Tourists From United States Return to Vietnam : VIETNAM: American Tourists Venture Back to Scene of Battle

Foisie, former bureau chief for The Times in Saigon, now lives in Oregon.

The small group who assembled at Manila Airport recently were waiting for flight PR 591, although the departures board had left blank PR 591's destination.

The green light was flashing for "immediate boarding," but it was 90 minutes later that the Philippine Airlines jet taxied onto the runway.

The destination was Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City.

So began an unusual 15 days of travel throughout Vietnam by nine Americans. We were among the vanguard of what the Soviet-supported Hanoi government hopes will become a sizable influx of American visitors.

Tourism Bridges Gap

For Vietnam--victorious over the United States in a war that ended 12 years ago--is in great need of the dollars that the American tourist would spend, and also hopes to use tourism as a bridge to the restoration of diplomatic relations.

The Vietnam tour-promotion brochure says its one- and two-week tours, escorted by English-speaking government guides, are "an opportunity to see a rare country, a rare people."

They are certainly that.

The government is learning about the desires of visitors as the tour season progresses, so there may be changes.

But for now, tourists with one-week visas see only South Vietnam. Visitors staying longer also travel to Hanoi and Haiphong in the north, and are permitted a comparison of the Sovietized north with the less-disciplined south.

Ho Chi Minh City still exudes a vitality that has reminders of the wartime American presence. For example, the roof garden restaurant and bar of the Rex Hotel has a posted sign: "Staff may decline to serve drunkards." That is not Asian subtlety but Yankee directness.

Vietnam veterans may remember that the Rex Hotel roof was an officer's club during the war. Today's plea for decorum is printed in three languages: Vietnamese, English and Russian.

Reminders of War

There is something for every adventuresome tourist in Vietnam. Besides sad reminders of war, the now unified nation is rich in cultural history, with its temples, pagodas and palaces.

And there are trips up the Perfume River from Hue and another on the famed Mekong River from My Tho and an all-afternoon cruise among the cathedral-like rock spires bursting from Ha Long Bay.

Roughly 100 Americans have visited Vietnam during this first year of organized tourism for Westerners. The majority, however, were Vietnamese-Americans being allowed to return to their homeland for the first time since the war for brief reunions with kinfolk.

Although classified as tourists and required to stay nights at the designated tourist hotel, those with whom we became acquainted were allowed to break away from the tour schedule to spend days with loved ones and friends and were even granted extensions of their visas.

Tourist officials indicated that they favor visas only for people of Vietnamese origin who left before war's end in April, 1975, and not the so-called "boat people" who fled the Communist regime afterward.

Rewarding Sights, Sounds

We deplaned at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhut Airport, now quiet after its frenetic pace during the peak of American involvement, with a few American fighter planes and helicopters rusting in revetments. The sights and sounds of Vietnam at peace were rewarding to all of us.

Our band of five women and four men were a varied lot. The majority were seasoned tourists who doted on experiencing "out-of-the-ordinary" travel, and on this trip they certainly got their money's worth.

Several were innocents abroad, "just curious about Vietnam." Surprisingly, we included no military veterans of that conflict.

Besides me--a former correspondent in Vietnam, Martha Arsenault of Largo, Fla., had been a longtime civilian in what, at the time, was Saigon. She'd been a nurse, escaping the day before the city fell to North Vietnamese forces, and was hoping for a reunion with a Vietnamese woman with whom she had worked.

Our group had widely different outlooks and at times there was tension, particularly some impatience when some of the travel arrangements proved rudimentary.

Dang Dinh Ky, the government director of tourism interviewed in Hanoi, urged American travel agents to make the Vietnam-bound groups as "compatible" as possible.

For example, he said, if an all-veteran group asked far enough ahead, it could be taken to old American bases for a look-see (except for the Soviet-occupied naval base at Cam Ranh Bay) and could tour combat-memory places such as Khe Sanh.

Temples, Museums, Sights

For a group with mixed interests, director Ky explained, it was better to stick to temples, museums and scenic sightseeing, with plenty of time for shopping in pungent markets and at government shops where dollars, rather than dong (the Vietnamese currency), are required for payment.

Our group's divisiveness reached break point only once when one of our number joined a tour guide in severely reprimanding Arsenault, who had found her Vietnamese friend (after officials had discouraged contact) and gone off for an evening of remembrances.

A government informer had spotted them at a small restaurant and reported Martha's and her friend's infraction--a foreigner and a Vietnamese meeting without government knowledge. It was not the only reminder on the trip that Vietnam is a police state.

Our group sensed little hostility from the average citizen, however, and in Ho Chi Minh City, once you had been sized up as an American rather than a Russian, you were smiled upon.

Only on one occasion were there contemptuous glances toward the group, which was at Marble Mountain near Danang. The area had been a Vietcong stronghold during the war, often attacked by U.S. Marines, and there appeared to be a residue of hate even among the young.

Communist-bloc tourists are much more in evidence than Americans, with tour director Ky reporting 13,000 this year.

