Vietnam: Then and Now


Charles R. "Chick" Sheehan

September, 1993 --

I arrived at Tan-Son-Nhut International Airport from Hong Kong via Cathay Pacific Airlines. There was one other American on board the flight. The rest of the passengers were Vietnamese from the States and Sino-Vietnamese from Hong Kong traveling to Vietnam on business and/or for family visits. It was about two weeks before Tet Trung- Thu (Autumn Festival). The last time I had been in Vietnam was June, 1973 and the last time I celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival was 1972 in the small village of Nhon-Ai about fifteen klicks outside of Can-Tho.

While in flight from Hong Kong, I wondered how it would be walk around a city now called, Ho Chi-Minh. How different would HCM be from Saigon? I also wondered what it would be like to travel familiar roads without fear of ambush or command-detonated mines. As the plane was on its final approach--one I knew well from earlier days--I noted old revetments standing like hollowed-out Quonset huts. They were empty now. Gone were the Hueys, the fighters, the dense air traffic, and the fear of being hit by quad-fifties on the approach.

The city with its yellow-stucco buildings topped with moldy orange-black tiles looked the same to me from the air. The heavy blue haze that used to shroud the skies over Saigon, and marked the city from a distance, had disappeared. I was amazed at my own lack of excitement, until I realized the excitement of twenty years ago had been motivated more by fear than by anticipation of a good time.

The plane taxied in and stopped. The passengers disembarked just like the old days, except in those days there were few Asians on the plane. We walked down those steps they roll up to the door, and walked the same walk to the terminal, in the same heat, but it was different.

TSN had lost its charm. Gone, were the masses of US troops lining up to go on R&R, back to The World, and the FNGs. No bull horns screamed instructions and orders. Gone, also, were the civilians in the tan pants and white, short-sleeved shirts. "Kissing their loved ones good-bye, before they left to visit their wives in Bangkok," as they used to say. Even the smell had changed.

Bob Hope during one of his traditional Christmas tours to Vietnam asked the troops in Long Binh, "What is that smell?" En masse, they replied, "Shit." Hope's reaction: "I know it's shit, but what have they done to it?"

As we lined up to go through Immigration, we were faced with PLA uniforms that looked like issues from a common rack--one size fits all, poorly. Like most countries coming out of the Asian-Communist Middle Ages, there were piles of forms to be stamped.

The line moved at a fairly good clip, though. Soon we were all waiting around for the baggage to appear. I approached the other American, a young guy in his 30s, and asked him why he had come to Vietnam. "I came to surf," he replied. Of all the reasons that had gone through my mind before I asked, surfing was not one of them. "Where?" "Danang." "Danang has surf?" I asked. "Sure does. There's going to be an international surfing competition up there in October."

Just as I was about to ask the kid what grade of shit he was smoking, a surfboard appeared. He grabbed it and made for Customs. I followed with my knapsack. The Customs guys moved us through pretty fast, though they did have to ask what the board was. English didn't suffice, so I explained it for him in Vietnamese and they let us through.

I guess the fact that I spoke Vietnamese bowled the kid over, because he wanted to stay close. Neither one of us had come to Vietnam with advanced hotel reservations. I negotiated a ride for us and the surfboard into Saigon. By the way, it is still Saigon. The twin cities of Saigon and Cho-lon are Ho Chi-Minh City. I told the driver to take us to the Majestic Hotel. The name has been changed, but it is still recognized as the Majestic by most cab and cyclo drivers. We had no problem getting rooms.

As you may remember the Majestic is located down by the river at the end of Tu-Do Street (currently Dong Khoi). Maxim's is still there, but all the wonderful bars are gone, save one--a new one--without hostesses, however, there is another bar on Hai Ba Trung Street that sported some old freelancers. They looked as if they might have been just starting the trade in the 1960s; they could reminisce with the rest of us Old Guys, but I seemed to be the only one there who could understand the glory they once felt.

