A Saigon Warrior's Journal

A Story from

A Saigon Party:
And Other Vietnam War Short Stories

by Diana J. Dell

February 10, 1971

Today was the first day of Tet, and I properly welcomed in the lunar new year, thanks to the staff at the Saigon USO. They hired a wispy-bearded old Vietnamese scholar to get down on paper soldiers’ first writings for the coming year.

I should backtrack a bit and explain a few things about Tet. Most people in the States, when they hear the word “Tet,” conjure up images of the 1968 surprise attack by the VC and NVA, which was basically the turning point in the Vietnam War.

In any case, Tet 1971 welcomes in the Year of the Hog. Each year of the 12-year cycle has a name of an animal with distinct characteristics passed along to people born during that time period.

Tet, a combination Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and New Year's Eve rolled into one, lasts for three days. During this celebration it is important to avoid anything unpleasant, such as sickness, for fear that it will be repeated throughout the year. Also, this is the time when all debts must be paid and ancestral graves be visited and tended.

The Vietnamese have many customs commemorating this, their most important holiday. For instance, the first visitor of the new year is important.

Since Tet is the renewing of spirit and body, ancestral family altars found in every home—villas, as well as shacks—receive special attention with incense, prayers, food and flower offerings. The homes are also decorated with bright colors and "banh chung," a special rice cake, is prepared.

One week before the celebration, families erect a bamboo pole, called a "cay neu," in front of their homes to protect them.

Tet is also the time to buy new clothes for the family.

To these ancient people, the first visitor of the new year is significant, and fireworks and explosives are used to drive away evil and dangerous spirits.

The Tet celebration continues for three days, ending the evening of the third day, when all ancestral souls who have returned to the family for feasting and celebrating must depart for their world. It's then that artificial silver and gold paper money are burned by the family. This allows the departing relatives to hire sampans to transport them across the river that divides spirit Heaven from the world of the living.

Soldiers from all over Vietnam on R & R or with a few days' passes, plus Saigon clerks, REMF's like me, were huddled around Mr. Tran in the USO, waiting for him to translate their “noble and enriching thoughts” into Chinese characters and record them on the scarlet red “Hong Dieu” paper, which symbolizes cheerfulness and luck.

The old man, who looked 90 but was probably in his late fifties, had a new brush pen of sable that is used for cleanliness and purity. He also explained to the audience, who wasn't really paying much attention, that the fresh slab of stark black ink symbolizes stability.

Mr. Tran patiently went on to explain that the first writing of the new year is always the most important, because each year is a completely new phase of life, a circle of destiny. What happened last year is forgotten and a new period is begun, which is different, vital, and promising.

The origins of first writing go back thousands of years to ancient China, where "the beauties of graceful calligraphy prompted men to seek in the written word not only the moral worth of the author but also the external symbolization of his character within the disciplined beauty of his penmanship," to quote Mr. Tran.

"Senseful ideas, beautiful handwriting," is an old Vietnamese saying. And to think that so many GIs look at the Vietnamese and believe they are either stupid gooks or prostitutes to be bought.

Before Mr. Tran arrived at the USO, he told us, his military audience, who were taking his picture from every conceivable angle, that he had lit an aloe wood fire to chase away the wicked atmosphere of yesteryear, and then he washed his hands in perfumed water. A few of the guys laughed and winked at each other when he said he used perfume; but I was standing right next to him, and he smelled fresh and clean, and there was just a hint of the smell of gardenias.

Any GI can buy red calligraphy posters on just about any corner in Saigon from fortune tellers but, as the poster said at the information desk, "it will be more personal and more meaningful for a GI to actually take part in the custom of First Writing and cast his own fortune with his own saying."

The GIs were getting a little bored as Mr. Tran pointed out in precise and flawless English sentences that the first writing must be elegant, noble, and beautiful. It must be precise, clear, and the strokes should be bold yet delicate, full-bodied, yet sharply defined.

