Thoughts while in Saigon

My daughter and son in law have arrived from Hong Kong and took us on a whistle stop trot around the sights of Saigon this morning. I’m not a great sightseer preferring to sit in places and watch the locals but it is good to get out and see parts of the city.

I managed the Cathedral, the Opera House on foot enjoying the hustle of the place and the challenge of getting across the roads while swarms of motorbikes, scouters and mopeds race around you. By the Post Office I was flagging but did manage to get the trusty old iPhone out and snap a picture

Post Office Saigon

Now I don’t know how many people on trips to cities take a picture of a post office, not many, but clearly for some reason the French must have had a thing about building monster ones in their colonies. This one is a rather pleasant ex British Public School boy pink shirt colour don’t you think ? It is huge inside but mainly made up now of stalls selling tourist knick knacks.

The youngsters went on to the Reunification Palace where you can crawl into the tunnels used during the war against the USA. I ducked out of this and returned to the hotel.

Obviously here understandably the American side of things is not to the fore but as I dozed this afternoon I  thought of a few people we have met on this trip .

In Mui Ne we met a charming American couple form just outside Anchorage, Alaska in a place called Palmer where they have a B&B. Greg had always wanted to visit Vietnam and this was his trip of a lifetime as he achieved that goal. He told me that his father flew B52s during the Vietnam war . He was based in Louisiana  and did tours of duty over here at the height of the bombing campaign. He said his father never ever talked about his experiences nor the war and that he Greg regretted never having made him to open up about a war that so many veterans decided to ignore as did most of the USA.  Hence his trip here .

Just before the train yesterday pulled out from the station I went to take the photos and met a Vietnamese guy having a last cough and a drag before he was banned from smoking for 4 hours on the train. He told me he was from Dallas, Texas and had returned for the first time since leaving Vietnam 40 years ago. He clearly left with the Americans. He had originally  come from Mui Ne and so was visiting  his home town. how did you find it I asked. Full of Soviets he growled at me whilst drawing on his last cigarette . I didn’t like to tell him that that place is no more either and for a few more minutes he went on about how the soviets seem to have taken over the whole area.

My experience of the Vietnam war was secondhand apart from a brief frisson of excitement that Harold Wilson the British Prime minister might take Britain into the conflict. Being Royal Naval Reserve at my school we had visions of call up and off to the Far East. Reading Spycatcher by Peter Wright years later the book in which the head of the CIA counter intelligence unit told the ex MI5 author that Wilson was in fact a KGB agent, such a  policy decision was clearly unlikely.

A friend of mine working at Pan Am in New York was called up in 1969. Luckily he always said because his father was in the US Diplomat Corps he pulled strings to have him placed as liaison with the Australian troops on the ground in Vietnam. His father felt he had a better chance of survival as an officer than with his own American troops ( at least 230 American officers were killed by their own troops, and as many as 1,400 other officers’ deaths could not be explained). A few years later as we sat in his very nice family apartment on Central Park South he told me how he and the Aussies would sit in the jungle and firstly hear the Americans coming with transistor radios etc, then smell them with their cigarette smoke and aftershave and then see them as they walked inches away without seeing the fully camouflaged, odourless, jungle trained Aussies. Often sometime later they would find the bodies of the self same troops killed by the Vietcong.

He survived 2 years but again in the main he never talked about it.