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Vignettes of Vietnam

ISSUE:  Winter 1995

Smiles and politeness, the mollifying oils of Asia, flow as freely in Vietnam as in China, but beneath the civilities, life in Vietnam seems comparatively violent. Instructions on the door of our fancy Saigon hotel, The Rex, after some obscure moralizing (“Avoid smoking when lying”) asked my wife and me if we wouldn’t mind leaving our “poisons, explosives and inflammables” at home with our poultry. Instructions on the bedside table said “When wanting a chambermaid, punch one. Punch two for room service.” Telephone instructions, of course. So much for “touch-tone dialing” and the tendresse of a Vietnamese Ma Bell: “Reach out and punch someone.”

The point may be that the Vietnamese, compared to the Chinese, among whom I have been working for years, are a very physical people. The Chinese are notoriously prudish about sex, for example, where the Vietnamese, Thais, and other Southeast Asians are not. Or if that sounds harsh, then be factual and say that for many Chinese adults today, as in olden days elsewhere, a glimpse of stocking is something shocking, and even hand-holding in public will sour the faces of onlookers. The Chinese get top prizes for reproductive capacity, of course, but the need for familial hierarchy and a general dread of chaos have conspired to suppress the sexuality of most Chinese young people, giving them an innocence that has wonderful charm, when it does not seem inane. How do you respond when a young woman taking an oral examination for a Master’s degree in English refuses to answer questions about D.H. Lawrence on the grounds that she is unmarried? This happened to me in Beijing. Those of us on the panel just blinked and stared, as best I can recall, and moved on to heady stuff like Virginia Woolf s To the Lighthouse. An uncharitable wag said afterward that if a cabbage were embarrassed about sex, it could tell the little cabbages they had been found under a Chinese girl. None of this is to say that the Chinese won’t get physical and knock you down getting on or off a bus; but if they haven’t met your eyes, they haven’t made contact, and except for particularly aggressive beggars, would never dream of touching you as the Vietnamese freely do, laying a hand on your arm or shoulder when talking to you, leaning against you on a bench and even laying an arm un-selfconsciously along your thigh, as one young guy did to me when seated on a boat traveling among some small islands off the coast of Nah Trang.

This physical behavior does take a rowdy turn, though, that seems disturbingly violent sometimes, especially among the young. Once when riding as a passenger in the front end of a bicycle-rickshaw, which is a very steady, soothing ride, even in heavy traffic where by all rights you ought to be terrified, I heard and felt a great THWACK! on my left shoulder, which made my pulse shoot up and my hands shoot out. But it was just a grinning teenager, slapping me with his school textbook in what he took to be a (sort of) friendly gesture (“gottcha!”), as he rode past on the back of his friend’s motorbike. Elsewhere, but in a similar vein, my wife and I both got our complement of smacked bottoms. Everywhere we went in villages small children would come running, shouting with outstretched hands something that sounded like “Le-an SO! Le-an SO!,” which I thought at first meant “gimme a handout!,” “money!,” “baksheesh!” Although this wasn’t entirely wrong, the words “Lien Xo” turned out literally to mean “Soviets,” perhaps more generalized by usage into “foreigners”; and though the children seemed undisappointed when their long-shot requests failed, they followed us everywhere in a taunting, jocular mood, coming up behind us to slap our bottoms, in response to dares from their pals, or (in one village) shying small shards of pottery at my legs to turn my head. On the streets of Saigon, children of about 12 to 15 years of age, in pairs, pretend to be map sellers—though they usually have but one map between them—then snatch your cash and dash for it if you’re foolish enough to show them any. At one temple, when the ceremony was over, the monks and attendants tossed bon-bons and savory snacks wrapped in banana leaves to children on the temple porch, which resulted in a scrum fiercer than anything I’ve seen in Australian Rules (i.e., no rules) Rugby. Striking through the cloud of dust, a monk and a Down’s Syndrome flunky belabored them with switches to separate and subdue them. Elsewhere, in more than one schoolyard, we saw boys yanking at each others’ Maoist red “Young Pioneer” neckerchiefs and sending each other sprawling with fists and flying, hockey-style body checks. So boys will be boys? Especially in Vietnam?