He went on to say that it “must be a work of art, jet black written on crimson red, and kept throughout the year in order to set the mode of one's life for the year ahead.”

The guys were getting rowdy, thinking up short sayings they wanted as their first writing, graffiti they had spotted on helmets, jeeps, and latrine walls.

Two guys decided on "F_ _k Communism."

Another one chose, "Vietnam, Love It or Leave It."

Other sayings included: "Texas Hippie," "Ho Chi Minh Sucks," "Number One GI," and "Kill Slopes For Peace."

I thought of using a quotation from the Bible, or from a Beatles' song, or even a favorite poem from childhood, but I was afraid the other guys would laugh at me. They were all having a good time being irreverent.

"Saigon Warrior" is the phrase I picked.

Mr. Tran looked so dignified and distinguished, even as he translated our stupid phrases into Chinese on the “Hong Dieu” paper. The one word that comes to mind when I think of him penning those words is "stoic."

But he smiled when he read aloud the poem on the piece of paper that a baby-faced GI, stationed in the Delta and in Saigon waiting for his R & R flight to Hong Kong, handed him. It's funny, but of all of us soldiers standing there in front of Mr. Tran, that poetry-writing GI was the only one with a CIB, Combat Infantry Badge, on his uniform.

I looked closely at the cluster of fruit salad on his chest. Sure enough, the only one of us brave enough to write a poem to Mr. Tran had won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

I asked that soldier for a copy after the crowd broke up and most of the guys headed to Mimi's Bar on Tu Do Street.

I wish I had written what he had: "Eyes filled with yesterday knowingly stare at the present blank faces, but cannot tell what only time can tell."

A Saigon Party:
And Other Vietnam War Short Stories

Barbie and Ken Experience the War

A Pedicab Driver Peddles Through History

A CIA Hired Wife Bares Her Soul

The Vietnamese Rock Star Interview on AFVN

Yolanda's Favorite Beggar

Saigon Rumors

General Westmoreland's Houseboy (and VC Spy) Talks

The Library Card

A Saigon Warrior's Journal

Vietnam War at Amazon

Vietnam War on DVD at Amazon

Vietnam War Kindle Books


The Literary Hootch, Part 1

The Literary Hootch, Part 2

The Literary Hootch, Part 3

Vietnam War Destinations, Part 1

Vietnam War Destinations, Part 2

Vietnam War Destinations, Part 3

Vietnam War Destinations, Part 4

Vietnam War History, Part 1

Vietnam War History, Part 2

Vietnam War History, Part 3

Vietnam War History, Part 4

Vietnam War Research Material, Part 1

Vietnam War Research Material, Part 2

Vietnam War Research Material, Part 3

Vietnam War Research Material, Part 4

The French in Vietnam

Vietnam War Battles, Campaigns, Offensives, Operations, Programs

Vietnam War Aircrafts

Vietnam War Documents, Speeches, Papers

Vietnam War Cities, Districts, Installations, Places, Provinces

Vietnam War Weapons and Equipment

Vietnam and U.S. Presidents

Vietnam War Humor

Vietnam Religions

The Media: Vietnam War

U.S. Allies in the Vietnam War

Vietnam War Antiwar

Political and Government Figures Involved in the Vietnam War

Trips to Vietnam

The Vietnamese: Vietnam War

Women and the Vietnam War

Vietnam War Films

Vietnam War Fiction Books

Vietnam War Books by Women Writers

Vietnam War Short Story Books

Vietnam War Screenplays

Military Leaders in the Vietnam War

Vietnam War Memorials

Vietnam War Battalions, Brigades, Corps, Divisions, Organizations, Units

Vietnam War Poetry

The Wall: Vietnam War

Vietnam War Quiz

Vietnam War Quotations

Vietnam War Books, Part 1

Vietnam War Books, Part 2

World War II Films (Part 1)

World War II Films (Part 2)

Memories Are Like Clouds

A Saigon Party:
And Other Vietnam War Short Stories