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  • Americans, y'all come
  • War and Peace
  • Historic Fotos
  • The Old Marine
  • The 'Ghost Chorus'
A www.militarycorruption.com Special

by

Dan Cameron Rodill

Saigon

Why is The Quiet American still the classic English-language novel set in Vietnam? Could be author Graham Greene's talent for story-telling dry-roasted in irony: A worldly British correspondent, cynical, opium-smoking and pretty harmless, observes the French colonial war. (This is before, of course, the famous American "War On Drugs.") Meanwhile an acquaintance, a nice young Ivy League American--so clean-cut, your mother would be impressed--just happens to leave death and destruction around him, hardly even meaning to. An educated spook type. Graham Greene saw irony and Vietnam as made for each other, practically soul mates.

[Mom gets through mad Saigon traffic with her German baby. Foto/DCR]

 

Back in the 'Nam

Let's get one point straight right now for the general reader, before going further. It's a friendly country to visit today. Everybody here understands how important tourists are to the economy. It's not just that smiling and civility comes natural to the people. They often go out of their way to accomodate you, especially the non-bureaucrats. As for Americans, they are every bit as welcome as anybody else. Even the Communist Government, often considered stodgy, has been encouraging the tourist industry to get up to speed with international standards in service. They are developing, and rapidly. It doesn't matter what your ideology is, or what you may think of the Government, or the war, or any related issue. Behave, or at least don't freak out, and you are welcome. Even Vietnam vets return and visit places where they once fought, or were stationed, or otherwise knew.

 


Today in this new era, after the French war, after the American war, it's funny how you can still get that old Graham Greene vision. Funny or sad. As a traveler, you can get reminders right away, crossing over from the flooded rice paddies of Cambodia.

A man--we'll call him Khai--once was on the fast track to becoming a Naval Commander in South Vietnam, functioning well with the American allies and advisors. Today he's a civilian; to be exact, a tour guide. He can tell you about other examples of ironic twists and turns too, like his old friend Neil Davis, the legendary Australian photo-journalist and foreign correspondent. Neil Davis survived years of war here, taking incredible risks, only to die years later in peacetime. He died in Bangkok , caught in a cross-fire while filming a coup attempt in September, 1985. (For the story of his amazing career, see the book One Crowded Hour, by Tim Bowden.)

Other examples? Well, there's the American vet and Vietnamese wife who divorced and, in effect, traded countries. The American now lives in Vietnam and the Vietnamese woman lives in California with the four kids.

And there's the American vet here whose teenaged son came over and takes care of him up in the cool highlands. That is, the teenager keeps an eye on Dad. Dad likes liquid refreshment after giving English classes to the locals.

Khai, a veteran of the defunct South Vietnamese Navy that was allied with the U.S., will admit that his country today, though still very poor, seems quite "developed" after you've traveled the unspeakable roads of neighboring Cambodia.

Despite his background as a young naval officer("I probably be Lieutenant Commander today if we not lose war,") he seems adjusted to his humble station in life. After Saigon fell in 1975 he spent two years in a Communist "re-education camp." It could have been worse. This was not Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge, saving bullets, often used hammers, knives or axes to execute captives. (It's reported that in Siem Reap the Khmer Rouge even fed the crocodiles with live "traitors.") Vietnam being different, Khai's ultimate punishment as a member of the losing side was not in Khmer Rouge style. No trademark violence. He simply lost forever any possibility of a career and advancement. He remains today a simple tour guide. Careerists everywhere will understand it.

To a degree, though, Khai has managed something. You could say he chose his own fate. As he relates it, he did not have to be here now, a loser among winners. Serving in the Mekong Delta during the war("There I know Neil Davis--he be wounded many times, always come back") he also did a spell in New York, studying "Emergency Control" at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and later at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia. "In New York on weekend I go to Chinatown, walk around. I go Times Square too." Years later, as Saigon was falling to the North Vietnamese Communists, Khai reacted.

"I take forty people in LCM out to American ships." He got the forty refugees out, in the Landing Craft Medium, delivered to the Seventh Fleet in that historic evacuation. And then he returned. He stayed.

But why?

"Life in America, I think, very hard. Not easy... The white, the black...Many problem..."

He found out how Vietnamese he really was. Would not America too be a kind of "re-education camp," but far larger, more sophisticated, more powerful? He settled for "re-education" here. Today he is resigned to his life: humble, not prosperous-looking, yet not worn-out either. A certain youthful air. Maybe an acute sense of fate. Maybe not easy to fathom. The East is still the East.