How much anything expressing the tenor of daily life can be attributed to The War is hard to say, not least because the wars have been so numerous that the political history of Vietnam is the most complicated of any in Southeast Asia. Perhaps propaganda on both sides would have us all imagine the place as a Nation in Arms. And perhaps it is. But the only Army presence we saw or felt, as casual tourists in South Vietnam and the Central Highlands, was fairly casual in itself: public entertainments with Army Artistes in khaki, staged in a large theater in Dalat, and around the square in Nah Trang, both “To Congratulate Warmly the Vietnamese Army on the 48th Anniversary of its Foundation,”according to posters translated for me. None of the syrupy love songs and bubble-gum pop that the Chinese go in for, no siree. This was Vietnamese Motown, with one group of young men in fatigues waving their arms around in unison and tangling the microphone cords, which the audience found hilarious; and another man, in a lugubrious blues number falling to his knees like James Brown, exhausted by the spectacle of his own emotion. He was really good. He only lacked someone with a camouflage tarp to drape over his shoulders and lead him off.

American “cultural” influences of this kind abound, not all of them so attractive or amusing. I was driven wild with hostility by all of the canned music, for example, that the Vietnamese seem to think everyone wants as an accompaniment to absolutely everything. Trucks backing up, as you dash for cover, play “It’s a Small, Small, World.” Telephones, when you’re put on hold, of course play music: “Home, Home on the Range” was the most evocative tune, “where seldom is heard a discouraging word,” or any other, for that matter. “I can’t get through to the hotel in Saigon,” I said to the receptionist who had helped set up the phone call. “It rings, and then I just get music.” “Yes!, O.K.O.K.!” she said, brightening at this good sign: “Try listening to the music!” I seem to remember even the toilets were tuneful. In one hotel room, we were given a cassette player and tapes, as if in a gesture of apology for not having continuous music piped into the room through a central system. On the open-air rooftop restaurant at the Rex, music flowed from speakers concealed in bird cages above the vast expanse of topiary deer, potted trees, and nightmarish knock-offs of Hellenic statuary in plaster. (At the corner of the roof, a 15-foot golden crown, trimmed with fairy lights, spun slowly above the city and flashed “Rex, Rex, Rex.” Very Counter-Revolutionary, but certainly not Old World. I think of how Henry James remarks in The Portrait of a Lady that Madame de Vionet’s doorbell was “as little electric as possible.”) And how the woman in charge of the chartered boat sweated when it seemed that we might have to swim in the sea without something blaring from the two eight-inch speakers hooked up with a spaghetti tangle of wires to a battery-powered amp and cassette deck! At one point, seven men and boys were peering with her into the thing at once. But leave iWo one of the German tourists on board to fix it in fact. The first tape the woman put on was the soundtrack to “Good Morning, Vietnam!”

At one of the movie theaters we went to, a very small one holding no more than 50 or 60 people in Dalat, we saw an American soft-porn film set in a Texas women’s prison where busty, sweaty women in short skirts worked like slaves in a field during the day, occasionally watering their bosoms to keep cool, and suffering profoundly throughout (“There goes my manicure!” one cried). In the lockup at night, the newcomers in the crowd found themselves at the mercy of a Bull Dyke in a black vinyl or Naugahyde “merry widow” who branded the bottoms of her followers and sex slaves with a hot coat hanger, etc., etc., all with the complicity of a fat, sneering administrator. All the while, each line of the dialogue was translated solemnly by a man with a mike up front. The Vietnamese men stared and smoked and smoked and stared and learned about America.


As for the legacy of our war, per se, the evidences must be pervasive, considering how the U.S. has blocked loans to Vietnam from the World Bank and has only very recently lifted a trade embargo. They seem, however, fairly localized and specific, though not insignificant. The most obvious are the cripples. The forty million gallons of dioxin-based defoliants dumped on the South, and still in the food chain, have created birth defects galore, and you can hardly go a block in central Saigon without being accosted by begging men and boys with withered limbs, flippers for hands, or stumps. At the other end of the human scale are the tall Amer-Asians, now all in their twenties, whom we saw out and about and in discos. Once complete Pariahs, they are now Cool Cats in the urban scene, for they are connected with the West and may even be able to use their faces as passports, since the formerly harsh discrimination against them has won them favorable consideration from tHe U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service. The only Amer-Asians we saw in Saigon were fair-skinned. If Vietnamese attitudes towards blacks are like Chinese attitudes, the survival rate for dark-skinned Amer-Asians was probably rather low.