The Pink Pussy Cat is gone from behind the Tax Building, but those big American wedding cars still wait for customers on Nguyen Hue Blvd. The Continental Palace and the Caravelle are still on the square. The Rex BOQ is now a civilian hotel. The roof-top bar and restaurant are still there, but there are no cheap cook-your-own steak nights on Saturday, no entertainers from Korea and Taiwan. No USO shows. No helicopter pilots drinking great Bloody Marys after a morning of kickin' ass in The Delta, though I did recognize one of the bartenders from former times.

On the river where the floating restaurants are, an ancient waiter who had worked on the My-Canh during the war recognized me. He remembered the Claymores in 1965. During dinner they cast off and float down river, then motor-up for the return; eerie for a person not used to getting that close to the other side of the river at night.

Probably the most striking change in Saigon to me was the traffic, or lack of it and the absence of noise. Where in the hell did all those military trucks, motorized cyclos, Hondas, and Lambrettas go? It was quiet, quiet like a night after curfew, without the distant bombs dropping; the windows didn't suck in and out from the concussion of the B- 52 drops miles away.

Stand on the roof garden of the Majestic Hotel at night and search the horizon--no Puff, the Magic Dragon, no neon-red tracers falling from the sky--no nothin'. Charley now sleeps, he doesn't prowl, he doesn't growl. He doesn't set up a rocket launch from a river site to make an indiscriminate hit on Saigon. Charley now hangs his ass on a makeshift hammock hung under a truck at noon, like his Southern cousins before him. I felt safer there than I do in the Washington, DC area at any time of day.

The beggars still roam those areas where we used to hang out; especially the Tu-Do corridor. They are too young to be our responsibility. Young girls still hang babies on their hips, asking for a handouts. Difficult to tell if there were more or fewer of them, because the population of Saigon has shrunk, while the population of Vietnam has increased in amazing proportions in the last twenty years. They stand out more now that the crowds are gone. I believe the estimate in 1993 was around 80 million as opposed to about 34 million (North and South together) in 1973. I didn't observe any visible signs of Asian-American kids.

The surfer and I roamed the streets from morning to night. We ate Pho on the street for breakfast, tried the late-night sobering effects of the banh-mi-thit (sandwich) on Le-Loi Street, had a fabulous meal at Maxim's one night, and enjoyed Chinese seafood on the riverboat restaurants. We drank draft beer in the two bars we found, a German variety. We discovered a whole street devoted to whisky, scotch, beers of the world, and soft drinks; visited the military equipment market (a Saigon version of war surplus) and a small temple nearby. All the while I was filling his head with stories of the old days. On Sunday, we attended Mass at the Saigon Cathedral, a service conducted in Vietnamese to a packed house, with standing room only outside on the sidewalk. Later, I conducted him to the old embassy building for more stories of Tet, 1968.

The young surfer confided to me one evening on the verandah of the Continental Palace over a few too many beers that he was generally scared of Saigon. Here is a young guy of about 34--there is no war going on, no one is hiding plastique in cross-bars of bicycles, no rockets red glare; just a strange, overtly benign country with almost nothing going for it and he is scared. He was having a bit of what is called, culture shock, and I wasn't helping anything by dragging him around the streets at night.

Now, I have studied the culture, and learned the language. I was enjoying the experience. He had come from Japan to surf and I was giving him a history lesson. I had been a civilian in Vietnam, so I had more socio-cultural stories than those of combat experience. I lived the kind of lifestyle that Saigon provided in those days between 1965 and 1973. I spoke the language, enjoyed the food, and liked the people. My travel, usually safe, took me to Ban-Me-Thuot (Also known as, Bang-My-Twat), Danang, Nhatrang, Bien-Hoa, and many places in The Delta. I traveled down canals on small shrimp-tailed boats, but tried to avoid travel with the military--they, I discovered--draw fire. I had the option, others did not. After a few days with this guy, I started to think of all those things I had not carefully thought out before. To whit, what about those young Americans who went to Vietnam less prepared to deal with this strange land and culture? You know, the ones who were stuck there until DEROS, if they made it; the ones faced with combat situations. How did they feel? If Vietnam in peace scared this guy, how could it not really scare the shit out of someone who was there during the war?

