I’ve been in the air, sitting in cramped seats reminiscent of the confinement systems that factory farms use, for sixteen hours.  I’ve never been on a 747 before, even though they existed in 1970, but the seat sizes are Y2K compliant.  I’m in Hong Kong, at the new (built 1998) Chek Lap Kok airport on Lantau Island, waiting for the last of my three flights; this is the one that takes me back to Tân Sơn Nhất.  As close to time travel as I’ll ever get.
Looking out the window of Hong Kong International
View from the window at gate 50
Watch face showing Mountain time and Sàigòn time
Dual-timezone watch

I compare my brand-new—cheap—dual-timezone watch to airport clocks, and figure I’m eleven time zones from home, which is Salt Lake City, UT.

I’m feeling raw; my back and butt hurt, I’ve had no sleep since I woke up at 0500 Mountain Time.  But here I am, back in Asia at last, in Hong Kong, and I look through the airport windows at the mountains surrounding the erstwhile British Protectorate.  I try to take a picture, but I haven’t yet learned that the easy way to get rid of flash bounce on glass is to hold my finger over the bulb.  See the bump over the Air Canada tail in the picture?  That’s a mountain, probably Lantau Peak, 933 meters high, over across a small bay or waterway between Chek Lap Kok island and Lantau island, and I’m looking South.  Most of Chek Lap Kok island didn’t exist as recently as 1993, when A Borrowed Place:  The History of Hong Kong was published; a comparison of pre-1998 maps with current ones seems to show that two-thirds of the island has been reclaimed from the sea.  Leica Geosystems provided levelling and benchmarks, with a “positional accuracy of ±100mm and a height accuracy of ±200mm,” according to them.  The tall buildings which can be seen just to the left of the Air Canada plane, were built at the same time as the airport to house the workers.  Outside the City of Industry, there are only about 25,000 inhabitants of the island.

The airport is modern, gigantic but easy to navigate, clean and fresh-smelling; the air-exchangers are hard at work, making me feel as if I’m outside on an early summer day.  There are suits with briefcases and no luggage, hippies with backpacks.  Announcements come over the PA system in four languages, each crisper and more clear than the last.  Following the signs that have guided me to my waiting area, I pass an area blocks long containing aisles and aisles of stores that offer everything from duty-free perfume and high-end liquor to a Chinese bookstore that looks like it sells real books, not just best-sellers.  Gucci is there, and every other store is an electronics store, selling the latest tiny widget to drop in your pocket to make you rich and beautiful.

There are two hours till flight time, and then two hours in the air.  Then landfall in Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh—Sàigòn.  I wonder if this Cathay Pacific flight will have the same uniformly skinny, uniformly stunning stewardesses that the long flight—fifteen god-awful hours—had.  Feminism—hell, 70s-style Women’s Lib—hasn’t come to the Asian Airways (well, all one of them that I’ve ridden).  I saw a single steward, serving drinks and passing out the only hot towel we received on the whole journey.

I’m looking forward to seeing Việt Nam after 32 years.  I alternate between euphoria and despair.  I’ll either love it so much I will never want to leave, or I’ll hate it so much I’ll be willing to buy my own ticket back.  Or worse, I’ll love the country and hate my tour companions.  I think I’m being ridiculous, but there’s nothing I can do about it at this late date.  I need to work on that Buddhist sense of detachment.  I buy a coke from a vendor; I hand her two American dollars and she gives me five Hong Kong dollars.

Five HK dollarsFive HK dollars, obverse

The exchange rate seems to be seven $HK to one $US.  It costs HK$200 to commute from Hong Kong Island to Chek Lap Kok.  Parking is HK$70 per day.  I think the exchange was more favorable to Hong Kong back in the days of Tai-Pan and King Rat.  Did Hong Kong even exist during the time of Shogun?  I reflect, and decide the Tokugawa Shogunate might have known about it, but wouldn’t have told the citizenry.  I spot a currency exchange on my way from one gate to the other, but it doesn’t offer Vietnamese đồng.  Zimbabwean dollars, yes.  Đồng, no.

