In Ho Chi Minh City; A reporter finds Americans aren't so ugly after all
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
After we had spoken for only a moment or two, the cherubic-looking Vietnamese monk asked casually whether I was Russian.Skip to next paragraph
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When I told him that I was American, not Russian, he took a quick look over his shoulder to see if anyone was listening.
''I'm sorry to say this,'' confided the Buddhist monk, who was wearing a gray robe and spectacles. ''Before liberation, a certain number of people here hated Americans. Now, the situation is different.''
He peered over his spectacles and rolled his eyes upward as if to indicate that there was much more that he would like to say about how things had changed.
The monk then turned his attention to a piece of porcelain that we had both been examining when we met. He proceeded to talk as though our only common interest was a 19th-century blue-and-white plate from the old imperial city of Hue.
Much has, indeed, changed in the six years since I had last seen Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. The changes seem to include a kindlier attitude on the part of some Vietnamese toward Americans, perhaps in part because American visitors are such a rarity here these days.
The North Vietnamese Army took Saigon on April 30, 1975, the ''liberation'' day the monk was referring to. Saigonese tend to talk a great deal about the situation ''before liberation'' and ''after liberation.''
The city is cleaner and quieter than the Saigon I had known during the war years. It is Saigon without all the ''background music'' -- no bombs and artillery rumbling in the distance, no flares casting a red glare across the river.
In some ways, Saigon is becoming more like the fishing village it once was and less like a city. Or is it?
''No,'' said one of my old Vietnamese acquaintances in the city, ''it's simply becoming more like Hanoi.''
A few pedicab, or cyclo, drivers still shout out the English they learned from the GIs:
''Hey, man, check it out.''
''No sweat, man.''
But people appear less brash and pushy than they once were.
Nature seems to be closing in. People grow small plots of vegetables wherever they can. At night you can hear the high-pitched squeal of bats outside the waterfront windows of the old Majestic Hotel, now called the Cuu Long.
I walked down Nguyen Hue Boulevard to the old apartment where I used to live. Near the apartment, a chicken wandered out of the door of what used to be a GI bar. Just inside the door, a woman squatted next to a cooking fire, stirring soup. I was told that my apartment was now occupied by cadres (officials) from the new regime.
Within minutes of my brief stop there, I was sighted by a Vietnamese woman who spoke rudimentary English and was eager to talk. She had had a child by an American soldier more than 10 years ago. She no longer knew where the soldier was. She wanted help in order to leave Vietnam.
Nguyen Phuong Nam, the rotund former National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) major who is now Ho Chi Minh City's liaison man for the foreign press, later told me that the authorities had distributed a ''circular'' instructing Vietnamese to avoid unauthorized contacts with foreigners.