As George Bush seemingly wants to escalate the war in Iraq, I thought I would share something about my experience in Vietnam to place war somewhat in the context of daily life. The image of war can be so deceptive. This likely is true whether in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Somalia, Vietnam or wherever the conflict might be. I used to naively think that life would be close to suspended for those living in war torn countries. But even in war, I ultimately learned, people will take care of their youngest children and other vulnerable members of their family, engage in commerce, and explore every conceivable way to survive. There really is no other choice–that’s what I learned in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1973 close to end of the Vietnam War travesty.
There was probably nothing in the city of Saigon in 1973 comparable to the dreadful violence plaguing Baghdad today both in terms of the violence from civil strife or by the invasive U.S military against the Iraqi people. But even and especially in Baghdad, people need to figure out a way to feed and take care of their own.
Saigon was somewhat of a safe haven with war raging around it in the rural areas. I’m sure the Viet Cong had no interest, even if they had the weapons to do so, in destroying this beautiful capital city of the country in retaliation against the U.S. for the devastating bombing of Hanoi. It was impossible at that time to go into the Vietnamese hinterlands except on planes, as Saigon’s “Highway One” was too dangerous and the planes were booked solid. So I stayed in Saigon for a week where there was, of course, a curfew. There’s nothing like sitting in a restaurant while listening to bombs dropping from just outside the city–the bombs always seemed to drop at night and seemed close, which I guess they were.
In spite of all this, however, I found much in Saigon I didn’t expect. There were parts of the city where there were, thankfully, no apparent signs of war. Yet in most areas of downtown Saigon sandbags lined the streets and the armed Vietnamese military were at virtually every intersection. Yet, life went on.
The Vietnamese are resilient. They have, after all, been resisting occupation and foreign invaders for centuries, from the Chinese to the French, the Japanese and the Americans. But almost everyone I met in Saigon, whether they were Vietnamese or not, was trying to circumvent the war and the violence surrounding them which is something I think most of us would attempt.
In the early 1970’s I lived in Singapore with my husband–an Australian diplomat – and our two-year-old son. We were in an apartment building that was rather a mecca for international journalists who were traveling back and forth to Vietnam, Cambodia or elsewhere to report on the war. New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and his wife Janice were in that mix, as well as U.S. News and World Report journalist Jim Wallace and his wife Haya who lived two floors above us.
While we were in Singapore, Schanberg was spending most of his time in Cambodia and reporting on the tragedy unfolding in that beleaguered country that, unfortunately, bordered Vietnam. The illegal bombing of Cambodia by the Nixon administration had begun in April of 1970 and the consequences of it all were devastating. It’s thought to have been a major catalyst of political instability leading to the downfall of the Prince Norodom Sihanouk government and the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. For his reporting on Cambodia and his subsequent book “The Killing Fields,” Schanberg won the Pulitzer Prize. In it he depicted the tragic violence of the Khmer Rouge and the estimated killing of 2 million Cambodians. Janice Schanberg was understandably worried about her husband as he ventured back and forth to Cambodia. The Schanberg’s were the last couple I dined with before leaving Singapore in December 1973.
Haya Wallace’s parties were legendary. She was an antique collector and her apartment was filled to the brim with Southeast Asian collectibles. I recall sitting in her apartment in a small cozy area designated for social gatherings, while all around there were sculptures from Papua New Guinea, lamps from Indonesia, pottery from Malaysia, contemporary Singaporean paintings, and Chinese crafts of every sort, including a huge beautifully crafted Chinese wedding bed in the middle of her living room.
When the opportunity arose to visit Saigon in January 1973, I jumped at the chance. Haya was going with her husband and other journalists to Saigon and she asked me to join her. She was to seek antiques in Saigon. So here we were, in the major city of a war torn country and traipsing around it’s remarkable antique stores and there were a lot of them. It was rather surreal experience to say the least. This also included joining journalists for meals in exquisite Vietnamese restaurants and French restaurants. It was rather hard to believe that in the middle of war here I was eating some of the best food on the planet.
The influence of France in Vietnam apparently began with Jesuit priests in the 1600’s and ultimately the French occupation of Vietnam under Napoleon III in 1853. It lasted until 1954, in the midst of Vietnamese resistance. (When is there not resistance to occupation? It’s time the Americans learned this!) In this exquisite Asian city, the legacy of French occupation was apparent. There were all kinds of French restaurants, and shopkeepers selling loaves of French bread and everything else French. I drank wine on the veranda of one of the French hotels frequented earlier in the century by British writer Somerset Maugham. Vietnamese or French were the languages. As I unfortunately do not speak the beautiful song-like Vietnamese language, I spoke with most cab drivers in French–English was virtually a non-entity.
