A Pedicab Driver Peddles Through History
A Story from
A Saigon Party:
And Other Vietnam War Short Stories
by Diana J. Dell
I am originally from North Vietnam and descend from a long line of pedicab drivers. As a matter of historical fact, my family had been in the business three generations before Gia Long became emperor in 1802 and unified Vietnam.
From family stories passed down from generation to generation, I understand that we did quite well driving around the various mandarins and other court officials and hangers-on.
When the French gained power in the late 1800s, the business still flourished. The only problems were that the French were notoriously lousy tippers and extremely rude.
My father was apolitical. Dad did not care who was in the government driver's seat as long as he owned his pedicab business and could support his family.
Then, one day in 1929, the year I was born, a certain French general hired my father to pull him around Hanoi for a whole day. At the end of the allotted time, my father was sure he would receive a big tip besides the fare. But alas, the general stiffed him, fare and tip, and my father was extremely angry, to say the least, but knew he had no recourse. For that reason, he joined the underground movement to oust the French.
His clandestine duty was to drive French officers to brothels where Vietnamese whores, also laboring for the underground, had venereal diseases. He would peddle them to restaurants where they were served poisoned food. He would take them to hotels with rooms with bedbugs. Anything to make the officers miserable.
By the time the Japanese assumed authority over us in 1940, I was in charge of my own pedicab, helping my father harass the French.
At first, we thought that since the Japanese were fellow Orientals, they would be nice to us and rotten to the French. Wrong. The Japs were pleasant to the French and mean to us Vietnamese.
A year after the Nips stormed on the scene, Ho Chi Minh returned from his wanderings to Vietnam and formed the Viet Minh to fight both the French and the Japanese. The Viet Minh is the shortened name for the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, or League for the Independence of Vietnam. My father and I were among the first to sign up for the battle.
If it had not been for the American spies from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), who paid us to fight the Japanese, we would have starved. The Japanese never paid for a ride anywhere. Can you believe that? As if Trung and Son Pedicab Service was some form of public transportation.
My father was sure the Americans would win the war and help us get our country back from both the Japanese and the French. But, as you are well aware, after the American victory that did not happen.
After World War II, the French, cocky as all get out, decided that Vietnam was still theirs, and the British helped them take back control.
What could we do? The French were bleeding us dry. We had no choice but to continue fighting them.
It was 1946 when the French Vietnam War began. The money from the OSS had stopped. The French were back in power.
My father and I merely wanted to work in our pedicab business; but as fate would have it, we became soldiers for the cause. Dad and I both figured that once we beat the Frogs, we could resume our career. Oh, how destiny rules our lives.
My father and I became true Communists after we attended a luncheon in honor of the original Viet Minh. Ho Chi Minh gave each of us a medal and had his picture taken with us. Even after all these years, I can still remember how excited my father and I were to be congratulated by Uncle Ho.
Talk about charisma. The guy had it in spades. Quite frankly, we became Communists because we wanted to hang on to Ho's coattails. Any fool could see that the fellow was really going places. His picture was everywhere! Brothels, restaurants, flea markets, train stations, bars, cinemas, shops. Everywhere you looked, there was Ho's photo hanging on a wall.
What are my memories of our jobs during the war with the French? Primarily, my father and I engaged in the same activities as we did before that war. We drove French officers to infected prostitutes, made sure they acquired food poisoning, and (please remember this was war) we also rolled them after our bartender agents slipped them Mickey Finns.
Pop and I stole reports, military maps, battle plans. As a matter of historical fact, General Vo Nguyen Giap, the military leader of the Viet Minh, personally congratulated my father and me for our courageous accomplishments.
I spent the entire war years in Hanoi, despite the fact that I begged my father to see if he could pull strings and get me into the battle at Dien Bien Phu.
His answer was always, "We should each serve our country in the best way we can. We each have special talents."
With all humility, you can say I peddled my way through the war. Be that as it may, at the time I desperately desired to be firing a gun, or charging a hill, or something else as romantic and heroic. On the bright side, being in Hanoi during the war kept me in contact with all the important figures running the show. I networked like a son of a gun.
Let me see, that war ended in 1954. The Geneva Convention was signed that year, dividing the country at the 17th Parallel. Ho was our leader in the North, and Diem was chosen by his American puppeteers to rule the South.
I will never forget that year, 1954. It was the year my father died of heat stroke. It was during the time the Catholics were frantically trying to leave North Vietnam for the South. The American Navy was assisting with the evacuation.
