Relics

We’re back from Vũng Tàu, after having driven through the place where Long Bình used to be.  We check back in at the Palace; my room this time is on the second floor corner, right behind the curved blue sign.

The Palace Hotel

After lunch, which I don’t remember, Mark Lawrence, Mark Byrnes, Kate, Ed, Mary Kathleen, Andrew Hunt and I head off to the War Relics market.  Before we get there, it starts to rain, heavily.  We stop along the way and purchase cheap, sticky plastic ponchos.  Andrew buys the only schoolkid yellow one.  I’m jealous; I have to settle for a poncho that’s so turquoise it’s almost cyan.  These things are hot and not much use, except for the hood, which keeps the water out of our eyes.

The market, which is further away than we expected, spreads over several square blocks, and is redolent with the odor of overripe fish and the mustiness of mildewed canvas.  Some streets specialize in classes of products.  One street has nothing but power tool sellers, another houses only television and consumer electronics, another, computers.  The War Relics part, which is under a canvas tent like a circus, has clothing and dressmaker’s shops in the aisle next door.  I don’t see food anywhere, which is a big change from Bến Thành.

I find what I’m looking for almost immediately, a replacement for this hat:

Me, in 1970, having just made Sergeant

I had to throw it out, years ago, because I’d worn it so much that it was sweaty and gunky inside.  It’s an ARVN military hat.  At the booth where I locate one big enough for my head, I ask the seller how much a real one would cost.  The one I’ve found is just 50,000 đồng and isn’t really quite right.  He says about $50 US, and that’s more than I’m prepared to pay, so I settle for the reproduction at $3.33.  The color’s a little bit off; the green of the reproductions is fairly close to the color that I’ve seen on the contemporary communist military uniforms around me.  I wonder if the change is deliberate.

Me, in 2002, with the replacement ARVN hat

The hat size is also different.  When Sergeant Vinh brought me the 1970 version, it was the largest made, size 78, and it didn't quite fit.  This new one is size “Large” and fits well; there are also XL versions available.

After that, Ed starts looking for dog tags.  He’s read about the guys who have found real tags for real people here, after winnowing through thousands.  He asks me for advice.  Some of them are obvious fakes, but others could be earlier or later versions of the tags I had.  Tags dating from 1969 and later will have the SSAN for the serial number; those that are earlier should have long numbers, sometimes broken up into groups.  All Army tags have numbers beginning with either RA (Regular Army, voluntary enlistees) or US (draftees) prefixes.

Mark Lawrence is looking for artifacts from the French Colonial era.  Eventually, he makes a find, a Legionaire’s hat. It’s not a reproduction:  http://www.thecostumer.com/store/subcat.cfm?subcatID=145.  The one Mark finds is black, not white.  I think that’s because it’s older, but then, my knowledge of the French Foreign Legion comes from Laurel and Hardy’s The Flying Deuces and Sons of the Desert, unimpeachable sources of  historical fact.  Ed, Andrew and Mark dig through old photographs, eventually coming up with several they want.  I fail to take pictures of them looking, and I also fail to get pictures of me and Ed wearing Chicom earflap hats with the seal of Việt Nam pinned to the front.  We look like rejects from a Sergei Eisenstein or Caspar Wrede film, so it's a good thing I didn't take pictures; there's no evidence with which to blackmail us.

Seal of Việt Nam

Boonie hats were also popular.  I wore mine for years after I got back.

Me, in my pimp suit, smoking a pipe and wearing my boonie hat Me wearing my boonie hat

When we’re done at the market, we go all the way through it and out the other side.  We head back; eventually the rain lets up.  We all stuff our ponchos into whatever we’re carrying; I can use the back pocket of my vest.  On the way toward Bến Thành market, I stop at a small market that looks like it would have American-style drugs and cosmetics.  I stop at a likely looking booth.  “Listerine,” I ask for.  The woman lights up.  “I no have,” she says, “but my sister does!  You wait!”  She ducks underneath the back of her booth into another one.  Pretty soon she’s back, with a bottle of mouthwash whose use-by date passed a year ago.  I don’t care.  “Bao nhiêu?”  How much?  “75,000” she says, in Vietnamese.

That’s five dollars, and it’s an outrageous price, twice what I’d pay in the US.  She’s not offering any discounts; she knows I’ll pay, and she’s right.  I hand it over without a peep; where else am I going to get it?  Now I can feel better about my breath.  American advertising does work, even on those of us who like to think we’re immunized.

After returning to the hotel, I shower.  I've made dinner plans; I go downstairs a few minutes ahead of time so that I can change some more money.  I take a picture of cigarettes and liquor offered at the “Disco Bar” located in the basement.  One American and two Vietnamese brands, I think, until I start reading them.  The left-hand pack of Marlboros is labelled in English, while the right-hand one is in Vietnamese.  And the other two are both made in London:  “555 State Express” and “Craven ‘A’.”  It turns out that Craven didn't make it here until 1986.

