Reporter's Notebook

Surprise Encounter in a City of 3.5 Million


HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- Le Loi Street is a broad boulevard that runs for four blocks from the French-era opera house to the Ben Thanh market, the main market in old Saigon.

Vendors offering notebooks and rulers, used textbooks and calendars crowd the walk from both sides, narrowing it to a path just wide enough for one or two pedestrians to squeeze by.

As I browsed through this profusion of wares one November afternoon, a voice from the crowd said, "Excuse me. Are you John Spragens?"

In the midst of a city of more than 3.5 million, I had somehow crossed paths with one of my former students -- a young man I had taught when he was a senior in a Mekong Delta high school in 1967.

He treated me to dinner at a bustling, noisy restaurant and told me he had saved some money from a private business, then invested it in a joint venture with the government. Now he is director of a small factory making rubber sandals for export to Eastern Europe.

Beyond my surprise and pleasure that we had run into each other after so many years, I was a bit astonished that he seemed completely uninhibited about associating with a Westerner.

Just eight years before, when I last visited Vietnam, a policeman had sidled over to listen in when I stopped simply to see what was for sale at a newsstand.

In the major cities, at least, much of the official suspicion of earlier years has disappeared, and the relaxation is palpable.

It is difficult, especially on a short visit, to gauge the limits of the new openness.

It is clear that provincial officials run their own shows, and they frequently are more doctrinaire than their counterparts in the cities.

When I visited Tra Vinh, the Mekong Delta town where I had taught high school English classes for a year and a half in the late 1960s, local officials seemed out of sorts about having to receive me.

And yet, when I went to visit my old neighbors, I got a warm, unrestrained welcome -- despite the fact that I was accompanied by a train of local officials plus a guide from Ho Chi Minh City and the editor of the provincial newspaper.

The visit was rushed, but these friends from years past ran unhesitatingly through the lists of family members who had gone to Australia as well as those who had died or grown up and had children of their own for me to meet.

A story making the rounds in Ho Chi Minh City involves a leading physician, who is discussing the presentation he plans to make at an upcoming medical convention.

"My patient was shot in the neck," he tells a colleague, "and the bullet lodged in his throat. But I managed to get it out all right."

His colleague, somewhat puzzled, asks, "What's so special about that?"

"Well," the first doctor responds, "you have to remember that this guy was a newspaper reporter. He didn't dare open his mouth, so I had to go in through the other end."

The skeptical, sometimes cynical, spirit of the old Saigon is alive and well in Ho Chi Minh City.

When Nguyen Tue earned his seventh degree -- a doctorate in nuclear engineering from MIT -- it was front page news in Saigon Giai Phong (Liberated Saigon), the official daily in Ho Chi Minh City. The article mentioned that nine years ago Tue didn't speak a word of English.

The Vietnamese press once largely ignored Vietnamese living in the West, especially those who fled the postwar communist regime. But now some of these refugees are held up as positive examples -- especially those whose achievements demonstrate that Vietnamese, too, have the ability to master the world's most advanced technologies.

There is a new word for motorcycles in Vietnam -- xe tom. Literally, it doesn't make much sense. The words translate as "shrimp vehicle."

But when you consider that the motorcycles are imported, mostly from Japan, and when you recall that frozen shrimp are one of Vietnam's leading foreign exchange-earning exports, the image snaps into focus.

In the 1960s, South Korean troops were among the most feared of those fighting alongside U.S. and South Vietnamese forces against the revolutionaries who hold power today.

Today, South Korea frequently comes up in discussions -- not of the war, but of the economy. It is not lost on Vietnamese that 20 or 30 years ago, South Korea was as poor as Vietnam is today.

A Ho Chi Minh City monthly features an article titled "Miracle on the Han River" -- describing South Korea's economic accomplishments, profiling five South Korean business leaders and celebrating the electronics giant, Samsung.

The interest seems to be mutual. There are reports that several South Korean businessmen have had exploratory contacts with Vietnam.

As Vietnamese look back over more than a decade of postwar reconstruction projects, there are quite a few experiences they would rather not repeat.

Besides the relatively well publicized heavy industrial projects now seen as too ambitious for Vietnam's limited means -- many of them supported by the Soviet Union and now described as "Stalinist" -- the list of problem projects includes several more modest undertakings supported by India.

India supplied 15 locomotives for the rail line that links North and South. Only five are still working. The Indians say the problem is poor maintenance, but the Vietnamese suspect the quality of the locomotives.

In Ho Chi Minh City, India provided a factory to fashion Vietnam's abundant natural rubber into surgical gloves and condoms. I heard no comments about the gloves. But the condoms were judged ugly and uncomfortable and, I was told, they simply were never used.

Other plants -- one making jute rice bags, another pressing coconut oil and a third turning coconut husks into rope -- have broken down in just a few years.

This has led at least some Vietnamese to conclude that the quality of the technology is more important than the friendship of the donor.

Vietnam's new economic realism is forcing a redefinition of the country's social contract.

