The Illusion of Vietnam
The plane approached Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The sight of the monstrous city sent electrical charges up my back and gave me chicken skin that could have sanded wood. Here I was, 1996, nearly twenty six years later and about to land in a place that I had purposely damn near forgot. The closer the plane came to the ground the more I questioned my motives for the return.
From the air Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) looked alive and well with everything in clean, perfect squares. Shiny green rice patties surrounded the city. Coconut trees lined the busy highways that spread like spider webs throughout the countryside. It looked so peaceful. It didn’t seem to be the overcrowded chaos that I remembered. The traffic below looked orderly and calm like regular city traffic anywhere in America. Most of the homes looked new. Maybe things had improved since we had left. I had expected that Viet Nam, being so poor and under communist control, would be in shambles. I envisioned a communist country like one I’d seen on television that had bread lines and where the people waiting had rags wrapped around their feet for shoes.
I imagined the people of the South living in a deplorable state. The new property owners from the North surely would destroy the stores, bars, and open markets that the Southerners enjoyed during the ‘60s and early ‘70s. I was calmed by the thought of an orderly Viet Nam, but my impression began to change as the plane lowered. I began to realize that viewing things from a distance could make quite a difference. The closer we got to the ground, the more my optimism of the new Viet Nam faded and the sicker my stomach felt.
Trash was everywhere. Trash along the curbs, in yards, piles in every corner of every fence, just like when I had left. Most of the houses along the runway looked like they would fall over in a good wind. Most were made out of whatever was available like cardboard and old uncut sheets of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer tins. Even most of the old French concrete houses looked like they could use more than just a paint job.
From the circling plane I saw traffic so thick I don’t think even the best drivers from the United States would last more than a city block. The millions of motorcycles loaded with goods became a line of marching ants going to their hole carrying large chunks of stuff. I saw no courtesy on the streets of Saigon as I watched riders cut in and out of traffic and pedestrians dart across the streets in suicide runs.
But the real kicker, the thing that brought back the sickest of memories and made me feel trapped 8,000 miles from home, just like I’d sometimes felt long ago, was the airport itself. Looking out the window of the plane as it landed I saw a twin barrel 50 cal. anti-aircraft gun in a bunker along the runway. Then I spotted another one, and then another. These would look out of place at an airport in LA, but somehow they seemed to fit in here at Tan Son Nhut.
As the plane turned at the end of machine gun row to taxi back to the terminal it passed by the metal Quonset huts that were used as shelter for the American jets and Cobra gunships. I remembered how lethal and powerful they were in the air when we needed them to bail us out of a jam, and how viciously silent they looked sitting there in the hangers. Now the Quonset barns either covered old, rusted Russian helicopters or were empty. Most were just trashed out and overgrown with weeds. A few of the half-round sheds had holes in the roofs from which I thought might be from the mortars that had shelled the airport during the fall of Saigon.
When I walked off the plane to the tarmac the deep odor of Nouc Mam fish sauce was first to wake my senses and connect my past to where I was. How familiar that smell, how it said Viet Nam. When you’re around the fishy odor constantly you don’t notice it, but after being away for years I could smell every molecule that passed by my nose.
The buses that carried the passengers from the plane to the terminal had let us off and I became a notch past dizzy. I dragged my heavy, weaving body and blank mind toward the Customs check-in and stood in line trying not to be visibly woozy. My mind was replaying a tape of my first days in the country. What timing! I had to keep thinking of Hai waiting just outside the terminal to get me through Customs without passing out in the heat.
I watched as a Customs agent in his dress green North Vietnamese uniform talked sternly to a woman that stood ahead of me in front of his booth. Finally, they had me. It was my turn to stand facing the first North Vietnamese I’d seen in a long time. Here I was, about to walk into their arms! The red star on his cap was like looking at a Viet Cong flag flying over a village they had just taken.
I finally cleared the five entry checkpoints, and I started to feel relieved, and I thought the hassle part was over. That was until I walked out of the main door of the airport and ran right into some of the wildest chaos I’d ever seen. This was crazy, hectic, nuts, bizarre! At least a hundred taxi drivers began pushing and grabbing at my suitcase and duffle bag.
“I take you go, I take you go. American, you go with me, dee-dee.”
I found myself becoming quite irritated and trying to walk quickly through the crowd to a vantage point where I might spot Hai. I struggled through the crowd, sweating and dizzy in a panic to find Hai. I thought that most of Saigon was here waiting for someone, and they all seem to be in my way.
The airport authority doesn’t allow anyone without a ticket inside the fence that surrounds the terminal. In order to meet someone waiting for you, you must exit the front door, go through a gate in the fence, wade out into the crowd, and hope for the best.
A man I assumed was a taxi driver grabbed my black duffle bag off my shoulder. I jerked it back and yelled at him in Vietnamese.
“Come duc’, come duc’.” (Do not do that!)
I was yelling in a tired and frustrated voice. My usually passive attitude had reached its limit. The taxi driver looked at me with a smile.
“Dee-dee.” (We go)
I had enough of this mayhem, and my nerves boiled over into a rage. I jerked the four-foot long, 70-pound duffle bag back and tossed it to the ground as I prepared for a fight. I was about to make this little fart just a little shorter than he already was when Hai found me in all the commotion. She looked at me as if she had just seen a ghost.
”What you doing?”
I told her that this thief standing next to me with his hands grasped around one end of my bag was trying to steal it. The expression on her face turned to a smile. “Let him have it. That my brother!”
It was Mel. I hadn’t seen him since he was a kid, and that was twenty-seven years ago. There was no way I would have recognized him. He must be at least two or three inches taller now…
END by John Michael Hanzlik