples, schools and theaters. So many motor scooters fill the wide boulevards that we laughed to see the occasional “motor scooter gridlock.”
Though the city is obviously maintained with pride there is a great shortage of cash in Vietnam (due largely to our economic embargo) leaving many of Saigon’s buildings in need of paint and trim. Plaster needs fixing and walls need shoring up. But, then, the city is not as garish as she once was either. The G.I. girlie strip, Tu Doh Street, now Dong Khoi Street, is lined with apartment houses and small shops. (Though there is a bar nearby called the “Apocalypse Now!” A poster of the movie, signed by Martin Sheen, hangs on one of its walls.) The wretchedness that used to be so common and the desperate poverty are gone. Violent crime is almost unknown. What few police one sees go unarmed. They don’t even carry nightsticks! The city is like a lovely woman who needs to put her make-up on, as though she has just risen, hair in confusion and sleepy-eyed. But as soon as she is made up she will dazzle the world.
On our way to Vietnam, an American diplomat in Thailand told us that Saigon could be the economic lodestone of Southeast Asia when relations are normalized between Washington and Hanoi. People sign up by the thousands for courses in English. Their teachers are imperfect speakers and the graduates nearly incomprehensible, but they forge on. Already the city bristles with English language advertising. The Saigonaise watched the last days of the Bush administration closely, convinced that his last act would be to lift the embargo, so eager are they to do business with us and with the world.
This is a capitalist city in a communist country. A Saigon University student of economics named Ky told us that in his first semester he studied Adam Smith and John Kenneth Galbraith.
“When do you study Marx?” I asked him.
“We don’t study Marx very much,” he said. “Maybe in the last semester. As an elective. But only the sons and daughters of party members take the course.”
Alongside all the newness and optimism are the veterans of the old regime, the ARVN soldiers. One of them is Tran. He drives a pedicab, a three wheeled “trishaw,” earning about twenty-five cents for pedaling his passenger across town. Twenty years ago he was a soldier, young and strong with a straight back. Nowadays he is bent with his labor, and with the weight of defeat. He will never do any other kind of work. There are very few good jobs in Vietnam, and they belong to the victors.
He drove me to my hotel on the third day and en route mentioned that he had been a soldier. He said it was the best time of his life, until the end, at Vungtao. The very name of Vungtao struck a nerve, and arriving at the hotel I asked him to tell me his story. Standing almost at attention he related the course of his unit’s final retreat across the Vungtao peninsula to the beach where he was captured. His description of the place perfectly matched the sheltered cove I shoved off from in ’75. I remembered seeing a disorganized column of ARVN soldiers streaming past it, as though persued. With a shock I realized that our paths had almost certainly crossed in those last hopeless days. Not noticing the knot of people that had gathered around us I told him who I was, that I had been there too. It was the first time I had told anyone in Vietnam I was a veteran. He looked to the little crowd, pointed to me and said something excitedly. I recognized the word “GI.” They all grinned saying, “GI, GI, veteran!” Some of them clapped their hands. I reached into my pocket to pay Tran and pressed a fistful of bills into his hands. “For a veteran,” I said. He stuffed them into his pocket, and then we shook hands, saying nothing, for a long moment. Finally we stood back and exchanged a salute. All our lookers-on applauded and patted us both on the back. Tran remounted his humble vehicle and rode away like a soldier on parade, back straight.
Soon after it was out that I was a vet it seemed the whole neighborhood knew. ARVN vets came to see me, carrying their medals and old I.D. cards. They asked if I knew So-and-So, pressed letters into my hands for relatives or friends, asked if I could help them get to America. A man who had trained at Mare Island, California, near San Francisco, wanted to know if Carol Doda still danced at The Condor. When the hotel manager learned who I was she told me that an American man on the fifth floor was ill and asked if I would look in on him. She was worried. Another American had sickened and died in the hotel a few months earlier. It seems there are a number of quiet American seekers after they-know-not-what in Vietnam.
Thinking the guy had a normal traveler’s complaint or was suffering from the heat, I bought a bottle of drinking water and some aspirin, then went up and knocked on his door. A Vietnamese boy of about eight years answered. He spoke no English, but he quietly gestured me in. A tall, crew-cut, fortysomething white man lay motionless on one of two beds. I could see he was breathing, but his eyes were open and rolled back. The boy sat on the other bed and resumed his quiet watch over the man.
“Hey, buddy,” I said. “Hey, can you hear me?” He made no move so I reached out to his shoulder, shook him and repeated my call, “Hey, buddy.” Gradually, he came to.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
Groping for speech he said, “Yeah, uh huh. It’s just my medication.”
“What are you taking?” I asked.
He recited a list that sounded like a pharmacist’s inventory.
