I was never actually stationed in Saigon (as it used to be called), but I have been there fifteen times so far: four times in 1964, eight times in 1965 and three times in 1995.
In a letter dated July 17, 1964, I wrote:
I am now ca. 31,000 ft. over the South China Sea, en route from the Philippines to Vietnam. We are supposed to land in Saigon in about an hour.
The flight has been fine the whole way. The only disappointment was seeing so little of Hawaii and the Philippines; but I wasn’t actually expecting to see much. We spent five hours on the ground at Clark Air Force Base near Manila — from one to six a.m. [ . . . ]
One thing I’ll have to do without this week is Thursday. Thanks to the International Date Line we skipped from the 15th to the 17th of July rather quickly. I’m hoping to make up the day on the way back, about a year from now.
We also made a stop at Wake Island, but only stayed for about twenty minutes to refuel. We didn’t even get off the plane there.
Land is in sight out the window, so I’ll finish writing on the ground.
In a letter dated July 22, 1964, I wrote:
At present I am still in Saigon, living in an air-conditioned hotel and generally having a good time. I have bought some books and dictionaries and am starting to learn Vietnamese. The people are very eager to help. On Friday, the 24th, I will fly out to my station, which is a place called Phước Vĩnh, capital of “Happiness” province, about 50 or 60 miles north of Saigon. I’m told that there have never been any major battles up there, only occasional minor harassment by the V.C. (Việt Cong).
My second visit to Saigon was because of illness. Since the medics at Phước Vĩnh couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, they sent me to the U.S. Navy hospital in Saigon, where the doctors diagnosed my illness as a “fever of unknown etiology” — meaning they didn’t know, either.
This was where I learned the word etiology, meaning cause or origin.
In a letter dated September 19, 1964, I wrote:
Since Tuesday I have been moldering here in the U.S. Navy hospital in Saigon with some exotic tropical disease that seems not (at least in my case) to be any more terrifying than a 48-hour head- and stomach-ache. Whatever it was, it’s no longer with me, so I should be getting out of here tomorrow.
After leaving the hospital I spent one night at the Hôtel des Nations, which I remember nothing about, and then flew back to Phước Vĩnh on September 22, 1964.
My third visit to Saigon wasn’t until two months later, from November 17-20, 1964, when I stayed for three nights at the Dong Khanh Hotel in Cholon, the Chinese district of Saigon.
The copyright laws were not taken very seriously in Vietnam in those days, if they existed at all. Even the more serious book stores had numerous low-quality pirated books on sale.
In one of the book stores I found a smeary pirated edition of John Rechy’s novel City of Night, which was a best-seller in the United States that year. Since I was slightly acquainted with John, having met him in El Paso through a mutual friend, I bought a copy of the pirated edition and sent it to him. (Which in fact he had asked me to do.)
In a letter dated November 19th I wrote:
I am still alive, healthy and presently enjoying a short three-day vacation in “The Paris of the Orient” — not a very apt comparison, in my humble opinion. If I had to compare Saigon to some European city, I guess I’d call it — I was going to say “The Barcelona of the Orient” but Saigon is at best a shoddy imitation of Barcelona. Saigon’s street of flowers looks sickly compared to Barcelona’s Rambla de las Flores, and in Saigon there are no hills, no Mediterranean, no Plaza de Cataluña, nothing even remotely resembling the Paseo de Gracia.
Today in a photography shop (where I was buying black market piastres) I saw some color pictures of Barcelona, which is what got me started on that kick. [. . .] (One of my most persistent slips of the tongue is to say peseta instead of piastre; this has become something of a standing joke in Tan Ba.)
But getting back to Saigon. The whole city has a peculiar smell to it. Most people don’t like the Saigon small at first; in fact only the most anally-oriented ever get to like it at all. It’s not exactly a garbage small or a sweat smell or an excrement smell, it’s more like — swamp gas.
Though nowhere near the South China Sea, Saigon is an ocean port and has an altitude of just about sea level, give or take a few meters either way. Any ocean going ship can steam right up the Saigon River and dock here. the city is entirely surrounded by water: one side by the river and three sides by swamp. Vacant lots on the outskirts are more likely to be — vacant swamps.
The tallest buildings in Saigon are the hotels, sticking up 8 or 9 stories high in random places around the city, surrounded by low buildings and tumbledown shacks. Each hotel has a restaurant on the top floor, where you can get a fine view of — the other hotels. All the hotels have a curious untrimmed look; they seem to have little wooden huts and various indefinable structures perched on the top of them.