Some tradition endures. Foto/DCR
Rolling Into Saigon

Officially it's now Ho Chi Minh City, honoring the state's Communist founder whose name was a household word a generation ago almost everywhere on earth. Don't worry. 'Saigon' still used, and widely. You'll see it even on tee-shirts.

Leaving the Khmer border, and long before arriving, you see the change from Cambodia. Everywhere. It's not just the decent roads, so much easier on your body parts. The sheer human density and movement, the energy, the traffic, bicycles, conical hats, roadside construction, the more enclosed rice paddy with the dikes and hedgerows every American grunt will remember from the war--this is another country. Only the lumbering water buffalo seem the same. You can believe the estimates of a population almost ten times Cambodia's 7-9 million. You can also believe that Hanoi fairly easily was able to drive Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and its terror machine out of Phnom Penh and back to the bush two decades ago.

Everything here seems more active and in a hurry, more goal-oriented, more commercial, everyone trying to catch up, unlike rhythms in the dreamier land of the Khmer. The energy builds to a crescendo as you roll into the big City of the South. You are now engulfed in a total Orient with dabs of the West and endless Japanese motorbikes, cyclos or pedicabs, steamed rice cakes of pork or sweet bean paste, purplish red dragon fruit, crispy loaves of French bread, dried cuttle fish, tripe, cooked animal guts hanging from carts, shop after shop of moon cakes for the mid-Autumn festival, red banners with the yellow star, and so many bars, clubs and sidewalk cafes that it's like the city has gone from war to karaoke. It's clear: the Communist North, much more austere and conservative, still has not fully digested this Southern capital of old Cochin China. After all these years. Graham Greene might smile, sort of.

If you happen to be "Vietnam era" and knew this place back when, you can't help notice how, well, civilianized it's become. True, you'll see cops in Hanoi-style military dress uniform, complete with Stalin-era epaulets and brimmed caps, but even they are often unarmed(unlike their U.S. or Cambodian counter-parts.) But today you are not going to find a single grunt on leave from the boondocks in baggy fatigues, bush hat and tropical combat boots, looking for the nearest USO and a call home on the MARS line, not a single jeep of U.S. Army MP's in dark glasses, on the look-out for honky-tonk trouble on the former Plantation Road, or wherever un-approved bars might offer Thai sticks, military scrip for a PX carton of menthol-tip Salems, and maybe hand jobs under the table while some old mama-san at the entrance keeps an eye out for the canh-sat. And you are not going to find 'Soul Alley,' either, that haven for black soldiers who were living, shall we say, away from official assignment, the Military Advisory Command opting not to go in and get them in that densely populated labyrinth.

So, liberty aside, is today's Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City an improvement over wartime Saigon?

In many ways you have to say yes, certain liberties aside. It's much cleaner, brighter, upgraded, no more mountains of garbage in sight. Traffic is now horrendous, but maybe that's "progress"? No kids or refugees seem to be living on the streets now--at least nothing like it used to be, though beggars will still push their deformities or babies at you, and amputees will still come at you on roller boards or hand-supports. Nobody can call it an American bordello anymore--too internationalized, for one thing--but the old, old profession is alive and well, count on it. The male expatriates here who want more than one-night stands are well-accounted for too. You see relationships, out in the open: Frenchmen, Aussies, Americans, Koreans, young and far from young, can be seen with their companions, strolling together, on the motorbike together, or at a table in the sidewalk cafe or restaurant. It's not Pyongyang, or the Forbidden City. As even the conservative Norhern Communists have learned, it's what it always was--a southern place,Oriental, yet open to the West.

The war years.(L) In "Booby-Trap Country," Cu Chi Province. DCR with Filipino-American Captain Rodriguez, Bravo Company,2/14th, 25th Division. (C) Soaping down in the 'Nam.(R) At Bu Prang up in the Central Highlands. Trooper shows the shrapnel hole in the flag. (Fotos by DCR)

 

The Old Marine

Call him Sinbad. It's related to an Arab name he uses for reasons having to do with his love life. We'll skip that part. Like Khai, he's another survivor from the losing team, clearly the same generation. Otherwise he has little in common with Khai, the more reserved ex-naval officer.