“This is my boy,” he said, still groggy, pointing to the kid on the other bed. “I’m not his real dad, but I’m gonna adopt him. I’m gonna adopt his brother too, if I can find him. This is my second trip here, since the war. I was in the Americal Division in ’69. My name’s Terry.” We shook hands.
Terry told me his story. It was one of war trauma, drugs and alcohol and treatment centers, wife beating and divorce, remarriage and divorce, more drugs, bad dreams. He lived on veteran’s disability. When he told me of his bad dreams I told him of my sleep walking. He said, “Hey, man, tell the VA. You can get disability too. I get $1200 a month, tax free. And there’s no charge for the medication. I’ve been getting it for years.”
I left Terry, telling him that I would come back and check on him again. When I did, he gave me the name of a doctor in the States. “He can help you get the disability,” he said. “You deserve it, man. Don’t forget.” I left Terry to his schemes and medications.
I don’t think Terry will ever notice, for the drug fog he wanders in, but Americans are quite popular in Vietnam. Throughout the south we three were received almost like prodigal sons. Outside the city of Hue the entire village of Thuan An turned out to greet us when we arrived with letters from relatives in California. In the north we were greeted cordially and with respect, quite in contrast to the scorn reserved for the few remaining former Soviets. A popular story was making the rounds of the few western tourists in the land: Two Americans were chased through the streets of Hue by an angry mob shouting “Lien Xo!” (Soviets!) The people in the north seem to regard the Americans as true foes, and the Soviets as false friends, there being honor in the former. It reminded me of the John Wayne movie “McClintoc.” In it the Duke and an old Indian chief had fought each other in the wars of their youth. Now, as elders in peacetime, they greeted each other warmly as “honored enemy.”
Everywhere in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam we saw capitalism and Americana displayed, worn, sung and praised. People wear hats with American flag logos. Tee shirts with English words are hugely popular. It doesn’t matter what they say or if they make sense as long as they are in English. Typical messages are: “Sentiment Boy = American Dream Staff,” the very popular “Inmutation is your sweetness: U.S. difference of information” and my personal favorite, “Three-Bear Boys have a top sense feeling!”
In Hue the citadel, the old imperial seat, had been a symbol of Viet Cong resistance. Now a souvenir shop in the audience hall sells facsimiles of U.S. military rings. All the service academies and numerous divisions, air wings and ships are represented. When I confusedly asked why the citadel would carry U.S. military facsimiles I was told, “Because we ran out of the real ones.” They still have real dog tags, though. I almost bought “Jerry A. Royal, Type A, Lutheran” and “John F. Truschke, Type A, Catholic.” But I didn’t know if they were alive; I didn’t want dead men’s tags.
At first I thought all this American iconography was being worn like war trophies. But the people simply like Americana. “People want to have style,” the ring-and-dog tag sellers told me.
In Hanoi the single most popular icon of any kind, more than Marx, Lenin or Ho Chi Minh or a Catholic Jesus is the Marlboro Man. People cut his image from magazines and tape it up on walls, doors, windows and inside automobiles as though all the folk were members of a new religion and he their patron saint. I have even seen his manly gaze directed to his votaries from the ceiling.
One evening I noticed him regarding me from the window of a Hanoi cafe. A familiar fuzz-tone guitar riff reverberated through the open door. Looking in I saw people of many ages drinking bootleg Pepsi at tables in front of a big screen TV showing a video of The Bangles playing “Walk Like an Egyptian.” In my pocket I had a copy of the new constitution of Vietnam, purchased from a souvenir stand at Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. The document enshrines the right of foreign capitalist enterprise to do business, make a good profit and be free from seizure.
My mind went back to the first week of May, 1975 as we sat for a few days off the coast of Vungtao waiting for refugee transport to Guam. I struck up a series of conversations with Captain Long of the late South Vietnamese air force. In a wistful moment, tongue only partially in cheek, he said, “You know, you Americans did it all wrong.”
“I guess so,” I said, “since we lost.”
“That’s not what I mean. Instead of sending Hanoi bombs for years, you should have sent them Coke and Levis and rock & roll albums. Then they’d be begging to join you.”
As the Bangles played and swayed, and the seated patrons articulated their arms in King Tut poses I wondered a while if Vietnam had defeated U.S. policy only to be swallowed up by our culture and economy. Of course there is no way they can play the hermit kingdom. If they don’t strive to be a part of the world economy, they’ll become a poor, backward vassal of China. They have to engage the world, and that includes Uncle Sam. So by degrees they are opening up, encouraging partners and investors. They do invite us, the Americans, to do as they: consign the war to history, and become, at the least, proper neighbors.
Not all is right and rosy in Vietnam. It is a very poor country, partly due to its own government’s follies, partly due to ours. Corruption is common. The only good highway is the one leading to the Cambodian front. Dissent is punishable. But there is order; no one starves; its principal cities are jewels; and the nation deals with the world on its own terms.
