VIEW FROM AFAR- Postcard from Vietnam: memories meet reality in Saigon

I am sitting in an Internet cafe on the second floor of a dress shop in Saigon on Friday afternoon. My travel companion, Adam Schrag, is at the next terminal checking his mail and composing travel notes for our shared blogspot. Adam is a graduate student with an interest on film and war.

This is my second trip to Vietnam. In 1968 my father dropped me off at the Wichita airport, wished me luck and a week later I was a GI working in the Port of Saigon.

While flying from Oakland, Calif., the Tet Offensive broke out and we were delayed for a few days in Okinawa.

On Wednesday I returned to my old billet at the Truc Giang Hotel near the Port of Saigon. For nearly a year this was my home. I ate and slept here, did guard duty on the roof, got mail from home and endured the occasional rocket attacks. One afternoon I watched jets strafe and drop napalm on the canal a few blocks away.

After nearly 40 years I was not certain I would find the Truc Giang. I walked to a known site-the old market-then headed in the general right direction and started asking directions. I was within a block of the building.

The last person I asked for directions became my tour guide. He was shirtless and reeked of alcohol and fish sauce with one extremely bad eye and very limited English. He eventually deciphered that I had been here in 1968 and wanted to see the inside of the building.

Along the way he shared his own story. My guess is he was separated from his family. He drove a motorbike for a living, has two children, aged 14 and 16, and lives in a windowless shed maybe 5 feet by 16 feet in the alley to the hotel. His father fought in the South Vietnamese Army and was sent to a re-education camp.

I slipped our volunteer guide a few dollars to keep him talking and motivated to show us around the building.

The Truc Giang is now an apartment building for very poor people. The only addition is a fire escape. Some new buildings have been erected nearby but the area is still a slum by both Saigon and Vietnamese standards.

At first I thought I was in the wrong building since the entrance seemed wrong. But when I saw the red and white tile floors, the off-yellow walls, the green shuttered windows and the odd interior atrium, I knew it was the right place.

Later I discovered the motorbike garage next door was the former entrance where the mail room and administrative offices were located.

We ended up chatting with eight women who lived on the fourth floor. They offered us chairs and ice water. We drank the water-placing etiquette higher than water safety.

Nobody spoke much English. Grandma was the oldest-and the only one who might have remembered the GIs who lived in the area. A mother introduced her daughter to Adam and described her marital merits. Adam was polite, but evasive.

Adam took pictures like crazy-per my request. As we left, he said quietly, “You lived in a slum.” He was right. My first city experience was a slum in a war-torn city. Maybe that is why poor areas of cities have seemed fairly comfortable to me ever since.

We walked down the street past Gate Five of the Port of Saigon-my route to work. At the end of the Port is a two-story pink building, the Ho Chi Minh Museum. In 1911 he sailed from the port to Europe to find a way to free his country from French colonialism.

From the second-floor terrace, we watched a bus unload a bunch of junior-high kids for a tour of the museum. They saw two westerners on the terrace and flashed us the peace sign-and we returned their signal.

This is a changed country. The signs at Tan San Nhut Airport say, “Vietnam prefers Visa.” Christmas trees adorn the hotels and plazas, and signs proclaim, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”

No “war on Christmas” here.

Everywhere, the hammer-and-sickle flags coexist with signs advertizing every American product. The self-help book by Dr. Phil McGraw is on the Vietnamese best-seller shelves in the bookstores. A few blocks down from the bookstore is a KFC, the only American fast-food chain to thrive in Vietnam.

Memory is an elusive thing. Nearly 40 years have passed since I was here. Even the meaning of my memories has constantly shifted. But now I have seen the Truc Giang Hotel and am free to see the rest of Vietnam.

If you want to to share the rest of the journey with this Free Press international correspondent, check http://quietamericans. We will make entries as often as possible.

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