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Saturday, 29 April, 2000, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Return to Saigon
US helicopters
The war cost the US $150bn
By Brian Barron

"You want postcards Joe?" wheedled the boy standing near the enormous statue of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader whose name was bestowed on Saigon after the communists' triumph.

The postcards were glossy views of what was once a capital city but today, a quarter of a century after its surrender, remains stripped of power and prestige.

The boy's English was surprisingly good - one of his favourite subjects at school, he told me proudly.
Ho  Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh: Once seen as the devil

The little street vendor's father might well have been peddling postcards himself during the long years of war - that's supposing he'd dodged military call-up or, much more likely, had been invalided out of the army minus a limb or two.

And the postcards of his generation, when Saigon was an American fiefdom, would have been staunchly anti-communist.

In those days, in this town, Ho Chi Minh was portrayed as the devil.

Nostalgia

Today, as dusk falls, there are reminders of the rumbustious past.

"Hi Johnny, come on in Johnny, you want good time?" shout the teenage bar girls from the doorways of dimly lit nightclubs pulsating to rock music.
Vietnam War
1954 Vietnam split into North and South
1957 North launches guerrilla war
1960 Viet Cong sets up in South, backed by Hanoi
1964 US starts bombing North Vietnam
1965 200,000 US combat troops arrive in South
1968 Tet offensive by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army
1969 US draws back troops, now 542,000-strong
1973 Washington and Hanoi ceasefire deal
1975 Saigon falls to North

On a nearby wall is a government poster warning about Aids - an unknown disease when Saigon was having its final brassy fling in the early '70s.

For those seeking landmarks and nostalgia Ho Chi Minh City has plenty.

"Apocalypse Now" is the name of one watering hole.

The old French colonial opera house still dominates the central square, a few yards from the Continental Hotel, these days a dowdy dowager despite a Ministry of Tourism makeover.

Sadly, the terrace where Graham Green sipped sundowners before creating The Quiet American has disappeared, converted into an airline office.

Fresh start

Beside the Saigon River, in place of the terrified thousands trying to escape by boat as the communists seized the city, there are the reassuring signs of commerce, with car ferries sailing back and forth.

The twin steeples of the French colonial cathedral still peep above the skyline, a reminder of the nights when they served as a makeshift aiming device for Viet Cong guerrillas lining up their rockets in the rice paddies around the capital.
The new US consulate
The new US consulate

Up the road, the huge white painted American embassy has gone.

The concrete fortress from which a string of American envoys tried to manipulate their Southern allies was pulled down on Washington's orders a few years ago.

It was an effort to signal a new start in relations with Vietnam.

All that's left of the original compound, from which the last desperate scrambled helicopter evacuation took place, is the rocket proof outer wall with its unmanned guard towers.

Tourists

Five minutes walk away, festooned with red flags, is the Independence Palace, still fronted by the ornamental iron gates through which the North Vietnamese tank column crashed in April, 1975.
North Vietnamese soldiers enter the palace
North Vietnamese troops enter the palace, April 1975

Now coachloads of Vietnamese tourists arrive every day to be conducted around Ho Chi Minh's ultimate trophy.

To make sure no one misses the message, one of the old conquering tanks stands in the grounds with its gun pointing at the palace's front door.

Today, with hindsight, one can see just how total was the American miscalculation in the 1960s, first under John Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson, as they weighed intervention.

What intelligence analysts and the Pentagon failed to realise was they were confronted by a holy crusade.

Deluded

The Northerners and their Viet Cong allies had a virtual monopoly on absolute commitment to the land of Vietnam, whatever the sacrifice.
A bodybag, Vietnam War
A bodybag is sent home

The US military deluded itself by believing that if it killed more and more Vietnamese - including, one has to say, a sizeable number of civilians - the war was being won.

But in terms of attrition - the phrase of that era was "the meat grinder war" - it was the Pentagon which blinked first.

When I first reported from the battlefield in January, 1969, there were 350 American body bags sent home each week - unsustainable, politically, for anything other than a short period.

For the North, the mathematics were different. It had one of the world's highest birth rates and could more than absorb the frightful casualties.
Tank in Saigon
Celebrations on a tank as Saigon falls

Ho Chi Minh took the long view - after all this was a wily guerrilla leader who had spent decades fighting foreign enemies, starting with the French.

At the heart of this conflict was the collision between American eagerness, almost an imperial cockiness, about defeating "the gooks", as the GIs called their enemies, and the implacable almost timeless resolve of the Vietnamese communists.

Retreat

It's now intellectually fashionable to suggest the Americans almost won - that if the military hadn't been betrayed by the anti-war movement back home, and if the hawkish President Richard Nixon hadn't been driven from office by the Watergate scandal, the communists were all but beaten.

It didn't seem like that to me on the dusty helicopter landing zones of Vietnam in 1970.
US soldier in Vietnam
More than 540,000 US troops were in Vietnam

The grunts, as the GIs called themselves because of the involuntary exhalation of breath they made lifting their rucksacks and ammunition, were in retreat.

Some American military units I stayed with were so plagued by drug addiction and what was called "fragging" - the use of anti personnel hand grenades against officers and NCOs by disgruntled GIs - that anything other than a complete withdrawal conjured up the spectre of mutinies and disintegration within the US force.

Slow progress

A generation has passed since I saw Saigon fall, but the communist commanders of that victory remain a discreet though hugely powerful conservative influence on how the unified country is run.

Near the Independence Palace I had coffee with the colonel who not only led the conquering tanks but accepted the surrender of South Vietnam's last president.
Saigon today
The modern face of Saigon

Now the colonel walks with difficulty - that's the result of wounds incurred fighting first the French, then the Americans and more recently the army of neighbouring China.

"Why is Vietnam lagging so far behind the more successful countries of South East Asia?" I ask the colonel.

"You must give us time," says this flinty patriarch. "We have had to defend ourselves so many times. We are interested in reforming the system, in absorbing new ideas, but these things cannot happen quickly."

The pace of change in Vietnam is indeed glacial. The old guard cling to familiar certainties and are fearful of the truly new.

For instance, despite token approval of the internet the government seems determined to control access.

Fear

It's surprising to find these timorous attitudes in men who survived shot and shell, creating one of the 20th century's most potent warrior myths.

But, yes, they are afraid of Western ideas prising open the closed world whose periphery they zealously patrol.
Hanoi street scene
Hanoi: Fearful of change

My eyes glazed over every morning in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City trying to read the morning newspaper, saturated with non-news about communist apparatchiks.

This is a rigid regime that having won a famous victory is prisoner both of its martial past and its one-party obsessions.

But as the years tick by and much of South-East Asia prospers, Vietnam is drifting.


Brian Barron reported on the Vietnam war and the fall of Saigon for the BBC
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See also:

13 Mar 98 | Asia-Pacific
Vietnam 1945 to 1975: timeline
13 Mar 98 | Asia-Pacific
Murder in the name of war - My Lai
19 Nov 99 | Crossing continents
Poisoned legacy of the Vietnam War
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