Bar cashes in on fascination of young with Saigon experience


July 09, 1992|By Peter S. Goodman | Peter S. Goodman,Contributing Writer

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- Once it was a war; then it was a movie. Now it's a bar.

Welcome to the Apocalypse Now, Ho Chi Minh City's latest, trendiest watering hole where young backpack-toting travelers from Europe and North America down beers with leftover bar girls from the city's raunchy heyday. The sound of the Doors, the rock 'n' roll band forever associated with the war, vibrates through the sparsely decorated, dimly lighted room.

The existence of the place, which opened a year ago, confirms that despite 16 years of socialism, the people of what used to be called Saigon have not lost their canny knack for making a buck.

Nor have they gained any reluctance about commercializing virtually anything, in this case the fascination that foreigners have with the war that was fought here.

The coolest of the cool arrive wearing flak vests, safari jackets and dark sunglasses. Most of the crowd is garbed in jeans and T-shirts.

Smokers light up with flip-top Zippo lighters that were once owned by actual GIs -- at least according to the owners of the numerous shops in town that sell them, along with allegedly authentic Soviet officers' watches, American GI dog tags and North Vietnamese Army pith helmets.

Most of the lighters are engraved with messages such as: WE ARE THE UNWILLING LED BY THE UNQUALIFIED DOING THE UNNECESSARY FOR THE UNGRATEFUL. The name of the alleged original owner and the dates and places of his supposed Vietnam tour are engraved as well.

The young patrons, many born too late to have any memories of the war, seem to be looking for a vicarious old Saigon experience, but the place has the contrived atmosphere of a movie set.

The music, mainly '60s rock 'n' roll, comes off sounding more like a soundtrack than the echo of an age as the young travelers -- who paid more than $100 to Bangkok travel agents to procure their tourists visas -- swap tales of hedonistic jaunts through Southeast Asia.

Some Vietnam veterans are upset by the bar and see its existence as illustrative of a pervasive myth about the war: that it was an exciting adventure, something out of an Indiana Jones movie.

"What it does is glorify war," said Gordon Smith, who heads a chapter of Veterans for Peace in Monterey, Calif., and served at nearby Bien-hoa air base in 1970 and 1971.

Mr. Smith was back in Vietnam distributing donated medicine to hospitals and clinics throughout the country, but he refuses to go near the Apocalypse Now.

"These kids that aren't even old enough to remember the war sit in there and think, 'Oh boy, that must have been groovy,' and wishing they could have been there," he said.

Most of the customers deny that they have come for any reason other than the pursuit of a cold beer.

"It's a nice place. I just sit and listen to music, that's all," said a 30-year-old Swede who is shoestringing his way through Southeast Asia.

"We come here because everyone else goes here. This is the place to meet other people. That's the only reason," added his U.S. companion, who was wearing a "Lift the Embargo" T-shirt.

The establishment is doing a brisk business.

Although it is hardly distinguishable from any of the other thousands of cafes and bars in town that serve the same beers -- Saigon 333 beer, and black market imports from Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines -- the Apocalypse Now is usually packed.

"The war is in the past," said 22-year-old Tran Thi Lan, who helped set up the place, dismissing the possibility that there might be something less than appropriate about the establishment's name.

"We figured we'd start up a place for tourists, and a foreign friend suggested that we name it after a famous movie to attract people," she said, "so we chose Apocalypse Now."

Ms. Tran, who tends bar for 2,000 dong (about 15 cents) an hour, not a bad wage in this country where even a civil servant earns barely $30 a month -- only recently saw the movie.

"It was very good," she said, using the English she learned partly in school but mostly from Hollywood, "but for me, it's heavy."

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