And, in the manner of old folks, we say that it seems like only yesterday since we returned to Việt Nam for the first time since the war. As I write this, I am sitting in the domestic terminal of Tân Sơn Nhất airport, gazing across the tarmac at the old aircraft revetments left by the Americans, I recall the anxiety and fear Cindy and I both felt in 2002. Now, returning to Việt Nam is akin to slipping on an old pair of shoes. The only anxiety we have now is having to wait until we see our friends and former students.
We spent two days in Sài Gòn. It gave us a chance to see friends who live there. Mel has lived in Sài Gòn for seven years and makes the occasional trip back to the US. He speaks Vietnamese and is more comfortable in Sài Gòn than in San Francisco. Thanx for the breakfast, Mel – and for helping us find SIM cards for our phones.
Dinner was at the home of Hanh and her baby – or more exactly, her in-law’s home. Her husband Phu was sent off to the US by his employer for six months, but technology means they can stay connected. It least he will be able to see Nho taking her first steps, even if it is only by Skype.
(Be sure to click on each photo to see a larger version.)
The second day’s breakfast was with Thanh, another of our former students. She earned her Master’s degree in America and returned home last year. Was it really seven years ago you were my student, Thanh?
All of which focuses me back on today’s Việt Nam. Since the publication of “Same River, Different Water”, my focus has been on Vietnam the War. Most veterans think the book is another war book – and I have a hard time getting them to understand that it is about today’s Việt Nam. Once they understand this book is different, most veterans have a very hard time coming to terms with the idea that their memories have no relation to the country of today. With the constant swapping of emails and Facebook postings, the veterans are focused on the war. For me, this going back and forth between the war and the Việt Nam of today is very difficult.
Each trip back to Việt Nam brings more evidence of the rapid changes in the country. The span between a veteran’s memories and the reality of today’s Việt Nam keeps widening.
As an example, can any veteran tell me where this photo was taken?
“Doug – that doesn’t look like any ambush site I ever saw.” “Doug – is that place air conditioned?” “Where the hell did you take that picture, Doug? Japan? It sure as hell isn’t The Nam.”
But, of course, it is in Sài Gòn, across the street from the stately old Notre Dame Catholic Cathedral. It is the Vincom Center, a tall office and apartment complex with six floors of premium retail spaces that are at street level and below. Why below ground? It’s in anticipation of the subway system being planned with the help of Japan.
I can’t say that I am a Versache kind of guy. Besides not having the money to buy clothes there, the place is just not my style. I also wondered if any Vietnamese would shop there.
I found the answer was “Yes.” The same guy who I saw get out of his chauffeured Lexus earlier in the day has the money to shop in exclusive stores. Thanh was with us and I asked her if she hoped to be able to shop in this very high end shopping center. I was surprised, knowing she is just starting out, to find out that she might shop at Vincom Center now – it would be a place where she could find cosmetics and other luxury items of high quality. Or she might shop for a few fancy clothes for her own child in the future – or buy kid’s clothes for a friend’s baby. As I said earlier, I still grapple with how fast this country is growing.
On the bottom level – what will someday be subway station level – is the food court. Want some Korean barbeque? Cream puffs? How about some pasta? Yes, you can get the usual Vietnamese foods, such as phở (found at the ubiquitous Phở 24 restaurant chain) and you might want some ice cream.
How about a hamburger? Not a problem.
And I will answer your next question – no, McDonald’s has not come to Việt Nam yet, though Starbucks just opened a store. Pizza Hut is all over the place and Kentucky Fried Chicken is booming.
But there is one thing that is very distinctly Vietnamese about the Vincom Center. Yes, there is underground parking, just like you find at many big-city malls in the US, but the vehicles parked at Vincom are different. With the taxes on automobiles in Việt Nam at 150% of the selling price, most folks get around on a motorbike.
I Wonder where they will park all the cars when I come back in another ten years.
I feel strange. I have worked on this thing for so long, I feel like I won't know what to do with my time.
But, I'll bet I find a way.
Most of the people who know about the book now are veterans - and I hope they don't think the book is about the war. Its not - rather its a look at the country today with some links back to the war as reference points. Its a very differnt Việt Nam than they know. Actually, I am hoping some of the veterans' wives will read it - and maybe get a different perspective on Vietnam than they have ever heard before.
And - thanx to so many people who helped me with this project - I am in many people's debt.
I’ve been living with the thing for almost two years - there were times when it came close to overwhelming my life.
Well - that may be a little too much hype, but still, it was a lot of work.
I am speaking of my first (and last) book - “Same River, Different Water: A Veteran’s Journey from Vietnam to Việt Nam”. It is finally at the publishers. I am waiting for the copy editor’s feedback - I suspect there will be a lot of rewriting to do - and that will take time - but at least I can see the end of this thing.
Thanksgiving saw three Vietnamese in our home - and it has become the norm to have Vietnamese share and learn about this wonderful American traditional celebration of excess in food and football. But this year, we had a couple join us whom we had never met. Being our age, the husband was a Vietnam vet. He enjoyed being around the Vietnamese, but he could not imagine himself going back to the place where he had created so many bad memories.
I’ve had that reaction from veterans so many times since we returned in 2006 that I expect it - and whats more, I understand it. Knowing why they are mistrustful of a place that had such a negative impact on their lives is the prime reason why I deal with the topic early in the book - in the first few paragraphs of Chapter One.
Trying to decide what stories to tell and what not to tell has been one of the more difficult decisions while writing the book. I wanted to concentrate on describing today’s Việt Nam, but as my editor kept reminding me, the only association Americans have with the country is the war - there would be no connection otherwise. But I also did not want to write another “My Year in The Nam” book either - there are a lot of those out there, and most of them written better than anything I could write. I had to figure out how to combine my two views - my time in the country when there was a war going on compared to the very different country it is today.
And that took time - a lot more time than I had anticipated it would take when I first started writing the thing two years ago.
Here’s one of the 123 photos in the book - part of the skyline of today’s Saigon.