FROM: MY JOURNAL AND MEMORY, SUCH AS THEY ARE, VIETNAM 1994
With no regard for completeness....
Finally, Off to Saigon from Bnagkok
We arrived in good time at the airport. Unloaded. I felt efficient. That feeling wouldn’t last long. I dropped my ticket at some point. Just as I reached the Vietnam Airlines counter and was coming unwound, a woman stepped to the counter and handed over my ticket. She had found it on the floor. There was some banter about karma. Whew.
We were destined to stand in lines for hours. After our luggage was checked, we straggled to our friends at Passport Control. We get through those lines with no problems and begin the long walk to our departure gates. Many Westerners going to Ho Chi Minh City, as well as to Hanoi. Seemed to be a lot of French, with a few German, tourists. There is nothing like international travel to confirm American stereotypes about other nationalities. I can’t say I am happy about this. I did try to find non-conforming behavior, but….I am sure we confirmed a few stereotypes about Americans too.
The French moved confidently, surely, oblivious to any but themselves or their traveling party. No matter where we ran into them, it was as if they occupied a bubble of French territory that moved with them.
I got on the Vietnam Airlines plane (a Tupelov, pride of the Soviet fleet) and managed to sit in the wrong seat. I was blissfully unprepared for the acid-dripping voice of a tall, blond, short-haired German telling me that I was in the wrong seat. He carried on as if I had single-handedly violated the Geneva Convention. What an SOB he was. For quite a long time he would lean over the aisle and make some remark to his female traveling companion (also tall but with longer hair) and then pointedly turn and look at me - I think I was supposed to wither away in the high beams of his piercing gaze. I really wanted to bop him a good one right in his mouth.
I sat next to a charming Japanese-American former fashion designer, dressed entirely in black, who was going to Vietnam to scout out the opportunities for an export-import business. He sympathized with me about the German. One of my traveling mates kept turning around in his seat, shooting poisonous looks at the German every time his nasty voice choked another rude sounding statement to his girlfriend. Of course, he could have been talking about Swiss chocolate and it would have sounded harsh.
What can I say about Vietnam Airlines in April 1994? They were new to this flood of Americans. When the embargo was lifted in February, travel picked up considerably. Monty Python choreographed the flight. First, we were treated to a demonstration of seat belt, life raft, and oxygen mask use. The stewardess and male cabin crew trainee approached the task with all the earnestness of young pioneers dutifully quoting Uncle Ho.
The stewardesses wore the pinkest ao dais I have ever seen. It was almost too much for the grayish aisles of our Soviet plane. We got plastic trays of food with packets of sugar and salt and pepper - much more exotic in Vietnamese! The fish balls were tasty. Chicken was a mistake - chewy and cartilaginous, so I abandoned it shortly. The roll tasted moldy, although it looked pristine.
The sweet roll was a success and the plastic utensils quite took my breath away with their embryonic innocence. As if they hadn’t quite grown up into real plastic cutlery. Wonder about their injection molding capabilities here. There were wonderful little soy sauce containers shaped like fish. The fish snout was a tiny blue lid. I kept mine and my seatmate’s, too. (Not the German seat mate, needless to say.)
When the cabin crew realized how close to landing we were, a Keystone Cops (perhaps Kystone?) atmosphere developed. The inexperienced flight attendants rushed down the aisle shoving the remains of our take-out Viet Air-Chinese meal into large garbage bags just as we circled for a final approach. The customs forms were confusing and not just because we had to fill them out in a hurry with our trays and food still on the seatback tray tables. They were written in French. Hey people, it has been over twenty years since I did French. Exactly what am I declaring here?
The flight was mercifully short, about an hour from Bangkok to Saigon. We hit major turbulence coming into the airport. Bouncing up and down, we joked and felt our chests tighten. Then we had the landing from hell. We bumped onto the runway and the pilot was pumping his breaks like crazy (or so it felt). We skidded to a squealing halt.
I was never here
With my customs declaration form wilting in my hand, I began down the metal steps toward to the tarmac and the bus waiting to take us to the terminal. Unbelief and relief.
My passport is stamped only for two arrivals and two departures: Bangkok, Thailand. I have no official proof that I was in Vietnam. The undocumented part of my trip began as we landed in Tan Son Nhat (the new spelling of Tan Son Nhut imposed by Hanoi) that late afternoon under a milky, sulky sky. The heavy, warm air was not unpleasant. I thought of chapter openings in all the “I was there” books on the Vietnam War. Our arrival was tracer and ground fire free.
Hell, who was going to shoot at an Australian pilot and a Tupelov full of tourists? It was quiet on the runway and the smells were neutral. Bland, almost.
I felt a rush of deja vu, though, as the bus approached on old observation tower. Although I had never been in Vietnam, it felt familiar. How unsettling to recognize a place I have never seen.
