Viet Nam. That word conjures up a scrapbook of words for me. From Napalm to Agent Orange to B52 to jungle to French to Viet Cong. But what did they all mean?
I didn’t really take much notice of the war until about 1969 when I joined the WRAF and while at basic training camp at Spittlegate in Lincolnshire I went to dances where American Airforce guys also went. It was they who gave me a first inclination of something strange about Viet Nam. They seemed to be scared of going there and told horror stories of what happened in the jungles to American soldiers. Most of these stories I soon forgot but the taste lingered. Then, later, I remember watching images on a TV screen in the big TV room in the Naafi of more soldiers looking hot and dirty. Later still the image of the little Viet Nam girl, forever captured in the camera lens, fleeing naked down a road with her arms outstretched and a look of sheer terror on her face. Then it was all over, I remember the US embassy in Sai Gon and the helicopters and the people left at the gates. Then the movies and the horror stories really came out and the Viet Nam Wall in Washington and the Viet Nam Vets. who had trouble with life.
Well now I am living in Asia and we are close to Viet Nam and I really wanted to go and see the place. Dave felt the same and we wanted to see Sai Gon. Conveniently, a long w/e presented itself, we got our Visas and booked a flight.
When we landed at Sai Gon (Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC) Airport, we thought we could make out that it had been used in the war because of all the concrete bunkers around the perimeter. But who knows if that was just our imagination.
As we were waiting for a taxi a man came up to us and asked if we wanted a taxi to our hotel so we went with him and found ourselves sitting in the back of a 1960’s Citron!!!! For $10 U.S. we were ferried to our hotel feeling like reporters for the war!
We decided that we wanted to see as much as possible in the two days we had so started off with a visit to Cholon (Big Market)Sai Gon’s China Town, where we visited Binh Tay Market, a huge indoor area packed full of everything you would find in a dollar store and more. It is where you go to buy “wholesale”. We were the only foreigners and after a short time it felt hot and sticky and I didn’t like being stared at. On the way in we had been accosted by children begging and on the way out it was the same.
In Bangkok the beggars are mostly adults and they sit on the streets, here they run up to you and tap you on the arm and beg openly. It is horrible, especially when you realise it is an organised affair and the kids do not get to keep what they make but must hand it over to their boss who gives out small amounts to his “workers”.
We wandered down to the riverside, La Quang Liem Wharf. It was very dirty with lots of rotting garbage strewn along the side as well as sacks of produce waiting to be transported by “Cyclo” (Japanese motor scooters) and bicycle. Also most of the buildings along the canal had been demolished, we didn’t know if this was recent or still from the war, but 30 years seems a long time even with all the difficulties Viet Nam has faced. Tied up along the canal were lots of large boats or barges they are wide in the middle with high pointed prows on either side of which is painted a wide red line with “eyes” in black on white. They are known as “Eyeing Boats”
That evening we went to a Vietnamese restaurant near our hotel. It was very full and we ended up sitting in the garden next to a family with a young child. It was a delicious meal and we exchanged many “Cheers” with the family as well as having a conversation with a man and his wife. He had lived in the US for many years but had returned to start a business and was doing well, his English was better than his Vietnamese but his wife helped him with that. It started to rain as we were enjoying dinner but this eventuality had been foreseen and tarpaulins and overhead blinds kept most of the deluge off most of the dinners and those who got a bit wet just moved and we all made room. It reminded us, of course, that it is still the rainy season here and; as Sai Gon is farther south than Bangkok; it rained quite a lot while we were there and was also very hot and humid.
More about our trip next time.