Southeast Asia: a correspondent's Vietnam revisited 35 years after the fall of Saigon
Every conflict has its own scribes. Southeast Asia's had a singular take.
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Journalists who covered wars in the states of former French Indochina faced many of the same risks but seem to have more of a sense of camaraderie than do those from later conflicts in Eastern Europe, Central America, and the Middle East. They share nostalgic memories of fine French menus mingled with the adrenalin rush of rocket attacks and firefights, distant battles and close-up coups.Skip to next paragraph
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Even mentions of the daily military briefings in Saigon, the "5 o'clock follies," evoke stories of tiffs with briefing officers, of reporters noted for relying more on the word of MACV, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, than on firsthand views from the scene. Those days, old-time correspondents concede, have disappeared into the mists of history while US forces wage war in very different environments, in which security is never certain and adventurous, off-base night life largely nonexistent.
Danger lurked in different forms, often where least expected, in Vietnam and Cambodia, where 69 correspondents, photographers, and local interpreters and assistants were killed. The first casualty was the female photographer Dickey Chapelle, killed by shrapnel set off by a booby trap in the Mekong River Delta in November 1965. The last was another photographer, Frenchman Michel Laurent, killed on April 28, 1975, two days before the surrender of the US-backed government in Saigon.
Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's long-reigning hereditary leader, described his country as "an oasis of peace," and it still seemed that way after he was overthrown while drumming up support in Moscow and Beijing. Hitching rides up well-traveled "Route 1" between Saigon and Phnom Penh, chatting on the way with CIA-financed Cambodian forces, I was relieved to be away from the morass of Vietnam.
Here was major news that was simple to cover. You could go to Cambodia, accompanied by a local assistant, in an old Mercedes-Benz taxi, picked up behind the Hotel Royale, listening to American pop music on the Armed Forces Vietnam Network. Down the road, you might hear the crump of artillery or even staccato sound of small-arms fire, interview a few villagers about the spreading war, return in time to file a story by cable or telex, and then relax over dinner by the Royale pool. Nor was I all that concerned when I ran into North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge troops while driving far south of Phnom Penh with a Canadian TV team led by globe-trotting correspondent Bill Cunningham at the beginning of April. They let us go with propaganda leaflets, in Vietnamese and Khmer, after Cunningham showed his Canadian passport – and did not ask to see my US passport.
Another day, another tale to tell around the Royale pool. Another easy story – meriting headline, with photo, across the top of Page 1 of the next day's Washington Star.