The War Nobody Won 17

Luxury hotels were proliferating, some standardized steel-and-glass replicas of Marriotts and Sheratons. Out of nostalgia I usually stayed at the Continental, an elegant French relic that dated back to 1880 and had counted among its guests Andre Malraux, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene—when he was not zonked in an opium den. Nick¬named the “Continental Shelf,” its open terrace was a wartime watering hole for officials, correspondents, tipsters, prostitutes and enemy agents—and which, within recent years, had been turned into an air- conditioned pizzeria.
In 1981, a Communist official had assured me that the “socialist trans¬formation” had abolished the debauchery left from the America era. But fifteen years later, there were an estimated fifty thousand hookers in Ho Chi Minh City—a sharp increase since the war. Dazzling in tight blouses and microskirts, they plied their metier in bars, cafes, massage parlors and hotel lobbies, or boldly accosted clients from motor scoot¬ers. They chiefly pursued foreigners but many served party figures. In 1995, for instance, the vice squad raided the Bambi Bar, whose propri¬etor, Nguyen Thi Tot, was doubling as a madame with the complicity of senior comrades. They had been protecting her against zealous cops as well as furnishing her with customers.
Like the rest of the world, Vietnam was in thrall to American pop culture. Local television featured old Tracy and Hepburn films along with Cable News Network. Garbed in trendy costumes, the jeunesse dorée was rocking around the clock in stifling cellar discos illuminated by mul¬ticolored beam lights. I spotted the announcement of a forthcoming beauty pageant and a concert by Elvis Phuong, a clone of the immortal. Vendors hawked Snoopy and Mickey Mouse tote bags, Michael Jackson posters and T-shirts emblazoned with “Good Morning Vietnam,” the Robin Williams movie. Pepsi and Coke were competing for the soft- drink market, and a branch of Baskin-Robbins carried its familiar gamut of flavors. The town’s liveliest bar was Apocalypse Now, named for Francis Ford Coppola’s surrealistic evocation of the war. Twenty years before I would often grab a snack at Cheap Charlie’s, a Chinese bistro. It had become a fast food joint called HAM-BU-GO CA-LI-PHO-NIA.
When I first set foot in Saigon, the Vietnamese elite spoke French. Now, regarded as necessary for business, the language of choice was English. Signs advertised English lessons, and the need for instructors had lured many young Americans to Vietnam. Browsing through book¬stores, I saw piles of volumes like Common English Idioms, English Made Easy and Business Correspondence in English. Shops offered contraband American titles—among them this book—mailed by relatives in the United States and reprinted on copying machines.
I caught a glimpse of the effect of this prosperity on the countryside on a drive through the Mekong Delta, a flat, monotonous landscape of paddy fields and coconut groves that I had known well during the war. Houses had recently been whitewashed, a sign that peasants were earn¬ing enough to be interested in appearances. But mostly I was impressed by the television antennas rising above huts that lacked such basic ameni¬ties as indoor plumbing. I bumped over a rutted dirt road to a village hidden in a copse of palms. Children and chickens swarmed around. A spindly peasant in pajamas ushered me into his home, which was sparsely furnished with chairs, tables, a chest, a frame bed and a black-and-white television set. On a wall next to the requisite portraits of his parents and Ho Chi Minh, he had carefully chalked up proverbs like “A stitch in time saves nine” and “Look before you leap.” He had learned them, he told me, from an English course on television. “I am teaching my chil¬dren English,” he explained proudly, “so that, when they grow up, they can move to the city, go into business, make a lot of money and care for me in old age.”
Curious to get some notion of how old-guard Communists perceived this stampede into capitalism, I raised the topic with Giap during a chat in Hanoi in early 1995. I knew from earlier interviews that he was not rattled by contentious questions. “What has happened to Marxism?” I asked him—perhaps a bit aggressively. “Marx,” he answered calmly, “was a great analyst, but he never bequeathed us a formula for governing a country.” Pushing further, I went on, “And socialism? I was taught that it signified state control of the means of production and distribution.” Smiling faintly, he said, “Cher ami, socialism is whatever brings happi¬ness to the people.”
Giap’s wife, Dang Bich Ha, a history professor with years in the party, echoed him in her way. A decade before, I was sure, she would have condemned U.S. capitalism as the fountain of all evil. But, one after¬noon over tea, she exclaimed to me, “Those scenes of America on tele¬vision are amazing—automobiles, refrigerators, private homes. Such abundance! The United States ought to be our model.”
In 1995 about ten thousand Americans visited Vietnam. A few were relatives of soldiers missing in action, for whom the Vietnamese govern¬ment has finally been trying to account fully. Most had come for plea¬sure or were just inquisitive. A team of surfers arrived to ride the waves at Danang, which GIs had dubbed China Beach, and a hardy group cycled around the country. Numbers of the tourists were veterans. They trudged across paddy fields and through villages that had been their bat¬tlegrounds, some with their former Communist enemies as guides. A few were bilked by peddlers selling fake dog tags and Zippo lighters en¬graved with the insignia of U.S. units. But the majority of them were delighted by Vietnamese hospitality. As a former corporal remarked, “I received a warmer welcome as an American vet returning to Vietnam than I did as a Vietnam vet returning to America.”

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