Home to a foreign land- Nguyễn Dương

Home to a foreign land

 It began with an invitation to participate in an International HIV Conference (September 1996). Attending an HIV/AIDS Conference is not unusual for me. I have done it many times but this time it would be completely different, it would be held in Hanoi, Vietnam. Being a former South Vietnamese officer who has fought against the communists and one of many military physicians who fled Saigon in the last days of the collapse of South Vietnam, I was quite hesitant. One side of my thinking was a staunch: I can’t trust the communists, they may imprison me, blackmail me or even worse, stage a fatal car accident (this happened to a former dean of the University of Saigon). They will follow me everywhere and at a slight pretext, planted or not, they can put me in jail.”

But there was another side: the invitation to participate in an HIV Conference is a noble cause. A recent estimate by the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts by the year 2000, South East Asia will be ravaged by the HIV epidemic. Unlike the U.S. which saw a decline of HIV/AIDS cases due possibly to an aggressive prevention program and a different subtype, Clade B, of HIV seen in a majority of homosexuals. With the flourishing prostitution trade in Thailand and soon in Vietnam, no wonder there will be an explosion of HIV epidemic in Vietnam. There are ten of thousands of cases now in Thailand and about four thousands in Vietnam. WHO’s figures were of 25 millions within four years with only two millions in North America and perhaps 20 millions in Africa. The center of the HIV epidemic will shift to Southeast Asia.

We also all know that HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of mortality of men in the 25-44 years age group. This will decimate the young Vietnamese generation. As a public health and preventive medicine physician, I cannot let it happen, I have to combat the disease. It is a humanitarian assistance program, I said to myself, I should help. Besides that, it will be an occasion for me to see my native land after 42 years of separation: I left Hanoi, North Vietnam, in 1954 for Saigon following the partition of Vietnam at the Geneva Conference and landed in the U.S. in 1975 when the North Vietnamese communists invaded South Vietnam.

 That was one side- the other side was I also needed a visa from the Vietnamese government. Although I applied a month in advance, I did not receive the visa until one working day before my departure. The Vietnam Embassy in Washington, D.C. could not sign my visa, they had to consult the Hanoi Central Government. I was told rumors that they were hesitant because of my past and of being a Colonel in the U.S. Army. It was quoted “I was being sent to Vietnam to overthrow the government”. I smiled to myself, it did not surprise me: the communists were always suspicious and paranoid. Knowing that the anti-communist Vietnam community in the U.S. will react violently against me for participating with the communist government complicated the picture. I reassured myself with the fact that this is noble cause, a humanitarian assistance program trying to avert the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic which can decimate the young, the future of the Vietnam population.

 I arrived at Tân Sơn Nhất Airport in Saigon after two days of long grueling travel with 16 hours of transit at the Bangkok International Airport. While taxiing to the terminal I saw the airplane bomb shelters built by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Grass was growing between the cracks and stripes of black moss covered the concrete. It was evident that it was not maintained adequately and was left to decay. It was so quiet, a flashback occurred: it was so clean and so busy and noisy when I saw it the last time. Tân Sơn Nhất was the busiest airport in the world, beating even Chicago. I still remembered vividly Mr. P. McCombs from the Washington Post helping my family getting on the bus to the runway. Now I did not see any departing airplanes as we were approaching the terminal. The plane finally stopped, a few Vietnam Airlines hostesses in their blue “áo dài” (the Vietnamese traditional dress) appeared. Then I saw the soldiers (they should be officers as I found out later). A spasm mounted from my stomach to my throat. They were my enemies before! The last time I departed it was the South Vietnam MP’s who were trying to screen deserters, whom I was. It was ironic: I had the same feeling before because I tried to get out illegally from a friendly army, now I was screened legally by former enemies!

 The customs officer looked at my papers and asked me to fill out a new visa application (with a new photo) which I did not comprehend: my visa had already been approved. I controlled my urge to argue with him. Perhaps this was happening because the communist system is always trying to catch discrepancies when you repeat the same process or maybe because I did not bribe him. Friends told me that if I put ten dollars in my passport everything would be fine. There would be no questions asked or any extra paperwork required. Being an official, I did not want to encourage the corrupt practice by offering a bribe. All military officials were officers from checking passports to luggage X-ray screening. It was like in Russia where communists seemed to distrust non commissioned officers (NCO’s) performing these functions.

