Saturday, July 21, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: One Last Tour Of The Sites

November 5, 1966

I awakened very early and began packing. Soon, I realized several articles of clothing were missing. Eventually, I recalled giving them to the concierge to be laundered. A previous batch of my laundry vanished. Protests then got me nothing but vehement shrugs of the shoulders from the concierge and the man behind the desk.

Marines at the Rex Hotel who helped me get replacement fatigues after that incident, jokingly told me the hotel employees probably sold my dirty clothes to the Viet Cong because there was enough material in them to make uniforms for an entire platoon.

The clerk at the desk was asleep with his head on his arms when I approached. He groggily raised his head and sat up. I'd never seen the man before. After telling him my name, I asked if he had a laundry parcel for me.

"They left nothing for me last night," he said in perfect English. "The manager will be in soon. He will help you." He then gave that shrug I'd seen so many times, which the Vietnamese use to purge themselves of all liability and guilt.

I walked outside into the sultry air of pre-dawn and lit a cigarette. Very few people were present, and there was no traffic. Even the ever present helicopters which patrolled the docks were absent. A few neon signs were still lit. Mesh gratings were still in place on the front of most shops. It was a remarkable contrast to the chaotic daytime scene.

In the early dawn, there was almost no noise. The street vendors, who crowd the sidewalks all day, had not yet arrived. The air was almost breathable. Missing was the ground hugging layer of exhaust gasses from the decrepit Renault taxis, the countless two cycle motorbike engines, and the diesel fumes spewed forth by an endless stream of Army trucks coming to and from the docks.

It was only a short distance from the Des Nations Hotel to the Saigon River. Shortly before my arrival, a very popular floating restaurant on the river, near the end of Tu Do Street, was bombed by the Viet Cong. Fifty patrons, many of them Americans, were killed. Only a few blocks away was the Brinks Hotel, a billet for American officers. It too had been bombed and more Americans killed.

The front line was, as I'd been warned—anyplace in Vietnam.

At the entrances to the shops, which did not have protective gratings over the doors and windows, I could see forms of sleeping people.

The only open shop was that of a fish vendor. I had to pass that place going to and coming from the Rex Hotel. He displayed his wares without benefit of ice or refrigeration, even in the most extreme heat. By closing time, usually 10 p.m., one could smell his shop from a block away.

I watched as he scraped rotten flesh from the fish and threw it into the street. Suddenly, six or seven young boys, about the same ages as my sons, materialized from nowhere, and hungrily devoured the scraps. It was a daily ritual I'd previously witnessed. Three Vietnamese policemen in a jeep watched the scene and smiled.

Thoroughly disgusted, I returned to the hotel lobby. The clerk I'd seen earlier was gone. I asked the regular desk clerk for my laundry, and he handed me a parcel. I paid him and went to my room. After examining the clothing, I decided none of it was fit to wear or pack. All of it was damp and still dirty. After rummaging through the clothes I'd packed, I found enough garments to wear that day and the next. I pitched the supposedly fresh laundry into a corner and left it there.

It was time for breakfast at The Rex. As I left the Des Nations, the daily transformation had taken place. It was now full day light. Street vendors cluttered the walking space, jostling and elbowing each other for space to sell their wares. They were selling everything from women to black market U.S. Army goods. People were milling about, shopping, talking, and haggling with the vendors. Traffic noise had built from silence to an ear splitting throb. The noxious, blue-gray ribbon of exhaust gas had begun to form.

At the center of one intersection stood a Vietnamese policeman. His obvious specialty was creating grid locks. He perched authoritatively on a small pedestal and made confusing hand signals until he was totally surrounded and the intersection choked with traffic.

After circling that mess, I came up behind a large stucco sculpture of South Vietnamese soldiers. Each of the figures carried a rifle and were depicted as resolute warriors...struggling forward into battle.

Alongside the statue, three Vietnamese policemen, likely the same trio seen earlier, lolled in a jeep. While making my way across the street I considered the contradiction of the statue and the lounging policemen: Too much of one, not enough of the other.

After breakfast, I decided it would be a good idea to get a haircut before returning to civilization. Only a short distance from the Rex, I spotted a barber shop and walked in. The shop had four barbers, but only one of them was busy.

The barber behind the first chair motioned me to sit down. As I did so, the three barbers and the other customer began to laugh. In the mirror I saw why. Even though the barber had my chair completely lowered, he could not reach my head. Jabbering, he went to the rear of the shop and came back with an empty wooden box. He put it on edge, climbed up and smiled. The other barbers laughed again.

"Give you good GI," the barber said.

Uncertain if his words constituted a question or a statement of intent, and unwilling to argue, I said, "OK."

My barber chattered continuously as he whacked away with hand clippers, while balancing on his perch. He and the other barbers laughed frequently during my hair cut. I wish I'd known what they were saying. He finally took the apron away and said, "All done."

A quick look in the mirror showed I wasn't bleeding, but it was a pretty rough hair cut. So what. I'd buy a hat. I paid and left him and the other barbers laughing.

The rest of the morning and part of the afternoon was spent shopping for a few gifts and doing some sight seeing.

My luck hailing a cab was good. I got a driver who greeted me courteously and seemingly spoke and understood English. He asked if I was an officer, and I told him, no, a journalist. I told him to drive around...I wanted to see some beauty in Vietnam. He smiled and nodded that he understood.

After only a few blocks, he stopped the cab, got out, and opened my door. Motioning toward the building we'd stopped in front of he said, "You find plenty Vietnam beauty here. Lots'a girls."

It was easy to judge after glancing at the painted, perfumed, feminine merchandise seated on the steps and banister of an ornate stairway, that the driver had brought me to a bordello.

It was my turn to laugh, after recalling what I told him when I entered the cab. Obviously, he didn't translate accurately. It took a few minutes to get him to understand that I wanted him to drive around so I could look at the city. He frowned and muttered as he closed the door. For more than an hour, we putted around Saigon in the ancient Renault Dauphine taxi.

If anything in Saigon was beautiful, it was brand new and likely built by Americans. There were traces of old beauty, but all were sullied. Squalor, poverty, filth, and decay were everywhere. The sight seeing tour ended after we drove past a sprawling clutch of adjoining shacks, from which an over powering stench exploded.

"What is that horrible smell?" I asked.

"That nhuc mam place. They make much nhuc mam here," the driver said.(Nhuc Mam is a fermented fish condiment used by the Vietnamese on their rice and other

I'd seen small bottles of the sauce on restaurant tables, which, despite the caps being closed tightly, smelled worse than a sewage treatment plant. But, I'd never experienced that olfactory assault in industrial strength.

It was overwhelming.

"OK, OK. Take me back to the Rex Hotel. Quick, quick."

I wanted to thank Maj. Gipson and a few other people for the help they'd given me, and tell them goodbye. By the time I arrived, they had gone off duty.

My next stop was the bar atop the Rex. There, the first person I met was Army Lt. George McGill, who had been stationed with my brother at Nha Trang. Soon, two Marine Corps lieutenants joined us. We talked, drank gin and tonic, and soon began to amaze each other with our clear understanding of the problems and the simplicity of the solutions we proposed.

Oh, if only the big shots had been listening that evening. We had everything worked out. Unfortunately, none of us wrote anything down. By sunrise, our grandiose plans, lucid assessments and solutions, which we knew would be acceptable to all parties involved in the war, had evaporated like a thin morning mist on the river.

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