My initial impression of Ho Chi Minh City is one of decay. There is no evidence that any public works have been undertaken since the end of war, although there are some large hotel projects springing up to accommodate the expected tourist onslaught.
Giant billboards at strategic intersections proclaim the benefits of communism, but crumbling buildings, potholed roads and makeshift bridges contradict the message. Life in Vietnam today proceeds at a far more somnolent pace than it did 20 years ago.
The broad, acacia-lined avenues of the former capital of South Vietnam are comparatively car-free now. Today they teem with hordes of bicyclists who, like schools of fish, somehow manage to cross paths without collision. My rattletrap taxi, heading toward Ho Chi Minh City from Ton Son Nhut airport, barrels down the center of the road with the horn blaring, parting the hordes like a ship slicing through rough seas.
For most Americans, the mention of Vietnam evokes images incompatible with a vacation destination, yet the country boasts a coastline longer than the West Coast of the United States, sprinkled with hundreds of undiscovered tropical paradises. Contrary to what you might expect, the Vietnamese are sincerely friendly and happy to see tourists, Americans in particular, returning to their country.
Everywhere I went I had an entourage of young children who were content to simply watch and smile and wonder why I looked so funny. A courageous few even ventured to touch my arm, fascinated by the hairs. I sometimes felt as if I were discovering a lost civilization -- and that's not too far wrong. After the communist takeover in 1975, the Vietnamese isolated the country from contact with much of the non-communist world.
Therefore it surprised me to learn the extent to which the Vietnamese loathe the Soviets. On the street I sometimes caught a nasty look from someone, often a younger person, accompanied by the accusation, "Lien Xo!," which means "Russian!" in Vietnamese. Fully 50 percent of the Vietnamese population is less than 20 years old, and this generation grew up learning to hate the Russians.
The popular feeling is that the Russians take what they can get from Vietnam and give little in return. Conversely, the Vietnamese associate Americans with prosperity and look forward to a normalization of relations with our country.
"My!," I protested, "Toi la nguoi My!" -- "I am an American!" If they understood my garbled Vietnamese, smiles spread. Several people refused to believe that I was an American and stubbornly repeated, "Lien Xo!" Those who believed me, and could speak English, pumped me for information. The three most common questions were: "When are you [Americans] coming back?" "When is the embargo going to be lifted?" and "My brother lives in Baltimore, do you know him?"
For many Vietnam-era veterans, the question of a return to Vietnam might not be so easily answered, but many psychologists believe that returning to the source of their nightmares can be beneficial. The returning veterans I met during my month in Vietnam had overwhelmingly positive experiences. A few men confessed to initial feelings of fear and suspicion that were soon forgotten amid the warm reception.
I spoke with one veteran who admitted that when he got off the plane he felt naked because he didn't have his gun. He quickly replaced that feeling with respect for a people who have endured so much and now welcome former enemies back to their soil with genuine hospitality.
The following morning I left my hotel armed with a plan of attack on the prodigious array of attractions in Ho Chi Minh City. In the street I was immediately besieged by a clamoring crowd of cyclo drivers. Cyclos, bicycle-powered rickshaws, are a primary means transport in the city, carrying both passengers and cargo. Extended haggling eventually produced a driver willing to pedal me around the city for the day for 18,000 dong -- about $1.50.
Touring the town in these contraptions invariably provoked an uncomfortable guilt complex in me that I assuaged by rationalizing that I was contributing to the local economy. Besides, I was probably paying three times the going rate. I perched on the seat, built for an Asian rear end, in front of the driver as we merged into the swirling traffic.
I had heard stories about the Museum of American War Crimes and decided to make that my first stop. The museum offers an interesting study in the fine art of propaganda, showing the world how horrible the United States was to the Vietnamese people. Like all good propaganda, it conveniently ignores the opposite side of the story.
The front courtyard of the museum contains captured tanks, helicopters and artillery pieces, each bearing a slanted message in Vietnamese, Russian and English. Inside, gruesome displays of the effects of chemical warfare compete with gut-wrenching photos of torture methods and mutilated bodies. The museum is disturbing.