Make your own free website on


Home Away from Home - Saigon, Vietnam

Coming to Vietnam has become a pilgrimage of sorts, at  least for me. The political events that have shaped this tiny nation and everyone involved, for good or bad, is directly responsible for my being here. Half Vietnamese, but all American. You come with luggage, all your expectations, not only from what we've learned in the classroom about a conflict that no one really understands, but for me, everything I knew from my parents. An American soldier and a young Vietnamese girl. The swirl of events that brought them together and made something good in a bad time. To try to piece things together and come home with a better sense of my heritage and fate.  

Love Story...

The draft notice came in the mail. "You are to report to ..." Hurrying down to the Air Force Enlistment office, my father, enlisted immediately and the officer back dated it one day. Once in the air force, he was given his choice of duty. Piloting was out of the question, as was his second hobby after flying, photography after he tested positive for a small amount of color blindness. Instead, he signed up for a special program being run in Vietnam, where he would be teaching young Vietnamese pilots English so they could then come to America for fighter pilot training and then return to wage the war. When I queried about why he actively chose to go to Vietnam when other were running to Canada, he said he wanted to do his duty and also, as a young kid growing up in a small town, Vietnam was exciting, and a world away. He was stationed in Saigon, near Cholon, the Chinese quarter. Each day he taught English to young, eager South Vietnamese boys. He told me about one close call. The bus that picked up the instructors and deposited them at the school had just dropped them all off outside the building. As it pulled away, it hit a bumped and exploded, killing the innocent Vietnamese driver instantly, but no one else, as everyone had just exited. My father was slightly burned but nothing serious. Such was his existence. 

Kim came from a wealthy, rural, South Vietnamese family that had been decimated by the philandering ways of the patriarch. Her father left the family at the first sign of trouble and with twelve brothers and sisters to take care of, my mother went to work to help out. She did laundry for GI's on the base and a very slim and pretty teenager, she caught the eye of all the guys. Flirting with them in a friendly way to get more tips, she would often say to them as they picked up their freshly laundered and pressed clothes, "pay what you like." Shrew and wise, she got far more than she ever would have asked. Well, Rob wanders in, and upon receiving the same reply, he left her with some small pocket change, and succeeded in both infuriating and intriguing her. Who was this cheap ass???

The relationship became very friendly and my father did many small favors for my mother's family. Buying them things from the Base Shop, things in very short supply in Saigon, helping in the many small ways that are little miracles in war time. Eventually, his tour ended and he was shipped out. But he couldn't stop thinking of her...and after some time back in the States, he signed up for a second tour and return to make her his wife...if, he could survive the two years. They were married in April of 1972, and I was born in January of 73, shortly after my mother set foot in America in Dec of 72..

We land in muggy weather, December 1, 1999, almost 28 years to the day that my father and mother fled from the same place, Tan Son Nhat Airport, Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as nobody calls it. I waited in the line, my palms sweating profusely, much as they did in the Vietnamese Embassy in Thailand when we secured our visa. I am not sure what I feared. American passport or Vietnamese face. Communist government or faceless bureaucracy. And...

it was a breeze. All my worries about bureaucratic red tape, American passport, incorrect visa, etc. No problems. We sailed through and the border guard seemed to appreciate my Vietnamese words. The language has actually come back to me pretty quickly. Hearing it all the time makes a world of difference and I find myself listening in on conversations, hearing people when they think I don't understand. We bought some spring rolls in the street the first night and when we asked how much, the women turned to another and said in Vietnamese, "how much should I charge them - how much do you think they will pay?" Often, when we are passing someone in the streets, I hear them say, "Look at her face, she looks like Vietnamese" and I turn and say, "yes, I am." It has opened many doors. People here have been so friendly, so curious. When they hear we are from America, they have so many questions. Some know of Chicago, "Big city, Big buildings, Big Lake." Others think America is just California. When they find out I'm Vietnamese, they understand, they know ... my background.

We haven't seen a lot of Americans here. The place is actually overrun by the French. They come in droves- nostalgic for colonial times, in much the same way as Britains are drawn inescapably to the lure of India. Here, we see the occasional Vietnam vet. He's easy to spot. He will be in his fifties and usually with a Vietnamese wife. He walks around saying the few Vietnamese phrases he learned during the war, in a very familiar American drawl and I recognize them, because I have heard them all before. "Choi oy!" Everything seems strangely familiar. 

Being American though, is still a double-edged sword. Many of the major 'tourist' attractions are tied to the 'American War' as it's called here, much to my surprise. Something I never gave a thought to, but hammers the point home from the other side. We visited one infamous restaurant, Pho Binh with a checkered history. The owner was an underground communist and used his restaurant as a place to plan bombings in Saigon. Many an unsuspecting GI ate there, never knowing how close death lay. I felt uncomfortable inside. Especially after browsing through his guest book that was out on display. Inside, tourists had wrote things like "you fought the good fight and great pho!" Was this guy the hero these tourists and his government said he was? 