Sinbad is an ex-Marine, clearly not of the commissioned class. As an NCO he was climbing the sergeant ladder rapidly and worked widely with the U.S. Marines, including the 9th Division down here, and earlier as an interpreter with the 1st Marine Division up in Danang. Unlike Khai, he admits he tried to escape during that final evacuation in 1975. He got through the gates at the U.S. Embassy but never made it to the rooftop helipad. He was totally blocked on the second floor by U.S. Marines.

The energy in this guy, even today, tells you he's a survivor. Down to nothing after his years in "re-education camp" up-country, he came back and pedaled a cyclo around Saigon, one of the most strenuous forms of coolie labor. You can see it in his physique--springy, lithe, well-muscled, no fat anywhere. He was on the losing side without giving up personally. Now he no longer pedals the streets. Today he has a top-notch motorbike and upscale clientele he guides around town, wherever their interests or vices lead them. Most of his family, in the meantime, has gotten to the United States. He says he probably could go too, now, but chooses not to.

Why not?

"I too old. Fifty-one. What I gonna do there? Make two hundred dollar a week? Tax. Everyting. Here I do better...Hey, you need visa extension? I help you...."

He has a life here. He can afford a wife and a mistress.

We trade media anecdotes. He has plenty. I tell him CBS stories. I can tell him the kind, especially from the fall of Saigon, that you will not hear from Dan Rather or anyone else at CBS. He tells me stories or anecdotes about NBC, ABC, CNN. He seems to know them all. Peter Arnett?

"Sure. Peter come back here again. He have Vietnamese wife."

For clientele, he doesn't stick just to media types. He has a good eye for the spenders, the expense-account crowd, corporate, Government, NGO and others. He names an exec. "He give me fifty dollar, take him to Palace..."

Some were interested in the hundred dollar, two hundred dollar poontang, the model they couldn't have in New York, Paris or Tokyo. He had clients too like the enterprising black American photographer, the one to whom couples in Tokyo pay $500 a session for shooting them in nude action, live and in color. He showed me lots of business cards from his clients. He had them, all right. Sightseers and tourists from all walks. He even knew the son of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the son who now resides here as a businessman with his Asian companion.(This is the brother of the one who died from the Agent Orange which U.S. forces used in Vietnam.)

 


Business Not As Usual

Speaking of legitimate business, foreign investment capital seems to be returning, after falling sharply from its peak a few years ago in the Asia downturn. The Communist-capitalist dealings are usually intensely-negotiated, happy endings never

guranteed. Business gets done somehow. Along with it, the city's population keeps growing. During the war it swelled to a few million. Today it's at 7 1/2 million. The Government will take steps, it says, to prevent a megalopolis. Well, we'll see. No one admits to wanting the Bangkokization of this city, once the French "Pearl of the Orient." Still, you'll see signs of how it might or might not go in that massive and strangulated direction...

The Bionic Dragon

On a Saturday night I got a startling vision.

This has been a motorbike town ever since the war, when U.S. dollars got a half million Hondas imported in lieu of a public transportation system. The idea was simple: go with the Communists, as in Hanoi, and ride bicycles; go with the Americans and ride motorbikes. Some thought of it as trying to fill hearts and minds with a gas pump, but people need transportation. During the war the bikes here gave off blue fumes, and you could gag in the heat. Today, no more of those fumes, at least not the blue kind that you can see and know what you're choking on. Today there are more than two million motorbikes in Saigon, and the number keeps growing.

Post-war Generation Foto/DCR

On this particular Saturday night it seemed they were all hitting the streets at once and hell-bent on jamming downtown Le Loi Street and turning at Nguyen Hue(just say 'Win Way') Boulevard. An evening cruise into town on weekends has become a Saigon ritual. Moreover, this happened to be National Day. There were hundreds, thousands of bikes inching along, curb to curb, like a strange new dragon, half-human, half-machine. Hardly any were stopping, or paying any attention to the Government's National Day show over on the flood-lit steps of the Municipal Theater. This was not a re-make of Marlon Brando's "The Wild Ones" either. They were generally well mannered and dressed up. They were just cruising in to town, not seeming to mind the spectacular congestion, maybe even enjoying it as a sign of proud ownership and prosperity. The "dragon" stretched as far as you could see in the direction of Cholon, the Chinese quarter, solid stream, endless. They were just cruising, sort of parading. A night out in Saigon. The future, coming at you?