Map of Chek Lap Kok airport

In the map above (stolen shamelessly from the airport’s official site), the currency exchange is the one at the fork in the Y near gate 35.  The Y is open almost straight West, and I am in gate 50.  I deduced this from evidence in the pictures I took and from the map.  Later, I find my boarding card, which confirms it’s 50.  I tell Audrey, proud of my research.  “Who cares?” she asks.

I sit and read.  So far on this trip I’ve read six books; I won’t finish the seventh until tomorrow.  A curly-haired woman sits down across from me and says, “I guess you’re with the Sage Tour.”  I look over my book at her.  “Going to Viet Nam, I mean,” she says.  “I actually had you pegged since LA, but I thought I’d wait and make sure.”
Sandy Polishuk  

I assure her that I’m on the tour.  We introduce ourselves.  She’s Sandy.  I don’t find it odd that an American my own age would look at me and think, “That guy’s going to Việt Nam.”  I wonder if she joined protest marches.  Two young women across the aisle join the conversation.  They’re going to be met in Sàigòn by Dr. Leibo, one of the professors leading the tour.  They’re doing a project, and he’s an advisor.  Later, they say, they’re going to meet a nurse in Hanoi who’s also going to help them with their project.  They speak animatedly of her.

Beth Marie Murphy

“Oh, Beth Marie,” I say.  I know Beth Marie Murphy from the Incountry Women’s list; she’s written to say she’s meeting the tour in Hà Nội, which seems impossibly distant.  Right now, just getting a shower and a bed seem like reasonable goals for the near term; my eyeballs feel like they’ve been sandpapered.

Our departure is announced in sepulchral tones.  The three stewardesses that check our passports, tickets and boarding passes are just as gorgeous as the stewardesses were on the flight from LA, but they don’t care if I keep my cane with me at all times.  On the long flight, they insisted on putting it in the overhead compartments for takeoff.  I have a window seat—47A—and it’s the first time the whole trip.  Both previous flights I was in the middle.  Here, I have to clamber over someone if I need to get out, but I can at least keep my eyes peeled for my first sight of Việt Nam.

When we finally land at Tân Sơn Nhất, I’m surprised at the depth of my emotions; I recognize the place.  There are quonset-style hangars that have been here the whole time, the entire 32 years and more, built to house F-5As in probably 1965.  I can also see compounds that were once used to shield helicopters from attack, surrounded by revetments—sand- or earth-filled walls of interlocking metal plates meant to deflect bullets and small bomb blasts; in the picture below, from 1970, they’re the blue things on the right and under the tail of the Playboy Cobra.

Cobra helicopter with Playboy bunny

Revetments came in low-tech and high-tech versions.
Low-tech revetments
Revetments outside our hooch; the door
leads to my room in Củ Chi
High-tech revetments
High-tech revetments surrounding an electronics facility much
like the place where I worked in 1970.

Out the 747 window, I can see people riding bicycles on the airport grounds, bent on who knows what kind of mission.  Some of the runway surfaces look like they’ve been untouched for the last 32 years; some of them have workcrews digging up spots and patching holes, unconcerned about the jumbo-jets passing within a few feet.

C-47s at Tân Sơn Nhất

There’s a new control tower, but the old one has been left standing.  You can see the old one in the 1970 picture above, although the barbed wire is now thankfully gone; just below the wing of the center C-47, you can see some of the quonset-style hangers that still exist.  In July of 2002, the sky is overcast; it’s monsoon.  I’m watching everything out the window; trying to record it all.  I’m reluctant to take pictures because it’s possible that the airport is considered a military installation.  Maybe I’m paranoid, but I’m not willing to risk my camera.  The only shot I have of the terminal building is 32 years old.  I don’t think it’s the same one now, but I could be wrong; what’s there is pretty beat up.  It could be the same building.

Tân Sơn Nhất

It takes just about two hours to get through immigration and customs.  The lines are long; I’ve studied Russian, read Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky, been in the Army.  If anyone is prepared for long lines, it’s me.  Arrival of the fittest, baby.  I strike up a conversation with the thirtyish fellow in front of me, who has tattoos and no hair.  I listen to his accent as we talk; I rather pride myself on being able to tell where people are from.  He talks about flying out of JFK in New York.  He doesn’t remember when it was Idlewild, but I do.  “What made you decide to fly through there from Sydney?” I ask, guessing his city of origin.