Other visible evidence of the war is more trivial, like the toy warplanes, with eight-inch wing spans, displayed like

Christmas ornaments on tree-stands at street corners: F-4 Phantoms, MIG’s, Huey Cobras and the anomalous biplanes, all from cut and folded beer cans—Heinekin, Tiger Beer, and the local brand “333.” These cost a dollar. Other hardware makes up the inventory of a nationwide rummage sale: powerful Russian binoculars, and Russian compasses the size of grapefruit; forceps, scalpels, tweezers, kidney-shaped enamelled pans and other minor surgical equipment; trays, boxes, and shelves stacked with hundreds upon hundreds of Zippo cigarette lighters, some engraved with names, but most with American battalion insignia or other images, like tattoos. In running across stranded Americana, I was particularly fascinated by the left-over vehicles I saw from time to time: an old Harley Davidson converted into a tricycle with a cargo box up front; a forlorn ‘69 Mustang that looked in good enough shape to long still for its home in San Diego; and an even older Buick Rocket-88 that could have co-starred in Mel Gibson’s Road Warrior, jacked up by a leaf-spring suspension about a foot too high off the ground, and though repainted several times, recently ground down to bare metal so that its shark-like fins flashed in the sun.

You only have to look around you at the buildings, though, to see that the French rather than the Americans were the ones who had meant to stay from the outset. We left behind mouldy concrete airport hangars and office blocks. The French left behind grand avenues (off limits to motorbikes and therefore largely deserted), grand hotels, and municipal buildings, like the “Hotel de Ville” in Saigon, with its 40-foot ceilings. Above all, perhaps, they left behind many churches and a few cathedrals. These, and countless more contemporary churches throughout the South—hideous things, mostly, A-frames or boxes with flaps like wings running up the sides to give a steeple effect—embody the most obvious of profound and apparently on-going foreign influences.

Among the many preconceptions that soon evaporated, the first to go was the notion that Vietnam would be (to coin a phrase) dirt poor. Thanks to our blocking of those loans I mentioned, there is little money in Vietnam for infrastructure projects. Rusty bars exposed in the crumbling reinforced concrete look like dead vines clinging to the struts and undersides of some bridges, and the roads even between prominent cities like Hue, Danang, and Hanoi have such patchy pavement that it is difficult to average 15 miles an hour. But the country doesn’t seem especially poor by Asian standards. At least in the South, nearly everyone seems able to afford a motorbike, for example. When you’re trying to cross the streets of Saigon, especially at night when you can see only headlights for half a mile along the flat, you feel as if you’ve strayed into the biggest bikers’ convention the world has ever known.

And the food! For the bureaucrats, the growing class of entrepreneurs, and others with ready money, even one’s daily bread can come flambe. As for the common people in the South and the Central Highlands, no one starves. For miles along the roads, grains, coffee, and slices of cassava or “tapioca” are drying in bands on the shoulder. In towns and cities, the streets are at times lined by vendors of cooked meat (including barbecued haunch of dog), and fruits and vegetables which are carefully stacked in shallow cases, like large paintings on easels, so that every last orange, polmello, melon or whatever it is—baguettes, too—can be taken in at a glance. The markets are bursting, not only with preternatu-rally large vegetables, like cauliflowers as big as basketballs, but often with luxuries, like cut flowers, candied fruit, local jams and jellies, nut brittle, cakes, four or five grades of coffee, 10 or 15 kinds of tea—some to wake you up, some to make you sleep—and local alcohol. All of the drinks cost only about one U.S. dollar a bottle:Iruit cordials; a watery-tasting but high-octane Stolichnaya “Russian” vodka, with a blurry label, made in Vietnam under license; fortified wines disarm-ingly labeled “Red Wine” and “White Wine”; and a very drinkable champagne—one dollar a bottle!—that was equally unpretentious, though by the second bottle we were hailing it “Chateau Ho Chi Minh.”


Another largely false preconception I had about Vietnam was that it would be a particularly repressive place, ideologically speaking. When I first saw the big stars of red and white cellophane on wicker frames that were hanging on numerous houses and shop fronts, I thought I would see Ho Chi Minh’s face staring at me from the center. It was the Virgin Mary. In shops everywhere you can get religious scenes inlaid with mother of pearl on black-lacquered wood, or statues of Jesus, his heart in his hands, staring up disconsolately at his neon halo. For Buddhists, particularly popular items are electric swastikas with parti-colored rays that flash in all directions, for this broken-armed cross is, as it happens, one of the most ancient of Buddhist symbols. During the week before Christmas, the churches were all jammed, with people standing 10 deep on the steps, and lines 50 feet long to the confessionals. (“Bless me, Father . . . I have Capitalist Tendencies.”) The country has in fact more than a million professed Catholics, 25 dioceses, 30 bishops and some 2,000 priests.

Business was just as brisk at the Vietnamese Buddhist temples, too. At one, we sat in on the margins of prayer session attended by perhaps 200 people in white robes, mostly older women, who chanted in unison for an hour. The Chinese temples in Saigon, a mixture of Buddhist and Taoist influences, are richer and more beautifully adorned with statuary and paintings than any temples in prosperous Hong Kong, and all but a few in mainland China.

