I have a flashback to Vietnam in 1989…

On YouTube, there is a video of the last flight out of Da Nang in 1975

Fourteen years later, almost a quarter of a century ago from today – in November 1989 – I was in Da Nang. This is an extract from my diary.

Three of the American ‘journalists’ I saw in Cambodia are here with a lady from the Vietnamese Foreign Office. They are ex-GIs and have been touring former places they were based and fought in and around Huế and Da Nang…and meeting some former Viet Cong fighters.

They have interviewed the Foreign Minister who apparently said little except that the Japanese are “animals”. This was in an on-the-record interview.

The Foreign Office lady was interesting. She had shown film director Oliver Stone (of Platoon and Salvador) around and had a VHS of Spitting Image in her office – she thought it very funny. She had started reading Animal Farm but had got bored. She also went to North Korea last year and had been regaling the Americans with stories of how OTT it is. She said they had eaten potatoes every single day for lunch, so she and her room mate went back to the privacy of their room and talked about how boring potatoes were and how they wished the North Koreans would not serve them. Sure enough, the next day…no potatoes were served.

The Americans told the Foreign Office lady they could have easily won the Vietnam War, but the moral and political price would have been too high.

The most philosophical one of them told her quietly and amiably: “We could have obliterated you. We could have wiped your country off the map.” She smiled politely.

It strikes me the Americans still have not realised (even after the Russian debacle in Afghanistan) that money and might and technology alone cannot defeat motivated individuals. Also, the more I see of this country, the more insane the American tactic seems – staying in fortified enclaves. They could never have won the Vietnam War any more than the British forces on their own can ‘win’ in Northern Ireland. The difference is we know it but have no alternative. I suppose the problem is the Americans don’t understand guerrilla wars. They’re pumping money, arms and equipment into Central America, assuming quantity will triumph.

Anyway….

It was monsoon day today. I woke up at about 0300 in the morning with rain chucking it down. This continued for most of the morning. Sheets of it coming down. I got a chance to wear my waterproof top and leggings. I suspect the locals thought I looked distinguished – if hysterical tittering is a compliment over here.

An old guy attached himself to me as I wandered around. He said he occasionally goes to Saigon “but the crime is bad there. People have guns and sometimes policemen are shot by robbers”. He seemed to be talking about more than one isolated case. He asked me to send him “two movie magazines – American.”

He said only newspapers get censored, not movie magazines, and there is no problem sending him things.

Last night, after I got back to my room, there was a knock on the door.

A young-ish woman.

“Yooseepwon?”

“Sorry?”

“You sleep one?”

Aha! I possibly already have AIDs from the acupuncture needles; I don’t need this.

“No. Sleeps two,” I said. “Two people here.”

She wasn’t convinced, but said, “Ah!” and went away. After I closed my door, I heard her knocking on another door along the corridor. Presumably she had a list of all the rooms occupied by single men and says: “Can I sleep here too?”

Uncle Ho Chi Minh must be turning in his mausoleum up north in Hanoi.

I met a couple of British expats (they’ve been away from home for 37 years) working for the UN who reckon Vietnam could start to flourish within 18 months. In one Hanoi hotel, they told us, twenty rooms are on a retainer to Japanese companies waiting for the right time to move in their businesses. They have retained the empty rooms for six months to see how the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia goes and are waiting for US pressure on Japan to lessen. (ie “Don’t trade with the Viets!”)

I also met a local teacher of English. He has the top teaching post on the highest grade at the local college and earns $10 per month; he has a wife and four children. He does occasional tourist work for meals, not money. He listens to the BBC World Service (illegal, he says) and gave me his business card, printed free for him by a student’s father.

“Don’t write,” he told me, pointing to the address on his card. “It would not be good for me.”

I have been warned about pickpockets in Da Nang.

I had a walk around town. Everyone ignored me. I assumed this was because they thought I was a Russian. The Russians took over the vast US naval base and airfield – I think it’s a main port for their Pacific Fleet. People who did look at me did so without expression or with a slight scowl. On some of the secondary shopping streets, though, I got some “Hello”s followed by smiles when I replied in English. On four occasions, when I said I was “English” they insisted on grasping and shaking my hand. I have never had this before. One bloke, discovering I was English, tried to sell me “real Viet Cong’s jacket…with holes in it…Real holes!…A memento…”

Only a couple of kids half-heartedly asked for money. There are more brightly-coloured Saigon consumer goods here than in Huế. More hustle and bustle. More money, I suspect…unless you teach.

The sad teacher said he agreed with Tolstoy: “Life is a dream.” He was an amiable man unable to control or affect his own destiny because of history, politics and lack of money. An intelligent man trapped below his ability and unable to do anything about it.

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