The terminal was gray cement a la Eastern Europe. It was clean and austere inside. Clumps of occidentals in various emotional states, ranging from complacent to annoyed, made me wonder what our group was in for. I decided, as the better part of valor, to use the rest room before officially entering custom’s clutches. The one touch of festivity in the terminal were the new peachy colored American Standard fixtures in the women’s rest room.
The first clerk rustled and stamped and peered at each of us. The paper is of such flimsy quality, it lends a bureaucratic bustle to all paperwork in Vietnam. As if more bureaucracy was necessary. Not much smiling. We filled out two customs forms, one immigration form, and a form similar to our original visa application. More lines.
Through the first hurdle - on to customs. Our guide had to count all his money in front of an airport official. He had to declare all the money he was carrying - he had all our hotel and in country travel money with him. Gulp.
Cinderella is subversive
We eventually navigated customs, a not inconsiderable feat because the officials took a dim view of videos our group leader had brought with him, (Cinderella, for one). We also had brought text books for a high school in Da Nang. The officials pulled them out, turned them over, scoured the covers, I guess, for some sign of subversive content. We were all tired and getting a little paranoid. They opened all of Tom's boxes and his USMC sea bag (which I wondered about the wisdom of bringing into a country where one had been an enemy combatant. Get a suitcase for heaven's sake!)
We had to have everything x-rayed before we left the airport. The signs on the machines out of Flash Gordon (where is my lead bodysuit) said “No Film Safe,” and “No Water.” So we all dug through our possessions again and toddled past the machines clutching film containers and water.
Our guide was an American Marine who had been to Vietnam on several trips, including his war-time tours, and corresponded with a number of Vietnamese. He also had inadvertently attended a dinner party in suburban Washington, D.C. sponsored by some rabidly right wing Vietnamese group.
How much of our difficulty getting through was due to his presence and how much due to a half-hearted war to exclude Western influence? Believe me, the Vietnamese know who is coming into their country. I have had several friends who were denied visas because of (benign) affiliations in the US that the Vietnamese disapproved of.
The Vietnamese certainly did not need the additional dose of bureaucratic humorlessness contributed by the Soviets. They had already elevated red tape to a high art form thanks to Chinese and French influences. We felt thoroughly processed by the time our four hour customs clearing ended. A high colonic might have left me with a similar sensation.
Home at last
It was dark by the time we left the airport. As we spun into the Saigon night, I felt so at ease, so at home. Again, the familiarity was disquieting. The rows of shops, each glowing with light and people felt just right. Glimpses of courtyards ringed with barbed wire, tile roofs, and the great golden snake of motorbike and bicycle traffic - hooting and honking and beeping its inexorable way through the night streets, toward us, around us, across our path - just reinforced the I-have-been-here-before feeling.
We checked into the shabby, mildewed Bong Sen Hotel on Dong Khoi Street. It was adequate, barely. The air conditioner was doubtless toxic. But not to worry, it would be off from 7:00 am until 5:00 p.m. the next day.
Another measure of sophistication besides the hotel name on the soap and tooth brush boxes and courtesy plastic bags for dirty laundry was the presence of a top bed sheet under the blanket. You won’t get that at every moderately priced hotel.
My room had one large window, hung with cheesy yellow (faux gold) curtains. The view was of four brick walls - as if enclosing a courtyard below, at ground level - and a rooftop off to one side. I had my first encounter with a combo bathroom shower (French influence again). The bathrooms were tiled from head to toe, so it felt as if you were at the sink and using the toilet in a large shower stall. Which - in essence - you were. Hand-held shower with two floor drains, engineered so it drained slowly enough to double as a rice paddy in the dry season.
The toilet paper was, well, interesting. It was St. Patrick's Day green and stretched like crepe paper - with holes. Once wet, it took less than 10 seconds to turn into pulp. Green pulp of course.
We were all invited to the home (which was in their hotel, The Rainbow) by a friend of our guide’s. We crammed into two taxis. Our Vietnamese guide seemed quite interested - like an anthropologist - in the other woman traveling with us. Sandi squirmed away from the clinical touching. I think she was of interest because she was slight like the Vietnamese woman so often are - but white - with curly hair. I was unmistakably a generously proportioned foreigner.
We arrived at the hotel and were ushered in. Tom ate with the family and our Vietnamese guide. The rest of us sat around a low table. We had fish - a large beautiful platter of whole fish, glazedly looking up at the ceiling with one eye. Beyond all care after being steamed (I think it was steamed, it certainly was beyond all care.)
I attempted to learn Vietnamese and learned the words for fish, frog, and eat much to everyone's amusement.
After a Tiger beer over ice, I was actually happy to return to my room and take a deep breath of mildewed Bong Sen air.
Ho Chi Minh City nee Saigon in the light
Constance Lee Menefee