I had seen the Vietnam Memorial in Washington in late 1983, a year after it had opened. Maya Lin’s elegant tribute does not take political sides; it celebrates the virtue of silence. That was a powerful idea, of silence rising above the machine gun-like sound of the blades of a helicopter rotating fiercely. In my mind, it was impossible to separate Vietnam from that angry outburst, and Francis Ford Coppola indelibly linked the two, by blending it with the rising crescendo of Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now.
I was curious about Vietnam the first time I went there, in the mid-1990s. As I got off the aircraft at the Tan Son Nhat airport, I saw the old, disused hangars once used by the US air force, but with Soviet-made aircraft that looked comically old. The hangar hadn’t seen paint since the war, it seemed; it had the military green exterior, looking worn out and dusty.
But once I reached Saigon (only party apparatchiks in the north called it Ho Chi Minh City), I was surrounded by the babble and chaos of an Asian city. It was hard to see why people called it the Paris of the East, because the pragmatism that post-war reconstruction requires, and the unabashed triumphalism of new money, had transformed the landscape, with odd glass towers jutting out, reflecting sunlight. Cholon, as Chinatown is called, was busy as any other Chinatown; many shops called themselves Saigon this and Saigon that, ignoring one of the fiercest communist parties in the world.
Commerce, not communism, flowed through the veins of the city, and the best example of Vietnamese ingenuity was on the streets: the profusion of toys made out of junk. Someone with an entrepreneurial mind, a love of kitsch, and the inspiration for the practical had come up with the brilliant idea: of flattening used cans of Coca Cola and 7Up, and the beers, Heineken and Tiger, bending them, moulding them, and twisting and turning them, to make little toy motorbikes, F-16s, guns, automobiles, and even Bangkok’s famous tuk-tuks. The raw material cost almost nothing; a few hours of work turned them into toys, sold on street corners for as little as a dollar. There was price discrimination, too: If you wanted an F-16 made of a Coke can, the price was higher.
Coca-Cola, of course, has huge symbolic power as an icon of American expansionism: In Roland Joffe’s magnificent film about the Cambodian conflict The Killing Fields (1984), there is a scene of the communists blowing up a Coca-Cola bottling plant. But in post-war Vietnam, Coca-Cola was welcome, but not always for the use the company may have intended.
The Thais, keen to dominate the neighbourhood, had come up with the idea of Suwannaphume, or the Golden Peninsula, stretching from Myanmar to Indo-China, with Bangkok at its centre, and the baht replacing hyperinflated currencies such as Vietnam’s dong (then, 10,000 to a dollar; now 16,500 to a dollar). Vietnam was polite; it had no time for that, and it had seen the back of French, American, and Chinese armies; it was not going to let the Thais try to dominate them. They had already begun building a marketplace at home, with old rice fields making way for gleaming industrial estates, run by entrepreneurs from Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.
But more interesting than those assembly lines were the businesses that emerged out of nowhere, sensing market needs. For example, almost everyone who came to Vietnam claimed to have read, or wanted to read, Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American. But in those days, there were no bookshops for expats. No matter; at almost every junction of the historic road, Dong Khoi (Rue Catinat in Greene’s time), you saw people selling you pirated copies of the book the Kennedy administration should have read before committing troops to Vietnam.
Vietnam was all about ingenuity: keeping old American cars on the road without access to spare parts; transforming junk into toys; and selling the book everyone wanted but which nobody stocked. With few public places for the young to meet, Vietnamese teenagers turned a vast roundabout in the city centre into a playground; they’d drive their new motorbikes round and round the roundabout, emitting loud noise, giving the bustle of the city a weird background score. Not pleasant, but not dangerous. Like good entrepreneurs, they were creating something out of nothing, even mixing tastes that weren’t meant to be mixed: I recall dipping fresh croissants in the steaming soup, pho.
And inevitably, Saigon offered history: There was the old US embassy—from its roof helicopters carried Americans fleeing as North Vietnamese troops closed in. And there was the Presidential Palace: When I saw that, I imagined my friend and former editor, Nayan Chanda of Far Eastern Economic Review, furiously typing on the telex machine even as tanks were storming through the gates, sending his despatch, meeting a deadline. He stopped only when North Vietnamese soldiers found him and unplugged his telex, stopping him mid-sentence.
That contrast—of diplomats fleeing while a brave reporter continued to file—is what our business—journalism—is all about; we don’t get our excitement, like Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, by the smell of napalm. Printer’s ink, fresh sugar cane juice, aromatic coffee by Saigon’s canal, and even the pungent scent of lime-flavoured fish at a seafood restaurant at Halong Bay in the north will do.
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