(this non-fiction piece first appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, October 1995)
If you wish to understand the Vietnamese people, there is no better way than to learn how to cross the streets of Ho Chi Minh City as a pedestrian. There are few traffic lights and the wide French colonial boulevards are filled all day long and deep into the night with a thick and seemingly impenetrable flow of motorcycles and motorbikes and bicycles and pedicabs. If you wait, as you would in most American cities, for a space to open up wide enough to make it all the way across, you will wait on the curb till the sun goes down and then you will wait some more until the Vietnamese have worn themselves out riding around for fun and have gone to bed. If you wait, as you would in, say, New York City, for an open space part way across and then dash there and stop and wait for the next partial opening and so forth, you will be run over in seconds.
To cross the streets of Ho Chi Minh City you look to the far side of the street and set your goal. Then you look to your left, and at the slightest opening you step into the flow of traffic. You must now trust the process. You walk at a very moderate pace and you never stop, never slow down. The traffic rushing at you will never stop, will never slow down. But the vehicle that is about to strike you at any given moment will, at the last second, veer to the right or left, without looking. This, of course, means another impending collision, but the newly involved vehicle, suddenly confronted, will, in turn, veer without looking, and so on, the traffic rippling over to the curbs. And so you move slowly to your goal and the traffic will endlessly rush and veer and ripple and rejoin.
The flexibility, the patience, the pragmatism of the Vietnamese people are entirely manifest in this process. If in 1962 John F. Kennedy had sent the chairman of his joint chiefs of staff to Saigon and asked him to learn to cross the streets and make a recommendation, the general would have reported two inescapable conclusions. First, we could never win that war. Second, we did not need to win that war, for when the failures of the communist system were clear to the Vietnamese, they would simply veer around them and rejoin on the other side.
That is exactly what is happening these days in Vietnam. The last reeducation camp has closed, the market economy has won official government sanction, and there is even private talk among the young Turks of the communist party that political liberalization is “inevitable.” And with the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo and the subsequent opening of an American consular office in Hanoi, the remarkable pleasures of Vietnam are now readily available to American travelers.
This is still an odd notion to many Americans, I think, that Vietnam should offer pleasures to a traveler, for we continue to view the country through the media-goggled eyes of the millions of enforced travelers of the war. But even during the war the country had a beauty and enchantment that a surprising number of Americans could see. I saw this myself in the steamy back alleys of Saigon where, as an Army man in 1971, I spent most of my nights for months wandering well past midnight in a steamy dark place redolent with fish sauce and incense and flowers and motorbike exhaust, and I crouched in the doorways with these flexible, patient, pragmatic people who were also warm and generous spirited and whose traditions of storytelling and reverence for learning were gathered up in an eclectic vision of the spirit. Indeed, part of what I saw was that these Vietnamese had the very qualities we Americans have long revered in the history and ambitions of our own country. Of all the Asians, the Vietnamese are clearly the closest to us in their personality. And they wait now for the Americans they wish to befriend.
The old Saigon has returned to life. The name is even widely used again as a casual synonym for “Ho Chi Minh City.” All those vehicles race through the streets of a city profuse with trees--tamarind and almond and banana and banyan and plumeria--and reminiscent of Paris in an alleyway, in a tight row of balconied houses, in a stuccoed wall and a gingerbread administrative building. And everywhere there are images of the people living their lives openly in the parks and the alley mouths and before the gaping fronts of the row shops: an old woman in a conical straw hat with her teeth red from betel nuts ladeling soup for a smart young woman, her hair bobbed and dressed in the traditional ao dai for her job at one of the new hotels; a row of pedicab drivers reading the newspapers in their passenger seats and openly talking politics once more; a tight circle of old men on tiny plastic chairs drinking coffee with ice and playing cards; women in black pantaloons sweeping the sidewalk; a one-armed man selling lapel pins on a pallet; a Buddhist monk in a saffron robe never making eye contact with anyone and bearing his alms cup in one upturned palm; a mother nursing her child. This city teems with life; everywhere you look there are personal stories in visible process. Saigon is an Oriental rug of a city with filigree and elaboration and intricacy in every space. There are no blank spots in this city.
