Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — Editor's Note: This is one in an occasional series of stories by Senior Editor Bill Snead about his return visit last year to Southeast Asia. During 1968 and 1969 Snead was chief photographer for United Press International in Saigon during the Vietnam War.
In the late 1960s, a night landing in Saigon was an adventure. It didn't matter if you flew Pan Am, Air Vietnam or military, when you approached Tan Son Nhut Airport it was exciting. It was a light show with surround sound.
And when the plane's door opened, a wall of kerosene-soaked air heavy enough to chew rolled in.
A slow parade of flares turned dark into light along the barbed wire perimeters circling the huge airport complex. Noisy jet fighters spewing red and blue fire shot down runways like lightning bugs on steroids. Huey helicopters usually took low shortcuts over taxiways seeing how close they could fly to anything, moving or standing still, without touching it. It would have driven an FAA safety inspector nuts.
It was Disneyland in camouflage and sandbags.
When my night JAL flight from Osaka, Japan, touched-down here thirty-some years later, Tan Son Nhut looked deserted. The only thing rolling on the tarmac was a pickup truck under a flashing yellow light ready to lead us through the dim sea of blue runway lights to the terminal.
From outside, the terminal exterior looked like a roadhouse without the neon sign. It didn't get much brighter inside.
Gone was the sign I remembered from the '60s. "In case of mortar attack don't panic, don't run. Lay on the floor and cover your head with your hands."
When I left Vietnam the country was at war and the military's presence was everywhere. After 30 years I knew there was bound to be changes. After hearing tales from friends who'd returned I was prepared to be surprised.
The ride to downtown Saigon, now officially called Ho Chi Minh City pick your favorite, the residents do only revealed a couple of landmarks that I recognized. As the taxi crossed the bridge where the Viet Cong had long ago plotted to assassinate then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, I remembered something that made me laugh out loud.
When a new reporter or photographer would arrive in country in those days we'd meet them at the airport and ease them through customs. Our company car was a beat-up blue jeep, open on the sides with a raggedy top.
Sometimes, after we collected our rookie, we'd put on helmets and flak jackets and tell him Viet Cong snipers had been active and it could be a dangerous ride back to the UPI Bureau. We'd hand him a helmet and tell him to lie face down on the dusty metal floor in back and to keep his head down. We'd take the rougher streets on the four-mile return trip and drive like we believed our own story. When we pulled up in front of the bureau we'd point to our doorway and tell him to make a beeline.
It worked very time.
'A little different'
The new guy would race across the sidewalk dodging pedestrians and rush inside only to be faced by an assortment of UPI staffers laughing their tails off.
Anyone who'd ever been a victim of "the airport ride" made sure the tradition was carried on.
The UPI Bureau was known in Saigon for being "a little different."
I was still chuckling when I went to bed that night in the Majestic Hotel.
At sunrise the Saigon River was nearly as busy as the city's streets. Boats of all sizes raced across the river hauling commuters, many with bikes or motorbikes, off to a day's work in the city.
Huge billboards on the far bank were doing their best to sell Japanese electronics even at sun-up.
Across the street dozens of adults were already exercising and playing badminton on the riverfront plaza. By the way they were posturing, it was the place to be.
When I opened my window for a better look, I was hit by hot, humid air and a thought. You don't just see Saigon. You feel Saigon. You breathe it. Thirty years ago the strong smells erupting from the city dictated shallow breathing. A deep breath could stick in your throat like a bad oyster.
In those days in the heart of downtown, women in black pajamas and wearing rice hats set up charcoal stoves, scattered a few sawed-off stools, rigged an army poncho across the sidewalk and presto a sidewalk cafThey would dump their garbage, scrape their plates, and even relieve themselves at curbside usually a little upstream from their establishments. There was one such establishment just outside our bureau door and we all ate and drank there at times. At night, women pushing two-wheeled carts armed with brooms made of twigs would collect and rearrange the latest contributions.
