"A Trip Back to Vietnam--January 15 - 18, 1992"

Copyright 1992 Ann L. Kelsey, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, January 15:
We were supposed to have papers morning and afternoon today, but they compressed both into the morning so that we could have the afternoon free after the tour of the history museum and the university. Trips were being arranged to Vung Tau and Tay Ninh for Thursday and Friday.

The size of the group was a real strain on the Vietnamese and on the CIEE people trying to deal with all of the bureaucratic details for which Vietnam is so well known, which haven't changed a bit regardless of who is in charge.

Had lunch at Givral and then boarded the buses for the history museum, which was moderately interesting. It was located next to the zoo, that I remembered visiting in '69; so, a few of us ducked out to check out the zoo. It looked as rundown as it did in '69, both the surroundings and the animals. One interesting sidelight was a Vietnamese teenager wearing a Desert Storm T-shirt.

This was the only place other than Tu Do where there was a horde of beggars. The beggars were upsetting to everybody. Lots of maimed, blind people being led around as well as groups of kids, mothers with babies, etc.; but, even so, there didn't seem to be as many as there were in '69, nor did they seem as widespread. Unfortunately, I see just as many or more in New York and San Francisco.

After the history museum, we went to the university. Most of the people visited English classes, but I went to the library. It was really awful.

Moldy wood shelves packed with moldy disintegrating books. Many books were tied with baling wire and thrown in heaps. It was dark and dank. The reference shelf had a moldy Grolier encyclopedia from the mid 60's, an '85 Britannica they said was a gift (parenthetically, I met the person who had distributed those encyclopedias at an NGO conference at SUNY Stony Brook in June), and a few other items--maybe 100 total, including the multivolume encyclopedias. Pretty depressing.

I wonder if the library at Hanoi University looked like this. They use the Russian classification system, and there is no real subject access to individual items. It's more like the LC subject headings book, where a subject heading is associated with a class number, but individual titles are not analyzed for subject content. Of course, everything is closed stacks. It would be impossible to browse, anyway.

After leaving the university and being deposited at the hotel, we hired cyclos to go to Cholon. All of the drivers were former ARVN. One was at the ARVN officer's school at Ft. Benning, and all of them would like to get to the States. Of course, as re-eds, they are one of the few groups that the U.S. will class as refugees and let in. Of course, as re-eds, they are the group that the Vietnamese government has no intention of giving exit papers to--a real catch 22.

It was quite a distance to Cholon, about half an hour. Passed the central market at the circle at the foot of Le Loi. One of the drivers knew where the old Cholon PX was. It's a school now. Cholon was pretty much cleared out when China and Vietnam went to war in the late seventies, but many seem to have returned.

We walked around the food and pharmaceuticals market. There was a body in the street that wasn't moving. Everybody, including us, just went around it. Maybe dead, maybe sleeping, who knows?

The cyclo drivers took us back down Tran Hung Dao to Le Van Duyet and onto Nguyen Du, so I had the opportunity to shoot more pictures of the old HAC library. They let us off at the Presidential Palace, and we walked over to the war crimes museum.

I wasn't thrilled about seeing it but went along figuring I could just walk out. Actually, most of the exhibits were weaponry: guillotines (French), Huey's, M16's, BAR's, etc., as well as the infamous tiger cages. I skipped the room with the napalm pictures and deformed fetuses.

After the war crimes museum, we walked over to Gia Long Palace where Diem lived. Some of the kids on the street were trying to get one of the people in the group to give them a flute he had bought. When he wouldn't, they called him "Cheap Charlie." These kids weren't more than twelve or thirteen. Where did they pick up that GI slang?

Many of the kids on the street say hello with the accent on the first syllable, just like the kids did in the sixties. Have those kids grown up and taught their kids the slang they learned from the GIs? Why would they do that? For whatever reason, it seems they have. You don't hear number one or number ten much except from the cyclo drivers, all of whom, I suspect, are former ARVN.

Directly behind Gia Long palace was the Rex tennis club. Here were people in whites playing tennis with ball boys fetching the balls. Easy listening music was blaring from speakers located next to helicopters and anti-aircraft batteries on display on the Gia Long Palace lawn. What a tableau!

Had dinner at the Palace Hotel. On the 15th floor, where the restaurant was, the view was quite spectacular. Saigon is as entreprenieurial and bustling as ever but without the craziness of thousands of military and their assorted vehicles. Mostly there were bicycles and motor scooters on the streets with only an occasional car or truck. The little blue and white Renault cabs that we all rode around in are gone completely. Otherwise, things seemed much the same.

It's strange that you don't have to be looking over your shoulder wondering if someone is going to let go with a rifle shot or a car bomb or if some of those rocket tracers across the river are heading in your general direction.