There is a noodle shop at number nine Ly Chinh Thang that was for many years during the war the covert headquarters for the Viet Cong in Saigon. It is still selling large bowls of the traditional noodle soup called pho (a wonderful meal, by the way, for less than a dollar) and it is still run by Mr. Ngo Toai, now 81 years old and commemorated in the plaque over his door identifying the shop as a historic landmark of the revolution. When I arrived with my wife, the novelist Elizabeth Dewberry, Ngo was identified to me by our Saigontourist guide as he sat at a little table at the mouth of his open-front shop. He was speaking with friends and did not notice the Americans.
We went to an inside table and at the back of the shop was a setting of lacquer furniture before a TV and VCR playing rock videos. We sat down in this former VC haunt to the strains of Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run.” Soon Ngo rose and moved past our table. I spoke a greeting in Vietnamese, which startled him and which he returned warmly. But he did not stop. He continued on to his lacquer settee and sat and watched the end of the “Band on the Run” video and the next one as well, a Vietnamese torch song filmed in Orange County.
After lunch, Ngo appeared at our table and invited us to his back room. There he expressed his pleasure at seeing Americans in his shop, and he talked about his revolutionary past. From his teens Ngo worked against the Chinese, the Japanese, the French, and eventually we Americans, first in the North and then, after the 1954 Geneva Accord, in the South. After going south, his contribution was primarily to sell a splendid noodle soup and provide safe haven for the revolutionaries. But he has always been a nationalist more than anything else, never actually joining the communist party.
He spoke warmly of Americans as the new friends of his country. “We never think of what is in the past,” he said, and he arranged for Betsy and me to pose with him for a series of pictures, often clutching my hand in them. Then he took us up his back staircase and into his ten room mini hotel next door. American tourists can sleep now in the care of this hero of the revolution, and, to sweeten that little irony, for low budget travelers who want to place themselves in the midst of the daily life in the places they visit, they can do so at the Pho Binh Hotel quite comfortably, with air conditioning and a private shower and a clean room for $20 a night.
And what of the next generations of Vietnamese? Of Mr. Ngo’s several sons, though they were jailed along with their mother for a time in the sixties, none are communist party members, none are involved with the government. They are private businessmen, running three more noodle shops.
Ngo’s attitude toward Americans is typical of the Vietnamese today in spite of his also being a clear representative of the other side in the war. And Mr. Ngo’s sons are typical, too. The Generation X of Vietnam is very large indeed and seems to have few particularly vivid direct memories of the war to forget.
We met a remarkable young painter, born in 1968 and seven years old when the war ended. He was struggling with his wife of only a few months to make ends meet in his own gallery in downtown Saigon. His work is a ravishing mixture of folk art and expressionism and often deals with death and grief and torment: a naked man is bent double and bleeding, the outer edges of the painting itself a kind of crown of thorns; an old couple sits on the floor of a peasant hut grieving the death of a child, represented by a spilled cup; in another death scene four wives weep over their husband’s corpse, which is wrapped in a tattered and patched shroud.
Betsy and I carefully and minutely articulated our regard for these images and our young painter was clearly moved by our praise. Then I asked him how he came to these dark themes, expecting the question to elicit tales of the years when his child’s soul witnessed the war and the immediate aftermath. He said in English, “All my paintings have strong feeling. I like to tell so much by just the images. Four months ago I open my gallery and it was a fight to do that, to pay tax, pay workers. My family makes me pressure about my painting all the time. They are afraid I am a Romantic. Now I have my gallery and they are afraid for me.”
