Saigon, 30 Years Later

From war tourism to war victims.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam—Just after breakfast one morning, a rail-thin man who looked like he had shrunk a size or two since he bought his shirt showed up in my hotel lobby. I had asked a tour organizer to send someone who had fought in the Vietnam War to guide me around some war sites, assuming she would send a veteran of the Communist North Vietnamese Army. I was wrong.

“Me, I don’t like the Communists,” said Huong (not his real name) minutes after we’d pulled out of the hotel driveway. Huong’s story is so fine a capsule war history that it’s worth retelling. He was 20 when the first U.S. battalions landed at Da Nang Beach in 1965. Having learned English at a Christian school in Saigon, Huong landed a job translating for the 101st Airborne Division for the huge sum of $300 a month. Eventually, he proved valuable enough to be transferred to military intelligence, where he worked out the rest of the war, at one point living in a bunker with American soldiers for eight months during brutal fighting. Days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army on April 30, 1975, U.S. Embassy officials offered to airlift Huong and his whole family to the United States. “My father said, ‘I’m too old; I want to die in my home,’ ” Huong recalls. So, he dispatched his two sisters to the United States, where they married Americans and never came home. Within days, Huong was arrested by the new government, locked up in a re-education camp, and forced to learn Ho Chi Minh’s teachings.

Not surprisingly, the program failed. After his release in 1978, Huong built a boat to escape, but he was captured and jailed. When he was freed, he began building another boat, but his plan was again uncovered, and he was sent to a collective farm until 1990, when the government’s doimai policy—opening up to private ownership and foreign trade—finally gave Huong a relatively normal life. He became a guide for the first influx of American tourists, many of them Vietnam veterans. Now, when business is good, Huong earns about $150 a month, half what he earned 40 years ago when he began translating for the Army. Around Saigon (as every local still calls the city), he says, “I don’t tell people what I did in the war.”

Exactly 30 years have passed since the day the helicopters lifted frantic evacuees from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The death of nearly 58,000 Americans in Vietnam is dwarfed by another toll: About one in every 10 Vietnamese at the time—nearly 3 million people—was killed or injured. The war’s scale is daunting. Nearly 5.4 million tons of bombs were dropped over Vietnam between 1965 and 1972. Perhaps that explains why this week’s landmark anniversary seemed so irrelevant to those whom I asked about it when I arrived in Saigon six weeks before the date. Most people shrugged it off—they don’t need an anniversary to remind them about the war. There is another reason, too: Despite the grand tragedy, the war sites have become set pieces in a history that’s carefully manufactured by a government that many Vietnamese regard as a vaguely corrupt antiquity. Vietnam’s coast is increasingly dotted with luxury resorts, and United Airlines now flies to Saigon from San Francisco, the first U.S. flight to Vietnam in 30 years, albeit routed via Hong Kong. But war is still the major emotional draw in a burgeoning tourist industry, as much a factor as the required school outings for Vietnamese children.

These days, Saigon’s youth seem to be reclaiming the city’s freewheeling spirit in an almost defiant shunning of the grim history. The streets are jammed long after midnight with tiny motorbikes, and people spill out of cheap electronics stores, bars, and noodle shops. Vietnam’s economy grew 7.7 percent last year. Last month, the Hanoi Stock Exchange opened for trading. You can now sip lattes and eat muffins at the Starbucks-imitation Highlands Coffee shop (the creation of one of Saigon’s thousands of Vietnamese-American returnees) outside Saigon’s colonial-era municipal theater. Walking through the city’s Reunification Palace, where the South Vietnamese government holed up as their Communist foes closed in, I covered my ears from the rock music blasting out of speakers outside. About a thousand young Saigoners were crowded on the palace lawns for a Honda Festival, drawn to the main door prize of a motorbike. None of them ventured inside the palace.

For those looking for the war, Vietnam’s greatest attraction is the 75-mile network of tunnels in Cu Chi, where the Viet Cong coordinated hit-and-run strikes against Americans for years. These days it acts as a kind of Viet Cong theme park, which begins with a scratchy documentary showing smiling guerrillas over a sentimental folk soundtrack and a narrative in mangled English extolling their bravery. Hundreds of foreigners climb through the tunnels each day and watch life-size models of Viet Cong fighters chisel weapons from scrap metal, make lethal booby traps, and cook jungle food. You can even buy the real snacks for a few dong from a real-life Vietnamese woman dressed in an imitation Viet Cong uniform and rubber Ho Chi Minh sandals. After Huong led me through the labyrinth, we ended at the shooting range, where visitors can choose from a range of weapons. I bought five Kalashnikov bullets for $5 and blasted an AK-47 at a target 100 yards away.

But perhaps the most poignant exhibits are those in Saigon’s crumbling War Remnants Museum—which until recently was called the War Crimes Museum. One afternoon, I watched a Vietnamese couple show their toddler the exhibit of dioxin-poisoned fetuses curled in jars of formaldehyde in one of the museum’s rooms. But the museum’s biggest display is a room of war photographs, many by the greats like Larry Burrows and Henri Huet, who were among the 135 photographers killed in Indochina between the 1950s and the fall of Saigon. It is the quietest room in the building: Many visitors are simply speechless, perhaps because two years of sanitized coverage from Iraq have left us unprepared for such images. In one photograph shot by Sean Flynn four years before the American photographer was killed in Cambodia at age 29, a Viet Cong suspect is hanging from a tree. In another, four smiling American soldiers squat over two beheaded Vietnamese while one holds their severed heads for the camera. A handwritten note by the anonymous soldier-photographer is tacked underneath, explaining that he shot the picture “to illustrate the fact that the Army can really fuck over your mind if you let it.”

After a long day in the Cu Chi tunnels, Huong led me to one final stop: the Tu Du maternity building at Ho Chi Minh City’s Hoa Binh Hospital. In two small upper rooms of one building, about 10 severely deformed children ranging between 5 and 12 spend their days in a rehabilitation ward. It is one of the few services for about 4,000 children whom city officials say are victims of the Americans’ Agent Orange defoliation campaign. Last month, the New York District Court finally dismissed the major victims’ class-action lawsuit against chemical manufacturers including Dow Chemical and Monsanto, and many Vietnamese—including Huong—are now uncertain whether all the birth defects were the result of dioxin poisoning. Whatever the truth, the hospital is perhaps Vietnam’s most heart-rending live remnant of war, and few tourists ever see it. When I arrived to visit, the program’s director, Dr. Nguyen Thi Phuong Tan, took a photo album filled with pictures of deformed children and dead fetuses from her shelf. In a back room, a boy of about 12 sat banging on a computer keyboard with fingerless hands that were curled into stumps.

On the computer monitor, American soldiers shot imaginary bullets at little digital figures. The boy gave a satisfied yelp as each bullet was fired with an electronic bang. After 30 years, war in this town is finally just a game.