"A Trip Back to Vietnam--January 12 - 14, 1992"

Copyright 1992 Ann L. Kelsey, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 12:
Got up early and headed for Cu Chi to see the famous tunnels.

The vet in our group, who spent his tour here before he was hit, knew the area like the back of his hand--maybe because it was the last thing that he saw. He told his wife to look for certain landmarks and then described exactly what was there and what was going on there twenty some years ago.

Again, the growth and the houses were new here. There was very little sign of the triple canopy jungle that had been there before the Agent Orange spraying missions. It hasn't had time to grow back.

The Cu Chi tunnels have turned into a tourist attraction, complete with T-shirts, beer and soda, and video presentations. A Vietnamese vet, with an amputated arm, did the presentation.

Afterwards, he and the American vet talked, with one of the Vietnamese-Americans in our group serving as interpretor. It doesn't seem right somehow, that this place where so many people died, on both sides, from defoliant, carpet bombing, punji sticks, rockets, etc., should be a mini-Disneyland with carefully crafted tunnels for the tourists to go into.

I couldn't bring myself to go into the tunnels. Turning this battlefield into a semi-amusement park really bothered me. Somebody asked me if I felt that way about Gettysburg, and I guess I don't; but Gettysburg doesn't have the immediacy of Cu Chi.

In the evening, there was dinner and a reception with our Vietnamese counterparts. In strong contrast to the north, these people did not want to mingle. They clustered to themselves. This was true throughout the week.

After dinner everyone went to the Bamboo Bar at the Continental. Here, there was a trio playing Mozart, tangos, and sixties tunes. ...Time warp again.

Monday, January 13:
At 8 AM the papers started again. The first was given by a real old timer--very dogmatic and full of party doctrine.

We were free in the afternoon, so we went on cyclos to the local black market where they sold military goods. Truly an unending supply of pretty much new boonie caps and other assorted memorabilia from not only the American war, but also the incursion into Cambodia. I was amazed at the amount and variety of stuff that was for sale. This place would have made a lot of Army/Navy store owners in the States jealous.

The cyclo drivers, all of them former ARVN, escorted us around the market. We were something of an oddity, but everyone was more than happy to see us. The entrepreneurial spirit, for which Saigon was so well known, has obviously been rekindled.

On the way back the cyclo drivers asked if we wanted to go via the riverfront. They took us to the Ho Chi Minh Museum on the waterfront. We looked around and watched a puppet show that was going on outside, not to mention all of the wedding pictures being taken. The brides all wore western gowns, very satiny and frilly, instead of ao dais. The guests were all in frilly western clothes too. Only the elderly wore ao dais in these groups.

Lots more kids wanted their pictures taken. Again they didn't really care about the pictures themselves. The attraction was the idea of posing.

This was my first view of the waterfront. I never came down here in 1969--too many brothels, not the area of choice for a female round eye. The statue of Tran Hung Dao at the base of the waterfront, where the floating hotel is, was really impressive. The cyclos rode us up Hai Ba Trung, where, as they pointed out, all the bars used to be. They're all gone now.

Went to dinner at the Caravelle. It hadn't changed at all. After dinner, I went out on the terrace and looked at the sky across the river. It was quiet and black instead of being lit up with streaks of orange and white, accompanied by the thud and whistling of incoming and outgoing. I hope that now, when I think of Vietnam, I can think of it at peace rather than at war.

Tuesday, January 14:
More papers in the morning. One had to do with the linguistic and ethnologic history of Vietnam.

During the lunch break, we went to Cafe Givral. It's across from the Continental and used to be a hangout for the press corps. Now it's owned by the state and is one of the few places that you have to pay in dong. Otherwise everybody happily takes dollars.

This afternoon, after lunch, we went on a tour of Reunification Hall, formerly the Presidential Palace. It was the first time I had been inside. It's somewhat the worse for wear, although they have maintained Thieu and Ky's meeting rooms and personal quarters, as well as the underground communications bunker. Kind of weird that this would be a tourist site. You would have thought they would have razed it.

Most of the group wanted to go to the war crimes museum, but it was closed today. We were promised, however, that we would be able to see all the museums that we wanted to see.

After we were dropped off at the hotel, we walked over to the floating hotel. Can you imagine? A bankrupt luxury hotel towed from Australia and sitting on the Saigon waterfront, complete with swimming pool and tennis courts and bellboys in little sailor suits.

Had dinner at Maxim's. Although I was never there in '69, it apparently was one of the better places to eat. It closed in '75, but the advent of doi moi seems to have resurrected it.

The floor show was fascinating. It started out with Vietnamese music, then went into more 60's pop (Bamboo Bar, Hello Dolly), and finished off with Japanese pop. There was a large group from Seiko in town, and they were there in force. They really got into it, giving the singers drinks and flowers and getting up on stage for a little karaoke. People who had been there a few days earlier said there was a singer in blue sequins singing "Your Cheating Heart."

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