The following report by James Gilchrist resulted from a recent package tour of Vietnam between December and January organised by an Australian Company, Intrepid.
In April 29, 1975, war correspondent Nayan Chanda watched from atop a Saigon hotel as the last American helicopter left the US embassy and, within hours, the first North Vietnamese tanks arrived to smash through the gates of the Presidential Palace, signalling the end of the "American War".
In December 2001, armed with a Tiger Beer and surrounded by Christmas decorations I stood on the roof of the Huon Sen Hotel. As I stared out at the panorama of Ho Chi Minh City (hereafter referred to as Saigon) below, it appeared as though a belated rearguard action was occurring. Not from the 25th US Infantry Division this time, but in the shape of billboards for Pepsi, Vodafone and Nike.
At ground zero, the confusion is more pronounced. On leaving the hotel you are attacked by trinket-selling vendors ranging in age from 6 to 66 and must then negotiate some of the most intense street-hawking outside the Middle East: cyclos following you down the street, old women with wooden yokes, limbless beggars, pickpockets, all set to the sound of thousands of anarchic motorbikes – a never-ending stream of noise and confusion.
If you get a chance to sightsee while saying "no thanks", you will notice some of the strange symbols of a married ideology now displayed in Saigon: Red Coke ads merged with the yellow Communist stars, Uncle Ho sold everywhere as a shrink-wrapped T-shirt for middle class Western youth (as chic as Che Guevara) and my favourite, outside a "department store", a life-sized fibreglass Colonel Sanders, with welcoming arms.
However, in spite of this incursion of capitalist symbols, there was no shortage of sterile, two-dimensional billboard representations of families and workers revelling in a cartoon-like Marxist utopia, along the highways.
Clearly it was going to take a while to make sense of all these contradictions.
Fortunately, on my second day, I met with the tour group, almost all young Australians, and our 23-year-old guide from Hanoi, Tuan.
Tuan, whom we would affectionately nickname "Captain", was chosen from among 500 applicants for his high university grades to represent Intrepid, an Australian Company, to run tours the length of Vietnam’s infant tourist route.
Throughout our 15-day trip, Tuan was to demonstrate a philosophical intelligence, a genuine passion for his country and its people, and an unlimited willingness to sing.
The last quality was at times a problem as Tuan possessed a truly frightening repertoire of 1980s love songs. However, his insights and humour in many ways made the trip for us, offering a window into the ‘other’ Vietnam we would never really see – a beautiful, communal land beyond the street-touting overkill that now plagues the country after just six years of capitalist reform.
Christmas was in evidence as people worshipped in Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral and the English-language newspaper Viet Nam News lauded the great contributions of the nation’s Catholic community.
In this festive atmosphere we discovered some of Saigon’s historic attractions. While the War Remnants Museum methodically catalogues American "brutality", I was struck by how little reference there was to Australian soldiers in this, or other museums we would visit. Then later it occurred to me that subtitles to photos and other evidence referring to American "aggressors and their henchmen" – or "US Imperialists and their lackeys" – was in fact a form of inclusive language.
On the hard-selling streets, however, there was little evidence of any ill-will towards us. Tuan would explain that as tourists we were welcomed openly in the knowledge that our presence was good for the country.
Being the owner of a particularly white complexion also made me a beacon for every vendor this side of the Mekong Delta, while children would sometimes stare in bewilderment at me as though I were one of nature’s mistakes.
Tuan also mentioned how he had grown up with his mother advising him to "never forget Australia". Apparently our wheat, sent to feed livestock, had kept him and his sisters alive for four years.
From Saigon we made our way north to Nga Trang where US troops enjoyed leave on the beaches during the war and we enjoyed the local mud baths. After a short stay we progressed to the old and beautiful town of Hoi An, renowned for its history of tailoring. I had a suit tailored for US$25 (or about $50 Australian).
