The Road to Hill 10

A veteran's return to Vietnam

I first saw Saigon in the spring of 1970, its late Baroque period. The graceful French city had by then been smothered by a sprawling, energetic American one. Coming to Saigon from the war was almost the same as going to Bangkok, except that there was a curfew and more barbed wire in Saigon. Otherwise it was next to impossible to detect that a war was going on. In part that was because the war was the least of what was occupying Saigon. What occupied Saigon then, as now, was opportunity. Today many of Saigon's most blatant excesses have been suppressed, but beneath the surface it is the same city. Saigon is, in fact, the government's number-one problem. It is a direct challenge to party ideology and morality. Under the emperor, under the French and the Japanese, under the Americans, it survived on its own terms, but today, under the Communists, it seems finally to be gasping for breath. Not that the Communists have been particularly successful in Saigon: any issue of than Dan, the official Communist Party newspaper, is filled with accounts of corruption in the city, of plots and counterplots, of the latest outrages committed by "subversive" and "antisocial" elements. Still, the Communists need Saigon almost as desperately as they hate it. Even they recognize that beneath Saigon's "antisocial" exterior are the most efficient and successful economic institutions in the country.

Everything is still for sale—everything. Within five blocks of my hotel I was offered Buddhas plundered from Cambodia, rare Chinese antiques, gold jewelry, sex with male or female prostitutes, heroin, and—my favorite—a stamp collection (which, in fact, I bought). I was asked to change money, buy cigarettes, get my shoes shined, sell my camera. I saw markets selling everything from U.S. Navy silverware and American weapons to the latest cameras and stereos.

But more impressive, everything works. The clerks at the hotel speak excellent English. The elevator noes up and down. The orange juice in the morning is fresh squeezed, the croissants hot and newly baked, the coffee superb. If other foreigners had not begun conversations with me by saying, "I saw they had two cops following you today," I could almost have imagined that I was back in civilization. In Saigon one meets many cultured people, familiar with the West—good conversationalists. Unfortunately, in most cases they are not the people who won the war.

And then there is the matter of its new name: Ho Chi Minh City The renaming of things is the essence of conquest. Hotels, streets, and landmarks all have new names, and some have new uses. Graham Greene's Continental Palace hotel is closed to the public. The bars on Tu Do Street are gone, replaced by the ubiquitous antique shops. Soul Alley, where dark-skinned Cambodians and metis from the French war catered to black soldiers, is no more. The American Embassy is now the headquarters for the petroleum agency, the Cercle Sportif a youth recreation club. The Majestic Hotel is the Cuu Long, Tu Do Street is Dong Khoi Street, and so on. Some of the names have actually taken hold—but although I rarely heard the name

Tu Do I often heard the same street's name from a previous conquest: Rue Catinat. Except from a few top-ranking functionaries, however, I almost never heard the name Ho Chi Minh City. Granted, that name was written on all my documents, the airlines used it, I could say Ho Chi Minh City and be understood; but given all that, the city is still Saigon.

One relic of the old Saigon still tolerated by the government is the Rex nightclub. I rode up in the elevator with two Russians who were busily combing their hair, turning up their collars, and checking each other's clothes. The Rex is a classic nightclub, dark, with discreet waiters who whisper, "Would you like a taxi girl, sir?" after they take the drink order The music was stunningly professional; a woman named Cam Van sang basic nightclub songs in an eerily perfect imitation of Linda Ronstadt. The women were fashionably dressed and spoke good English; they were even good dancers.

The puritan world of Hanoi could have been on another planet. "Many men have fallen in love here," my companion told me. Officially, everything is chaste; the women all go home alone. But I spoke with several men who had arranged private meetings; as everywhere in Saigon, anything is possible. I asked one of the women to dance. The first thing she said was, "Can you help me get to America?"

Throughout North Vietnam, and even in Da Nang and Hue, I had felt I was in a basically stable culture, beset with problems and apprehensive about the future, but committed to it. In Da Nang on my walks I had encountered a few people who had asked me to help them get out. But Saigon—well, as always, Saigon was totally different. Saigon felt like an occupied city. Everyone seemed to be whispering to me—about the government, about the police, about how bad things were, and, most of all, about how they wanted out. "Sometimes I think that all anyone does here is plot to leave," a visitor from Hanoi said. Even the wife and children of the government press coordinator in Saigon live in Los Angeles.

More than a million Vietnamese have fled their country since the fall of Saigon, and another million are trying to get out by legal means. When the news spread in Saigon that I was an American, I became a walking mailbox. Wherever I went, people would stuff letters in my bag, my pockets, my hand. Their desperation was undeniable: they wanted out, and they wanted help to make it. There were letters to relatives, letters to congressmen, letters to President Reagan, but mostly there were letters to the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) office in Bangkok. The ODP was established in 1979 in response to the plight of the boat people, who were fleeing Vietnam and dying by the thousands in the South China Sea and at the hands of Thai pirates. The ODP is under the UN, but the countries that are the most common destinations—the United States. Canada, France, and Australia—run their own programs. The Vietnamese government has been the crucial link in making the program work. Eager to erase the image of the boat people, it has processed tens of thousands of exit visas for Amerasian children and Vietnamese citizens with relatives abroad. As of October, according to Vietnamese officials, there were 70,000 Vietnamese with exit visas waiting for approval from host countries.

