When I arrived in Saigon 31 years ago, Dwight Eisenhower was in his second term of office, the Detroit Lions were about to capture the pro football title by beating the Chicago Bears 59-14, Hollywood had just released a film featuring Alex Guiness as an interned, proper British officer in "Bridge on the River Kwai," and not a single American military advisor had yet been ordered into South Vietnam.
The 17th parallel, 400 miles to the north and east of the Saigon Airport, marked the boundary between North and South Vietnam. Some 250,000 North Vietnamese had already crossed this line to resettle in the south. The French had withdrawn all of their troops from Indochina. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were now independent of colonial France for the first time in nearly 100 years. Unfortunately, it was to be a short-lived exercise in independence.Four more years would pass before the first American soldier, James Davis, would lose his life in an ambush that took place on the opposite side of Saigon to the west, in the direction of the Mekong delta.
I did not have any sense of the death of young men or new independence on the night I arrived in Saigon. My only concern was in finding a taxi. Our Air France flight had been delayed an hour, and most of the taxi drivers had given up and gone back to the city to bed.
A retired French businessman was generous enough to offer me a ride into Saigon. Monsieur Jean Clermont was a short, bald French colonial. He had been educated in France, but returned to Indochina to manage the family export business. "We had offices in Hanoi and Phnom Penh as well as Saigon," he stated.
He spoke very slowly and enunciated each word clearly. He wore tortoise-shell glasses and had amazingly sharp cheekbones. Along with his kindly smile, there was a deep tiredness, or maybe even a sadness, in his eyes.
"Many visitors to Saigon for the first time feel we French have tried to recreate a miniature Paris in Vietnam. It it true we have wide tree-lined boulevards and many of the fine shops you would find in the Rue de la Paix and even a palace of enormous size, wider than Fontainbleau; but Saigon is neither French nor Vietnamese. I feel it is a city that is compromised to both cultures and quite suited to its environment."
I asked him about the Vietnamese and why they had experienced so many wars with foreigners. "I think it has to do with both the beauty of the country and the richness of the soil. Vietnam, you must know, grows enough rice to easily feed most of Southeast Asia. As for their problems with foreign nations, the Vietnamese have always struggled to defend themselves. They have had more success with this than either of their neighbors, the Laotians or the Cambodians. The Vietnamese have let their Buddhaism become diluted almost to the point of nonexistence. This gives them a much more competitive disposition. They will work hard for themselves and can be made to work hard for others, but only to a point. They resent being exploited for any protracted period of time.
"In Hanoi, you must go and see the National History Museum. Each section of the museum commemorates the departure of a different enemy of the Vietnamese. There is a room for the Chinese, the Mongols, the Japanese and, I am sure, one will soon be under construction for the French. Hopefully, this will be their last addition to the museum."
That sadness I had seen earlier in Monsieur Clermont's eyes could now be heard in his slow enunciation of each word.
(To be continued)