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Vietnam Embraces Americana and Future as Tet Offensive Fades Into Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Dan Sinh black market still sells purloined Pentagon paraphernalia, from flak jackets to canteens to military timepieces labeled “Watch, Wrist, General Purpose.”

Out on the busy street, vendors sell U.S. dog tags, each stamped with a soldier’s name, serial number, blood type and religion. Others peddle fake Zippo cigarette lighters, each marked with a soldier’s slogan. “Let me win your heart and mind, or I’ll burn your goddam hut down,” says one, attributed to John D., Airborne, Tuy Hoa, Vietnam ’66-'67.

And near the Apocalypse Now bar, where ‘60s rock and foreign tourists spill into the street, a jeweler shows his most expensive ring. The stone is gone, but ornate gold letters around the hole read, “A. E. Beach H. S., Savannah, Ga., 1967.” The name “Carl” is carved inside. Asking price: $200.

Is Carl dead? Did he sell his high school ring? Give it to a girlfriend? Toss it in a rice paddy? And why is it so expensive, anyway?

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“People like it,” says the jeweler, Nguyen Van Huong, “because it’s from America.”

Such small mysteries and mementos--some comical, some grisly--still abound in Vietnam nearly 18 years after the war ended and 25 years after the start of the war’s most famous battle: the 1968 Tet Offensive. Today, the strange, sad bits of Americana are the most poignant reminders of the nearly 3 million Americans who fought, worked and in some cases died here during the war.

That may soon change. Two American consulting firms have been granted licenses to open offices in Hanoi, the first since former President George Bush eased the longstanding economic embargo in December. Major American oil, banking and industrial companies are expected to follow if and when President Clinton fully lifts the trade ban.

“Business here will explode,” a Los Angeles businessman said at “Q,” an upscale jazz bar under the French-built opera house here. “The only people who don’t want us in Vietnam are other foreigners. They’re afraid we’ll put a McDonald’s on every corner.”

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Vietnamese government officials alternately plead and bluster for an end to the embargo against their impoverished country. Held up until the embargo ends are billions of dollars in desperately needed loans for roads, electricity and other infrastructure from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other donors.

“We have repeatedly told American officials the prolonging of the embargo causes great hardship to the Vietnamese people,” said Nguyen Xuan Phong, acting director of the Americas Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi.

“The lifting of the embargo should have been done long ago,” he added. “It’s irrational to delay lifting the embargo. It’s not from lack of our goodwill.”

Such sentiment is common in a country where nearly half the population was born after the last U.S. helicopter lifted off in 1975. Many say Washington is punishing them for a war fought by their fathers a generation ago.

“It’s an economic war now,” complained Loong Tong, 31, the dapper, black-suited manager of the cozy Piano Bar and Cafe, one of Hanoi’s few private-run restaurants. “It’s not a weapons war anymore.”

“Most people forget the war,” agreed Duong Trong Hien, 22, a medical student who works nights as a waiter, partly for the $8-a-month salary and partly so he can practice his English. “Why is America still fighting us?”

After years of problems, Vietnamese officials insist that they are cooperating fully now in the investigation of the fate of 2,264 missing U.S. servicemen, the chief stumbling block between the two governments. This month, a 63-member American team, the largest yet, completed the 21st official search for remains. They recovered far more bones and other evidence than any previous team.

Gary Flanigan, a member of the U.S. MIA-POW office in Hanoi, credited the apparent success to Vietnamese government announcements in December urging people to turn in any potential remains or information. Other American teams are searching for the first time through secret Vietnamese military archives in Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

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“They’ve agreed to give us full access,” Flanigan said.

And this year, for the first time, no celebration or announcement was planned to mark the Tet Offensive, a watershed battle of the Vietnam War.

On Jan. 31, 1968, ear-splitting fireworks welcomed Tet, the lunar new year--and also drowned out fierce gunfire as Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces attacked scores of cities and towns in South Vietnam for the first time. A squad of commandos even stormed the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon.

More than 2,000 Americans were killed in a month, the highest death toll of the war. Although the offensive failed, with severe enemy losses, it made a mockery of official American claims that victory was near. After Tet, U.S. public opinion was never the same.

“We found (the Tet anniversary) is sensitive with Americans, so we did not organize this year,” said retired Maj. Gen. Tran Cong Man, a prominent journalist and political figure in Hanoi. Nor were speeches made, for the first time since the war, at the wreckage of a downed B-52 in Hanoi. “We want to be friends,” Man said.

Rarely talked about are Vietnam’s own estimated 300,000 MIAs. Many clearly were blown apart or buried in the massive wartime bombing, or lost in unmarked graves in remote jungles and swamps. Instead of metal dog tags, they were issued plastic ID cards that easily burned.

“It is very difficult to find out where they died and how,” conceded Nghiem Xuan Tue, a former North Vietnamese army captain and now deputy director in the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs.

“The pain is the same, both for Americans and Vietnamese,” said Hoang Ngoc Ve, 55, whose brother, a Viet Cong guerrilla, disappeared and presumably died during the battle of Hue in 1968. “But America is rich, so it can find the MIAs. Our country is very poor, and we cannot.”

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Vietnamese MIAs who died along the Ho Chi Minh Trail are remembered with 68 unmarked white concrete graves at the Truong Son National Cemetery in central Vietnam. The landscape around the graveyard is eerily empty.

“They dug this one up last month,” said graveyard administrator Huang Hien, showing a deep hole about 20 yards from the graves. “Then we found this one,” he said, pointing nervously at what appeared to be a rounded metal cone poking up from the brown earth. “It’s a B-52 bomb.”

It isn’t the only thing America left behind. Many tourists are shocked to see vendors jangle used U.S. dog tags for sale.

Flanigan, the MIA-POW official, said that his team had “thousands and thousands” of queries about dog tags but that “very, very few panned out” as leads to missing servicemen. Some of the dog tags that turn up are from dead soldiers, some are fakes and some are just trash left behind by men on their way home.

“You have to remember, most of the guys didn’t want to be here,” Flanigan said. “When they left, they tossed ‘em away.”

Other items also seem lost in time. The multilingual bookstore on Ho Chi Minh City’s Dong Khai Street, better known in the American era as rowdy Tu Do Street, sells dogeared copies of Reader’s Digest, circa 1965, as well as mildewed maps of Cambodia, dated October, 1971, and published by the CIA.

The Dan Sinh black market offers stranger fare. One vendor has a canvas duffel bag stuffed with black-and-white war photos by United Press International, presumably looted from the wire service office in Saigon. He asks $3 each.

Nearby, former South Vietnamese helicopter mechanic Nguyen Anh Tuan, 42, quickly rummages through his pile when a visitor asks what he’s got.

“I have American,” he says, pulling out a Navy life preserver and helicopter compass and a sealed bag stamped “One Each, Gas Mask, Protective” and dated September, 1970. “I have Viet Cong. I have South Vietnam. You want Ho Chi Minh helmet? Only one dollar.”

Other shops and stalls sell fake American gear, moonshine whiskey in Johnnie Walker bottles, rotgut vodka in Stolichnaya bottles and just about anything else from opium to aphrodisiacs. Watch your change: Counterfeit U.S. $100 and $50 bills are circulating in Vietnam.

They’ll even take U.S. dollars at the strangest shop of all.

The War Time Souvenir Shop, according to its sign, stands beside the Crimes of War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, where the American “war of aggression” is documented in gruesome detail. On your way out, you can pick up a fake Zippo or another supposed American lighter. It’s made from machine-gun bullets. Only $6 each.


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