Of the 500,000 people currently on file in the American ODP office registered as wanting to leave Vietnam, barely 13,000 made it out in 1984, up from less than 10,000 in 1983. At that rate, just to clear every person in the current files would take forty or fifty years, not to mention all the new cases that come in among the 100,000 letters the ODP gets in a year. Many of the people trying to get out were committed to us, worked for us, risked their lives for us. When we left in such inexcusable panic, in 1975, we left them behind. The gate out of Vietnam could be closed any day, as the gate out of Berlin was, as gates everywhere else have been. Vietnam often gives exit visas to people who don't meet our entry requirements, and denies visas to some people who do. But for our part, the U.S. government continues to do the bureaucratic slow shuffle. We agreed to take more Amerasian children and their families, but then we reduced the number of other refugees from Vietnam we would accept. At Tan Son Nhut airport, in Saigon, when I was leaving Vietnam, I listened to Canadian ODP officials boast good-naturedly to their American counterparts that, not counting the special Amerasian program, Canada was on the verge of accepting more refugees than the United States was taking. It was one of the worst things I heard on my entire trip.


Peace is better than war, and for that reason alone the people of Vietnam are better off than they were when we were there. In the barren wastelands of free-fire zones crops are being planted and children go to school. People no longer live in caves and tunnels, their babies tucked away on shelves in the clay, to avoid bombs. Millions of refugees have returned to their villages. The air-raid siren no longer screams its call to shelters and antiaircraft batteries. The cycle of rice planting and harvesting again dominates the lives of the peasants.

But underneath the surface is another reality. A driver in Hanoi complains that he is sick but can't even get into the hospital unless he bribes the clerks and the doctors. A restaurant owner groans about his high "taxes." A woman in Da Nang grabs up her child and flees when I sit down, saying, "If they see me talking to you, they'll kill me." Policemen at a ceremony designed to inspire young people to patriotism casually beat back uninvited young people with bamboo sticks, as if they were shooing away stray dogs. Foreigners who work in Vietnam tell endless stories about their employees reporting on them, and each other, to the police, and their fears that they will be sent away to reeducation camps on the slightest suspicion. The refugees who have fled the country since reunification have their own stories of corruption and repression, to which the hardships they braved to get out are eloquent witness.

Vietnam has no independent news, no freedom of speech; information is much more rigidly controlled than in the more liberal Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe. One crusading newspaper, however, regularly publishes stories about corruption and mismanagement, about abuses of the peasants and the people, about failures of the government and the Party. It is, oddly, orphan Dan, the Party newspaper. In each issue its readers learn about kick-backs and bribes, about insensitivity and brutality, about mistakes in ideology, policy, and practice. Case studies of the problems of establishing cooperatives and collectives openly discuss opposition from peasants and failures of leadership. There are stories of zealous tax collectors seizing personal property of Party members running smuggling rings, of payoffs for jobs, exit visas, apartments.

Two themes run throughout these accounts. The first is that the power of the central government is far from absolute. A Party member confirmed this for me. "The old saying that the power of the emperor stops at the gates of the village is still true. Even on the province level they basically do what they want to do. Cables get 'lost,' orders get 'misunderstood.' In most cases of practical government we cannot simply give orders and expect that they will be followed; we have to persuade. At the level of the village and the cooperative that is even more true. We cannot command allegiance; we must earn it." The second theme is that the transformation of the South into the socialist model of the North has been far more difficult than the regime ever expected. Ten years have passed since liberation, and still the North and the South might well be two countries. "The politburo believes that so far as the South goes it's now or never," a senior diplomat told me. "And they've decided that it's never."

In Vietnam, ideology has always come in by the back door. "The Communist Party inspired the people to fight out of patriotism," said Xuan Oanh, one of Hanoi's leading authorities on America. "Then, when we had their allegiance, we could persuade them of our ideology." That worked against the French, and it worked against the Americans. The goals were transcendent: drive out the foreigners, unite the country. If Communist ideology was the price that had to be paid for that—and if it would get rid of the landlords too—then the people would pay it. But today no more epic battles for independence and freedom are left to be won. Now the only incentive is the Party's own authority: you will follow this ideology not because it is the only way to liberate the country but because we say so. "After the war," I was told, "we expected the same spirit of patriotism to continue. "We expected it to pervade the South. We overestimated the fervor. It was a serious mistake."

