In Ho Chi Minh City; A reporter finds Americans aren't so ugly after all

After we had spoken for only a moment or two, the cherubic-looking Vietnamese monk asked casually whether I was Russian.

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.

If this were the case, then many people had neither heard of the directive or were simply ignoring it.Everywhere I went in the city, I was approached by people who wanted to talk. Some would let me know they had once worked with Americans or that they had relatives now living in the United States. Some wanted help in getting out of Vietnam. In many cases, it was only a matter of curiosity.In a few cases, people rode their bicycles up to the side of my pedicab and asked the driver if I were Russian. When the driver said I was not a Russian but an American who spoke a little Vietnamese, that was all it took for some to start a brief conversation with me.This does not mean that Ho Chi Minh City is free of fear. In one case, I encountered a man with a familiar face in the middle of the city. At first he was friendly. But when I asked too many questions, he abruptly excused himself and stepped away.On another occasion, one of my colleagues saw the hard side of the regime when an official lectured him and threatened to confiscate his film. The journalist had taken photographs of an immigration office where Vietnamese mothers who had had children by Americans during the war years had gathered. It was the sort of thing that might embarrass the regime.In a few cases I agonized over whether I should see a particular Vietnamese I had known in the past. I feared getting old acquaintances in trouble. In the end, I saw a number of people whom I thought it would be safe to see or people who encouraged me to see them.In several cases, I agreed not to quote people because they feared it might endanger them.Was I followed? I do not think so. But it would be easy for the security police to question pedicab drivers as to some of the places I visited.All in all I must have talked with some 40 Vietnamese during my four days in Ho Chi Minh City. Some of them I encountered only briefly, in the course of a walk, for example.But I came away with the impression that anyone who can speak some English, French, and Vietnamese could wander around Ho Chi Minh City with a considerable degree of freedom. I was told several times, at any rate, that the atmosphere was freer in this regard than it was in the nation's capital, Hanoi.Duong Quynh Hoa, former health minister for the communist-led Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, has met with numerous foreign visitors to Vietnam.''Vietnamese and Americans are not supposed to have unauthorized contacts,'' she said. '' . . . But tacitly, it's allowed.''''It's enough for you to tell a southern Vietnamese that he's not supposed to have contact with a foreigner, and he'll take a certain pleasure in doing what he's just been told not to do,'' added Mrs. Hoa, who is a southerner herself.One Vietnamese youth, 13 years old, broke into applause when told that I was an American, not a Russian.Why the warmth toward Americans?Saigon has seen its share of quiet Americans, ugly Americans, retreating Americans. It now seems to be inventing a mythical American. Economic hardship has created a nostalgia, perhaps, for free-spending Americans.Russians are not big spenders. Americans are welcome as better business prospects. One Vietnamese explained that a Russian, instead of paying cash for a purchase, had tried to barter with a bunch of Soviet toothbrushes. The Vietnamese was insulted.The Soviets stick for the most part to themselves. It is little wonder. An American acquaintance who has visited Ho Chi Minh City several times said that on one occasion Vietnamese children threw stones at him and his wife. The children thought that the two were Russians.But I sensed there was more to the warmth for Americans than unhappiness with Russians. I sensed that in the case of middle-class Saigonese at least, the old tendency to look for external forces beyond their control for solutions to their problems was still alive today. A visiting American offers them the prospect of escape.

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