 


Thanks For The Memory?

The motorbike legacy seems to be one of the few traces left of that once massive U.S. presence. More of a distant second is the use of English. Just look around. The Brink BOQ on Hai Ba Trung Street was torn down recently. You'll see a parking lot now. Adjacent, a Park Hyatt Hotel is under constuction. Lam Son Square has been prettified. Long gone is that statue of South Vietnam Marines on the attack.

In Saigon traffic today. Foto/DCR

It may have been the ugliest statue in the country, yet grim with a certain power (I saw them pulling it down in May, 1975. See fotos) In its place now is a circular study of human forms, surprisingly modernistic for a Democratic Republic that favors Stalinist realism.

And the much-appreciated big USO on Nguyen Hue Boulevard? Gone, of course, with the wind and the Doughnut Dollies. Today you'll see electronics stores, with ever wider video screens. And you sure won't find that old sign warning the grunts to watch out for the cute little kids selling peanuts. The kids, it was said, could be very quick with your camera, watch or wallet.

The Eden Building used to house the Associated Press Bureau. Today it's run-down and full of tenants not the former middle-class type. Here, on the day that Nixon made world headlines by sending the troops into Cambodia, Pulitzer Prize winner Horst Faas bought two of my combat fotos for the AP(one appears in the www.militarycorruption.com previous Special,"Cambodia 2000.") Today the stone steps leading up to that big double door are badly chipped. The building feels like a low-income housing project.

Across from Lam Son Square the press used to get daily briefings from the U.S. and Saigon military. This ritual, often numbing the brain and glazing the eye, was known to everyone as "the Five O'Clock Follies." Today, in its place, you'll see a sign saying 'Saigon Duty Free--in Association with Weitnauer.'

The street everyone knew looks more stylish, thronged and upgraded now. In Graham Greene's "The Quiet American," set during the French occupation, it was known as the fashionable Rue Catinat. Later, under the U.S.-backed Saigon regime, we called it Tu Do(Liberty) Street. Today it's Dong Khoi(Uprising) Street. There are lots of chic bars, clubs, restaurants, hotels, boutiques, art shops, and the lonely can still find someone in a mini or a flowing ao dai who will have a Saigon tea with them. There is plenty of night life, possibly more than ever.

And what of the old U.S. Embassy,"immortalized" in fotos of mobs trying to storm the gates and reach the rooftop helipad as the city was falling to the Northern Communists in 1975?...Finally torn down. It's been replaced, however, by a large state-of-the-art U.S. consulate after a thaw in Hanoi-Washington relations. It looks good, but has none of the lofty whiteness of the old Embassy structure.

The leading old hotels have been upgraded. Not so the former Prince Hotel. If anything, the old Prince has been down-graded. It was located on Pham Ngu Lao Street, away from the center of things, and across from the railroad tracks(now gone.) Instead of important visitors from business, government and the media who ran the war, the Prince "serviced" the grunts who fought the war. Today the five-story structure is called the 'Liberty 3.' It looks like a subsidized make-work project and still has no elevator. It also has few visible guests, though surrounded by busy family-managed mini-hotels, bars, sidewalk cafes, swarms of tourists and budget travelers and beer-slogging expatriates. In the "bad old days" many Americans here knew the Prince as a friendly "boom-boom" palace. Today the 'Liberty 3,' Government-run, is a very dull sight in an otherwise lively area.

The four most important old hotels--the Majestic, the Rex, the Caravelle and the Continental Palace--help to reflect on then and now. Upgrading had to happen. Without it, these vintage landmarks couldn't possibly compete with the post-war construction, the glittering towers of swank and convenience. (Never mind that this new luxury was built for anticipated big spenders, many of whom have yet to arrive despite the growing number of more ordinary tourists.)

The Majestic upgraded with class. Nothing garish or stupid. Somebody knew what they were doing. They simply refurbished the whole shebang in French tropical elegance, always tasteful, always agreeable. If you have a generous expense account and deserve it, this could be for you. In any case, go up to the rooftop for a drink or something, and from about four different levels and a bunch of pleasant locations you can still enjoy the old spectacular views of the Saigon River winding off toward the Mekong Delta. This is unconditional victory.