After Christmas in Hoi An, we switched to a bus for a precipitous mountain journey to Da Nang. Bussing in Vietnam can be a little hair-raising. Not only is there a disturbing randomness to the traffic – an apparent free-for-all involving bikes, trucks and livestock – but the bus drivers tend to regard their vehicle as equivalent to a motorbike, swerving complacently through the madness, while you sit in the back contending with G-forces and reflecting on exotic Australian phenomena like seatbelts, helmets and sealed roads.
Close to Da Nang, the city of Hué afforded many sightseeing wonders, from the Imperial Mausoleums of the often eccentric Nguyen Emperors right down to the car driven by the Buddhist monk who set fire to himself in Saigon in 1963.
After witnessing these historic and religious monuments via a dragon boat on the Perfume River, we stopped to celebrate New Year’s Day in a private karaoke bar. Here Tuan was to demonstrate, with almost comic gravity, his awesome range of 1980s pop favourites.
For me, this most painful exhumation of the past mercifully ended when we progressed to an expat bar, DMZ (Demilitarised Zone), where we took the New Year by storm and "did our country proud".
The Vietnamese attitude to music is – well – different. In the hotel on New Year’s Day they must have played ABBA’s immortal "Happy New Year" – at least 497 times. This may have been a ploy to induce us to check out on time, but they seemed serious about it. So we left Hué to catch the 15-hour sleeper to Hanoi, nursing hangovers and the terrible memory of that ABBA song.
On the train I shared a cabin with Tuan, whose musical tastes made it like being trapped in a box with Lionel Ritchie. Then, with the falling of night, came respite as our guide lapsed, trancelike, into the most hauntingly beautiful traditional songs from the "American War", written with a soldier’s sentimentality and I realised for the first time what a wonderful voice he had.
Apart from his entertainment value, Tuan helped fill in many of the gaps for us. He interpreted not just language but culture and conveyed plentiful history and folklore – perhaps conditioned by his northern education.
Through him we learned of the Government’s displeasure with the vendor problem as they try to build a tourist infrastructure; how it is not unusual for political leaders to celebrate Christmas with Catholic priests because religious discrimination "never really occurred in Vietnam," and why not to wear singlets or shorts because they are the attire of the vulgar.
Tuan also spoke affectionately of his "Uncle Ho" having advised against communism on his deathbed and whose ideal of enlightenment through education seemed a long way away.
Certainly it seems the "balance" in Vietnam between communism and capitalism has not yet been achieved, for the streets teem with child vendors and the two-dollar brothels of neighbouring Phnom Penh are bursting at the seams with Vietnamese girls as young as 13. If societies are to be judged by the way they treat their children, then there is some work to be done here.
Seemingly, most of it is being done by non-government initiatives like that of the inspirational Irishwoman, Christina Noble, the Humanity Centre we stopped at where hundreds of deaf-mute children are taught to produce beautiful textile works or the wonderful efforts of Australian Jimmy Pham, whose Hanoi-based chain of KOTO restaurants trains steet kids in hospitality, with a course equivalency to Box Hill TAFE. These, however, seem like Mother Teresa’s drops in a big ocean.
Such problems seemed more remote as we enjoyed the last leg of our trip in Hanoi. Getting to see Uncle Ho in waxy preservation in his vast, heavily-guarded tomb was an experience, as were the beauty and splendor of Ha Long Bay, Hanoi’s Hoan Kien Lake and the city’s famous water puppets.
We said goodbye to Tuan at our final group meal, gave him a good tip and wished him well with his singing career. As I mellowed out in one of Hanoi’s many Internet cafes pondering all of these things, as others, with cigarette smoke curling about me, my eyes became fixed on a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh in a nearby store, one made entirely of stamps of the great man. He was wearing his white worker’s tunic and looking warm and paternal. As my eyes were drawn into the picture like a magic eye puzzle, it struck me how much he looked like The Colonel; and then I really knew I was going mad.
- James Gilchrist teaches at a Melbourne Catholic secondary school