We crossed over the Saigon River near the site of Newport, one of the largest ports in the III Corps Military Zone. We then traveled along the road that had led from Saigon to the headquarters of the US Army Viet Nam (USARV) in Long Binh.
On the way, we visited a cemetery honoring soldiers who had fought with the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Viet Cong. The cemetery had several large statues and a reception area. A lone woman methodically scrubbed the stones that made up the wide walkway, almost a thoroughfare, that led from the reception area to the grave sites. The graves were arranged in groups of eight, a lucky number for the Vietnamese. It was suggested to us that many of the graves were empty.
Nearby was an ARVN cemetery. Although we could not get very close to it, as it was surrounded by a military installation, it seemed in much worse repair than the NLF one. One might assume from this that the graveyards of the winners are well tended, while those of the losers are not.
This does not explain, however, what I observed at an NLF cemetery not far from the Cu Chi tunnels. In 1992, this cemetery was well taken care of. But in 1994 it was overgrown, the graves starting to show signs of neglect and indifference. Why? No one seemed to know.
After leaving the NLF cemetery, we drove toward Vung Tau, passing through Long Binh village, near what had been the site of the sprawling USARV headquarters. Nothing was left of that American-made city. It seemed to have disappeared without a trace, as if it had never existed. It was difficult to identify locations and landmarks remembered from twenty-five years ago. Places like Bear Cat, Di An, and the site of the Australian Field Force headquarters in the hills, seemed vaguely familiar but impossible to really identify. It didn't look the same.
We arrived at the Friendship Clinic and met with a group of administrators and medical personnel. Only a few obstetrics patients were being treated on the day we were there. The boxes of supplies being donated to the clinic were opened and gratefully acknowledged.
In 1992, when attending similar meetings with university faculty, hot tea was always served. This time something new had been added -- potable water in sealed plastic bottles. The label said 333. Now the 333 brewery was also in the bottled water business.
After leaving the clinic, we drove through Vung Tau, which seemed depressed. The beaches we saw were forlorn, much of their beauty and luster lost. I was reminded of a conversation I had had with a couple in the Bong Sen Hotel in Saigon in 1992. He had been stationed in Vung Tau during the war; and his wife, a Vietnamese, had lived there. They had just returned for the first time and were very upset at how sad and run-down it was.
We ate lunch at a seaside restaurant, just below one of the landmarks that those who spent time in Vung Tau are likely to remember -- the giant Jesus which gazes with outstretched arms across the South China Sea. The huge statue was surrounded by scaffolding. It was, apparently, under repair.
As we drove back to Saigon, it began to rain. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a monsoon/typhoon downpour that would follow us from Saigon to Da Nang, eventually stranding us as we attempted to reach our next scheduled stop--the hospital in My Lai.
We walked down Hai Ba Trung and, after a couple of wrong turns, stumbled onto the pancake house. Dozens of women were on the sidewalk cooking delicious pancakes, resembling, but far superior to, the moo shu pork available in your local Chinese restaurant.
The pancake house was a thriving, popular local restaurant. The dining room was an alleyway behind the sidewalk kitchen. Most (but not all) of the long picnic style tables were covered by canopies, which helped to keep the rain off. Huge plastic basins on one side of the alley filled with water from a nearby hose served as dishwashers.
We let none of this deter us as we pulled out our chopsticks (taken from the cafeteria at the Guam airport), wiped off our beer bottles, and ate everything placed in front of us -- as long as it was cooked within an inch of its life.
What a contrast this thriving sidewalk eatery in Saigon was to what I had experienced in Cuba. In Cuba there were no sidewalk restaurants, no food stands. The markets in Trang Bang and Cholon, overflowing with rice, meat, and vegetables, were a sharp contrast to the closed and empty buildings I saw in Havana with signs saying Supermercado. When a food store did open, long lines formed. Only the dollar stores, the markets and restaurants that catered to tourists and accepted dollars, not pesos, had stocked shelves and food to serve. Why the difference?
The Cubans seemed to rely much more heavily on imported food. The collapse of their main source of imports, the Soviet Union, combined with the U.S. trade embargo, had slowed to a trickle the supplies of food needed to feed the island's population.
The Vietnamese, on the other hand, utilized every piece of cultivatable land to grow food. Rice paddies were everywhere. The Vietnamese economy no doubt had also been strained by the demise of the Soviet Union; but food shortages had not occurred, perhaps because Viet Nam's dependence on outside sources for food was not as great as Cuba's.