He looks at me blankly.  “Well—I live there.”

“Aren’t you from Australia?”

He stares at me in deep mystification.  “No, the Bronx,” he says.

I decide I’m playing a game I have less than no qualifications to play, and I tell him so.  He thinks I’m nuts; he’s probably right.  He wonders aloud if there’ll be a problem going through immigration clearance.

“Why would there be?” I ask.

“’Cause of my occupation,” he says, running his hand over his shaved head.  “I’m a gunsmith.”  I’m afraid he’ll want to talk calibers and powder burns and clove oil, but instead, he talks about his wife, who’s Vietnamese and speaks French, and is off in the restroom.  She comes back just in time to be next at the glass-topped booth; she has red hair.  They zip through, despite his fears.  Maybe it’s because she speaks tiếng Việt.

Finally, it’s my turn.  The soldier with the huge Soviet-military-style-and-era hat looks at my passport, looks up at me, smiles and stamps the pages.  He motions me through; no sweat, GI.  I move off to pick up my luggage and go through customs.

Once there, I try to puzzle out what they want.  I go through the list several times; no matter how I cut it, it seems I have nothing to declare.  I put that on the yellow form and wait for it to be my turn.  When I get to the desk, an excitable boy takes my form and puts it on the desk where someone else looks at it.  The excitable one points to the line that says that I have to declare it, if I’m bringing in more than $3000 in US currency.  He talks rapidly.  I can’t pick up even one word; I shake my head.  “Not that much,” I say, guessing that he’s sure I’m a rich American and want to salve my conscience by saying, “Well, yes, I confess, I’m really bringing in a million dollars in small bills for bribes so I can get an important cocaine contract.”  He talks again, points to the line.  “Not that much,” I say again.  He looks at the man at the desk; they shrug at each other, make a note on the paper, ask where I’ll be staying.  My mind goes blank; after a second, a name pops into my head.  “Bong Sen,” I say.  They grin knowingly and nod.  “Yes, Bong Sen Hotel!”  Mr. Nguyễn Văn Phụng stamps his name and hands me my yellow form, which has fine print that cautions me never to lose it.  They let me through; I wonder what it was that I should have declared.

I roll my little cart on through, down a long, wide hall, and out into a fenced-off area where thousands of Vietnamese are jammed up close, some of them holding signs.  Near the end of the area I spot a “Mr. Laningham” sign, held by a nice young man with a ready smile and hair that flops in his eyes.

He assures me that everything is wonderful.  “It will only be a few minutes more,” he says.  “We must wait for one more passenger.”  I look at the white card he’s holding.  “Polishuk.”

I make a leap; “She’s already come through,” I say, pointing at the end of the area where I know Sandy’s already waiting on the curb, having missed the sign-holder.  He and I head towards the exit where I can get my stuff through.  Sandy pops up from where she’s been waiting; I resist the urge to boast “I told you so” to the man I think must be our driver.

Once the two of us are in the air-conditioned van, however, it becomes clear that it has its own driver and our friend is here because he speaks English and can more readily shepherd the ignorant American tourists.  We aren’t even a block from the airport before he asks me, “Haven’t you been here before?”

I nod.  “1970,” I say.

He smiles.  “What has changed most?”

I leap at the first thing that comes to mind.  “It doesn’t smell as bad,” I say, “and it’s a lot cleaner.”

His smile broadens; I feel like I’ve given the correct answer.  “Many GIs say that,” he says.  I think he’s less concerned about the smell than the clean; the lack of smell can be laid to the US military bases going away, while the cleanliness of the place can only be due to the industry of the Vietnamese people and their People’s Committee.  But I’m busy looking out the windows.  When we pass the cathedral, I feel like we are old friends of a sort, although it’s more than a little amusing that after 32 years the building I remember most clearly in downtown Sàigòn is a Catholic church.

Statue of Mary in front of Cathedral

In 1970, my dogtags said I was a Methodist only because I was afraid to write down Atheist—and I would have had to insist, because it wasn't one of the allowed choices.  In 2002, I am a Buddhist, without ever having been able to call myself a theist of any sort in between.