Eventually I was permitted to go. On the minivan from the airport to the hotel: Saigon streets rolled in front of me. It was so crowded. Motorbikes were everywhere, with some cars, a few bicycles and a few cyclos. The cacophony of noise filled the hot and humid atmosphere mixed with dust and fumes. Everybody honked! Contrary to the U.S. where drivers try to avoid as much as possible to make noise, here they did not hesitate to honk their horn at the slightest pretext. Traffic codes were not readily observed: drivers and pedestrians did not respect traffic lanes. It was really surprising that I only saw two minor accidents during my stay. Motorbikes were like ants. When you stopped at the traffic light, they swarmed around you as if escorting you and preventing you from driving fast. It was amazing to see the drivers negotiating through the moving mass and going in the direction they wanted. I asked my driver what the traffic codes were. He said cars had to be driven in the left lane only. They could be in the right lane when they are ready to turn right at the intersection. What would be the penalty if you drove differently, I asked him. “Policemen at most of the corners will stop you and fine you”. How much I asked? He laughed and responded “about 30 U.S. dollars or 300,000 đồng.” Touched by curiosity I asked why he laughed. He said it was also OK if you gave 100,000 đồng, the policeman will pocket the money and would not issue a ticket to you. How could the stop the violators who were on motorbikes? Policemen were at all main intersections and had a walkie talkie: they could alert the next corner policeman.

I could not recognize the streets which were very familiar to me before. I had been an Air Force officer and passed daily through these same streets to get to work. Empty open landmarks with grass were now filled by houses without any harmonic architectural planning. Street names had obviously been changed to names of communist heroes (or terrorists during the former defunct South Vietnam government) or a party celebration date.

My hotel was a two star hotel with air conditioning. I was greeted by young bellboys and taken to my room. It was a kind of Econo Lodge room (“spend a night, not a fortune”, I remembered) not luxurious but OK. The room was stocked with packaged dry food (eg. nuts, gum and an assortment of drinks, alcohol and beer but the price was three times more expensive than the outside market).

I noticed that there was a man sitting at a desk with a computer on each floor. I was told later that they were the designated helper of each floor (or guardian). It was the same practice I observed during my previous trip to Russia. The difference was there they took notes in notebooks but here they had a computer. Later I had a chance to peek at the computer screen and saw the floor plan with my room number and another highlighted. Maybe they had to watch me and the other occupant or was I just being paranoid. When I opened the door leading to the balcony, I smelled the traffic fumes readily although I was on the third floor.

That evening I was treated by the host organization at a very opulent restaurant. Waiters and greeters were dressed in old traditional costumes. Traditional foods were served in a richly decorated large room with a showstage in the center. Musicians and singers in traditional costume entertained the diners.

That night I did not sleep well although I was extremely tired. Maybe it was due to the jetlag and to the traffic noise which it did not abate till the early hours of the morning (around 2:00 a.m. and resumed about 5:00 a.m.).

The next day I went to Biên Hòa, a town of about 30 kilometers from Saigon, I could not recognize the area because how much it had changed. Back to my years, the 30 km highway from Saigon to Biên Hòa was a showcase of American road building technology. It was so large and smooth running and along the highway, the country was wide open with its rice paddy fields. Before the air was so clean because the traffic was very light. Now dilapidated shack houses were built along the highway, obstructing the wide open landscape and transformed it into a smaller, crowded road. Adding to this, a swarming traffic of motorcycles forced the automobile speed to be around 40 km per hour. Dust was everywhere. Passengers on bikes used handkerchiefs as masks to protect themselves. The cement factory, which was the only landscape that I recognized from the past, was enveloped in a cloud of dust and fumes. People were eating in the open air make-shift-along-the-highway restaurants!

We passed the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace which was now a museum commemorating the victory of the North Vietnamese. Uniformed soldiers were practicing martial arts in the open park in front of the palace as a large number of civilian women gathered for some training purpose.

The following day I had the chance to visit a couple of friends who were practicing physicians at the Heart Institute and the Children’s Hospital. They seemed to do reasonably well. The Vietnamese population, North and South, were inclined to trust the treatment given by physicians trained by the old regime rather than the newly trained or the ones educated from the North. At least the communist recognized the value of Western medicine. The old regime medical school was following the American curriculum and was supervised by the AMA.