Allow me to deviate. When the war finally ended, my dad and I were back in the pedicab business. Best of all, the U.S. government needed all the pedicabs they could get their wealthy hands on to transport people to the docks. Spectacular! Money was flowing like water during that exodus.
Permit me to backtrack and elucidate why people were fleeing. The American newspapers reported that our populace in the North were rejecting Ho and his Communist government for Diem's anti-Communist regime in the South. Newsreels revealed tens of thousands of folks on the move, ostensibly running from Communism to Democracy.
Tsk! Tsk! The sheer power of film is extraordinary.
Would you care to learn the true explanation why people were fleeing the North for the South? I will tell you. Incredibly, a certain rumor had begun to circulate that the Virgin Mary was moving South, so a lot of stupid people decided to follow her.
Believe me, I am aware for a fact that a bunch of CIA, formerly OSS, agents started that one. As a joke, I later learned. They thought they were smart, but our side pulled a fast one. Untold numbers of the refugees were really Communists heading toward Saigon in order to be in place when Ho decided to unite the country by fighting Diem, either at the voting booth or on the battlefield.
My father, a real go-getter, peddled and peddled and peddled and smoked and smoked and smoked so very much during the exodus that he worked and smoked himself to death. From the waist down, he resembled Arnold Schwarzenegger; but from the waist up, he was a chain-smoking Barney Fife.
I became the head of the family, which comprised of my mother and six sisters. I had a lot of mouths to feed. Quite frankly, I thought that 1954 was the end of my soldiering for the cause. Was I ever wrong.
Learning of my father's demise, Ho summoned me to his headquarters in a mountain cave. Dear God, that man was a romantic! Ho pleaded with me to work full-time for the Revolution. I had no choice when I saw his tears. I accepted, and he thanked me profusely.
He arranged for my sisters and mother to work in government offices, thereby setting me free to labor completely for the unification of Vietnam. I essentially became Ho's surrogate son and number-one troubleshooter, so to speak.
He knew of my splendid exploits against the French and the Japanese and my work with the OSS. Ho was well aware of how ingenious I could be. Accordingly, Ho decided to give me full reign to formulate ideas to help maximize efficiency. You have to understand, he had spent many years in the Communist party and saw far too many goldbrickers and conformists and yes-men.
My first administrative task was to set up secret roads for travel to the South, after the official exodus, in order to carry supplies and send troops for future needs.
The South was being supplied by the United States and we were being equipped by China and the Soviet Union. Yet, Ho did not want to merely march across the 17th Parallel and start a massive war. He did not want Chinese troops showing up and never leaving. Are you aware that the Chinks were our constant enemy for a thousand years before the French paraded in? They most certainly were. And enough was enough.
With great patience, he wanted to slowly supply our agents in the South and have them do the fighting. The only way we could get weapons and new agents southward was to use the mountain trails that went from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. Actually, and with complete modesty, I was the one who named these mountain paths the "Ho Chi Minh Trail."
Traveling that route was a rugged trip, but we had no other option. I myself made the trip many times with teams of cadres hauling supplies on their backs.
Yes, the journey was arduous, and yet, very few weapons were getting through. At that speed, it would have taken decades to supply our brothers in the South.
Then one day, while I was gliding around Hanoi on my pedicab, which at that time I only used for pleasure or to take my mother for a ride on Sundays, an idea came to me. Why not use bikes to haul supplies? Bingo!
Ho loved the idea and put me to work devising the right type of bike that a cadre could push. This way, one man or woman could transport three times the load using my bicycle. Within a short time, we were heaving thousands of supplies to South Vietnam.
After I solved that problem, Ho then begged me to focus my attention on the tunnel systems in the South. He hoped I could perform another miracle and make them more efficient. Mind you, at that juncture in history, the tunnel systems were no better than gopher holes.
I dreaded another arduous trip down the Trail, not that I carried anything, including my briefcase. Quite frankly, I was overworked and emphatically informed Daddy Ho that I needed a certain amount of time off to rest. I required a breather to recharge my brain cells.
Can you possibly guess what that lovable character did? He begged me to go to Paris for a week's R & R.
Not one to let my leader down, I hurriedly departed Hanoi for the City of Lights. The return ticket was to Saigon, so that I would not have to take that dreadful and time-consuming journey down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Rank has its privilege.
Paris was marvelous. However, you know me, Mr. Idea Man, invariably thinking up something new. For instance, while I was bicycling down the Champs Elysees, I met a French soldier, an enlisted guy from the French Vietnam War, and he remembered me.
He kept thanking me copiously for introducing him to his wife. Please be aware that I only did naughty things to officers, not enlisted men.