Today's Saigon of nearly 7 million people, is clean, even immaculate, by comparison.
But today the air is filled with carbon monoxide and the sidewalks are littered with motorcycles.
There are an estimated 2 million motorized two-wheeled vehicles in Saigon.
Honda of Vietnam alone has produced more than 300,000 new bikes during the last three years. Their Honda Dream sells for about US$2,600 . A Chinese import, the Honga, sells for about US$700.
If the prices sound reasonable consider that the average salary in Saigon is about US$500 a year. Countrywide it's closer to US$350.
In Vietnam the motorbike is usually the family car. It's not uncommon to see an entire family of five stacked neatly on a two-wheeler. They're also used to haul everything from furniture to live poultry. The parade of Hondas carrying their variety of paraphernalia through Saigon streets is circus material.
Thick traffic, air
Gritty clouds of carbon monoxide spewed by motorcycles and their four, six and 10-wheeled great uncles make it nearly impossible for anyone on foot or Honda to escape scratchy, burning eyes and a sore throat.
The number of female motorbike riders has increased considerably since the war. Lots of them wear scarves over their faces much like armed robbers did before ski masks became fashionable. Many of the liberated riders have forsaken the traditional cone-shaped rice hat and wear an array of western style headgear with better aerodynamics. The trendy combination of mask, hat and dark glasses would make it impossible to recognize your mother, if she rode a Honda.
I've wondered how many red light relationships have gone down the tubes after the female rider removed her mask and shades.
Traffic is impossible. Getting from curb A to curb B can seem life threatening. It doesn't help that traffic lights are sparse. Your survival instinct tells you to run for your life. I took the advice of a Vietnamese friend who told me to walk slowly, and to stop occasionally to give oncoming traffic the chance to swerve around you. It's like bullfighting, but it's easier with your eyes closed.
The slowest and cheapest vehicle on the street is still the cyclo or pedicab. It's a three-wheeled bicycle. The passenger sits on a bench in front of a strong-legged man who will peddle you across town for less than a dollar. It's slow but a great way to see the city.
Thirty years ago it was considered the lowest job on Saigon's transportation ladder. It still ranks at the bottom and it's one of the jobs available to Vietnamese formerly connected with the South Vietnamese government.
The cyclo driver who peddled me along Saigon's waterfront said he flew helicopters for the South Vietnamese Army. He trained with the U.S. Army in the United States and flew lots of combat missions. After 1975 when the communists took over he spent several years in a "re-education" program before he was allowed to seek menial employment. His English is nearly perfect but under the current government he'll never be able to better his job dilemma.
One-half of Vietnam's 79 million people are under 25. Many are studying English and Japanese in hopes of getting high paying jobs with "foreign" companies setting up shop in Vietnam. Some of those jobs pay US$300 or US$400 dollars a month.
When I hooked-up with fellow traveler and former UPI/Saigon colleague Jack Walsh, we headed for our old wire service office at 19 Ngo Duc Ke. We'd each had apartments above the office when we worked there. We had already heard the place was now called Restaurant 19, so we decided to hit it for lunch.
As we approached the building the young doorman literally pulled Jack and I in the door. The front room, formerly our business office and teletype room, had been reconfigured and bore no resemblance to our old digs.
We chatted with the owner and he showed us around. What had been the darkroom was now the kitchen. I recalled that it had flooded during monsoon season and our lab man Tam printed pictures while standing on a chair in a half-foot of water.
During lunch we talked about things that happened a long time ago. In retrospect we agreed that most of what took place during the war didn't seem that real when it was happening. We had no previous experience dealing with co-workers getting killed or wounded on the job something the G.I.'s dealt with daily.
But we changed the subject to not-so-serious memories.
I recalled the time Jack's predecessor blanched when he told me he'd just walked in on his cleaning lady when she was scrubbing his toilet with his toothbrush. When he asked her to explain she said she'd always cleaned it that way. He was stricken.
