"A Trip Back to Vietnam--January 9 - 11, 1992"

Copyright 1992 Ann L. Kelsey, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 9:
Seminar ended in the morning.

Closing remarks were made by Mr. Du, a very interesting and intelligent man. He spoke several languages fluently and was head of the agency in the Ministry of Education charged with facilitating international cooperation. He had a great sense of humor and a sense of what was funny in several different languages. He indicated that he would probably be with us some of the time in HCMC.

In fact, he attended the final dinner before we left Saigon to go back to Bangkok. At that time, he said he never would have believed, 25 years ago, when he was firing an anti-aircraft battery on the roof of a hotel in Hanoi, that he would be standing on the roof of another hotel with so many American friends.

I guess most of us felt the same way. I know that 22 years ago, when I stood on the roof of the Rex hotel (then BOQ) and watched the tracers shoot across the sky, I never would have believed that I would be with this group on that very same roof in 1992.

In the afternoon, we went on a bus excursion to Haiphong. On the way, we got to see more of Do Son's beaches and the former summer house of Bao Dai. The latter was in disrepair but had a fantastic view of the beach and gulf. Wish it had been a little brighter.

In Haiphong, we visited a pagoda, not sure which one, and were immediately surrounded by curious residents.

Bus passed the harbor and stopped at the central market. Couldn't see too much of the famous harbor, but the market was fascinating. It was full of goods of all kinds--food, bed linens, car parts, clothing, military surplus from several different countries and wars; you name it and much of it foreign, probably coming over the border from Thailand. Clearly the entrepreneurial spirit had been strongly regenerated since the advent of doi moi. Saw one cyclo driver in a US Army fatigue shirt.

I was amazed at the bustling level of activity. That night there was a performance of Cai Luong, modern Vietnamese theatre--a combination of Chinese opera, Mack Sennett, and Burns and Allen. Unfortunately, there was a firecracker show immediately preceding the performance. I should have retreated to the room during the firecrackers and come down afterwards, but I thought sitting in the theatre while the firecrackers were going off outside would be sufficient.

I was wrong. Instinct took over. I was able to keep myself from climbing under the chair but not able to refrain from the under-attack, protective position.

Friday, January 10:
Got up early for the 3.5 hour ride back to Hanoi. This time we could see as we bumped along.

The area between Haiphong and Hanoi was rural. Lots and lots of rice paddies and small villages. No mountains or hills--a great view of the Red River delta. Everything and everyone was bustling. People working in the fields, produce being carried to market and sold.

The other striking thing was the houses. Most had the date that they were built clearly visible, and all were built in the eighties--a few in the early eighties but most since 1985. Clearly this area was pretty much destroyed by the bombings and had only been rebuilt very recently.

One wonders how many people working in those fields have been, and will continue to be, killed by unexploded ordnance. Still, there was no animosity.

We arrived in Hanoi just in time for lunch, stopping first at Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, which was closed. We stayed at the Energy Guest House downtown, and it had *heat*.

Walked around the downtown area with some economics teachers from the university who wanted to practice their English. They learn English from listening to tapes, and this was their first opportunity to talk to a real English-speaking person and find out if their pronunciation was correct.

Downtown Hanoi still looked very French and very colonial. There was heavy bicycle traffic but almost no motorized vehicles. Small shops and stores lined the streets. As we passed the Air France office, one of the Vietnamese teachers remarked that four years ago this street was shuttered and quiet. Doi moi, with its emphasis on a market economy, had made a definite difference.

Saturday, January 11:
Got up at literally the crack of dawn to go to the airport for flight to HCMC. It would have been nice to have been able to spend more time in Hanoi; but I have to admit that I was anxious to get to Saigon and a little nervous, too.

Plane landed at Tan Son Nhut. It looked different. It was so quiet. The hustle and bustle, the millions of C-130s, choppers, airliners, etc., etc., were gone. You could see the remains of some of the hangers, but it was a totally different place.

The arrivals area was also different. The open air quonset huts were gone, as were the warehouse like areas; and, of course, there were not whole extended families living in the aerial port like there were at TSN and Cam Ranh in 1970. Very different.

They loaded us up on buses that I'm sure were old Saigon Hq Area Command vehicles, but the wire mesh over the windows was gone.

The main road into town looked the same, except that it was not clogged with military vehicles. Many of the street names have been changed; so, it took me a couple of days to remember that this street was Cong Ly. The squatter colony along the canal that Cong Ly crosses was pretty much gone. That area was teeming before.