I said I understood. But I searched on for confirmation of my preconceptions. Weren’t there other things that would make for these intense images? He nodded and cast his eyes down and he said, “I am married seven months to my wife. My wife does not understand about artists. When you finish, you need someone to share. You can’t have no one. My wife and her mother don’t understand.”
The wife was nearby through all of this, and she did indeed seem anxious for our young painter to close the sale with us. I told him that we wanted to buy several of these paintings and he said, “I am happy you both understand. The feeling of the person is important. More important than money. Rarely I meet someone who shares the feelings. When you share the feelings of the images, you feel like to give your paintings away.”
Then he and I began an odd bargaining for the half dozen paintings we bought, he offering them for bizarrely low prices and I trying to persuade him to take more. And the present-day anguish of this wonderfully talented Vietnamese painter was not a memory of the war, was not even governmental persecution of a reactionary artist who clearly was not promoting ideas of the State. It was in the stern look of his wife and the image he bore of the Romantic in his family.
But the Romantic trembles in some form or other in the breast of most Vietnamese. Witness, for instance, the Vietnamese passion for karaoke. That very night even our artist’s sternly commercial wife could well have taken him to any of the hundreds of little karaoke parlors around the city to sing love duets with him. There are big karaokes, too, even a prominent floating one on the Saigon River near the famed Floating Hotel. But when I asked our Saigontourist guide-- a keenly intelligent, creatively accommodating young woman named Vu thi Thao--to take us to a karaoke, she showed up past dark with several of her friends and they put Betsy and me on the backs of their motorcycles and we took off into the night to find a neighborhood singing parlor.
In a back alley we went through a tiny foyer with three lounging boys who were passing an eminently pettable puppy back and forth and into the tiny living room of a man in shorts and rubber sandals. He put out pretzels and chocolate cookies and for a dollar and a half an hour we sang along with Vietnamese videos produced in Hong Kong and France and Southern California.
I rode with a young man named Chau and on the way we crossed the bridge named after an engineer who tried unsuccessfully to bomb Robert McNamara’s limousine in 1962 and Chau sang the male Vietnamese love songs in a tremulous baritone and made the Vietnamese women in our tiny room sigh and he profusely praised Betsy and me for our rendering of “A Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and he planned to become a Roman Catholic priest.
On a Sunday we went to the South China Sea at Vung Tau. It is an easy day trip, though we planned to stay over. And on the way Betsy and I sat beneath a pavilion with the owner of an orchid farm in the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City and we drank tea and ate dried tamarind fruit and there was the smell of his flowers and of the incense from his shrine to the earth god and he said, with his eyes closing and his face lifting in pleasure, “I oh so much enjoy American visitors. They are more nice than other nations. They are very natural with the Vietnamese. We are the same.”
And he spoke of the necessity for the gradualism of change in his country. “It is better to change slowly. Not so fast like Russia. I realize socialists have no good judgment to make changes promptly. Only slow.”
And he spoke, most warmly, about American movies. “I love the American movies. Sharon Stone is my favorite.” And his favorite film? “JFK,” he said. “I don’t like Oliver Stone’s anti-war movies. They are not true. But his JFK is my favorite movie.”
We bid him goodbye and he shook my hand with both of his and then we were out in our Saigontourist Renault in the flow of motorcycles to the sea on this Sunday morning and we were with the ox carts too and the ancient DeSoto and White and GMC trucks that the Vietnamese have long since given up hope of parts for, each with a jerrybuilt water tank on top of the cab and a pipe system running into the engine to bypass the dead and irreplaceable radiators.
We moved past a rubber plantation where an old woman was picking excess latex off the trees to sell as fire starter and past a rice paddy and another, scattered women out knee-deep in the water, their faces invisible beneath their conical straw hats. And among the trees in the plantations and in the midst of the young plants in the rice fields were tiny, towered tombs, the graves of plantation workers and rice farmers buried where they had toiled all their lives, and there was a smell of smoke from wood fires from the villages, and anyone who noticed us as we slowed in the little clusters of shops along the way smiled at us and waved.
