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My family returns to Vietnam

I’m a big fan of agrarian Marxism. Not for any ideological reasons (though I have nothing against the workers’ collective). I’m also a huge fan of colonialism. I have to be. My admiration is, at root, selfishness defined. Without the contradiction and hostility between those two movements of history, I would not exist. No. Really.

In 1962 my father (photographed above at a orphanage in Nha Trang); along with my mother, brother and sister, was sent by the U.S. military to South Vietnam. As a Green Beret and part of the MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group) battalion, it was my father’s assignment to advise both the U.S. government and the South Vietnamese military on how to handle a growing insurgency against the French-supported colonial establishment in the south. BTW. His advice can be summed up as follows: Escalating to war is probably a very bad idea. My father observed that it didn’t appear that the Vietnamese were interested in any aggressive expansion or militaristic utopias. They just wanted to farm a rice paddy, own a buffalo, maybe do some fishing, and be left in peace to determine their own destiny. And he noted, while these people were small in stature, they were tough. Very, very tough indeed. With a long bloody history of thousands of years of fighting wars.

Apparently nobody at the Pentagon was interested in my father’s opinion.

It was decided that the MAAG battalion would stay (now under the command of the expanded MACV). And my family with them. Strangely enough in the early 60’s South Vietnam was an ideal place for a US serviceman to be stationed. Large colonial villas, beautiful countryside, tropical beaches. Except for the occasional bombing, Vietnam was exotic, friendly, and romantic.

This story concerns the occasional bombing. In late March 1963, the South Vietnamese insurgency movement known as the Viet Cong mortar-attacked the local movie theater in Nha Trang. Nobody was hurt, since in those days insurgents were polite enough to phone ahead.

Let me digress. You see the V.C. (and especially the North Vietnamese) did not want U.S. involvement in their civil war. So they often went out of their way to keep U.S. service personal from harm. For example my father would get anonymous notes written in excellent penmanship and impeccable English left on out gate fence post. The notes would warn him not to go to the post office that day, etc. Since part of his job was creating a relationship with the insurgents in the town he would write back (also he didn’t want to be rude). He’d leave a good joke, say. Or a recipe. Back and forth for many months. His invisible correspondent would occasionally sincerely recommend a nice restaurant in town “Ask for the lobster bisque”, or recommend a good book.

Back to the theater and why I’m forced to like agrarian Marxism. On the night in question a call in bomb threat and subsequent mortar shell shut down a showing of a forgettable little film called Taras Bulba

It might be that the local insurgency held a pathological hatred for Yul Brynner or Tony Curtis. Maybe the insurgency caught the matinee? Taras Bulba is, after all, truly a terrible movie. Who knows. In any case, thank you very much Ho Chi Minh, Yul Brynner, or anonymous-Vietnamese-movie-theater-manager-who-had-a-strict-no-refund-policy. I owe you one. You see this event forced my parents to stay home for the night. And my brother and sister were at a school sleepover. Sooooooo. There you go. I was conceived.

In March of 2010, my family returned to Vietnam.

So much beauty and history to parse in a few inadequate words. It’s worth noting that the only collectivist instinct I could see in the Vietnamese culture was in a collective reaction to get out from under the ponderous weight of our mutually tragic history and welcome the world back to see what they have accomplished. Accomplished in spite of history and in spite of war. The amazing people of this beautiful-ancient country have moved on.

The nine of us arrived in Saigon (nobody but government officials call it Ho Chi Minh City) around 4am. That’s right. NINE. My mother, father, brother, sister and her husband; their eldest son plus his girlfriend, my wife and myself. It was a miracle of coordination. Getting all of us in one place on the North American continent is amazing enough. We took lodging at the Rex Hotel.

The Rex made famous by the old MACV press conferences titled “The Five O’Clock Follies,” where less than impressed journalists and servicemen would meet in the roof top bar. The Rex is beautiful. Situated in thick of downtown District 1 next to the lovely colonial style Peoples Committee Hall (city hall). From here you are an easy walk to the old train station, the markets,  and hundreds of of restaurants and swinging night spots.

Saigon is a particle collider of activity. Like so many Asian cities it suffers from terrible traffic congestion and air pollution. But the people are friendly and independent. On any given block there will be a dozen entrepreneurs making Phở or amazing Vietnamese sandwiches. I would recommend going out mostly at night when it’s cooler and doing day trips into the country.

More in part 2  – coming soon