Friday, October 19, 2012
Singn' n Saigon
"Well it's one, two, three, what're ya fightn for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn the next stop is Viet Nam." How many of this blog's readers have even heard the tune sung by Country Joe and the Fish? That's what I wondered, as our bus sped past the U.S. Embassy in Saigon not far from my hotel. I craned my neck to glimpse over the high walls to see the building that was fixed in my memory in 1975, when the end of the war had come. Who reading this post remembers the ignominious scene or even knows of the helicopter hovering, dropping a rope, and hoisting Americans and a few South Vietnamese officials to safety? Our guide told us the original building was gone and a new one had been built. He spoke of it as a part of a new dynamic, prosperous Saigon, a vibrant capitalist Communist city of 10 million in a country of 85 million which had become a leader among the ever-growing economic powers of Southeast Asia. It was time to look forward.
Then we stopped and toured the opulent palace of the former South Vietnamese government. It is now a museum. After so many years, I reheard the strangely pronounced names of the cast of corrupt players who had lived there and who we saw on the nightly news and to whose cause we had sacrificed some our finest people. Ngo Dinh Diem and his wife, Madame Nu, Nguyen Van Thieu, Nguyen Cao Ky had governed and stratagized within its walls. Now I stood from its balcony almost 40 years later and looked across the courtyard and down the street toward the center of Saigon or what is now called also Ho Chi Minh City.
Being here has made me reflect on the past; about our star-crossed involvement in what was clearly a Civil War or about our failed attempt to preserve our economic interests from the onslaught based on the domino theory of creeping Communism. Since then, much water has flowed down the Mekong. The gut-wrenching events of that time affected countless lives and changed me fundamentally. Those war years marked the beginning when I questioned my society, my government and its values, my values and the direction of my life. Those tumultuous days spun me like a misguided rocket deep into a jungle where I landed and fizzled through the rest of my life. Nonetheless I had been a lucky survivor..
I feel like a Janus head here. I look back sadly at the past, but am also awestruck by the present vibrancy of this city which is modern, clean, smart, and so alive. Time has not only healed the wounds of war, it has produced amazing growth and a society of people preparing themselves vigorously for the challenges of the 21st century.
So as I turn into bed my first night here and listen the city sounds, I recall the rhythm and words of the second verse of the song... "and it's five, six, seven, open up dem pearly gates. Well, there ain't no time to wonder why. We're all gonna die." Many did before the war ended in 1975, and yet the peril to human life continues. We, like innocent villagers, are caught in the crossfire, when, as history shows, the powerful and greedy go unchecked.
In a place so associated in my past with turmoil and death, I feel safe, optimistic and happy. My Asian adventure has taken me through time to the present Viet Nam. Thousands of people younger than I speed past my window on humming motor bikes in the midst of their journey. Like the sturdy, small, manicured trees growing gracefully in white and blue porcelain pots which sit near the entry of many houses, life flourishes anew here, refined and lovely.
For those of you who don't know the Viet Nam War song "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die" by Country Joe McDonald and the Fish or want to hear it again, Here is a link. I think you'll get a kick out of it.