There were not many talks on HIV/AIDS, only a few cases (4,109 HIV positive cases with 353 AIDS patients by government officials) occurred for a population of 70 millions. I tried to contact the local AIDS committee whose director was a classmate of mine but he was not available. He was responsible for the HIV/AIDS prevention program in Saigon evidenced by a couple of billboards depicting the danger of AIDS around the Ministry of Health and at busy intersections. I was also told that he designed an outreach program: giving out education pamphlets in prostitutes gathering areas. It had to be reminded that prostitution was illegal in Vietnam but the police were looking elsewhere (they were patronizing through bribes, I was told). Consequently, prostitution was flourishing, much more open than during the former government.

We passed by the Mạc Đĩnh Chi cemetery, a high class cemetery, with tombs of high dignitaries including the former deposed President Ngô Đình Diệm. I did not recognize it: all the tombs were removed and the cemetery was transformed into a playground for children! This was not the only cemetery changed. I was told that all other cemeteries in the Saigon were cleared and became public parks. The communists were practicing the primitive and vengeful custom of the imperial past of Vietnam and China: to dig and scatter all bones of former enemies!

Open air restaurants and vendor stalls filled the sidewalks. People were everywhere, either in the traffic or on the pavement eating and drinking in the dust and fumes. No refrigeration was seen, cake, eggs, and cheese (“The Laughing Cow” brand name, well cherished by the populace) were exposed to the hot sun.

 Communist political exhortation existed: propaganda billboards extolling labor or the Party were seen on the main street corners and bus stations. Every neighborhood had Party and government headquarters displaying lots of red flags with a yellow star. These offices were filled with young men sitting idly. Young men were everywhere, all were very thin, many were seen bare-chested sitting in front of their houses doing nothing but watching the traffic. The once romantic tree lined boulevards in Saigon were barely noticed. Saigon, once called the Pearl of Extreme Orient, now became Ho Chi Minh City!

 I saw also billboards asking families to limit the number of their children to only two. I was told later that officers could have their promotion delayed for two years if they had more than two children. Condoms were distributed freely to officers only, not for sexually transmitted diseases (STD) prevention but for family planning of officers. Was it ironic that condoms should be distributed to young recruits at their sexual peak rather than officers?

The next night was very unusual, the traffic was noisier than before even though it was now approaching midnight: motorbike engines zooming in the streets below the hotel accompanied with their obligatory and ubiquitous honks. Suddenly I heard a volley of gunshots. As I opened the balcony door, engine fumes hit my face. I saw an unending heavy throng of flag waving motorbikes with their lights on. Again, another volley of gunshots (probably pistol rounds) tore the rumbling noise of the traffic. The chain of motorbikes suddenly stopped, turned and converged in the direction of the gunshots.

 I closed the door and returned to my bed. Twenty-one years ago I was escaping the war in Vietnam with the rocket explosions, terrorist bombings and gun firings. Now upon my return, I again heard the gunshots. Is it ironic?

 The next day I was told it was due to the unruly young crowd celebrating the victory of the National Vietnamese Team in an international football game tournament and the police was trying to disperse them. Ms. Hong, a worker at the Ministry of Health, even recalled with pride the hooliganism of the crowd smashing downtown merchant windows to celebrate the victory. Maybe it was part of the communist government scheme to divert people from discontent.

 I was surprised that everyone talked about corruption without any fears: from taxi drivers to hotel clerks and even government employees. In the old days, corruption existed but under the table, now it was everywhere. I was told that luxurious tourist hotels were owned by family members of high party officials. Profitable commercial organization ventures had to grease authorities. Policemen pocketed money from traffic violations and tolls and young men can even avoid mandatory 2-year military training by bribing. It seemed that the national motto was “making money not rebellion” (“The Legacy of Tiananmen, China in Disarray” by J.A.R. Miles). A new acquaintance even told me that “a rich communist is a good communist”. Was it a concerted effort by the authorities to buy people’s loyalty with better living standards? Or it was a kind of Mafia, a Yellow Mafia (Red Mafia is reserved for China, Yellow because the officials like the color yellow: all official buildings are painted yellow). The Yellow or the Red Mafia created a network of shared corruption, everybody was tainted, so nobody could denounce the other.