The 1980 Vietnamese Constitution promises free education and medical care for all. But students already are asked to bring rice to supplement their teachers' inadequate pay. And in the coming year, a formal system of fees for both schools and medical services seems likely to be introduced.

"When you hear the words in the constitution, they sound fine," a Ho Chi Minh City official told me, "but we're just not strong enough."

In Phnom Penh, the capital of neighboring Cambodia, foreign relief workers are puzzling with Cambodian officials over a problem that has been festering for 10 years.

When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge ruled the country, the capital had been virtually empty for the better part of four years.

Some of those who came into Phnom Penh when the city was reopened in 1979 were country folk with no experience of urban living. They took up residence in abandoned apartment blocks and, following their country habits, tossed their kitchen scraps out the door.

But instead of falling in a yard where scavenging pigs or dogs would snap them up, the scraps fell into the central courtyard -- scraps from four or five stories' worth of apartments. The courtyards were used as bathrooms, too, since the plumbing didn't work.

After a decade, the courtyards of some of these buildings are places only rats enjoy. It's hard to think of entering them even to clean them up.

But many of the transplanted country folk who live in these apartments are barely clinging to the fringes of the economy. Relief workers and officials hope to develop a plan to hire them to clean out their own courtyards -- and to help them understand the virtues of collecting refuse in a basket and setting it out by the curb.

Hanoi is taking quickly to dance halls. But being in the capital of socialist Vietnam does not protect these establishments from the usual ills seen at their counterparts in other countries.

The evening I visited one of the more expensive dance clubs in downtown Hanoi, where children of the city's upper crust put on surprising finery and strut their stuff, there were two serious arguments and one fistfight in the space of an hour. And I heard stories of dance hall romances that had ended marriages and caused grand jealousies.

I also saw some stylish dancing. Now that dancing is allowed, youth clubs have begun offering classes Arthur Murray could be proud of.

Dancing may be appreciated mainly on the lower side of the generation gap, but it is enjoyed across the social spectrum. Those with money in their pockets prefer the fancy private clubs. But the official youth organization sponsors low-cost dances that workers, teachers and others on limited incomes can afford. They seem just as crowded as the private clubs.

It was already dark when my guide, my driver and I arrived on Kham Thien Street -- a street that flashed briefly through American news reports in December 1972, when many of the houses in this Hanoi neighborhood were flattened in a bombing raid. If any signs of wartime damage remain, they are not evident at night.

The professor who had arranged the encounter met us at the curb with a flashlight and led us along the walkway between two buildings, then up a narrow staircase to the second-floor living room of Le Thanh Bao, a musician who traces his family tree back to one of Vietnam's royal dynasties.

Chu An

Thanh Bao, 50, had assembled several members of his musical family, a group of his friends and two of his own teachers -- Quach Thi Ho, a 78-year-old woman whose singing has been featured on a UNESCO recording of Vietnamese music, and Chu An, 80, a player of a two-stringed Vietnamese lute with a neck as long as he is tall.

Against one wall, suspended from a bamboo pole, were a half dozen large gongs, two or three feet in diameter. After a few words of welcome, Thanh Bao picked up a six-inch gong. Someone slipped into a chair in front of the large gongs. A son sitting in a far corner raised a pair of gongs about a foot across, hanging from a stick. Another son picked up a 15-inch gong and moved around behind me.

Soon the room was filled with the soothing rhythms of the music of one of Vietnam's highland minority peoples.

For nearly two hours, the family and their friends took us on a musical tour of Vietnam. They began in the northern Red River Delta and led us through the vigorous folk tunes and stylized court singing of central Vietnam, then down to the South with its fluid melodies based on a seemingly infinite scale.

A few days earlier, my guide, driver and I had gone looking for the wreckage of one of the planes shot down during that now-distant December, when Americans first heard of Kham Thien Street.

Our first stop was the zoo, where for years the remains of a vanquished machine had been on display with other wild beasts. But it was no longer there. Like most outward signs of the wars with France and the United States,it had been cleared away to make room for new projects.

We finally found part of the fuselage of one airplane in a water hyacinth-choked pond in a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital. A small plaque on a nearby wall recorded the fact that it was part of a B-52 that had been brought down at 10:20 p.m., Dec. 27, 1972.

School children jump rope next to a pond where a chunk of a downed B-52 came to rest in 1972.

To the children playing jump rope on the banks of the pond, at the gate of the neighborhood grade school, the wreckage was just another part of the landscape. All had been born after the bombing ended. If they know anything of the plane that crashed in front of their school, it is only as an episode in the war stories told by their parents and grandparents.

Even those who had an all-too-personal knowledge of the war seem ready to turn the page now.

Farmer Nam Vinh, who lives just outside the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho, had to rebuild from the ground up after the war ended in 1975. His village, which lies along a major highway, had been defoliated and cleared during the war.

"We should put the events of the past behind us," the 60-year-old farmer told me. Bringing one index finger tightly against the side of the other, he said, "I hope Vietnam and America will be close again."

He turned to Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietnamese revolution who died in 1969, for a text: "Them ban thi bot thu" -- if we have more friends, we'll have fewer enemies.

Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.

Published Jan. 15, 1989

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