Saigon does have a few advantages like on the Nguyễn Hué Boulevard there is a man squatting on the sidewalk with a paper-cutter, a pair of scissors, a charcoal-burning iron and several rolls of plastic. He does a thriving business putting plastic covers on paperback books.
To this day I can still tell at a glance which books I bought in Saigon, because they all have clear plastic covers on them.
Until Christmas Eve of 1964 Saigon was considered a safe haven for us Americans. We could walk around without our weapons, even in civilian clothes when we were off duty, with little fear of being shot or ambushed. As an extra precaution I used to buy a French newspaper and carry it around conspicuously — not that I could have passed for a Frenchman with my American military haircut, but still.
On December 24, 1964, we did a very unusual thing and traveled by car from Tân Ba to Saigon, a distance of about thirty kilometers.
The driver of the car was an American civilian who sometimes lived with us in the house at Tan Ba. He was an employee of USOM, the United States Operations Mission, which as far as I know was some sort of aid and development organization.
He drove like a madman because like the rest of us he was terrified about driving those thirty kilometers on an unsecured Vietnamese road. In retrospect I think it was probably one of the safest roads in the country, but that was not our opinion at the time.
We stayed at the Tan Loc Hotel, which I later described as “the second sorriest hotel in Saigon,” though I don’t remember exactly what was wrong with it. In any case it was so shoddy and run-down that I was confident it would never be a target for any kind of terrorist attack.
After checking in at the Tan Loc I went over to the PX (the Post Exchange, in the center of the city), where I did some shopping and had a chat with an American major whom I had briefly worked for in Hon Quan a few months earlier. This major evidently stayed around in front of the PX a few minutes longer than I did, because he was slightly injured by flying glass when the Brinks Hotel blew up.
The Brinks Hotel was being used as an American officers’ billet. At 5:55 p.m. on December 24, 1964, a truckload of explosives blew up in the garage area underneath the hotel. Two Americans were killed and at least fifty Americans were injured, including the major I had just been talking to. Also a number of Vietnamese and Australians were injured, and some small buildings at the rear of the Brinks Hotel were completely destroyed by the force of the blast.
This was the first time the Viet Cong had carried out any sort of major attack against an American installation in the city.
If I had hung around in front of the PX ten minutes longer I might well have been an eyewitness to this explosion and perhaps even one of the injured like the American major I had been chatting with. But in fact I was only an ear witness, sitting a few blocks away in the USO when it happened.
[Note from half a century later: The site of the former Brinks Hotel is now the location of the five-star Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel, which is reputed to be the best and most expensive hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. On the front lawn of the Park Hyatt there is now a plaque commemorating the car bombing of Christmas Eve 1964 at what was then the Brinks Hotel.]
In a letter dated December 25, 1964, I wrote:
I just took a walk past the Brinks Hotel. It is still standing, the frame that is, but it looks like almost the whole inside of the building was blown out. All the windows are gone, and even rooms at the far corners of the top floors have holes in the walls. Most of the windows were also blown out of the Ambassador Hotel, across the street.
When the bomb exploded, last night about six, I was sitting in the USO, two blocks away, reading the latest two-month-old New Yorker. The blast shook the entire USO, just like the artillery fire that shakes our house in Tan Ba almost every night. Everyone in the USO, with the exception of me and half a dozen others, jumped up and started running in and out and around in circles. It’s easy to tell who is from Saigon and who is from the field — just watch what they do when something explodes.
I spent the evening in a small French movie theatre, on the theory that if there was going to be a Christmas Eve terror campaign against the Americans, that’s the last place anyone would think to look.
In that letter I don’t think I was trying to make myself sound like some sort of fearless war hero, since in fact I am one of the least fearless people I know. But by that time I was rather accustomed to hearing and feeling large explosions, so I tended not to panic as much as some of the others.
Actually the small explosions were the ones that scared me most, the ones that sounded like gunfire. To this day I jump when I hear a firecracker or a car backfiring.
In any case, by evening all the members of our advisory team had calmed down enough to do what we had been planning all along, so we met for dinner at the International Restaurant on Le Loi Boulevard. Our medic even brought his Chinese girlfriend along.
The next day, December 26, we went out to Tan Son Nhut airport and managed to get a helicopter to take us back to Tân Ba.
My photos in this post are from 1964. I revised the text in 2017.
Next: Saigon 1965