Thursday, April 21, 2011

Saigon 43 Years On

In 1968, I flew to Saigon to write about the Tet offensive, at the time the biggest communist exclamation point in the long narrative that ended with the north's victory over the United States in the Vietnam War. On my first night, I stood on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel and watched the Vietcong's punishing attack, concussive fireworks exploding on all sides, a lethal Fourth of July in February.

The hotel still stands, now expanded and dwarfed by a glossy addition that rises high above where I safely touched the war that night. Among its offerings is a half-day tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, the network beneath the city that was Vietcong headquarters during the Tet offensive. In the Signature Room, the expansive breakfast buffet runs $50 for two, and pillow menus are available for fussy sleepers like Diane and me.

Tom Hill advised me of this last, having read my brief squawk about the profusion and cruelty of hard pillows (see April 5 post). He, and his wife, Heather Dinwiddie, also us took us in for our stay in what is now Ho Chi Minh City, providing us with superb guidance, warm companionship and a comfortable bedroom, save for its unyielding mattress, which was utterly out of sync with the soft mini-pillows we carry with us. "You'll get used to it," Tom said cheerfully.

Tom, Heather and me eating street food in Ho Chi Minh City:
noodles, vegetables and pork, with fried egg on top. Profile in courage?
Photo: Diane

We first met Tom and Heather some years ago, when he was the recording engineer at a chamber music festival on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where Diane performed every June. They both seemed restless and we weren't too surprised when they quit their jobs as a middle school teacher (he) and head of a family consulting business (she), sold their house in Alexandria, Virginia, and moved, in 2005, to Chengdu, a city of more than 12 million, to teach English to Chinese children. Heather was 52 and dissatisfied with her life in Virginia; Tom was 56 and looking for a change, too, but was also appalled by where George Bush, just re-elected, was taking the nation under the tight reins of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove.

They had been conditioned by the U.S. media to find a country with empty shelves, and underfed children marching about in identical short haircuts, blue Mao jackets and black shoes. Instead,  handsome women walked about wearing Prada and Chanel ("Probably knockoffs," says Tom, "but still . . . ."), and most children and adults seemed happy, even jolly much of the time.

The couple taught at the Sichuan Normal University Experimental Foreign Languages School, with a body of 4,500 primary, middle and high school students, as many as 50 of them per class. What they liked most was the sense of community in the school and in the apartment complex nearby, where they lived in a modest, Western-style two-bedroom apartment. "Over the 15 years we lived in Alexandria,  neighborliness had steadily diminished as developers and Washington bureaucrats invaded," said Heather. "The place just lost its Virginianess."

They also relished the freedom they had to build relationships with their students, without the kind of legalistic, bureaucratic oversight and parental permissions required where Tom had taught in Fairfax County. He walked a girl home from school regularly, once spontaneously took 50 kids out for ice cream; they gave a party in their apartment every January 1 for as many students who wanted to come, no permissions needed.

For many months, they found these and other pluses worth the sacrifice of earning just $500 a month in combined salary. But by 2009, they had begun to find their teaching tasks routine and boring, and the the foul weather and pollution in Chengdu increasingly intolerable. The air was what Heather called "baby poop yellow"; during the three-and-a-half years they stayed they saw the nearby mountain range once and the moon maybe four times. Then there was the constant spitting in the streets, even occasionally on the floor in homes. "It's the national pastime," said Heather. "No," said Tom, "it's the national anthem."

In March of 2009, they escaped to Ho Chi Minh City, where they now teach English at the Asia Pacific College, for much improved salaries. They live in a three-story house with four bedrooms, four-and-a-half baths, two balconies and a roof garden, for which they pay $700 a month. On the Saturday after we arrived, they celebrated their April birthdays with a roof party for more than a dozen fellow teachers and other friends, Vietnamese and ex-pat alike. The home-made pork- and vegetable-filled spring rolls were crunchy and succulent, the best I had ever tasted; unfortunately, they arrived from the first-floor kitchen in such a steady stream that I ate far beyond the assignment.

One of the first things Tom and Heather showed us was how to cross the street, which is akin to traversing the anarchy of a carnival's bumper cars. Motorbikes and scooters, the transportation of choice in Ho Chi Minh City, school and swarm by the thousands, passing on the sidewalk when stymied on the street, belching along in the wrong direction, challenging taxis, weaving perilously as their handlers chat nonchalantly on cell phones.

Terrified, we followed our hosts off the curb, to discover that the drivers appeared to have bat-like sonar, coming within inches of but never clipping us, or one another. They seemed to take the chaos for granted, honking constantly but displaying not a sign of road rage, astonishing to those of us used to the cursing and flipped fingers rife in New York traffic. For months now, Tom and Heather themselves have commuted to and from Asia Pacific College on the backs of motorbikes.

Masked teachers in front of their house leave for work,
with their Vietnamese chauffeurs. Photo: Diane

While the Tom and Heather worked, Diane and I walked the city, stopping in the well-tended Central Park to watch a half-dozen young men keep a shuttlecock aloft, not by swatting it with badminton racquets but by miraculously kicking it back and forth across the net, in a game called, as best as I could determine phonetically, Da Cow. After Diane indulged in a little Chopin at a nearby piano store, we went next door to the city's music conservatory, where the stern instructions of a voice teacher echoed through the courtyard like the bark of a marine drill sergeant as she cut off her cowed student again and again in mid-measure. 

En route back to our temporary quarters, I found a store that looked as if it might stock just the house present I was after. The woman who greeted me was willowy, beautiful, and impeccably sheathed in an Ao Dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress. I felt immediately intimated going through the jerky motions I hoped would communicate my quest. She understood immediately, and within second returned from the back of the store with a plunger, for which there had developed a pressing need at the house the night before.

As a foursome, we went swimming in a public pool near the college and pampered ourselves with foot and full body massages at an elegant spa, a dark, wood-paneled retreat from the constant racket and bustle of the street. When I said I hankered for a fresh salad, Tom led the way to Skewers, an ex-pat hangout downtown run by a self-trained Vietnamese chef, Tristan Ngo, whose kitchen produced a Greek salad brimming with crisp lettuce, fresh tomatoes, black olives and feta. Another night, we dined in the garden at Indochine, where the menu is shaped like a non, the Vietnamese cone hat, and a 1930s Citroen greets you at the door, a copy of the car that chauffeured Catherine Deneuve in the eponymous 1992 film.

Sitting around Tom and Heather's kitchen table one morning, I asked what's next, wondering if after almost six years away from the United States they might be considering a return. They are not. They do get back for several weeks every summer to see friends and family, some of whom, said Tom, "get the impression that we don't like the U.S., that we think it's better here than in American." It's not, they both stressed, just different, and they like that; Vietnam is where they feel comfortable, at least for the time being. They miss their sometimes perplexed friends in the states, but tell them: "Don't worry guys, we're happy here."