Copyright © 1995 By Ann L. Kelsey, All Rights Reserved

Driving through the countryside, I compared what I saw with what I had seen driving through the villages and rural areas in Cuba.

Cuba has a viable infrastructure: roads, and electrical and telephone lines crisscross the island. Viet Nam's infrastructure has not even remotely recovered from the destruction caused by years of warfare. Yet Viet Nam's substandard roads are filled with traffic. Carts, bicycles, cyclos, motorscooters, trucks, and cars clog one and two lane roads and highways. Cuba's two and four lane highways are virtually empty due to fuel shortages.

These same shortages prevent the Cubans from getting their crops of sugar cane and tobacco from the fields to the ports for export. In 1992, when the embargo was still in effect, Viet Nam had far fewer cars and trucks; but crops and people still moved, albeit more slowly, on carts, scooters, and bicycles. The Cubans have still not adjusted to and maximized their use of non-motorized forms of transport as the Chinese and Vietnamese have.

Electrical power is erratic in both countries. Lack of fuel seems to be the main problem in Cuba, while the lack of infrastructure remains the problem in Viet Nam. Most of the farm land in Viet Nam is used to grow rice and vegetables. In Cuba, almost all of the farm land that I saw was growing sugar cane and tobacco or being used as grazing land. Only occasionally did I see a rice paddy. Rural families in both countries keep pigs and chickens and tend vegetable gardens. Both harvest fish from the sea.

The difference between the two countries seems to be in their levels of self-sufficiency. Viet Nam is more self-sufficient than Cuba, particularly in its ability not only to produce food, but also to transport it from rural areas to the cities. There is a difference in personality, too. Viet Nam seems lively and optimistic. Cuba appears forlorn.

As we got closer to Hue, we passed through Phu Bai, a thriving suburb and the site of a large American base during the war. As in Chu Lai, there was little left to identify it, other than a vast open space. Only the airfield remained, now the airport for the city of Hue.

In Hue, we visited a Buddhist orphanage filled mostly with children whose mothers were unmarried and could not keep them. Children arrived as infants and stayed until they were grown. The older children learned trades that made them self-supporting. The Buddhist nuns operated a school, licensed by the government, for the younger children. At least one child seemed to have had polio. Cassava, a starchy root grown on site and cheaper than rice, seemed to be the dietary staple. The children, like all the children we met, were a delight. They swarmed around us, an enthusiastic curious mob of miniature humanity.


I had been looking forward to seeing Hue, the Perfume River, the Forbidden City, and perhaps a visit to the University and its library. Unfortunately, I contracted dysentery and spent the entire free day in bed; so, I still look forward to seeing Hue.

On our way back to Da Nang, we paid a brief visit to a clinic just outside Hue near the hamlet of Tan My. The Phu Tan clinic was the busiest one we had seen. It was vaccination day--the day each month when babies are given their shots. The clinic's director gave us a tour of his facility and information regarding the kinds of equipment and supplies he needed.

One of his requests was for a _Physician's Desk Reference_ (_PDR_). Whenever he prescribed any of the medications provided by UNICEF or other humanitarian organizations, he had to travel into Hue to the hospital there to consult their _PDR_ for dosage and other pertinent information. A _PDR_ will soon be on its way to Dr. Pham, and the Phu Tan clinic will be the recipient of boxes of supplies and equipment when PHAM members return to Viet Nam in the summer of 1995.

For Westerners, the state of medicine in Viet Nam is a reality check. There are shortages of everything, and tools used in the States may not be the most appropriate choice for the Vietnamese. For example, disposable syringes are never disposed of, but instead reused again and again. For this reason, older glass syringes are preferred, since they can be more effectively sterilized than the plastic ones designed to be thrown away after one use.

Vietnamese have not developed the immunity to antibiotics that is beginning to be a problem in the West, resulting in the development of ever more powerful antibiotic drugs. These new super-antibiotics are overkill for the Vietnamese and may, in fact, do them more harm than good.

Although almost impossible to carry, there is a great need for large pieces of equipment such as beds, ambulances, operating tables, and wheelchairs. Because of the damage caused by exploding ordnance, there is a constant need for prosthetics. Medicines and medical equipment are also in short supply in Cuba. Medical services, while not yet as deficient as those in Viet Nam, are on the decline.

Both countries have placed high priorities on education, and have a history of high levels of literacy. Information services are far better developed in Cuba, although the beginnings of decline are evident. Viet Nam is only beginning to strengthen its information services. One positive sign was the increase in the numbers of books, for both children and adults, for sale in the book stores compared to 1992. On the other hand, paper shortages in Cuba have cut substantially the number of books being published.


Our flight from Da Nang to Saigon was slightly delayed giving us the opportunity to watch Janet Jackson and Elton John videos on the television at the Da Nang International Airport. The airport T-shirt concession also did a lively business, as the flight was composed mostly of international visitors.

Two free days in Saigon gave me the opportunity to meet with the director of the Ho Chi Minh City University library school and with the president of SIDLA, the Scientific Information, Documentation, and Library Association of Ho Chi Minh City. I also met with the editor-in-chief of _Phu Nu_, the women's newspaper of Ho Chi Minh City and was interviewed by one of the paper's reporters. Meeting with these women was a privilege, adding a special dimension to my visit.

The embargo's end had marked the end of Saigon's time warp. I no longer felt that I had just left a few weeks ago, as I had in 1992. Whole blocks of old buildings on Nguyen Hue, Tu Do, and Nguyen Du had been demolished to make way for shiny new high rise office buildings and hotels. The South Koreans had razed what had been their embassy and built a new consulate building on the site.

Signs for CityNet, the cellular phone network, were everywhere. Advertising looked like Times Square: M&M candies, Kodak Express, Shell Oil, Coca-Cola. Dozens of brand new public phone booths accepted brightly colored telephone debit cards. The electricity, while still erratic, had stabilized significantly. At the same time, the number of neon signs had increased exponentially. The old Montana BOQ (Bachelors Officers Quarters), now the Montana Hotel, sported a huge neon sign on its roof. Shops were overflowing with consumer goods, toys, clothing, and appliances. I visited a small trade fair where merchandise ranged from artificial flowers to cosmetics, much American made. Shiny new metered tourist taxis sat in front of the Continental Palace Hotel waiting for fares.

Perhaps the most striking and ironic change was in the international departure lounge at Tan Son Nhut Airport. There the new post-embargo economy was in full flower. What had been a rather austere waiting area had been transformed into a shopper's paradise. Duty free shops overflowed with merchandise from ceramic elephants to Chivas Regal. It reminded me, somewhat perversely, of the Cholon PX.

The latest rock music videos blared from a television in the seating area. Out a window, located next to an enormous liquor display, I could see the remnants of some revetments on the edge of the runway. They were the only visible reminders of the airport I had landed at twenty- five years ago.

But some things never change. The cyclo drivers still peddle their way through traffic, although their bikes now often have gears. My most exciting moment was the head-on crash of my cyclo into an inattentive motorscooter rider. Riders and passenger emerged more or less unscathed. The motorscooter suffered the most damage as its handlebar became attached to the cyclo and had to be ripped loose.

I *still* haven't seen all of Viet Nam. I haven't been back to Nha Trang or gotten even as close to Cam Ranh as the mainland side of the My Ca Bridge (which may be as close as I will ever get). I still haven't really seen Hanoi or Hue or Dalat or the Delta. I haven't traveled down Route 9 from Dong Ha to Khe Sanh. But I will. Somehow. Someday.