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.

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