Dateline: Vietnam

Elephant collapse cartoon
 A cartoonist for Dien Tin, leading Saigon opposition paper, depicts possible local consequences of an elephantine collapse in Washington

Slices of Life in Saigon:
The Vietnamese Talk Back

Published in American Report, June 24, 1974

By John Spragens, Jr.
Special to American Report

SAIGON — Take 1: “I don’t hate all Americans,” the man sitting across the table in the restaurant informed me, a bit apologetically.

I had to refocus. He had been asking me the kind of probing questions an American often encounters — personal questions, and questions about my perception of Viet Nam. I hadn’t felt he was attacking me or the U.S. I scrambled back in my mind to pull out the threads of what we had been talking about.

The state of the economy had been the main topic. His salary this year was only about half what it had been at the job he held last year, and yet prices were up. Double. Sometimes more. It was easy to understand the lines of anxiety etched across his forehead. He was middle class and hurting, and he knew how much worse off most people are.

We had talked, too, about the social gap. It’s more like two different societies — a bicycle society and an air conditioner society, as one friend put it. My dinner companion thought that was a very apt, very Vietnamese way of putting it. A small segment enjoying the good life and thinking of little but their own advantage and pleasure, and running the show, while most people are scraping to make ends meet.

The Honda-crowded streets give the impression of life and health. He was glad I had seen deeper than that.

Now his abrupt apology became an accusation saying, in effect, this is the American legacy. He didn’t want me to take it personally, though. “I’m the manager of a shoe shop,” he said as he was leaving. “If you need some new shoes while you’re here, come by and we’ll make an extra good pair for you.”

Take 2: Watergate comes out in a crazy variety of phonetic spellings in Vietnamese, but everyone catches the meaning. The ins and outs of the case are followed here surely as much as in any capital of the world. Dien Tin, the leading opposition daily, tried to run a public opinion poll to find out whether people believe Nixon is going to stay or is on his way out, until the idea was quashed by the government censor.

It’s not that the government is ignoring Watergate. Dan Chu, the official daily of Thieu’s Democratic Party, keeps up with every twist and turn of events. Only titillating speculation is out.

The coverage of Watergate in the local press, in fact, runs almost neck and neck with the stories about Congressional debate on foreign aid. Every setback sends barely disguised thrills through the opposition press, while Dan Chu shudders. The days they enjoy in Thieu’s newsroom are the ones when Ambassador Martin spices the air with one of his calls to keep the dollars flowing.

Take 3: A group of students is sitting in a small room in downtown Saigon talking about their prison experiences with two American journalists. “Did you ever see any Americans working in any of the prisons where you were held?” we asked. “Everybody knows there are American advisers,” they answered. We pressed them. “But did you personally see any Americans?” They hadn’t.

Some had seen indirect indications that Americans were in the prisons. Hard evidence, of the Americans’ physical presence wasn’t their concern, though. The political reality was and is, to them, that Americans are behind the imprisonment they and their friends have endured because of their peace activism.

Take 4: Sitting in a thatch farmhouse in central Viet Nam, I had been listening to Mr. Hong, a provincial cadre of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, talking about the difficulties of trying to get the land back into production when they are constantly harassed by ARVN artillery fire. “If the American government didn’t give them the shells, they couldn’t shoot them at us, could they?”

Take 5: Another restaurant scene. It’s not a place where I eat often, but I happened to be near at lunch time and stopped in. The room was empty except for some of the owner’s family, who were surprised that I was able to speak Vietnamese.

The owner, sleek, wearing brown shirt and pants styled after traditional peasant wear, came out and exchanged pleasantries until the food came. “Go on and eat,” he said, “and we can talk some more when you finish.”

When I had finished eating, and he turned the TV set up to the level of a low-budget rock concert, that's just what we did for nearly two hours. Or, rather, he did most of the talking and I mostly listened, amazed that someone who knew nothing more of me than that I speak Vietnamese and claimed to be an American journalist wanted to share such politically risky thoughts with me.

“There are plenty of people here who could be good, wise leaders,” he lectured. “We’re the same Vietnamese as the Vietnamese in the north, and look how good their leaders are.” He repeated the sentence that I have heard so often in Saigon: “Nixon con, Thieu con.” While Nixon lasts, Thieu will last.

“If the Embassy would get rid of Thieu, there would be a revolution like you’ve never seen. A revolution that even the communists couldn’t keep up with. The Embassy doesn’t need to worry about the communists.”

Maybe that’s the clue to why he was talking to me. Maybe he thought I was CIA and he could get his message to the Embassy through me. In any case, he pointed out that the U.S. Embassy got rid of Diem and no one cried for him. He was sure that the Embassy has contingency plans for Thieu, and left me to draw my own conclusions about how many tears would be shed at Thieu’s funeral.

It doesn’t seem to matter what people's political opinions are. There’s near unanimity among Vietnamese that the U.S. is still the determining factor in their country. Representative Nguyen Mau, for example, the strongly anti-communist head of the lower house defense sub-committee, includes in his list of reasons he doesn’t think there will be a communist general offensive: “United States military forces might return. If not ground troops then the air force, especially B-52 bombers.”

Others of a more independent bent, like a young professional woman I met at a party a few months ago, want to get beyond blaming the United States for everything — or looking for Americans to pull rabbits out of hats every time something goes wrong. “We Vietnamese have to get to work and solve our own problems,” she said.

She’s not alone in feeling that way. And that may explain why all manner of people are asking me what I think about press predictions that Nixon is on his way out. Nixon con, Thieu con.

Copyright John Spragens, Jr.

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