The View From CBS

The Caravelle Hotel. Traditionally a businessman's choice. The upgrading here could have been worse, much worse. CBS had its Saigon Bureau here in the original 10-story building during the evacuation panic in April, 1975(the tallest building in town, at the time). I'd know. That's when I took charge of it with a friend after the regular CBS staff bailed out in those moments of unpredictable anarchy and foreboding. Today the original structure is pretty much intact. They've built an annex contiguous to it, with a greatly enlarged new entrance and driveway. The annex rises to about twice the height of the original building. You see the logic: saving the old while adding the new. Because the original structure survives, you can see the large bay-type, now paneled windows that were part of the CBS Bureau in that corner suite on the second floor(This is French logic--Americans would call this the third floor.) From that abandoned office I looked out one morning, shortly after the CBS staff fled, and saw a column of North Vietnamese soldiers marching quietly in single file down deserted Tu Do Street(now Dong Khoi). CBS New York was very grateful to us indeed. For a while.

Vietnam vet, now living there. Foto/DCR

The Rex Hotel. This is a different story. It's been upgraded with a vengeance from the days when you took a rickety elevator to the open-air roof of the Rex BOQ. At a plain breezy table once with a special friend, now deceased, we somehow got on to Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," and the ending where Brett Ashley says, "Oh, Jake, we could have had such a good time together," and the war-castrated Jake Barnes replies, "Yes, wouldn't it be pretty to think so?" That may or may not be comprehensible dialogue around here today, with a huge crown on the roof that lights up at night like Las Vegas, around huge ceramic elephants, a sushi bar, loads of plants and paper lanterns.

Next door where the Rex Cinema used to be, there's now a huge lobby for the new Rex Hotel. Where the JUSPAO information center used to be--with strict security checks after the occasional bomb went off--there's now easy access to a Rose Garden, Coffee Lounge, Rex Dancing and New Paradise. The Rex doormen are costumed. I guess it's some kind of Montagnard chic, like they're decked out in folk-ballet surplus, complete with hanging turbans and colorful tunics. Tourist-oriented, yes.

Three views of Lam Son Square in Saigon: during the war, right after the war, and today. (L)The wartime statue of South Vietnam Marines dominates.(C) Right after the statue was pulled down in May, 1975. DCR here was covering the fall of Saigon for CBS after its staff fled in the famous evacuation. (R) Today a modernistic sculpture occupies that spot in Lam Son Square. Fotos/DCR

The Continental Catastrophe

You might argue the new Rex Hotel, the glitz and the glitter. You might defend it. Tastes, etc. With the Continental Palace, however, I admit no argument, not if you knew what it was. Here, I submit, is a catastrophe And let's be clear. I don't mean the main body of the hotel, the Continental Palace proper. That, arguably, succeeds. I refer specifically to what we all knew as the celebrated Continental Terrace, an open-air part of the hotel, and a few steps above street level. Possibly even more than the hotel proper, the Terrace belonged to the history and culture here, a French colonial gem(some might say 'relic,') from the Belle Epoque over a century ago. It was further evidence that the French actually lived here once, and were not just passing through. Everyone knew it, a great many admired it: writers, poets, artists, correspondents, soldiers, officers, public figures, humanitarians, courtesans, filles de joie, adventurers, travelers and just plain folks. It's in "The Quiet American." Graham Greene would be distressed at what they've done to it, but maybe not surprised.

Yes, the hotel had to be upgraded. No argument. In the last years of the war few businessmen would stay there. The Corsican painter who inherited it from his father could no longer afford good maintenance. It was getting creaky, even flaky. What happened subsequently, and how it got to this present "revival," we don't know. Who conducted the business transactions and how oily they were, we can only guess. What we don't have to guess is the result. It's staring at you today.

The crime was concentrated on the Terrace. They simply took the whole gracious open-air idea that made this Terrace a noted landmark in Indochina and shut it down, walled and glassed it in, closed it up, making it correct for New York or Paris and a bourgeois travesty for Saigon. You might call it now the Genetically Modified Terrace. They ignored what the French here understood a century ago. The "developers" could have limited their zeal to the few upper stories of the hotel without becoming vandals. The upgrading there is a little heavy and "picture book," guaranteed to impress the average tourist, but it's not really an abomination: handsomely refurbished balconies, windows, rich-looking wood panels, everything so glossy, so "French colonial." The rooms inside might very well have ten times the convenience and comfort they had under the Corsican owner. If only they had not messed with the Terrace, they might have nothing to repent.

