April 5, 2010 10:28:00 AM
Saigon, the defunct capital of South Vietnam, no longer exists except fondly in the memory of several hundred thousand American soldiers.
This phantasmagoria of Southeast Asia, rivaled only by Bangkok, was at once a thriving, boisterous, dirty, elegant, wicked, decadent, vibrant and in-a-hurry city that displayed everything that was right or wrong with South Vietnam.
Capitalism flourished alongside rampant corruption. French elegance in language, architecture, and cuisine stood alongside abject shanties, dirty klongs (sewer ditches), and fried dog or cat sold by street vendors.
The sad fact that Saigon fell and was submerged into a Communist economic hell is one of the region''s great tragedies. Saigon did capitalism as well as any place I have ever seen.
Vietnamese merchants siphoned money off GIs with an aplomb that would have astounded any 19th Century American mogul. But they did it by providing exactly what we wanted, with a smile, and quickly. And if they didn''t know exactly what we wanted, they found out in a hurry. As a result, for instance, everyone came home with a killer stereo system for one-quarter the price they would have paid in the States.
Ironically, the Vietnamese were better capitalists than we soldiers were. They knew the system better, did it better, and appreciated it far more than we did. They lived the naked capitalism we only vaguely thought about, and then not very well or precisely. And we thought we could teach them? They would have been teaching us, had we had the sense to listen to them.
Rivers of safe vehicles
City traffic provided a metaphor for the frantic business marketplace. Small, three-wheeled vehicles swarmed everywhere in a mayhem only loosely affected by traffic lights. Rampaging rivers of diverse vehicles would collide at large traffic circles that seemed always on the verge of suffering fifty car pile-ups that never quite seemed to happen. Car horns blared as offensive weapons as vehicles veered within inches of each other while paying absolutely no attention to traffic lanes.
Traffic moved very swiftly considering the overwhelming congestion, and a thick fog of exhaust hung over the streets that stung the eyes. I suppose it could be argued which city has the worst traffic congestion and mayhem, and Saigon would have been in the top three I saw, along with Cairo, Egypt and Bangkok.
In retrospect, a Saigon restaurant named "Le Cave" served me the best meal I have ever had, and for the price of fast food in the U.S. I''ve had excellent meals in many countries, but this meal was artistry, a lobster thermidor that made me gasp in astonishment when I tasted it.
The French waiter performed perfectly, showing up exactly when needed, but not bothering us otherwise. American waiters tend to inquire about the meal while walking by briskly and exactly when I have a mouth full of food, and then refusing to look toward me when I need something. This meal gave a small glimpse of the departed French presence, and it was an excellent one.
Soldiers stationed in Saigon often got lost in the marvelous mayhem of the city. This was termed Tee-locking, which I think approximated the Vietnamese term for living downtown on the economy and freely as a bird. This always involved a Vietnamese woman who performed as something between a wife and a maid while performing the duties of each. Many soldiers "went native" and completely disappeared into city when not on the job. Even an American Army private could live lavishly on the economy where the dollar held mystical power, and many did.
There were sad sights, too, beggars, orphans, and war cripples. One night as we scrambled to get inside the gate before the 2300 hours curfew, a decrepit, disheveled, gray Vietnamese grandmother wandered amongst us saying, in a trans-like state, that she had a "round-eyed American girl" available. Humoring her, I asked her if she really had a "round eyed" woman. She nodded her head fiercely and said yes, right down that alley over there. Oh, yeah, I''m going to walk down that alley all right, Mama San! While we found it humorous at the time, it displayed an abject desperation for a dollar. I should have given her 10.
Besides, most soldiers would live their whole lives with "round eyes." They were looking for something different here, a very different look, a very different outlook, a very different attitude. Right or wrong, many a variety of exotic life spices were available outside the gate, exactly what many Americans sought because they knew they''d never be available again once they got back to "the world."
Thirty years after I left Vietnam I flew along the Vietnamese coast in my military cargo jet en route to Thailand. A Philippine air traffic controller directed me to contact Ho Chi Minh Center. I bristled at this long since revised name for Saigon. The new name brought to mind a thin old man with a scraggly beard that matched the tired Soviet-style blandness and rigidity that has suppressed the vibrant rambunctious-ness that had been Saigon.
I almost dared to refer to the female controller as Saigon Center, but decided against it. She was probably not even born when I was there and would not appreciate the dig it would represent.
It would have been a statement, however, that once there was a marvelous, gaudy, exuberant city of Saigon that many Americans remember fondly as the mystical Xanadu of their youth.
Jay Lacklen is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot, who flew missions in Vietnam and Iraq. Presently he is simulator instructor at CAFB and is writing a book about his experiences in the Air Force.
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