In Saigon, we visited the War Remnants Museum (it's former name being the American War Crimes Museum but changed in this new era of global tourism.) It was filled with hundreds of horrible photos, many of them from US sources showing unbelievable atrocities, including the My Lai Massacre. Aside from the few tourists, the place is a favorite of school groups, leading scores of young uniformed children through their history and past. All is not forgotten, it seems. For the first time, we were on the 'other' side. The bad guys... but it's really not that simple. Not really good or bad, just 'other' People are moving on, and these relics seems more like obligatory history lessons that everyone is bored by and hungering for unhinged capitalism.

Another favorite site is the infamous Cu Chi tunnels, home of the Viet Cong just outside Saigon. Based underground, they launched 'successful' attacks and ambushed soldiers and then disappeared into back into them. We visited them and crawled through the tunnels, now widened for big western tourists, although we did see some original ones. They looked as if a snake couldn't crawl through them. Much of the official government lingo centered on all the heroics of the Viet Cong in repelling the invaders, and outside the tunnels, they exhibited many home-made traps set for wandering soldiers. Our guide, using a stick set them off, one by one, and with each echoing crash, we cringed at the thought of American soldiers falling prey. It was also not a particularly enjoyable visit.

But then you look harder and see past the war industry turned amusement park stuff, and find the real Vietnam, embodied in the loud, brash Saigon. A modern, almost cosmopolitan city that has risen from the ashes of 75. In 1986, the communist government, under desperate economic straits, decided to open up the economy to outside world. Western businesses rushed in and Vietnam has been looking forward ever since. It is here, more than anywhere else that the economic changes sweeping Vietnam, and any negative social implications, are most evident.  

We took a visit to the Mekong Delta, the fertile lowlands of south and considered the rice bowl of Vietnam. It is a swampy jungle; humidity hangs in air and people traverse the many canals and waterways. In some of the larger inlets, there are grass-roots industries selling peanut candy and objects fashioned from coconuts and coconut wood. Great place to pick up those salad tongs you were needing.

It many ways, the Mekong Delta hasn't changed at all, but in the mist fundamental of ways, it has. The greatest change in Vietnam has originated not in the cities but in areas like this. When communist collective farming became a thing of the past, Vietnam went from famine to exporting rice in a mere two years. People were allowed to work for themselves, and they caught the entreprenurial bug, hard. Now, the Mekong Delta is a rich and fertile land and back in the city, Saigon's streets are filled with Coke. On a street corner, Motorola, Nokia & Ericcson with battle for the consumer's cellular soul. MTV Asia blares from the TV, and Apocalypse Now is a trendy hip new club.

It makes you wonder if this is what we fought the war for. What they fought the war for. Is this the communist utopia they envisioned? is this the communist hell we expected to find?

One new industry that has risen, the fake-book industry. Rather than pay full price for a new paperbook, check out the scores of bootleg paperbacks, all created on a good copier. We have seen the range, from fancy copies that go so far as to have a laminated color-copied cover and actual binding, to a simple bad photocopied cover and a staple down the middle. But the words are there to read and they are still the same, save for the occasional missing page. We have even seen the production houses ... people sitting on the sidewalk with a stack of photocopies, trimming pages down and binding them. And they seem to know what people want to read, all the latest backpacker favorites ... Alex Garland's The Beach and Sutcliffe's Are You Experienced as well as War books, such as Greens's The Quiet American or Le Ly Hayslip's Heaven and Earth, now a major motion picture. And of course, all the travel guides to all the surrounding countries. Never again, will you pay full price.  

Saigon is a moto city! Motor-scooters everywhere. While a few cars rumble by once and awhile, usually a sleek lexus of a newly minted millionaire, the streets are packed with scooters and bicycles. It strange to look down a crowded streets and see only floating bodies rushing by. The de rigeur outfit of the trendy young women is a short sleeve pants suit, sunglasses, bandana wrapped around the face, long sleeve driving gloves and high heels perched atop her pink and grey Honda Dream. Seems that lighter is better and fashionable women avoid the sun at all cost. Having a suntan brandishes you as a country peasant girl having to work the rice paddies. The saying here is "No moto, no honey" On Sunday nights, Dong Khoi Street, their Magnificant Mile, is packed with young people, dressed in their finest, and cruising slowly down the streets. Two girls here wink at two guys there, young couples laughing as they breeze by. And the traffic is insane! No one obeys traffic signals and many streets don't have them at all. People just enter intersections at random, but since they are on two wheels, they are far more adept at avoiding each other. As for lanes, try about 20 on our standard two lane road. All the motos push to the front and line up on the starting line, revving, waiting for the signal. As for those of us using our own two feet, we learned the trick from the locals. You just step right in and walk across at a very steady, even pace. Then your movements are completely predictable and you can easily be avoided. It all goes wrong when you panic and try to dart out of the way or stop to avoid a moto. Then, they just run right into you. We've seen it. No, the best, is actually to just walk straight ahead and not look at all. You could close your eyes and step out and you would be fine.