SEEKING THE HANOI CONSULATE
In Hanoi there was something I was very keen to see, and it had been on my mind since our arrival. A few weeks after the fall of Saigon in ’75, a journalist in Manila told me an intriguing story: The United States had had a consulate in Hanoi until 1954, when the country was partitioned pending the elections that never came about. The Hanoi government, he said, had kept the consulate intact, all through the days of partition and through the long war, for the day when we should return to occupy it. “They always take the long view,” he said. “They’ve always had to.”
One morning I went to the foreign ministry to ask if it were true, and if so, where I might find the consulate, so eager was I to see this anomaly. I found the foreign ministry to be a combination of Byzantine, Socialist and Mandarin; in practical terms, the answer to any question is: “My supervisor is not here today.”
Having got the same answer several times, and not always politely, I found myself standing in the courtyard, frustrated. A refined looking Vietnamese man of about fifty came out of the building and approached me, limping slightly. “May I help you?” he asked. His warm voice and smile were tonic after the bureaucratic coldness I’d just met with. I told him what I was looking for, and he said a public affairs officer in another building would be available at 2:00 PM if I cared to come back.
“Thank you,” I said, “you’re very kind. I’m afraid I haven’t been having any luck with your colleagues.”
He nodded for a moment, then said, “You are a veteran, aren’t you?”
“Of the Vietnam War? Yes, yes I am,” I answered.
“Well,” he smiled wryly, “we call it the American War.”
I pointed to his weak leg and asked, “Did you fight the Americans?”
“Oh yes. And my father, he also fought the French. My brother fought the Cambodians and lost his eyes. My son fought with the Chinese. We’re happy that he came back well. Did you lose anyone?”
I told him of my cousin Joey, and that my dad has become a recluse since the war’s end. He nodded thoughtfully and said, “That’s too bad, too very bad.”
I told him I’d come back at 2:00, and thanked him once more. He patted me on the shoulder, almost like father to son, wished me luck, then limped back into the mandarinate. He made me think of the words of Thomas Hardy: “Yes; a quaint and curious thing war is/ You shoot a fellow down/ You’d treat if met where any bar is/ Or help to half a crown.” I never did see the consulate. But I heard from a member of the U.S. State Department on the matter. It really is still there.
The one place I had to screw up my courage to visit was Vungtao. It was there I had had my last, long look at Vietnam. It had been a scene of death and smoke and roaring. The vision provided the backdrop for most of the bad dreams I’ve had since then. It symbolized the mess we left behind, and the breakage of people and promises. I’m embarrassed to say so, but I’ve long felt culpable for what we did there. To those self righteous opponents of the war who blamed me and other vets personally for it, I’ve always maintained that I was a military man discharging my military duties in the lawful manner. And that is true. I have nothing personally to be ashamed of. And yet…and yet deep inside I felt the need to say “I’m sorry,” for myself, and for all of us, every one.
I rented a Czech-built CZ Jawa motorcycle and made the drive to the coastal resort town of Vungtao. All along the way the sounds and smells of my dreams followed me. The wind in my ears screamed horribly. The roar of the bike’s engine was the roar of helicopters and trucks and landing craft. Its thick, clinging exhaust carried that special acrid stink of war smoke. A couple of times the engine failed and I wheeled the bike to one of the many shadetree mechanics that set up shop along the roads. I wanted to use the occasion as an excuse to turn back. I told myself I had made the effort, that I didn’t know how much farther it was, that I might get lost. But I had crossed too many miles and too many years to turn back.
I continued until I smelled the ocean very strongly and saw gulls circling in the near distance. Dreading what I might find, I drove on to the beach, whence I had shoved off eighteen years before. I expected to see a deserted, pockmarked and dirty wasteland. But I found it pristine, clean and fully restored. All of its wounds have healed. On this occasion I saw no warriors, and no refugees. I saw families on picnics. Kids playing ball, making sand castles and laughing. The weather was the same as before: warm, brilliant and calm. A gentle surf sighed easily on the shore. I dismounted and walked down the shore to the waterline and listened. All I could hear were the natural sounds of a tropic beach. I snuffed at the air and smelled only warm, moist cleanliness. I tried to conjure up the scene from so long ago, but it would not come. I was simply unable to imagine it. I heard some one approaching from behind and turned to see a pretty girl, no more than eighteen years old, greeting me in strained English. She chatted me up for a while to practice what she called her “American.” She had a musical giggle, and she gave me a flower as a souvenir which she pinned to my shirt. As she walked away, down the beach and back to her picnic, the spirit of the place seemed to wrap itself around me, softly, and I could hear a voice within say, “It’s okay now, it’s all over. No more bad dreams. You can go home now.”