Everything is much the same, except that there is no war. The other side of the coin, however, is that no progress has been made in twenty years. The infrastructure is shot. Material left by the U.S. is being reused, revamped, and repaired over and over again. It's just the same because there has been no opportunity to move forward.

Thursday, January 16:
Listened to papers AM and PM. The morning presentor was a real old timer. Had been either first or second in command of NLF forces in the South. Had been a Viet Minh left behind as a sleeper in '54. He was also one of the architects of doi moi, but apparently his views were too liberal, so he was exiled to the South.

After lunch at Givral, where they moved people around to seat us because we'd become regulars, we went on a tour of the city library, which was really a science and technical library, not a public library as we know it.

Parenthetically, I think the French are also returning, if, in fact, they ever left. They are in the restaurants and on the streets; and since they drink the water and eat raw veggies, they must have immunity. So, they've been here for awhile.

Getting back to the city library. It was in much better shape than the university. There was a reference room with metal shelving, and the books were in better condition and much more up to date. They had a lot of computer materials and apparently are starting to use a computer to generate their catalog cards.

They had 15 floors of closed stacks with a runner assigned to every three floors. It takes between five minutes and one-half hour to get a book once it has been requested. The periodicals room was twice the size of the university's. We did not get to see the stack area or the processing area; so, for all I know, they may have looked as bad as the university's. But, in general, things seemed better. It was clear that the heaviest users of this facility were university students.

Afterwards, we went to find the intersection where the Buddhist monk immolated himself in the early 60's. All the street names had changed, but one of the Vietnamese-Americans on the trip knew where it was and pointed it out on one of the maps we were carrying around. Sure enough, there it was, with a nice little memorial and plaque on one corner and on the other corner...a huge gas station. What irony.

Friday, January 17:
Left early for our day trip to Tay Ninh. The vet who had been blinded outside Cu Chi knew every inch of the road. We passed the rubber plantation where he was hit. All along the road, in rice paddies and villages, there is cemetery after cemetery. Some large, and some with only one grave marker, but unending; and these were just the ones that we could see from the road. It's really hard to believe that we were riding along on a field trip in an air-conditioned Toyota tourist van on a road where so many people, on both sides, were maimed and killed such a relatively short time ago.

There was hardly any evidence of jungle left--a few stands of trees around the villages, some new growth. The land had been pretty much cut and cleared for farming. One wonders how much unexploded ordnance is still lurking out there and where the dioxin is in the food chain now.

The highlight of the trip was the visit to the Cao Dai temple. There was a funeral procession going on, and we were able to see part of a Cao Dai religious service.

We also walked around Tay Ninh. We passed a sidewalk video rental operation as well as a stall selling audio-cassettes. The owner had a sophisticated dubbing operation going right on the street. Although the power supply is erratic, when it's on, plenty seems to be plugged in.

The hotels had their own generators, but a good portion of Saigon was black most nights because of lack of power. This problem seemed greater in the South than in the North; due, I think, to water shortages in the South, which keep the hydroelectric plants from functioning at the level they need to.

When we got back to the hotel, we ran around taking pictures of the old Brink BOQ and of the infamous new bar, Apocalypse Now--a real dive. Went to dinner at Maxim's and took pictures of the floor show, then went to the Rex for a last drink on the roof. When we came down around midnight, the latest we'd been out, the streets were deserted. No bikes, no scooters, no vehicles, no people. I don't ever remember Saigon being that quiet.

Saturday, January 18:
At 8:30 we left for Tan Son Nhut. Getting through Vietnamese customs and security was a real scene. Total chaos, just like I remembered it.

People who had bought books of coin on the street had them confiscated as old money. The customs inspector wanted, initially, to look at everything I bought but lost interest when I indicated that the tables would have to be cleared so that I could lay all my stuff out. Several inspectors wanted a last look at my video camera.

When we exited at immigration, we each had to walk through in alphabetical order while our name was checked off on the group visa. The immigration officer thought this was terribly amusing. Actually, it was kind of funny.

The airplane was a big Airbus, operated by a Bulgarian company under contract to Air Vietnam. The pilot was Bulgarian, the flight attendants were Bulgarian, and the beef stew served for lunch was definitely Bulgarian.

I really want to go back. I want to see Cam Ranh when it's finally declassified, and I'd like to go back to Nha Trang. I'd also like to see Dalat, Da Nang, Hue, and more of Hanoi. Weird as it sounds, I missed Vietnam. It meant a lot seeing it again and seeing it at peace rather than as a battleground.

I wonder what the next ten years will bring. Will it turn into a Singapore or Thailand? Will the Marxists be able to retain their hold on the government? If not, what will emerge? What will normalization bring?

I'm glad I had this opportunity, not only to be able to go back myself, but to be there with people who have had much the same ambivalent feelings as I have toward the country and the war for so many years. I think we all gained a lot from the experience.

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