Smokes for sale at the Palace shop

The 555 State Express cigarettes were named after a train, and Albert Levy, the man who named them, registered all the three-number combinations from 111 to 999 as trademarks.  In the Far East, 555 cigarettes are the most successful of all of the marketed versions, apparently because five is a very lucky number in Asia and three of them together must be even luckier.

I wonder if Luxes—“Hảo hạng,” good quality—are still made.  I kind of doubt it.  They were pretty awful.  I smoked one once, when Sergeant Vinh offered it to me, and that was more than enough.  I'm not sure I even finished it.

Ad for Luxe cigarettes
An ad for Luxes in 1970 Sàigòn
Sergeant Vinh
Sergeant Vinh being, as usual,
terminally cool

Andrew, Mark Lawrenc and Mark Byrnes show up right on time.  We decide to try the Vietnam House, at 93-97 Đồng Khởi (Tự Do), mostly because it is close, right around the corner on Đồng Khởi street.  The service is terrific, but the food is unremarkable; in fact, what we had at the cookie-cutter restaurants in Vũng Tàu was better.  It's as if the Olive Garden had better Italian food than the fanciest place in Chicago.  The prices are high; it costs us about $10 apiece.  What's unusual about the place is the live music.  I always support live music, but I was fascinated by the three women in very formal clothes, similar to that in the dress shop below.

Formal wear in Việt Nam

They played three instruments; a hammer dulcimer, a koto, and a monochord.  They don't sing, however, and I suppose that's because the management doesn't want to upset the tourists; it's clear that only rich Vietnamese can afford to eat here.  Most of the people seated at the tables are not Vietnamese, however, but obvious tourists.  I wonder how long the Vietnam House has been in business; probably not that long, since between the end of the American war and the beginning of đối mới (“change” or “contrary,” and “newness”) in 1986 such tourist establishments probably had little, if any, customer base.  The period between the end of the that war and 1986 was full of problematic economic decisions—not to mention additional wars—which included not catering to foreign tourists.  Centralized, Stalinist-style economies don't deal well with tourists.

Today, the city supports many bars and night clubs; among those I missed were The Blue Gecko, not far from the hotel, and Sheridan's, a genuine Irish Pub (“Since 1999”).  Other members of the tour went to Apocalypse Now, apparently quite a famous Sàigòn bar, but I never made it, being neither a drinker nor a night owl.  Besides, I never did appreciate the 1979 movie.

I do get that it's not supposed to be about the Việt Nam War so much as it is supposed to be about Captain Willard's journey to the Heart of Darkness, but it is still hailed as “one of the great Vietnam films,” a “masterpiece of film-making.”  Hardly anything that is claimed to be of the war in the film is.  For many of us who were here in and of the war when it was happening, the film distorts history for the sake of a questionable story.  I think it's pretentious drivel.  Read Conrad's real Heart of Darkness, and see the real Việt Nam.

How much of the Việt Nam of 1970 is left today?  Over half the population of Việt Nam is under 25.  Most people I see and meet on this trip weren't born when the American War was going on.

Encounter in Hà Nội

Of course there are plenty of people around who were here then.  Mr. Tiger, for one, and the Colonel in Sàigòn.  Our guide,

Mr. Song holding all our cameras in Hà Nội

Mr. Song, was an ARVN officer, and in Hà Nội (where the picture above was taken), I meet a man who was stationed at Củ Chi during 1970.  We shake hands, and gaze into each other's eyes; he shows me his scars.  I want to talk more, but we're separated by the crush of people near Uncle Ho's House on Stilts,

Little green house on stilts

and I never see him again.  But most people are new, without the bad taste of war in their minds and mouths; everywhere we go incountry there is new construction and a gaze ahead, no looking back.

View from the front of the Presidential Palace, looking out toward the Cathedral
View from the Reunification (Presidential) Palace

Of these tall buildings, the only one visible in 1970 was the cathedral, the twin towers peeking up by the antenna to the right of center.  One of the people from vnforum once said to me when I complained about a book being racist (1971's Vietnam Inc., by Philip Jones Griffiths), “Who cares?  That is ancient history.”  To be fair to the book, it was no better and no worse than most other books on the war published in the 70s.

I care.  Everyone on the tour cares.  We are veterans, historians, war protestors, students, teachers, counselors.  All of our lives—everyone in America and in Việt Nam, not just us relics on the tour—have been changed irrevocably by this tiny little country on the far side of the globe.  We've self-selected for the tour, keyed by the words “Learning and Reconciliation” in the tour's title, Mark Byrnes explains to me when I express astonishment in a tiny cafe in Hoi An.  The world, or at least the U.S., is swinging—has swung—to the right, and we are protestors, resisters—“aginners,” as my mother would have put it:  “Whatever it is, I'm agin it”—and happy to remain so.  It's possible, I suppose, that if America went back to Flower Power and Love is the Answer, that we'd be agin it too, but I'd like to think not.

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