In my own personal view, from a creature comfort standpoint, Saigon looked in a much poorer state than during war. That will change, of course, as time passes. The people who suffer most from all of this are the Southerners.

It was a civil war, and like our own Civil War, there are carpetbaggers from the North. Almost to a person, every responsible position in any line of work, was held by a Northerner. Air Vietnam offices in Saigon are staffed by attractive Northern ground hostesses. Receptionists and other staff, excluding the char force, of hotels are from the North. The Central Market is loaded with Southerners selling fruit, sweets, and so forth. The street vendors are Southerners. The docks are loaded with Southerners.

After we arrived in Danang, we stayed at a hotel on China Beach. I had never been there before, but I was told of its former glory. There was a large main hotel, built by the Russians, and two smaller annexes. The food wasn't too bad and there was a fairly nice kiosk-type restaurant/bar on the beach that must have been left over from the war. That's where we met John.

John, a former Marine in Danang, had come back to get his mind straight. He was from Flint, Michigan and had been there on that beach for about 25 days before we bumped into him. We were the only other Americans he had seen in that number of days and he extended the kind of warm welcome that Americans away from home are apt to give when we met him under the hot China Beach sun.

He told us tales of walking the Ho Chi-Minh trail by himself and surviving the experience. He tried to find old places where friends and comrades had died. He still had one bottle of tequila that he shared with us one night on the beach under the Southeast Asian moon. He loved the breakfast they served at the hotel. He felt better about himself for having survived the trip and ordeal of 'living among them' for such a long time. While I only knew John for about five days, I could see his self-esteem returning to him. His comfort level was transferred to us.

The surfer wanted to search for bigger waves than the one-footers rolling in at China Beach, so we rented a taxi and headed south for Hoi-An, an old trade city that I had wanted to visit in any case. We headed for the beach and the surf was definitely 'not up,' but there was a neat place to drink beer and eat dried squid while the surfer paddled out to test the waters.

The old propriatress placed bottles of '33' in a plastic bucket with ice and heated up the dried squid on a small charcoal brazier. John and I enjoyed the warm breeze under an old trellis of sorts. The old woman and I talked to each other in Vietnamese. She reminisced about the good old days when the Americans were there. (I translated for John.) She told us of how her children were not permitted to attend school because her husband in the ARVN. They could only eke out a living by selling refreshments at their stand on the beach and few people showed up. Later, her husband--missing a leg--joined us. He reinforced his wife's stories about the Carpetbaggers. John talked to his war veteran buddy through me. They got along famously, while the surfer was going for the big ones (two feet) out in the bay. I guess we all got a bit drunk there. Small children, fascinated by the old American who spoke Southern Vietnamese, and the younger one with the surfboard, and the ex-Marine (if there is such a thing), started to gather around.

They looked no different from the kids we had seen in Saigon or Danang. They were kids. They laughed and joked, but kids who had been denied a formal education because their parents and others had been on the wrong side. But fear not. Education is a valuable thing in Vietnam, there was some kind of underground school house somewhere, because they could all read, and at a fairly high level. They asked us when the Americans would return, and we replied, "Soon, very soon." We headed out to the town, had some fun with people in the Hoi-An marketplace and returned to China Beach.

Later that night after dinner at China Beach, drinking tequila on the beach, John said, "That was great this afternoon. They really liked us, didn't they?"

"Yea, John, they really did. And that old ARVN with one leg liked you."

"I felt that."

"He felt it, too. So did his wife. He knows the Communists won the war . . . he knows they are fuckin' with him, but they can't beat him. Like you, John, his head is now straight. He sounded like he needed to talk to some American, tell him things . . . shit like that."

John reached for the bottle and took a swig. "It was really worth the trip. I'm better now."

I added, "John?"


"Remember this. The Vietnamese who would have really hated our asses are all in the United States."

We parted company the next day. John returned to Flint via Bangkok. Jeff, the surfer, hung around for a couple of days looking for more than rollers before returning to Tokyo; and I went to China.

Copyright © 1995 By Charles R. Sheehan, All Rights Reserved

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