Walsh spoke of one of the staff reporters who lived above the bureau in a shuttered room. He shared the apartment with a cat and an artificial Christmas tree that was lit year around.
We remembered the first time UPI's Foreign Editor from New York paid us a visit. Less than 30-minutes after his arrival, nine bar girls from the Melody Bar next door ran in the bureau and asked if they could hide upstairs during a police raid. Fortunately the New Yorker had a sense of humor.
We talked about the fistfights and bickering that happened when stress levels were high and egos and testosterone were at flood stage.
I mentioned I'd gotten a letter from UPI photographer Kent Potter in 1970 telling me that his Saigon apartment was burgled. When he located his stolen stereo equipment in a black market stall a tug of war evolved. Potter said he was out gunned and the only thing he could do was stomp his components into uselessness with his combat boots.
The scary thing is that reactions like that used to make perfect sense.
We talked about our loyal Vietnamese office staff who sometimes worked by candlelight and generator round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week.
We recalled when both of us walked into the bureau during a 3 a.m. rocket attack and found the night editor banging away on his typewriter. There were two empty chianti bottles on his desk, the kind with wicker bottoms. He was working on the third one. This was not unusual. I pointed to the bottles. The night guy looked up smiling and said, "I'm makin' candle holders."
We shared memories about how anxious we both were to work in Vietnam. It was our first shot at covering a war and we'd jumped at the opportunity. But like most of our American friends once you made up your mind to leave you couldn't get on the next outbound plane fast enough. If you were leaving in two weeks, like the military, we called it 13 days and a wake-up.
Weary of war
I was on no timetable to leave but in 1969 the Paris Peace Talks were droning along. American troops were leaving Vietnam under the direction of newly elected President Nixon. There were rumors we were gong to hand over the entire operation to the South Vietnamese military forces.
Arafat and his guerrillas were attacking Israeli troops, testing newly elected prime minister Golda Meir. We were trying to put a man on the moon before the end of the year. Belfast was on fire. The U.S. was still recovering from the 1968 riots and Americans were sick of the Vietnam War.
My bravado was gone, rockets were coming into the Saigon on a regular basis and when I gave notice to UPI/New York that I was ready to leave I started sleeping under my bed.
Walsh and I laughed remembering that, and we tried to estimate how many pounds of explosives a bamboo bed could withstand.
He reminded me that a Japanese journalist living in an apartment building across the street was killed when a rocket went through the roof and didn't explode until it dropped two floors and landed in his bed.
Familiar old street
After our long lunch we went outside, took pictures of one another in front our old bureau and headed back to our Hotel. We walked along Dong Khoi Street. When we lived in Saigon it was called TuDo Street. It was the home to lots and lots of dark bars filled with friendly young women, book stores that fronted for black market money changers, stalls filled with stolen military goods, massage parlors, some good and bad restaurants and a couple of reputable hotels like the Continental and Caravelle. Although very popular, downtown's TuDo Street was pretty seedy.
Tonight the stores on Dong Khoi Street were lit up like a row of slot machines. We marveled at the expensive-looking shops selling goods with names like Gucci, Christian Dior and Calvin Kline along with expensive leather goods and original art.
The enthusiastic shoppers that night were mostly Europeans and Japanese and the prices were reasonable if the goods were indeed what the brands indicated.
The lack of Hondas parked on the sidewalks indicated the shops weren't for the Vietnamese population making US$500 a year.
We were happy we had made our pilgrimage to Saigon. Almost everyone we encountered were very friendly. The city is home to some very aggressive street people who will even pursue your pedicab on their bikes pushing postcards in your face. It's also home to lots of new multi-storied buildings, many only half-occupied or unopened like a new Marriott Hotel.
You have the feeling you're in a glitzy amusement park and when it closes all of the employees have to go home to something less.
We agreed that we'd seen what we'd come to see and it was time to leave.