More curious, and more entangled with politics and the violent tenor of life are the “Cao Daists,” whose leaders and whose temple in Tay Ninh figure prominently in Greene’s The Quiet American. With a couple of young English women we met who shared an admiration for this book, we decided to make a pilgrimage of sorts to see something of the temple and the Cao Daists themselves, for their faith is a strange as their temple, which is a monument to bad taste. Rather like Baha’is, the Cao Daists believe in an amalgam of religions:

Catholicism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, with a dash of Islam. Their founder began in the 1920’s with seances that brought him and his followers in touch with the likes of Joan of Arc and Shakespeare. They have a pantheon of worthies, at the top of which are Nguyen Binh Khiem (a 15th century poet), Sun Yat Sen, and Victor Hugo. In short, they’re crazy. But politically, they were at one time very much a force to be reckoned with, fielding a “security unit” 25,000 strong in the mid-fifties. On more than one occasion during the period between the collapse of the French forces in 1954 and President Diem’s crafty incorporation of the Cao Dai army into the larger Army of the South, in 1965, the Cao Daists came close to running the whole show. But we never made it to the temple, alas. With our new English friends, we waited and waited at the cafe where we had supposedly secured a hired car, which didn’t appear. When I took charge, independently hired a car through a taxi driver whose friend showed up eager to take us, and crammed us all in, we got hardly five blocks before we all began to realize that we’d have to abort. Nearly a hundred kilometers lay between us and Tay Ninh, and the car was a wreck even by Vietnamese standards—no muffler, clutch almost gone, smoke and the smells of burning rubber coming up behind the firewall, water occasionally splattering up onto the windshield from beneath the hood. People stared and the more amused gave us an ambiguous “thumbs-up” sign. “What is your name?,” I asked the driver. “Bomb,” he said. We gave it up.

Nevertheless, the unrestrictedness (if not the ease) of access to the Cao Dais and the openness of the government toward many varieties of religious expression take their place beside many lesser liberalisms that belie U.S. diplomatic policy towards Vietnam. Until very recently, that is, U.S. policy has suggested that the country is nothing but a big prison. But the Vietnamese tolerance of the Peoples’ Opiate, and countless instances of bourgeois thinking embodied in the free markets, local films, cheesecake poster photos, Western-style white weddings, and on and on, all express a flexibility—even if it is only a muddled carelessness—that should give us reason to suppose that Vietnam can change pervasively and rapidly. As I know from having lived in Beijing and having traveled independently through other parts of China and through Tibet, the Chinese government is by contrast much more repressive and hostile to outside influences; and yet our unwillingness to upset the Chinese has at times reduced our criticisms to a kind of stammering.


Really the only way in which the country obviously seems like a country under Communist Rule, as people at least used to say in the Reagan years, is that it’s corrupt in at least petty ways and is strangling itself in red tape. When we arrived in Saigon, for example, we knew that we would have to get permission to travel elsewhere in the country and learned that through our hotel, for about U.S. $25.00 per person, we could get a pass legalizing our presence in five places of our choice. We thought maybe the hotel was gouging us a little in this offer, so we went directly to the police station. The police told us to go to “Saigon Tourist.” At “Saigon Tourist,” the smiling, feline receptionist told us that our aims were impossible. “One must have a guide and a hired car to travel in Vietnam. It is not possible for individuals to travel.” “But what about flying somewhere?—to Hue, let’s say.” “Then you must be met at the airport by a guide and car.” “But the guidebook says that you can get around on your own.” “The guidebook is written by foreigners. They do not know the reality.” We went back to the hotel, paid the 50 bucks, and in less than 24 hours had our pass entitling us to go where we wanted, the government-run tour business be damned. In recent months, corruption, ineptitude, and perhaps sheer laziness conspired to do away with these five-stop travel permits, though many inconveniences and some restrictions remain.

A Swiss couple we met who were coming down from the North told us that they had been corralled by officialdom and persuaded to get a car, driver, and guide, which was costing them for the week more than one thousand U.S. dollars, at least five times more than the same trip would cost you under your own steam. Their “guide,” a Northerner who had probably never been out of Hanoi himself, kept saying, “What do you want to see?” Another pair also coming down from Hanoi were luckier, for when they first arrived in the Hanoi airport they were bursting to go to the toilet, and when they emerged, the officials had already carted off all the early-arriving suckers. Not that you can really say no, in the North. Hanoi does seem to be stickier than Saigon for travelers. One young woman who had come on an invitation from a Vietnamese university to help with a medical project had been driven against her will from the airport to a hotel costing her way beyond her budget, and then had her passport taken away for four days so that she couldn’t leave. When she at last got to the university, they wanted to charge her $25.00 a day for a dorm room, which more than likely was just a concrete box with a bare bulb. She left, just to travel freely and see the country; and we carried out of Vietnam for her a letter to Australian friends who might otherwise have begun to wonder what had become of her.

