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At least the rock 'n' roll survived

Saturday, April 29, 2000

By Reg Henry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Memories of a Saigon of a lifetime ago come flooding back in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

HO CHI MINH CITY -- This is the way we were. We were young and fearful because we found ourselves in a foreign city and a strange culture in a time of war.

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It was 30 years ago. The city was swollen with refugees back then. The traffic was chaotic -- military vehicles, motorbikes, motorized cyclers -- all jostled together. Whole families would ride on a motorbike, mom and dad and two or three little kids.

The fumes from all this traffic made eyes smart and poisoned the trees along the boulevard. Traffic cops in white shirts, with big American pistols in their belts, would blow whistles frantically without much effect.

Most of the men were in the uniform of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the country which the world knew as South Vietnam. Many of the women wore elegant ao dais, the traditional pants and long split skirt. Some of the young men seemed never to wear a uniform at all, except the shifty style of the notorious Saigon cowboys -- the sullen, dangerous motorcycle riders you accepted a lift from at your peril.

Of course, Americans were there too, in their baggy greens, and an odd mix of others such as Australians and Koreans.

The most famous street in the east, the Rue Catinat, had been renamed Tu Do, for Independence. Bar girls hung out of doorways and yelled to passing Westerners, "You buy me Saigon tea?" Saigon tea was a flavored concoction that was the expensive ticket to a bar girl's company.

Although piastres were the official currency for civilians, everybody wanted to be paid in MPC -- Military Payment Certificates, which were really dollars in a parallel military universe.

The foreign soldiers, the bar girls, the cyclo and cab drivers, the whole ragtag universe of street denizens, spoke the pidgin English of GI slang. If things were good, they were No. 1. If things were bad, they were No. 10. If things were really bad, they were No. "welve" (12). The bar girls promised a bukku good time (from the French beaucoups), but things were really bukku bad way beyond No. 10.

  Three schoolgirls make their way home in Ho Chi Minh City esterday afternoon. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

The poor slept in hovels made of sheets of beer cans. The visiting rich stayed in a few modestly good hotels like the old Continental, immortalized by Graham Greene in "The Quiet American," or the Caravelle. The officers were at the Brinks or the Rex.

Another army was in attendance, and its members wore safari jackets and carried notebooks and cameras. They gathered every day in Saigon for a briefing -- the "5 o'clock follies" -- to hear how well the war was going. In the early days, they could watch the war across the Saigon River from the top of the 10-floor Caravelle.

Helicopters could often be seen overhead. The soundtrack of the Vietnam War was always rotorblades and rock and roll. A curfew was imposed on the city, starting, if memory serves, about 11 p.m. and lasting until dawn. Sometimes, while pulling guard duty at the compound, you could hear distant explosions or see strange flashes of light in the night sky, but for the most part the city was preternaturally quiet in the dark hours, until the motorbikes started at 5:30 or so and Saigon slowly growled back to life like a wounded beast.

Understand, there was nothing heroic about this period. The real heroes were lugging rifles out in the bush. This is just the way things were in that sullen, tense, unhappy time a lifetime ago.

Fast forward to today

And this the way it is now. Veterans fly in, old now but still apprehensive, and wonder how hostile this city will be to them. They marveled that they are back here to rub shoulders with people who wear the uniforms of their old enemies. They see first that the airport has been spruced up. The immigration officials use IBM computers. The semi-tubular concrete bunkers for the fighter planes, once protection from incoming rockets and mortars, are still visible but now stand empty. The traffic remains crazy, but at least there are fewer military vehicles to clog the street. Motorized cyclos have been banned and the trees seem the healthier for it. Still some Vietnamese wear face masks to protect against the pollution.

Uniforms are no longer ubiquitous. Sadly, the women have largely forsaken the ao dai, which for a time was considered bourgeois and politically incorrect. Now the national costume seems to be worn in more formal settings or in hotels. The flight attendants of Vietnam Air wear a variant.

Tu Do Street has been renamed Dong Khoi, for Uprising. But Le Loi -- named for an ancient hero -- retains its name. The ugly statue of the South Vietnamese soldiers was one of the first things to be pulled down after the communists took over on April 30, 1975.

The poor do not seem as poor, but that is very hard to judge. The rich have grander places to stay. The Caravelle features a 24-story addition. The Rex has had a makeover, but it is still a strange, charming maze. It is where Sen. John McCain stayed when he was here this week. A statue of Ho Chi Minh sits in a little park opposite, where the embassy crew set up the shoot.

Bar girls do not plead for passing men to buy Saigon tea anymore. It is said that the world's oldest profession still goes on, but there are no obvious signs of it on the street. It is more discreet, or else the authorities have cleaned it up for the anniversary. And the old GI slang seems forgotten, which, of course, is No. 1.

Some people still call it Saigon, and nobody seems to mind. Even in advertisements, Ho Chi Minh City is considered a bit of a mouthful and is abbreviated to HCMC. More and more buildings are rising higher than the twin spires of the cathedral.

Cholon, the Chinese twin city seven kilometers from the center, is as smelly and crowded and generally wonderful as ever. It is a hive of commerce where the dong (14,000 = $1) buy the innards of snakes, rice cakes, anything under the tropical sun.

Meanwhile the dollar, civilian version, is still a good currency to have.

The helicopters are gone, the rock and roll has stayed (MTV, after all, is on television), and the journalistic army is back for the moment; more than 400 have come from overseas to report on tomorrow's anniversary.

Some things change and some things don't. But the greatest of them is hard to quantify. It is in the relaxed spirit of the place, a contrast to what is remembered.

Lady Borton, the American Quaker from Athens, Ohio, who has lived and worked in Vietnam on and off for 30 years, best sums up the changes: "Nobody's worried. ... The worst that's going to happen to you in Ho Chi Minh City is that you are going to be pickpocketed if you are not careful. But nobody's going to shoot you. This is one of the safest countries in the whole world for personal safety except for traffic.

"When veterans come back, it is so interesting. ... I have brought a lot of them back, and they go through this sweat when they first arrive, being afraid that someone is going to jab them or poke them. But pretty soon they realize that their phobia is irrelevant to the scene around them."

The war is a memory. Peace has come to Saigon.

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