Snapshot: Saigon 1994

At the intersection of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi. Saigon, 1971. Photo: Martin Ray.

“How can I help you? What do you want?” 

Early one morning at the Singh Café, while enjoying a breakfast of sweet coffee, lightly fluffed scrambled eggs and buttered toast, as we watched the endless jostle of push cart vendors, crippled veterans, hard pedalling cyclo drivers, fleet footed youths, a young backpacker revealed to me the secret of finding a cheap room in Saigon.

“Thank you much,” I said, and taking my leave, I paid his bill, and walked in the direction in which he pointed.

The backpacker was right. Walking sideways down the dim narrow alley formed by two dilapidated buildings nearly wedged together, at times barely inching along the dank crevice, step by step, I managed to twist and worm myself forward. Except for the passage being vertical, the sensation was not unlike crawling in darkness, at a minuscule pace, belly flat to the earth, first the right elbow, then the left knee, and so forth, armed only with a pistol and flashlight. I knew a man who had done just that. Crawling into pitch black tunnels, salty with sweat, hyper-alert to the slightest sound, to the sickly sweet smell of unwashed flesh, in fierce encounters he had trembled and stabbed and witnessed the dimming of light in the eyes of men who could not breathe.

I was just an ordinary soldier, on patrols freighted with weapon, ammo, rations, water, and yes, bandages, medicines, and morphine, to ease their pain. And when, slinking through too quiet jungle, in the erupting gunfire, bursting grenades, they called out MEDIC! I would run, pell-mell, or crab-like crawl forward to those who called my name. And I would heal them, or lie to them, turning their dreadful wounds to bruises of no consequence. I would do that. Now, inching along the fetid alley, to quell my hammering heart, I reminded myself, that was quite some time ago.

Breathing hard, finally I came to a lighted apartment and peeked in the half-open door. An older woman, mama-san’s we called them, perhaps fifty, or sixty, I never could tell their age, beckoned me in. Raising her hands palm upwards, spreading her arms, she seemed to be saying, “How can I help you? What do you want?” Through pantomime—my praying hands pressed to my cheek, we settled on three dollars per night.

“Up this stairway,” she pointed with her skeletal fingers. Each step was surprisingly clean, as if it had just been swept and washed. We passed through a dark corridor, then into a spartan room, a cinder block cubicle with just enough space for the steel frame cot and warped wood chair. Assessing my approval, she beckoned me to a second passage, which lead to the wide flat cement roof, where a large rusty steel barrel, filled with rain water, ingeniously fitted to a plastic shower head, was artfully attached to a cinder block stall. I smiled. I would have it no other way, and turned from her in order to raise my shirt, to unzip the money belt tucked at my waist, and filch the money with which to pay her.

In the moments before handing her bills printed in the colors of her country, as I looked out onto the waking city, taking in its shifting sights, its drifting aromatic scents, I thought I heard the ancestral spirits who live and breathe in war torn, lotus rising, undefeatable Saigon.

Marc Levy’s books include How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories and The Best of Medic in the Green Time. His website is Medic in the Green Time. Email: silverspartan@gmail.com