I know what street we’re on; I’ve been studying maps of 1970 Sàigòn for years.  This is Tự Do Street, and we are very close to the hotel.  I have finally remembered that it’s not the Bong Sen, but the Palace where we will be staying.  Oh well, if those guys had wanted accuracy, they shouldn’t have been asking a tourist.  Everyone knows that tourists know nothing.

We pull up in front of the hotel; I’ve seen pictures on the web.  Right up the street, I see the Rex Hotel, with its silly rotating crown; behind that there is the City Hall Building, which years and years ago was another hotel.  I know where I am.  The Sông Sàigòn should be two blocks away, down at the end of this street, which is Nguyễn Huệ.

Inside, Sandy and I are told to sit; our passports are taken and our shepherd goes off to register us.  I rather like this system, but I guess it wouldn’t work in the US, since citizens don’t carry passports.  The staff of this hotel acts as if the passport is the person, except that, unlike most other hotels we use later, they return our identification along with our room keys.  I didn’t care for other hotels’ policy of keeping our passports until we left; I wanted to hang on to my passport at all times.

I give the bellhop a dollar as a tip, which he accepts diffidently.  I’m too tired to care.  I look around the room.  It’s just a hotel room, but it’s in Sàigòn.  Sàigòn!  Who knew, 32 years ago, that I’d be back in three decades and glad of it?  I’m on the fifth floor, and I want to look around, but I need a shower.  I’d like a nap, but if I take one my sleep patterns will be really screwed up.  The tubs here, and in every hotel we stay in during the tour, save one, are deeply rounded, nearly a perfect half-circle.

After my shower, I open up the window and go out on the balcony to take pictures.

Clock tower in the middle of a street

Right below me is the intersection of Nguyễn Huệ and Ngô Đức Kế.  The clock tower in the circle lights up and flashes at night.  I’m astonished at how little traffic there is.  This area is the equivalent of the Loop in Chicago; it’s 1700 on a Monday—at least, my camera thinks it’s Monday—afternoon, and the traffic is, by Chicago standards, non-existent.

That’s one thing I remember correctly; there are hardly any stoplights, I’ve never seen a stop sign, and what traffic there is honks.  I lean out over the railing as far as I dare and inhale.  I catch the scent of the river; it’s not as ripe as I remember.

Sàigòn Prince Hotel

That’s the Sàigòn Prince over there, the big pink thing.  I can’t remember if that’s new, but I know for a fact the skyscraper wasn’t here in 1970.  I use my camera to zoom in on the river.

View of the river

I look in the other direction.  That’s the Rex, the big pink building on the corner; it’s changed since 1970.  The crown was there, but it didn’t rotate.  The roof garden was there too, but it didn’t used to have topiary.

The Rex

I wonder if I should go walking; I go downstairs.  The stairs and halls are reminiscent of the thirties, with a hint of Art Deco.

Hotel stairwell

At the desk, I’m greeted by Miss Thanh.  There is no word for “Ms.” in tiếng Việt.

Miss Thanh

I forget the words for “I’d like to change some money.”  All I can remember is how to say excuse me, so I use it.  “Xin lỗi cô, đồng Việt Nam,” I say, handing her a hundred dollars.  She smiles and counts out a million-and-a-half in 50,000- and 20,000-đồng notes, plus assorted small bills for the change.  The bills are pre-folded in half, arranged in descending order of denomination.  I’m impressed.  I wave my camera and ask if I might take her picture.  She’s embarassed, but she bobs her head yes, and poses.  Much as I dislike having people pose for me, I’m determined not to make the mistakes of 32 years ago; then, most every woman I took a picture of hid her face when she saw my camera.  Now I know that it’s polite to ask permission, but of course can never remember the complicated phrase to ask in tiếng Việt.

Two women in 1970 on a motorcycle

I think of going out and walking around, but I’m feeling too run down, so instead I go back to the hotel room and read, but I can hardly keep my eyes open.  I decide I need more pictures.

View of Sàigòn

Off in the distance, I see a globe, a pagoda, and a giant TV screen.  The globe has a Toyota logo on it; the message is clear.

