Hitting the Ho Chi Minh Trail 20 years late is OK by me

SAIGON DAYS

More than 20 years ago, Saigon was the last place on earth that I wanted to visit. I was in a New Jersey high school when the Vietnam war picked up its voracious momentum, sucking in hundreds of thousands of young Americans.

Going to university, I thought, would save me from Vietnam. But I was wrong. People were complaining, with justification, that only poor blacks were drafted. So the US government subjected us all to a lottery.

This scared me - I had never won anything in my life. I remember the night before the draw considering my options: one was dodging over to Canada. The problem was my father. He had served in the US Marine Corps, and often said I'd never make a man out of myself until I did the same.

I knew that if I ran away to Canada, my father, even though he loved me, would have thought I was a coward and told me to get the hell out. The other option was going to Vietnam. My only hope was that nobody would want a scrawny kid in the platoon who would be helpless if his glasses fell in the mud.

The other obstacle to my signing up was Nguyen Tan Huyen, my Vietnamese roommate. I didn't have to go to Saigon for action: I was practically living with a Viet Cong.

Nguyen was a tough, sullen character who was dismissive of my political naivety. Even though he was on a US government scholarship, that didn't stop him from spending most of his time making speeches at anti-war rallies (Who bothered with classes at Berkeley?). Now, seeing the destruction we wrought on his fragile, green land, so painfully visible even 20 years later, I can understand why most of the time Nguyen seethed and was unapproachable.

As it turned out, my number was way down the list. Although my father never admitted as much, I think he was secretly relieved. He knew I wasn't much of a fighter. And Nguyen and I became friends. He gave me Ho Chi Minh's collected works, and finally convinced me to go to a political rally in San Francisco. After getting stuck behind some Dadaists (who, of course, marched backwards), I entered a huge stadium packed with 70,000 people, and there was my room-mate on the stage with - I couldn't believe it - JANE FONDA! She was just wriggling out of her Barbarella sex doll image to become a radical.

In Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called, I have tried to track down Nguyen. I wasn't hopeful. Even when I knew him, he had gone through some strange changes, but we all did. A year before the war stopped, Nguyen dropped politics to become a Buddhist monk in San Francisco. That lasted maybe two years before he went to study psychology at Harvard. I don't think he has come back home, but I cannot be sure. Every other person here seems to be called Nguyen Tan Huyen. It is a common name, but I don't think he was a common enough individual to fit comfortably into the Marxist-Leninist mindset which still pervades here.

In Saigon (the people here still call it Saigon), everybody talks about how quickly it is all speeding towards capitalism. On the leafy boulevards, thousands of young office women on Honda scooters race along, wearing long cotton gloves to protect their delicate skin from the sun. These girls are taken as a symbol of prosperity, but then you realise: the reason why Saigon abounds with young people is that millions of the older generation were killed.

On the lane by the river where my hotel stands, I have counted five old madwomen.Scores of crippled beggars are there, too, disfigured by the war. But yesterday these disabled Vietnamese saw something new: a legless American Vietnam vet in a wheelchair, whizzing along. He paused to wave at the disfigured Vietnamese. They smiled and waved back, but maybe they just envied his speedy wheelchair.

No, I'd been very lucky in that lottery. Coming to Saigon 20 years too late is fine by me.

The authorship of the "Oklahoma Days" column last Saturday was incorrectly attributed. It was written by Phil Davison.

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
i100
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...

MANCHESTER - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION -

Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?