As for the food, heaven! just like mom made. From the delicious pho (noodle soup) to the incredible grilled meats and spring rolls and anything in lemongrass chili sauce. YUM! And the beer. Vietnam happens to be the biggest beer-drinking country in Asia, much to Doug's delight. They love the stuff and it shows. Every region has its own beer, add that to the nation wide brands such as Tiger, BGI and 333, and it's a plethora to choose from. 333, even my father remembers fondly. By volume it's cheaper than Coke and in some cases, water. A big bottle, .65 liters, costs about 70 cents. Doug has been imbibing quite abit. If he sounds like a lush, you're right.  

In Vietnam, religion is divided between Buddhism and Catholicism for the most part. On the Buddhist side, we have seen quite a few pagodas here. They are a unique mix of Buddhism, Confuciousism, and ancestor worship that seems to be particular to Vietnam. There is always food left out to feed the souls of their ancestors, and one must worship them for good karma. In Cholon, the Chinatown of Saigon, there are about ten pagodas in a relatively small area.

One day, we set out to visit them all. Along the way, cyclo drivers pester you non-stop to take a ride in their cyclo. Well, two such guys were more than persistent. They actually stalked us. First, they would point out the way to the next pagoda, but then it got weird, when they would be waiting at the next one, and the next, and the next. They knew exactly where we were going, and we couldn't shake them. We tried hiding in alleys, taking what we thought were different routes. We would be no good as secret agents, way too obvious. They were hoping that when we finished for the day, we would take their cyclo back to central Saigon, and they were willing to follow us for hours for the hope of a single fare. That's pretty desperate.

Catholicism is also big here, led by early French missionaries. Saigon has a big, beautiful cathedral, very similar to Notre Dame in Paris, but no doubt the bright green neon halo on Mary and Jesus inside was a new addition.  People are far more fervent here. They are like born-agains. There are churches everywhere and the masses are packed and their are loudspeakers rigged up outside in the courtyard. The church fills to capacity and then they just sit outside, content just to listen. The mass appears to be exactly the same, which is reassuring when it's in Vietnamese. You can still follow along and stand and sit and kneel at the same time. The only difference was the peace offering to your neighbor. Instead of shaking hands, they just nod their heads one way, then the other. That's all.  And then the strangest thing. The segregation, women on one side, men on the other. The occasional tourist would break the rules, then they would be lightly tapped and asked to move. Prior to mass, they chant, alternating between women and men, back and forth. When we poured out of the mass, we were surprised to see the people gathering around the Mary statue out front. There appears to be a cult of Mary here as well. Then we turned and saw the big, gothic cross atop the church was now ringed in green neon. nice touch...

Xmas is HUGE, not really as a religious holiday, the Buddhists seem to embrace it as well. It's more of a national holiday. There are so many stores selling xmas trees and ornaments and a sure crowd- pleaser, baby santa suits, complete with fake beards.

One exception to the Buddhist-Catholic bloc is the cult of Cao Dai, rather more a blending, so to speak. Founded in 1926 as a religion that blended all the best of all the great religions. Their prophets are Buddha, Jesus, Laotse, Confucious, Moses and Mohammed. Main influence are Buddhism, Confuciousism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity. And strangely enough, their spirit guides consist of a Vietnamese poet, a Chinese general and Victor Hugo. Yes, you heard correct. He is considered the patron spirit guide for us westerners. Much of the faith centers on seances and communicating with the spirit guides, which is how Victor Hugo came into the picture, much to their surprise as well as ours. Other spirits occasionally heard from include: Joan of Arc, Descartes, Lenin, Pastuer, and Shakespeare (who unfortunately hasn't been heard from since 1935.) The result of all this fusion, is a colorful and eclectic potpourri that is astonishing in its imaginative garishness.

After, all this religion, we took a night off to check out what the locals enjoy for entertainment. We visited a small outdoor theatre. You pay for the drinks, entertainment is free. We were treated to the spectacle of modern Vietnamese pop, singing their favorites and ours, specifically alot of Vengaboys and Aqua (the Barbie Song) but thankfully no Brittany Spears. This was punctuated by the occasional vaudeville acts, we had comedy and plate-spinning. A pleasant night out, and afterwards we fought our way through the hoardes off people gathered in the streets listening rather than paying.

Well, Saigon humms and buzzes with a certain energy. We hope that all of Vietnam has caught the same ferver, and if so, they have alot to look forward to. And so do we. It good to be home.

Over and out, good buddies

ann and doug


index | back | next