"When You Open the Door,the Flies Come In": My Return Visit to Vietnam
By William W. Cobb, Jr.
In April I returned to Vietnam for the first time since I served there with a U.S. Army military intelligence unit twenty-five years ago. I returned in order to launch an exchange program for Vietnamese and American students and instructors, to build some additional material for the Vietnam War class that I teach, and of course my curiosity drew me there as well. How had Saigon changed? Could I find where I'd lived, where I worked, locate any of the interpreters I had used when talking with prisoners and hoi chanhs? I was impressed by how at the same time nothing had changed yet everything had changed.
What's the same? The way that Saigon is laid out Paris-like with all major thoroughfares converging like spokes at the center of the city. The way Vietnamese leave their homes at night and gather on the wide sidewalks in their sling chairs to eat noodle soup, sip coffee, smoke, watch the children play, and exchange gossip in that singsong language that is thousands of years old. The way the city is full of the sound of motor bikes -- six million people and each armed with a Honda. And the smell of nuoc mam and heat and humidity. But mostly the beauty and tradition of the people remain the same. This seemed true in the south and farther to the north in Hanoi.
And what has changed? Although most Vietnamese still rely on cottage industry and agriculture to eke out a living (selling everything from paperback editions of Graham Greene's The Quiet American to old Zippo lighters that U.S. soldiers carried during the war and that are inscribed with sage phrases such as: When I die I'm going to Heaven because I've spent my time in Hell), the city skyline in Saigon and Hanoi clearly reveal the Vietnam of the future. Luxury hotels with such names as the New World, the Equatorial, and the Metropole rise high above the existing and aging architecture. Joint-venture agreements have brought billions of dollars into the country to produce synthetic rubber, drill for oil, bottle Coca Cola, and construct hotels perhaps more befitting Waikiki Beach.
I think I was most impressed by the fondness of the Vietnamese for Americans -- despite the enmity of the last many years between their communist government and the U.S. And by their willingness to open the door cautiously to the industrialized democracies' investment, educational system, and tourism. I say cautiously because they realize the truth of the adage that I heard once on my trip: When you open the door, the flies come in.
William Cobb is a member of VVAW. He is an assistant professor of history at Utah Valley State College. He's a Vietnam Vet.
William Cobb with members of World University Service, Ho Chi Minh City, 1996.