I recognized a lot of former BOQ's and military facilities. I thought I recognized the building that was the 3rd Field Hospital, but I wasn't absolutely sure.

As we passed the old Presidential Palace, I spotted Nguyen Du St.; name was still the same. It all looked the same, the General Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Presidential Palace... It was a strange feeling to see it all again. It felt as if I were just here yesterday.

We went down Tu Do, now called Dong Khoi, and passed the Continental Hotel and the old National Assembly building, which was a theatre before and had been returned to that function after 1975. Macbeth was playing.

The Continental terrace, where everyone, including the protagonists of Graham Greene's Quiet American, had come to drink, had been enclosed; so, it didn't look quite the same.

The theatre used to be white; now it's yellow. The statue of the ARVN soldiers, that used to be in front of the theatre, was gone; but the base was still there. The Caravelle Hotel, now called the Doc Lap, looked just the same.

We pulled up in front of the Bong Sen hotel, which was in the old Eden building, that had been JUSPAO headquarters. The lacquer and ceramic shops along Tu Do looked just the same. The only things missing were the Saigon tea establishments, and that was no loss.

Several of us went to the Continental for lunch. The Continental shelf, enclosed, was now Guido's cafe, specializing in pizza and spaghetti with fresh mushrooms served by waiters in black tie. The hotel itself had been totally redone, but the old dining room overlooking the inner courtyard where I had breakfast my first day in country looked just the same.

After lunch I went walking. I walked down Nguyen Du from the Cathedral towards the Presidential Palace. I wanted to see if the Meyerkord BOQ, where I lived in 1969, and the Hq. Area Command library, where I worked, were still there. The street looked pretty run down but not a lot worse than it did in '69. Families were living on the street but nowhere near as many as before.

I passed the old Splendid BOQ, where the officers' field ration mess was. It looked pretty bad. The building where the VC were holed up during the attack on the Presidential Palace during Tet '68--that was gutted and guarded 24 hours a day by ARVN and white mice--was torn down.

In its place was a modern computer store, with signs advertising Epson, Bernoulli, etc., etc. I noticed in Hanoi and Haiphong, and saw here now, a large number of TV's and VCR's. There were also a number of video stores. That was a real surprise. I also saw compact disc ads and stores here and there.

The building that housed the Filipino--or was it the Korean embassy, I'm not sure--was still there. Couldn't tell what it was used for now.

The Meyerkord was still there. Looked a little run-down, needed a coat of paint, but basically the same. It seemed to be an apartment, which was probably what it was before the Americans took it over and turned it into a billet. I peeked inside but didn't feel comfortable going in.

Nguyen Du, between the Meyerkord and the library, was much more run-down. I spotted the storefront, that was the beauty shop where I got my hair cut; but it was no longer there. Seemed to be auto parts now. I barely recognized the library. It seemed to be some sort of government office. There were lots of people waiting in line at both doors.

I could barely see the roofs of the sheds in back that held the areas where book shipments were received and books were cataloged before sending them out to the libraries upcountry. I remember when a rocket scored a direct hit on the technical services operation, wreaking havoc on the in country shelflist. At the time, I was just glad that it had not landed on the Meyerkord a block away.

A bunch of us went to dinner at the Rex Hotel, the old Rex BOQ, that, with its swimming pool and restaurant, was one of THE places to go in 1969 Saigon. It, too, had been completely redone.

I barely recognized the lobby, and the 5th floor dining room/bar had been completely redone. It had been all dark wood and red wallpaper. Now, it was light and airy; and the windows were covered with beaded screens, one of which was the Mona Lisa. The bar/restaurant area, that was enclosed on the roof, was now open air, with statues, topiary, and live birds in cages. The pool on the sixth floor was also open air. The souvenir stand, where I bought a watch and earrings, was still in exactly the same place behind the elevators.

After dinner, we sat on the rooftop and drank Ba Muoi Ba--now 333 instead of 33, cans instead of bottles, but the same stuff. There was a piano/violin duet playing in the dining room--a mixture of Mozart and old 50's and 60's songs, like Delilah and Love Me Tender. It felt like being in a time warp.

The intersection of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue looked just the same. The fountain was still there, and the little souvenir and flower stalls were still in the center of Nguyen Hue. There was an enormous statue of Ho Chi Minh across from the Rex in front of City Hall and lots of Japanese billboards on the Eden and other surrounding buildings, but it could just as easily have been 1970 as 1992--except for one thing--no tracer fire in the sky and no sandbags in the streets.

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