My residence in Saigon that week was in an elite area. It was, in fact, across the street from the Presidential Palace of Nguyen Van Thieu who was the provisional president at the time. My hosts were Americans – the head of the New York Bank in Saigon and his wife. From the balcony outside my room I looked across to the palace. Sandbags, along with armed military sentries, surrounded it. My movie camera was shaped somewhat like a gun. On the balcony, I recall crouching down to film the palace, but decided against this. Getting killed for taking a photo of a palace was not the wisest plan. Later in the week, however, a Vietnamese soldier at an intersection did point his rifle at me until I convinced him that what I had was a camera and not a gun.
My host spent a lot of her time with the wives of Vietnamese political leaders and diplomats. Once during the week she invited me to a luncheon with these women. I declined the offer. This might have been a mistake as it could have been interesting to hear what they had to say. But my time was limited and in the diplomatic corps the last thing you can do is discuss anything of substance. Further, the wives of political leaders were unlikely to say anything meaningful–it would be too dangerous for them to do so. So, much to the disdain of my host, I ventured instead into the streets of Saigon.
I visited with a Burmese friend who was teaching at the Saigon University. I knew him from Singapore where he had worked as a scientist for a United Nations agency headed by young Americans who, he told me, had no appreciation for his qualifications (two PhD’s from U.S. universities). He was anxious to leave and come to Saigon even in the midst of war. He took me to Saigon’s flourishing open farmer’s markets, and to the university. The markets were huge, bustling and vibrant with food and all kinds of wares and crafts–there is absolutely nothing as exciting as an Asian market and the markets in Saigon were no exception.
I spent time with American GI’s who showed me their “Shoe Shine Boys Project.” It was created in response to the predominance of street children whose families couldn’t afford to care for them because of the war. Many of the boys were shining shoes to earn money for the family–most could not return home except to take their hard earned money. The GI’s leased homes in back alleys for these kids, where they were fed warm meals and offered classroom instruction. It was rather interesting that while the U.S. military was creating havoc and tragedy in Vietnam, some GI’s were attempting to alleviate some of this pain. I don’t know where the funding came from for this project or whether the U.S. army created it to better control the shoe shine boys who were sometimes implicated in spying and/or working for the Viet Cong–clearly everyone wanted to manipulate the youth. Nevertheless, the soldiers I talked with were proud of this project.
Saigon was a massive bustling city. Small cars and bicycles were everywhere. Once while in a taxi and seeking a shop to buy a Vietnamese guitar, the driver and I managed to get into a traffic jam at a huge intersection. Even today I can’t quite understand how we managed get out of it! We did find the small shop and I purchased the guitar. It was off the beaten track. It reminded me of small commercial areas in Atlanta, Georgia suburbs–a street lined with small businesses with cars, and in Vietnam, bicycles rushing past. There were no soldiers or sandbags in sight. Just small business owners and their customers.
I visited three orphanages in Saigon. The children in the first two were relatively well cared for and the institutions were clean, even in spite of what were probably relatively limited resources. They were administered by Vietnamese and not religious based. Then I visited the third orphanage administered by a French Catholic priest. I was utterly appalled. The children were filthy and groveling and crawling on dirty floors. Some of them were strapped in chairs outside. One child, the mixture of a Vietnamese and Black American, was blind and screaming. My colleague told me this Catholic priest was notorious throughout Saigon. His attitude was that it didn’t matter what happened here on earth because the rewards were to be found in heaven. This was, apparently, the priest’s justification for the abysmal treatment of these children. Not that all Christian orphanages are likely to be problematic or abusive, of course, but I’ve wondered since how often Christians apply this rationale.
As a sequel to all this, in the mid-1990’s we in Atlanta were fortunate to host the Vietnamese Minister of Agriculture. The American Rice Institute had brought him to the United States. After visiting number of large corporate rice farms he asked to visit a “real farm” in America. In response, the American Rice Institute called the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund so that the Minister could visit a small farm. I joined the delegation and we took him to visit a Black farmer in east Georgia who raised chickens. The minister was clearly thrilled to finally spend some time with a “real farmer.”
While on the road, the Minister asked about the fate of U.S. Vietnam War veterans. We told him many struggled economically and psychologically, many were homeless, some were on death row, many were haunted by the experience, many joined organizations to resist war, many were seemingly not effected, on and on. He told us “we know many young Americans died on our soil and their souls are with us now. We will always pray for them.” I wondered then how many Americans were praying for the Vietnamese victims of the war.
I had visited Saigon in January of 1973. By March 1973, due to the Paris Peace Agreement, the U.S. military began to withdraw from Vietnam. The total number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed varies from 900,000 to 4 million. The total number of Americans killed is approximately 58,000. This does not include thousands of injuries, destabilization and death in the surrounding countries such as Cambodia, plus environmental degradation in Vietnam. What insanity is this?
HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.