We had no such problems with travel, in the end. On hired bikes, we found a bus station in the north of Saigon where, next day, we could hire a vehicle to take us to Dalat, which we did in concert with a trio of Swiss Germans. The departure was a bit worrying, though. We had haggled and haggled in a friendly way over the price for this trip, settled on one, and took off, only to be stopped just beyond the exit by a very unhappy looking, loud-mouthed young man with a flushed face and a red armband. After listening to this guy bluster for a while, our driver drove on, but turned the wrong way, went around the block and reentered the bus station compound from its other end. Uh Oh. “There you are,” Kathy said. “Forty dollars, round trip!” But not to worry: the driver had only neglected to bribe the right people. So after a few hundred Dong changed hands, he pulled out again, stopped at the street comer, paid off a policeman, who took his cut without even turning his face in our direction, and hit the road for Dalat with his illicit cargo of foreigners.

At the Saigon airport on the way back to Hong Kong—our travels to Dalat, Nah Trang and back complete—we had one last surprise. The officials didn’t care, of course, that we were carrying ten times our legal limit of wine and spirits back to Hong Kong. That would be for the Hong Kong officials to deal with. But these little plates and bowls, now, the ones we had bought from a vendor at a temple: these brought a small army of customs officials running. The man who had sold them to us said they had been dug up on his land, and every one was “Oh, Ming Dynasty!” And how much? “Oh, four dollar!” We’d seen identical things for sale downtown and would have taken his descriptions lightly anyway. We just liked the look of them. But at the airport, the Customs official gingerly unwrapping them from our dirty shirts and underwear—the whole scene must have looked bad, really—kept sucking in his breath with each new discovery (“ssssss!”) then saying loudly, “anTIK!” “Ssssss! anTIK!” They were, in fact, 18th-century plates and bowls. So we lost the lot, except for a vase they and we, too, overlooked in our nervousness. Laboriously, without carbon paper, a man wrote out in duplicate a long form that included my name, passport and visa numbers, a woman filled out a tag for each piece which she glued to it like a huge postage stamp, and another woman logged the numbers of the forms and tags into a book two-inches thick that was nothing but numbers. Then the man handed me this page of Vietnamese—my Confession?—and said, “Sign please.” You’ve got to be kidding! “What does it say?” He then translated it word for word, including the Vietnamese transliteration of my name, first, middle and last (Jr.), and explained that it was merely a description of the nine-piece collection, and that keeping this form would entitle me to enquire someday at the appropriate ministry whether our things, upon further examination, had been deemed too valuable for private possession. “But it’s really not fair. People should be warned not to buy these things. They’re for sale everywhere in Saigon.” “Not illegal to buy. But you cannot take them away. Antik. If you want to buy things to take away, come to ministry office. They have a shop.” Ah ha.

Oh well. These officials were at any rate as friendly and pleasant as their official air of boredom allowed. In fact, the friendliness of the people, their warmth, their eagerness to please and be pleased, is one of the strongest impressions I dare say anyone traveling in the country will come away with. One night, in the company of the two English women we had met in Nah Trang, firecrackers in the street were (“Pop!”) giving us a slight case of the jitters as we grilled things at our table al fresco and talked about their plans (“Pow!”) to call home later in the evening. It was Christmas. They said that their families had been worried about their traveling in Vietnam, and that they hoped (“Pop-pop-pop!”) the firecrackers would let up before they got their parents on the line (“No, mum, no, it’s not gunfire”). Such worries seemed misplaced enough to make this hilarious, at the time, for we all felt that in spite of the country’s bloody history we were in infinitely more danger of choking to death on a chunk of grilled squid.

Emerson, looking out through his cold, clear mind once said “Let us treat men and women well. Treat them as if they were real; perhaps they are.” This keeps floating back to me as I try to sum up the violence of life in Vietnam as an expression, and not an especially perverse one, of the warmth of the people, for the Vietnamese seem passionately to desire Recognition, overwhelming your dignity with grasp, forcing you into relating to them, even in irritation, with a slap on the bottom. Though the slaps on the bottom may be unpleasant, at least you’ll never get cold-shouldered; and this has great appeal.


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