Sunday, July 15, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Saigon Lives Under Guard; 'No More Taxis'

October 16, 1966

Saigon, South Viet Nam—Arrival here is electrifying. There is great evidence of war.

Huge freighters are docked in the Saigon River and the docks are piled high with military supplies.

When the plane landed at Tan Son Nhut, the posh Air France commercial jet looked very out of place among the military aircraft.

Every jet plane, except the B-52, in our air arsenal, could be seen parked at the airfield.

Most of the aircraft bear camouflaged paint and all are protected either by soldiers carrying machine guns, or by huge concrete and steel bunkers, or both.

Teams of soldiers cruise the entire perimeter of the field in jeeps which carry .30 caliber machine guns.

Vegetation and undergrowth, which formerly surrounded the field, are gone, chopped down far back from the immediate area of the airfield, to eliminate cover for the Viet Cong, who launched mortar attacks on the air base this year.

The teams of roving soldiers also keep watchful eyes on the commercial flights as they arrive and depart to keep the Viet Cong from blowing up the civillian planes.

During the flight from Tokyo to Saigon, Searcy Eden, an accountant for TransAsia Engineering Associates, said his company had warned him that taxis would not be available from the airport to downtown Saigon.

Eden, from Houston, Tex., said in a drawl, "They told me a Cong drove up to the front door at the airport and set off a bomb..So, no more taxis...Just airport limousine service, if it's available."

And the service wasn't available. Eden made several phone calls and I departed. After a short walk with my bags, an old 1955 Plymouth sedan wheezed to a halt beside me and the driver said, "Yankee..Me taxi...Take where you go."

I told him my destination and we started downtown through the wildest traffic jam in the world. It took about an hour to travel three miles through the heavy civilian and military traffic.

All during the trip, the driver kept huckstering various products—electric razors, transistor radios, American whisky and cigarettes. He even pulled out a can of whipping cream which he said he'd part with for $3.

As he displayed his goods with one hand, he managed to drive with the other and honk the horn almost constantly. The abandon with which Tokyo cab drivers operated was overshadowed by this driver's ability. I kept wondering how this guy would do at Indianapolis, not in the race, but the traffic jams before and after.

Whipping cream was the least of his wares. By his repeated offers of women, to a man he'd never met before, it was obvious there's no vice squad working here.

After being turned down on at least 15 good deals, the driver got mad, drove a block past my destination, the Rex Hotel, which houses the Military Assistance Command in Viet Nam, charged me $7 for the cab ride, and dumped my bags out on the muddy sidewalk.

A young Marine Corps corporal had a hard time keeping his face straight when he heard that story. The cabbie had charged me about 40 times too much for the ride.

The corporal and a sergeant on duty helped me find a hotel room and gave me a brief fill-in on procedures to follow for getting around the country.

The Des Nations Hotel, where I found quarters, is only a block away from military headquarters, in actual distance. In reality it is a trip into the 19th Century. The hotel rooms look like sections of a mineshaft which were painted, on some distant occasion, and illuminated with dim, bare light bulbs.

Once checked in, a Vietnamese house boy adopted me. When he saw the typewriter case he disappeared and in a few moments returned with an old typewriter ribbon. He pressed it into my hand.

"How much?"

"Nossing," he said. "Nossing..You friend...Call
me 'Boy'."

For $1.80 my friend was able to scrounge up a bucket of ice, two packs of cigarettes and three bottles of Coke. He offered to sleep outside my door. I declined, certain if anyone entered the room during the night I would hear them at once when they slipped and fell on the cockroaches.

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