Having organized the Vietnamese in a heroic effort to drive out the foreigners and unite the country, the leadership seems less capable of inspiring its people to improve their lot. Part of the problem is the legacy of one of the longest and most destructive wars in history. But the single biggest stumbling block to mobilizing the country's naturally industrious and entrepreneurial people has been the bankrupt Marxist ideology, which has little to offer a country wishing to create a modern economy. This problem has not escaped the Party leadership. Without the drama of Deng Xiaoping's headlong dash away from Marxism in China, they have begun to disengage themselves from the centralized, state-planning approach to economics that is the Soviet model. The talk is still of three incentives: for the suite, for the collective, and for the individual—but almost all the attention is going to the last two. The pragmatists have discovered that the desire for personal betterment—the capitalist vice of acquisitiveness—is a much more effective motivation for hard work and economic growth than exhortations about social good. The evidence is undeniable: the countryside is better off than the cities, because the peasants have been allowed more opportunity to produce for themselves; the South is better off than the North, because in the South the desire and the ability to create wealth still exist. But once the leadership committed itself to improving the lot of the people, and accepted that only with more individual motivation would it bring that about, it got more than it bargained for. The loosening of economic ties to allow individuals to produce more has inevitable loosened social ties as well.

To the casual visitor North Vietnam seems almost a religious state. Public morality influences all behavior. And although there is a ubiquitous network of informers, much of the behavior seems not imposed but internal, built in. At the same time, there is a good deal of evidence that even in the North the belief that society is more important than the individual is no longer universal.

There are robberies in Hanoi now; even five Ears ago they would have been virtually unthinkable. The black market is rampant. High officials try to insist that this is a problem only in the South. but even they have trouble keeping a straight face as they say so. From clerks to ministers, every government worker must sell his rationed food, cigarettes, and clothing on the black market in order to survive. A government worker makes about 300 dong (roughly $1.30 at the black-market exchange rate) a month; a doctor about 400 dong ($1.70). A bowl of soup is 30 dong, a grapefruit 20 dong, a pack of cheap cigarettes 35 dong. If a worker buys one of each of these a day, as most workers seem to do, he will have spent his entire month's salary in less than four days. And so everyone holds several jobs—sweeping out pagodas, teaching night classes, weaving mats, stringing beads; and everyone has to work the black market, often selling rationed rice on the black market and going without even a basic level of food to do so .

Vietnam is a society accustomed to sacrifice on the verge of having sacrificed enough. To ease those sacrifices the country must grow economically, but that means opening the door to all the Western social effects that old Party members find so threatening. So far the Westernizers like Communist Party leader Le Duan are winning, but the purists are watching and waiting. On several occasions I heard people mutter, "Did we fight the war for this?" Until the leadership can answer the question of what comes after independence and freedom, until they can truly convert their warrior culture to peace, their victory will remain bittersweet.


As we approached Hill 10, we came upon a ditch cut through the road. Beyond the ditch, where the base had been, was only a red scar on the hilltop. I got out and walked up to it. I could remember perfectly how it had been: where everyone had lived and worked, where everything in that little world had happened. I walked over to where the command post had been, where the Filipino bands had sung, where the PX and the enlisted-men's club had stood, where the showers and the mess hall had greeted us when we came in from the bush. This hill had been a little piece of America, our connection to the world, to reality. Now there were only the paddies, the mountains beyond, and the silence.

Hien, the former Viet Cong company commander, my old enemy, the man we had built all the Hill 10s in Vietnam to kill, walked quietly up to me and stood at my side as I stared toward the mountains. With a stick he drew diagrams in the dirt of how his company could have attacked Hill 10. I watched with interest, but there was really nothing left to say. In the end he didn't have to attack it; all he had to do was survive until we left, and then the country was his.

Four months before my trip to Vietnam, Americans of another generation revisited their battlefields on the beaches of Normandy. President Reagan spoke, his voice quavering. The veterans and their relatives cried. The American flag flew over a cemetery where crosses stretched as far as the eve could see. It was a powerful, patriotic moment. I thought of that moment as I stood on Hill 10. I did not feel patriotic; I simply felt sad.

"It is easier to start a war," the North Vietnamese general had told me, "than to end one." A valuable lesson, seldom learned. The cost of that lesson is beyond calculation: the long black wall in Washington, with all its names of young Americans who died so far from home; the cemetery just down the road, with its headstones bearing the word hero; the grief of the woman whose husband I might have killed, the grief of every family who had lost someone here. There are times when such costs must be paid: we had to fight the Nazis. We did not have to fight here.

I looked around this deserted hill for one last time. I could imagine a line of Marines making their way across the paddies, bound for the hill. The images were from a dream I still have, fifteen years later. My old platoon is returning to Hill 10 from the mountains. In the shadow of the base we are ambushed. No one comes to help us. We are cut to pieces.... But this time there was no ambush. The men just kept coming, headed for home, together.

As I turned to go, I noticed an old empty sandbag lying buried in the dirt. I picked it up and took it back, as a souvenir. When I returned to New York, I washed the sandbag over and over, but I could never get it to come clean.

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