The world belongs to Toyota

The TV is as big as a house, made by Sony, which is the company that makes the camera I’m taking these pictures with.

Giant Sony TV

I put the camera down and watch the city.  After a few minutes, I notice something about the city blocks.  They’re not like city blocks in the US, where all the buildings and lots face the street and extend back to the center of the block, with back doors on an alley.  These “blocks” look like they grew up from small villages.

View of Sàigòn city block

Buildings around the perimeter of the block face the street all right, but they’re not deep.  When walking on the street, you can often see little doorways between shops that appear to go nowhere, but that must take you into the village inside the city block.  Courtyards and trees and houses and gardens and apartment buildings hide back there, and unless you’re up on a balcony you’d never know it.  The patterns of urban architecture and growth must be very different here.

I decide that I’ll wait till 1900 before going to bed.  I start writing in my “journal,” a pad of lined paper.  At the last minute, I left my $5 laptop at home; my wife gave me a low-tech alternative.  I ought to be writing postcards, but I have neither the cards nor the energy to go find some.  I pull out the yellow paper I’m supposed to guard carefully, and look at it.  Oh.  I see that I had filled in the “Yes, I’ve got more than $3,000 American” checkbox instead of the “No” one.  No wonder those guys looked at me funny.  They’ve scratched over the “Yes” box and put the X in the right place.

Yellow customs sheet

Then I notice that the date they’ve stamped is 10 July 2002, so it must be a Wednesday.  Right; I’ve crossed the dateline.  If it’s accuracy you’re after, don’t hire tourists.  Not this one, anyway.

I notice that it’s already dusk outside, but I’m not surprised.  We’re ten degrees from the equator here and every day is almost an equinox; it’s monsoon, or “Summer,” so there’s just a touch more daylight than dark.
City Latitude Longitude Date Sunrise Sunset Hours of Daylight
Sàigòn 10° 47' N 106° 42' E 8 July 2002 0536 1819 12:43
Hà Nội 21° 01' N 105° 52' E 8 July 2002 0520 1842 13:22
Salt Lake City 40° 47' N 111° 58' W 8 July 2002 0604 2201 15:57
Sàigòn 10° 47' N 106° 42' E 20 July 2002 0539 1819 12:40
Hà Nội 21° 01' N 105° 52' E 20 July 2002 0525 1839 13:14
Salt Lake City 40° 47' N 111° 58' W 20 July 2002 0713 2154 14:41
Sàigòn 10° 47' N 106° 42' E 20 January 2002 0616 1751 11:35
Hà Nội 21° 01' N 105° 52' E 20 January 2002 0636 1739 11:03
Salt Lake City 40° 47' N 111° 58' W 20 January 2002 0847 1830 9:43

For reference, I’ve included the table above; Daylight Savings is in effect in Salt Lake City during the summer months, while it is neither used nor needed in Việt Nam.  (Later, I ask my wife if putting in the sunrise/sunset table is too much.  “Not at all,” she says.  “It’s so you.”  I demand to know what she means. Instead of answering, she laughs.)

Swallows, dragonflies and bats

The air is full of swallows and dragonflies and almost certainly bats, all eating mosquitoes.  I don’t remember seeing either the swallows or the dragonflies when I was here before.  I’m ready to blame it all on Agent Orange, but I’m forced to admit that Củ Chi is not Sàigòn, and I was never in downtown Sàigòn at dusk in 1970.  I wonder if there will be geckos in my hotel room; I look, but see none.

I’m too frazzled to write anymore, so I dig out my MP3 player, which gave me so much trouble back in the World when I was trying to load it.  I find the chip with Warren Zevon, and soon I’m relaxing in my chair listening to the Excitable Boy singing about brucellosis and Việt Nam, Suzie Lightning who only sleeps on planes (don’t I wish!), and Roland the Thompson gunner haunting sleazy bars in Mombasa.

Steven Liebo

There’s a knock on the door; it’s Steven Leibo, who introduces himself and tells me that everyone’s meeting in the lobby at 1900 for a hello dinner.  I say I’ll be there; will it be the way I remember, or like those imagined Mombasa bars?

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