Postcard: Saigon Letter

Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner, writers and media makers, are traveling in Southeast Asia and reporting on their visit.
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Happy New Year–from Saigon.
Sherry and I arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airport–a designation like so many others with a grim resonance for us for more than forty years–just minutes before Tet, the week-long New Year’s Festival was to begin. Outside the airport people were clamoring for taxis–so anxious or so excited were they to get into Saigon proper before the Year of the Tiger began. We got in the mood.

Once we grabbed one, the taxi ride in was exhilarating, after the 24 hour trip from snowy New York City, as the streets were thronged with dozens hundreds thousands of young people on motorbikes–motos, as they are called here. Sometimes whole families are bunched on a single moto. Stopped at red lights, we called out Happy New Year, from the taxi window, in between erratic bits of videotaping.
Upon checking in at our hotel, situated just two short blocks from the central Cho Ben Thanh market, we asked about the fireworks and were assured that the best place to see them now was the roof of the hotel . . . Up we went in the elevator, with a bunch of other visitors to Saigon, both Vietnamese and not. We were in time–which seemed auspicious–and was, as it turned out, for our nine days in Ho Chi Minh City. As the fireworks boomed the strangers looking out on the roof wished each other a Happy Year of the Tiger, in several languages.

I suppose in exploring every unknown and alluringly foreign city the swirling atmosphere of chance, even if ultimately
illusory, seems to take over with each glance left or right, or each uncertain step this way or that. But Tet in Saigon nourished that potential, as we wrestled with inadequate maps (the bookstores were all shut for the week–Tet, you know–and so we kept failing to find a decent map, which had its own detourned appeal once in awhile–butnot always). In the first Temple (Quan Am Pagoda) we went to in the Cholon District (which one reads about in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American as a suburb of Saigon, in the still-Frenchifed Fifties) we were struck right-on by the fantastic incense-drenched smokey spectacle of the rapt desire for good fortune.
Dozens of worshippers lighting joss sticks they stuck into ceramic jars and incense cones hung on the ceiling in hopes of good fortune for the coming year.  It was enough to turn any sentient being into a believer on the spot. And so newly religious, I joined in the ceremony, as Sherry wielded the camera. The overlap of the practice of worship to the more mundane practices of everyday life was so striking that we left suitably dazzled and soon stumbled into an actual gaming arcade, a few blocks away,where luck was a bit more mixed with skill as Sherry and I took turns playing some kind of pinball with some young Vietnamese also playing and trying against high odds to instruct us on how to play. We were transfixed for quite awhile–and when we broke away, thanking our neighbors for their help–we asked the young attendant what we owed for playing–and she checked our scoreboard–and paid us 10,000 dong–about sixty cents.
A few days later, in a muted Disney-fied almost amusingly ghastly tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Saigon (from which the 1968 Tet offensive was launched by the VC against Saigon) the politics of luck (another name for class struggle in this context?) were played out on all sorts of levels. For instance, at the climactic point in the tour you can pay a little extra for some ammo and shoot the Vietnam War weapon of your choice at a target range. That nobody ever seems to hit a target would appear to be one point of this game. The punishing noise is another.
But much more compelling was the chance to talk to the tour guide, who had been demonstrating and lecturing about the enemy (that
is us, the US), demonstrating, that is, the use of boobytraps and lethal cages, how the tunnel entrances were camouflaged, how the VC did and didn’t survive in the tunnels. We talked to him about his own experience of the War–he was a man of about 67 years of age.. He’d been an advisor to the Green Berets, was wounded in 68 and luckily -there it is again–demobilized–so after ’75 when he should have been a target for ‘Reeducation’ was given a pass on that. He asked me whether I’d been in the army during the War and when I explained that I’d been a draft resister responded, “oh, like Muhammad Ali.” We had in common the knowledge that the War had been the determining moment in both our lives.
The Cu Chi Tunnels , like the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace, are the major sites of the circuit of war tourism in the Saigon area. Tourists can be counted upon to always behave like tourists so there was no visible hesitation in snapping photos in front of US tanks on the grounds of the War Remnants Museum, or in posing with broad smiles with arms draped around the VC mannequinsat Cu Chi, etc. And of course we videotaped many of them doing so. And since it was Tet a great many of the tourists were Vietnamese–not just Westerners. These monuments (and others, scattered here and there, like the small street-corner memorial to the first monk who immolated himself, which is venerated on a daily basis by passersby) give Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City an ever-present ever-past sense of doubleness also hinted at by its double name.
There is much more to say but these are the themes we are reckoning with right now so far: the resonance of names, the deception of chance, and the persistence of burning–as we continue.

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