On September 16, 1996, I left Saigon for Hanoi through Vietnam Airlines which replaced the former Air Vietnam on a Boeing 737. The plane was fairly new (I was told the Vietnam Airlines bought or leased a sizeable fleet of Boeing 737’s). The air stewardesses were nice in their “áo dài”. You could have two choices of food: a Western one or a Vietnamese one. I chose the Vietnamese one by curiosity and had to admit that it was good. The service was excellent. The hostesses were very professional, they brushed aside unreasonable demands made by obnoxious passengers who were probably mid level government officials which I suspected from their arrogant behavior. The plane was flown by an English speaking chief pilot with a Vietnamese assistant pilot.

We landed at Nội Bài Airport in the suburb of Hanoi which was much smaller compared to Tân Sơn Nhất. No paper check was needed. It was an uneventful trip. Along the way to Hanoi hotel, I noticed a plentiful amount of soldiers, mostly officers, on motorbikes which were much different from Saigon where there were an abundance of policemen.

One inefficient practice was noted. For toll road gates, vehicles had to stop to buy a ticket at a nearby stand then to stop again to give the ticket to the toll booth guard. The readily-to-bribe driver could just bypass the ticket stand and gave the money to the guard who pocketed it quickly. This had to be repeated at the other side of the traffic.

My hotel in Hanoi was right on the famed 36 streets quarter of Hanoi, close to the Lake of the Return Sword (Hồ Hoàn Kiếm). Although it was a one star hotel with no separation between the shower, the latrine and the toilet sink, it was OK to spend the night.

Hanoi was much different from Saigon: it was more of a traditional capital than the commercial center or Saigon. Park, lakes, historic monuments and pagodas abounded in Hanoi. The traffic was a little bit lighter with more bicycles and cyclos. Waste water was running freely along the streets of Hanoi inviting mosquitoes and rats, not to mention the unsightly and ill smelling condition.

 One noticeable difference: each street and subdivision had a loud speaker which broadcasted many times each day announcing different official activities mixing with party propaganda and news. The house which had the speakers suffered the most, otherwise people did not heed attention at all, they tended to their business as if nothing occurred.

Hanoi was poorer than Saigon. Old trucks of World War 1 vintage still ran on the streets with their tanks on top of the engine which was a real fire hazard. The populace seemed to be smaller and thinner. I did not meet a single obese person (in Saigon a few were chubby). With its many lakes and parks, hence an abundance of private spots, people readily relieved themselves because there were no public toilets. I did not see any bomb shelters on the sidewalks as I recalled seeing it in the U.S. magazines (LIFE?) showing the bombing of Hanoi.

Both Hanoi and Saigon were overpopulated: Saigon with a housing capacity for three millions now was sheltering almost seven millions persons, creating gigantic demands from waste collection to electrical shortage. During my stay in Hanoi, power cuts were common and room helpers readily turned off the air conditioner when the occupant left. One thing struck me the most: I had not seen a bird in Hanoi or Saigon. No birds chirping, no peaceful avail sight. Maybe it was due to the scarcity of foods. Now insects were left uncontrolled, damaging the crops which are a vicious cycle. Bird repopulation/reintroduction may be a worthy cause.

 A reception was given by the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Hanoi (the U.S. Ambassador designate is awaiting Senate confirmation) in honor of the HIV/AIDS team. I was introduced to some North Vietnamese military counterparts. It was the first time I shook hand with my former enemies. I was neither happy or angry, it was like “No Longer Enemies But Not Yet Friends” (Fred Downs’ book title).

One night we were invited to dine in a luxury hotel restaurant, the Dea Woo, built by a Korean Consortium. It was a huge modern hotel with its marbled columns and floors. Its high ceilings with well positioned chandeliers limited the echo and added to the richness of the environment. The contrast between the poor and the rich was evident: an entrée costs 28 dollars (remember the 40 cents daily food budget for the vocational student). It reminded me of the end of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek’s years in China: local warlords dining and enjoying in the opulence while the populace were scraping for food in garbage piles to live by!

After a little more than a week’s stay in Hanoi, I had a strange feeling: I am a Vietnamese American (albeit former Vietnamese) in my ancestor’s land but I felt different. People in Hanoi treated me differently: maybe because I was not thin, maybe my clothing and my language were different, maybe my manners were foreign to them. Beggars or cyclo drivers or motor bikers swarmed around me demanding favors. I readily dispensed money because it was so cheap compared with the U.S. I felt also not safe at night in the streets of Hanoi: I was more at ease in the U.S. consulate compound watching football rather than strolling at night along the Lake Hoàn Kiếm. Hence, my behavior was different. Was I different?

Duong Nguyen, October 24, 1996

January 24, 2021