In the pre-Philistine era the ambience was unique, with waiters in white linen, white cloths overhanging small round tables, the big white-washed arches where swallows and breezes flew in from the street, gecko lizards darting up the white walls higher than the ceiling fans, beggars and vendors usually staying out on the sidewalk. You could have views of the National Assembly Building, Tu Do Street, Lam Son Square and every type of passer-by. You were in the street life and not in it. I interviewed Peter Arnett here. Sometimes I had a "bah-mee-bah," a 'Beer 33.' on the tab of teetotaller retired Brigadier General Richard S. Whitcomb, formerly an Army Colonel with logisitics in the D-Day Invasion of Normandy. Lawyer John Blakeney who lived in the hotel was at a table sometimes with his Chinese mistress, and sometimes with his retinue of Opera buffs.

What you see here now is not even an embalming. It seems more like a fancy mortuary with a heavily draped and glassed enclosure, though I did see a large gathering recently, further back in the dining sanctum. The capitalists and the Communist Government here supposedly knew what they were doing. The old Continental Terrace, which tourists today could have recognized as something different, with a history, no gene splicing, has been terminated. Outside and overhead, where the open-air arches used to curve, you now see something the Corsican never permitted, and that you won't find plastered on any self-respecting hotel in the world: Advertising billboards, or placards. You can see a whole bunch of them, promoting a certain Asian airline(not Vietnamese.) Payola? Back-room deals? Would Graham Greene have puked, even if he knew that they are preserving the room upstairs where he lived and worked?

Who can say?

 
Two views of the celebrated Continental Terrace in the old days before the present management "genetically modified" it, destroying the classic ambience and the open-air arches. It's now like the kind of tourist ghetto you can see anywhere in the world. 'Globalization' marches on? Fotos/DCR

 


The Ghost Chorale

Anyone who had a war here carries baggage and lives with ghosts. Soldiers know this all too well: the grunt who saw a buddy's guts ripped out and wonders why it was the friend and not him; the helicopter doorgunner who mistakenly massacred friendlies; the Spec.4 medic who meant well and administered morphine for a booby-trap casualty's chest wound; the bomb crews who will never know how many "enemies" were just peasant families caught between the hedgerows; even the C.I.A. agent whose special friend killed herself after the American failed to get her out in that final evacuation; perhaps even the Agent Orange(and red, and blue and yellow etc) manufacturers, contractors and decision-makers, all those unsung profiteers, even the Generals who always knew there could not be a true victory, short of nuking this place to another dimension but who put career first, last and always. The chorus of ghosts is large, vast. It could not fit on any music stage in the world. The litany could go on and on, as it does in hundreds of soldier accounts, published and unpublished. Even the seemingly less dramatic or tragic can surprise you still. It did me one evening during this latest trip.

A Face in Saigon

It happened right out of the blue, or the blue-black. Night had fallen. Escaping that motorbike "creature" on Le Loi Street, that endless puttering "dragon," I got over to Dong Khoi(ex-Tu Do),then on impulse back-tracked to a very special place on Nguyen Hue Boulevard. Call it strange, but this place still exerted a pull. I'd go have a quick look, the first this visit.

The front entrance used to be through a Chinese watch shop. The landlord, the one I had as Saigon was falling, also repaired watches. He was a pleasant man who smiled, looking up from his work with the magnifier in his eye. He's not there now. The shop there now is much newer, with people I don't recognize. I went around the corner on the side street and into the alley. The alley leads to the rear entrance, the more private one I used to prefer anyway, only now, of course, there was no rear entrance. It must have been sealed years ago. Above, on the second floor, where I had lived for about a year, the window and the screening were now totally engrimed with the years and dead shut. Nothing could be living in there now--nothing human. Well, I had my little ritual, a glimpse, pretty useless no doubt, tarnished everywhere except in the mind.

Coming out of the alley I turned to go back to Nguyen Hue Boulevard and suddenly had to stop. Right there on the side street three women were seated on three tiny stools, backs to the wall. Our eyes met as they all looked up. They wore loose rayon pajamas, common street-wear here. Two were total strangers to me, despite their friendly manner. Not so the one on my right. She was not a total stranger. I knew it instantly. Not quite a stranger, and she knew it just as quickly. Was this possible, after a quarter century? I tell you it happened. Soon, with the chattering, the two others knew it too. Their having seen me go into the alley only confirmed everything. Proof positive. They made the connections in a flash, without a word from me, as their English was no better than my Vietnamese. Everyone suddenly knew that I knew one of them.