And at last we were at the South China Sea. More than any other part of the landscape of Vietnam it is the South China Sea that has haunted me, Romantic though that may be. There was a moment in 1971 when I stopped in a jeep coming down a hillside near Vung Tau and the South China Sea lay before me with this same pale jade stretch to the horizon and I was keenly aware in some wonderful new way that I was a traveler, a distant traveler, and I felt the deep pleasure of the traveler, a sense that you are part of an otherness, of a landscape, a people, so different from all that you know that you suddenly know yourself. And the sea lay now before Betsy and me and we walked away from the quiet Vietnamese crowds at the Vung Tau Marina Paradise Club and far along the sand until there was no one visible in either direction and we watched the roll of the waves on this alien shore and we were travelers together.
On the walk back we shared a few minutes with a Vietnamese couple on the beach. They were in their early twenties and the young man stopped me to ask if I was an Astros fan, noting the baseball cap that I wore. This young Vietnamese couple spoke not a word of Vietnamese. They were from Fresno. They were delighted at the roll of the waves on this exotic shore and Betsy and I left them and they put their arms around each other and their traveler’s sense of the other and the self was surely even more complex than ours.
To travel to Vietnam requires a certain coming to terms with why you travel. The pleasures of food and shopping and landscape and art are certainly present there, though some of them in more limited forms than one might be used to in other parts of the travel-oriented world. But the people of Vietnam are the great cathedrals and frescoes and mountain forests of the place. And the people are in fact accessible to American travelers in a very real way, even beyond the obvious contexts of hotel and shop and city street.
We had dinner with the officials of Saigontourist near the end of our stay and spoke to them of this matter. Do Trung Chan, the public relations officer, is of an older generation, 51 now. An only son in his family, he taught English during the war and joined the movements for peace and prison reform in 1970. He also became an avid fan of American music of the forties and fifties. We spoke of Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra and even Patti Paige and Frankie Laine, and Chan sighed in dismay at the trends in modern popular music. His colleague of a younger generation, Dang Quoc Hoa, the thirty nine year old manager of the marketing division, was still in high school when the war ended and had a quick and easy laugh, teasing Chan about his passion for the record shops in a recent trip they took to the United States.
They both spoke warmly of the prospect of Americans returning to their country as tourists and emphasized that though they had a number of package tours to offer, they were willing to provide their English-speaking guides to take the travelers wherever they wished. This included arranging meals in the homes of Vietnamese families, meetings with Vietnamese working in similar professions to the foreign visitors, forays into local markets and back streets, visits to any of the more than a hundred foreign language schools in the city where the students hunger for conversation in English. With some advance notice these and other contacts with the people could readily be arranged, Chan and Hoa said.
There are not many places in the world where such contacts would be enjoyed and even treasured by the locals as much as the travelers. But that is true of Vietnam. The Vietnamese, given the smallest sign of respect, will return the gesture with great generosity of spirit. Perhaps this most central quality of the Vietnamese isn’t clear in the lesson of the Saigon pedestrian. But it is everywhere else.
Betsy and I took a day trip to the Mekong Delta where we sat in the bow of a tiny motorized boat and moved on the great, soil-laden back of this river that once carried the fierce transactions of war, and we poked along its feeder streams between narrow banks crowded with mangrove trees and hyssop and we stopped in one riverside village full of small houses with palm leaf roofs and TV antennas raised high on bamboo poles. In one of its dirt streets was a circle of men playing cards. Their faces turned to us, and for a moment they were blank.
Our guide was about to speak, but I spoke first, a simple hello in Vietnamese. Everyone’s eyes widened at this, but still there was an odd suspension. Then a man rose from the circle, a faintly corpulent, round-faced, middle-aged man with a fist full of cards. “American?” he said. “Yes,” I said. And at this all the faces cracked open wide in smiles and he said, “How good. After twenty years, you have come back.” Then they made a place for us in their circle.