Communist Favoritism?

Their tour arrangements appeared to be similar to the American schedule--with one notable exception. When groups stayed overnight in the same city, and one hotel was insufficient to house both, tourists from the Soviet Union, East Germany and Czechoslovakia were always put up at the superior hotel.

Ky insisted that no favoritism is being shown, explaining that hotel arrangements are determined by the earliest tour booking. He also suggested that the communists paid more to travel than Americans and so were thus entitled to first-class accommodations.

Neither assertion sounded convincing, I suspect not even to a smiling Dang Dinh Ky, who said the Hanoi government is striving to improve hotel accommodations for all tourists.

Even the better hotels were subject to brownouts, blackouts and water stoppages, making for some dismal evenings. Still, grumbles were invariably met with smiles from hotel staffers as they tried to make things work again, however briefly.

At times this mutual sharing of mild discomfort seemed to dissolve the standoffishness of tourists from the various countries, although each group took meals at a separate table designated by the miniature flag of their nation.

When reports of harmony in American-Soviet disarmament negotiations flowed in over Voice of America and Radio Moscow, the mixing became chummy. And with a few belts of vodka, the mood of camaraderie became even more effusive.

"I love you," cried one Russian, proud of his English, as he embraced an American.

War Propaganda Displays

War museums in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have scheduled visits for all tourists. Some of us felt flashes of irritation as we passed a lengthy display of "American atrocities" depicted mostly by enlargements of combat photos from American magazines and newspapers--one showing a grinning American sergeant walking past Vietnamese dead.

Under some pictures the original captions had been replaced by the Vietnamese to enhance propaganda effect.

Also on display were photos of American presidents from Eisenhower through Nixon. Each president was labeled "guilty of crimes against the Vietnamese people during 20 years of American occupation."

The Vietnamese apparently date the American presence in their country from the day the French left after their classic defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

"Don't be offended," the guide explained quietly to me. "We have had to fight aggression and colonialism throughout our history. It is only natural to be proud of our victories."

Vietnamese pride in their military accomplishments is also evidenced by the trip to Cu Chi outside Ho Chi Minh City to see a map display of a wartime Viet Cong underground tunnel complex. It was so massive, self-contained and defensible that, despite American efforts to smash it, the base remained in guerrilla hands throughout the war, posing a severe security threat to Saigon.

McCain Site Remembered

Our bus stopped in central Hanoi to allow us to see a life-size wood sculpture of an aviator in parachute harness. The marker purportedly indicates the spot where Cmdr. John McCain, a Navy pilot, was captured after bailing out of his disabled plane.

Snaring McCain was a plum for the Vietnamese when they learned that he was the son of the then-commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. John McCain Sr. The younger McCain survived years of imprisonment and is a U.S. senator from Arizona.

But sad and heroic flashbacks to that war are only a small part of the Vietnam tour. More time is spent viewing such astonishing works of architecture as the tomb of Thai Dinh, one of Vietnam's recent emperors, that was completed in 1931.

Elsewhere in Hue, the Imperial Palace became a battlefield between die-hard Viet Cong invaders and U.S. Marines during the bitter Tet offensive of 1968. Restoration of damaged buildings is slowly continuing under the auspices of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

As rewarding as the sightseeing is, the contact with everyday people is equally satisfying.

On the journey from northern Vietnam's major river port of Haiphong to the resort town at Ha Long Bay are two river crossings made by makeshift ferries. Vehicles and walk-on passengers jam the tug-pulled barges. Women in black pajamas and conic straw hats mingle with tourists in safari suits.

Requests for Socialism

Strangely, our guides had not intended to show us any aspects of socialism, perhaps because the system is not working well. We had to ask to vary the itinerary to see cooperative farms and managed to visit one in both the north and the south. The more independent attitude of the co-op farmers in the south was noticeable.

On travels through the Red River countryside in the north and past the massive rice paddies of the Mekong Delta below Ho Chi Minh City, the energy and make-do initiative of the farming families was evident.

Every bit of ground is used. Even the blacktop roads are used for a second threshing of the recently harvested rice. Stalks are laid out on the pavement and the kernels are squeezed out as trucks and cars run over them.

Until the Vietnamese can provide better accommodations and facilities, the tour is not for the timid. On balance, however, it is an exhilarating experience.

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It is best to arrange for Vietnam tours through travel agents or Philippine Airline offices. The best season is during the winter, starting about November when the monsoon rains are over and the hot summer weather is in the future.

My trip was arranged by Go Travel of San Francisco, to my complete satisfaction. Another West Coast travel agency promoting Vietnam trips is Economy Tours of Irvine.

Drinking tap water is not advised; bottled water is available at most hotels for the equivalent of about 10 cents a bottle.

No inoculations are required but a cholera shot is advisable. Take anti-malaria pills.

And bring a flashlight; blackouts are frequent due to faltering power supply.

(The latest U.S. Department of State travel advisory on Vietnam suggests caution; the United States maintains no diplomatic relations with Vietnam.)

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