We had been neighbors once. Nothing more. Trust me, nothing more. Tenants in the same building. I was in the rear and she lived with a Korean in the front apartment, directly over the Chinese watch shop. She was clearly not a bargirl or taxi girl. She was quiet, well turned out, attractive and tastefully dressed. I think she worked in an office, maybe for the Korean. A peach, I used to think, but there were lots of attractive young ladies around, especially after the "Truce" and the massive U.S. withdrawal. Lots, really. You found them in minis, western dresses, the graceful ao dai, jeans, slacks, whatever. Their undergarments could be plain or fancy, but more often were plain. It was easy and pleasant. Easy and sad, too. She might even have heard some of it from the next apartment. And it was nothing that had anything at all to do with a Hollywood vision.

Now, as I stood over the three who were sitting on those tiny stools you find in Vietnam, one of them started gesturing for me to take the one I knew. She sort of nudged her in my direction and pointed at me.

"You take...Take!...You take her!"

The one I was supposed to take sat there impassively, neither resisting nor playing to me. It was sad, and made me recall something too.

It's true, we had been platonic neighbors in another era, yet we did have one confrontation back then, sort of. The guilt, if that's the word, was all mine. It happened near the culmination of it all, when everything around us seemed to be blowing up or crashing down, or just trembling with fear and looting. The Communist North Vietnamese Army was coming. Probably tomorrow. The longest war in American history was about to end. I was leaving my place over the Chinese watch shop permanently and moving to the Caravelle Hotel. They were calling this the Story of the Decade and I was covering it, cabling dispatches to Newsday and now, suddenly, moving into the vaccuum at the CBS Bureau. The regular CBS staff--Ed Bradley, Bob Simon, Bill Plante and the rest--got out while the getting was good, joining the evacuation frenzy. My English vegetarian friend happened to be the humble CBS night man. We both arrived here on practically the same day in 1969 and had no intention of joining the evacuation. It was now time to restore the looted and abandoned CBS Bureau after the guys with the nice contracts vamoosed. But that, as they say, is another story.

Just as I was leaving for the Caravelle with my few belongings she came up the stairs, alone. I wondered where her Korean was.

"He go," she said.

The Korean was gone with the evacuation. She was not crying. I wondered if the Korean had given her a story, or told her he'd be back for her or something. She seemed reasonably cool, under the circumstances. I could not help but notice that she looked as attractive as ever. Nobody could be sure about tomorrow and what would happen. Choosing to stay here was what you call gambling, certainly for an American. Most of the media types who stayed or just got stuck were Brits, Europeans or Asians, what you could call "neutrals."

Already the afternoon streets were pretty deserted, Government soldiers throwing away their uniforms, some people rushing around with furniture, whether theirs or not. I looked at her and thought, We still have a little time on our hands. Why not? The North Vietnamese Army was not expected until tomorrow. There were explosions at Tan Son Nhut Airport, but Saigon itself was not under bombardment, at least not yet. There might or might not be the bloodbath that Washington warned about. No one knew for sure. What did they do in those last days of Pompeii, Vesuvius erupting, the earth shaking, the molten lava flowing nearer and nearer? We know what they did under that volcano. Archaeology proved it. The excavations leave no doubt.

For the first time, I took her hand. Gently. Careful. She understood. She understood instantly. But I soon found out that understanding is not necessarily the same thing as consenting. She was not ready to go where I was ready to go. Was she still waiting for the Korean to come and get her? What I could see is that she was not an ancient Roman, or my impulsive idea of one. At least she was not in a Pompeiian frame of mind at the moment, gazing at Vesuvius smoking out there, and besides, I really did have to dash over to the Caravelle. There was a story to cover for what was the premier blue-ribbon Television Network.

Imitating a gentleman, I let her hand go, gently, and hurried across the wide Nguyen Hue Boulevard, on to Le Loi and into the Caravelle Hotel whose doorman was gone. I went right upstairs to the office of the abandoned and looted CBS Bureau.

 

 


 

(Coming: "CBS and the Fall of Saigon," a special report by Dan Cameron Rodill. The "rest of the story,"--the part that CBS does not tell in its anniversary commemorations. Exclusively at www.militarycorruption.com. For DCR's Special,"Cambodia 2000," see the Archives).



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