Best Defense

Saigon update: Today’s motorcycles are scarier than the Commies were back then

Saigon update: Today’s motorcycles are scarier than the Commies were back then

By Charles Krohn

Best Defense bureau of Vietnamese affairs

As I flew out of Ton Son Nhut in the fall of 1971, I harbored no intention of ever visiting again the war-ravaged nation where I served faithfully for two years. But when my wife and I landed two days ago on a round-about-way to Angkor Wat, we were instantly surrounded by luxury at the five-star Hyatt. So I forgot about the war and ordered club soda to mix with the duty-free Scotch I picked up in Hong Kong.

The next day we explored the city looking for some vestige of the war. The traffic was so terrific I felt I was more likely to be killed by a motorcycle now than I was by a bullet back then. Apart from a couple of war marble memorials the victors erected to celebrate their success in 1975, the only evidence of a U.S. presence was a garish sign atop the Rex Hotel promoting it was "the site of the 5 o’clock follies." A few blocks away we found the U.S. consulate, formerly our embassy. 

Far more conspicuous was expansion of the city. When I left the airport was well outside the city limits. Now it’s surrounded by new construction to help house the population of about 10 million. The city has grown so far, in fact, it reaches the Cambodian border maybe 20 miles to the west in what we knew as the Parrot’s Beak. Where the border market once flourished is a cluster of new supermarkets. When William Colby once visited me at Go Dau Ha, the district capital, his only request was to visit the market where I supposed both sides exchanged intelligence. I used to buy Vichy Water by the case to keep my upset stomach under control.

On the Cambodia side is a casino complex servicing Vietnamese gamblers who can’t work the tables legally in their own country. At least that’s what my guide said. He also explained the Cambodia relaxed visa requirements, but only for Vietnamese.

When he told me that the Vietnamese Army was small, only 650,000, I was thinking we might ask them to send a division or two to Afghanistan, given the absence of any local threat.

Overall, Vietnam today is one of the world’s most energetic engines of change, in my opinion. There is no easy way to describe the motion. I told my guide that I found it ironic that there was more capitalism than socialism in Vietnam. One might even argue there is more socialism in the States with welfare programs that don’t exist here. Anyone can get a license to start a business in a week, I was told, and if it failed, tough luck. It was like the American frontier, without the guns.

I didn’t probe into the political situation, but I was told that about one million Vietnamese moved south after the war was over. Everyone has a computer and access to TV, but no satellite dishes are allowed. Also, I am told, Facebook was blocked a few months ago. I’m sure the kids know how to work around this, but it didn’t seem prudent to tell my guide that traditional methods of thought control by elderly males are simply irrelevant. I had experiences in Baghdad not too long ago that suggest we haven’t learned all the lessons either. 

Tomorrow we fly to Hue where I will visit the site where my battalion was surrounded by the NVA during Tet ’68. I’m hoping I can find it.

Charles A. Krohn is the author of The Lost Battalion of Tet. Now retired to Panama City Beach, Florida, he served in Iraq in 2003-2004 as public affairs adviser to the director of the Infrastructure Reconstruction Program, and later as public affairs officer for the American Battle Monuments Commission.