This particular soldier reminded me that I had directed him to a brothel where he met the girl who later became his spouse. Be that as it may, he was biking along with me and for sport we had a race down the Champs Elysees. Before we knew it, a crowd formed. Two handsome young men in tip-top form and all that. Efficiently, to make a long story short, he and I, mostly I, invented the Tour de France bike race. True story.
While originating the Tour de France bike race, I realized how much I missed peddling. It was such great exercise, for the body as well as for the spirit.
After a glorious week of eating, biking, touring, I flew off to Saigon. On the plane, I met the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life. She was home and her freshman year at Saigon University.
I could not take my eyes off her the whole flight. Spectacular legs! When we landed in Saigon, I was despondent, realizing that our paths would never cross again. Alas, if they ever did, we would be fighting on opposite sides. I deduced by all the shopping bags she was toting that she surely must have been a Capitalist.
With a heavy heart, I checked into Communist headquarters, which at the time in the late 1950s was located in the basement of a dress boutique.
Madam Nhu shopped there, as well as all the other well-heeled Saigonese women. Not only did I charm Madam Nhu, but I also befriended wives of generals and cabinet ministers there.
Madam Nhu, as any idiot well knows, was President Diem's sister-in-law. Since Diem was a bachelor, she acted as first lady. Mamie Eisenhower, she was not.
Madam Nhu was more anti-Communist than Joseph McCarthy. That woman was so bad and mean and bitchy and vain and corrupt that she made our side appear good in comparison. Not that we were not, mind you.
While I was bivouacked at Headquarters, before starting the tunnel inspection, I helped in the emporium. To be factual, I redecorated the entire place and expanded business threefold. The money earned from the frock shop went for the Revolution.
Saigon at that time was still known as the "Paris of the Orient" with its French architecture, outdoor cafes, and beautiful tree-lined boulevards. Ah, yes, I knew that someday, after our side had won, I would own a pedicab business in Saigon. Little did I perceive that it would be sooner than I dreamed.
Oh, incidentally, one day I was waiting on Madam Nhu and chatting about Paris, a city we both loved. I was informing her about an extraordinary Left Bank restaurant I dined in that was owned by an American. It was the first time I had tasted barbecued food. The chef-owner, an old Negro by the name of Amos, gave me his barbecue recipe, and I graciously copied it for Madam Nhu. Thenceforth, she became a huge fan of barbecues.
At any rate, do you happen to remember when the Buddhists started burning themselves in protest to the Diem-Nhu regime? Madam Nhu was interviewed and said it was only a "Buddhist barbecue."
Yes indeed, I am the reason she made that comment. It is comical how history is made, is it not? That one quote, headlined all over the world, helped topple the Diem regime, which caused coup after coup in South Vietnam, which helped our cadres gain power. Amazing! Who would have ever thought that my speaking about spareribs could change the course of history?
My tour of inspecting tunnels in South Vietnam, which I began after choosing the perfect wallpaper for the dress shop-Headquarters, took a year.
Incidentally, the tunnels were built during the French occupation and expanded when Vietnam was partitioned in 1954, that awful year when my father passed away.
Our cadres, known as Viet Minh until Diem gained power, then called Viet Cong, hid in the tunnels and emerged at night to cause havoc. They housed whole families, had schools, hospitals, conference rooms, bunkrooms. The tunnels came in handy, too, when the Americans started sending soldiers to fight.
During my inspection, I observed that the underground passages were lit by kerosene lamps. The places were always so smoky. Mind you, I have never smoked cigarettes, and the odor of smoke makes me nauseated. When someone is smoking in a room I am in, I always insist on opening a window. My kids tease me and say that if they had a nickel for every time I asked aloud, "Is the window open?" when someone lit up a cigarette, they would have more nickels than Fort Knox.
I could plainly see I had to find a way to light the tunnels with something other than kerosene lamps. The smoke was everywhere, not only from the lamps but also from the chain-smoking cadres hunkered down in the tunnels. War would be so much healthier if people did not smoke. Nasty habit. Sorry, it is one of my pet peeves.
Firstly, I posted “NO SMOKING” signs in the tunnels. Secondly, to get rid of the kerosene lamps and replace them with electric light bulbs, I contemplated acquiring very long extension cords and plugging them into outlets at sundry Green Beret camps that were set up all over Vietnam before America formally got into fighting the war. But, I soon discovered, the Green Berets did not have electricity because they liked to rough it.
When I reported this intelligence to the VC general in charge of the tunnel system, he merely stared at me and inquired, "Why in the world would they want to 'rough it' if they do not have to?"
"Beats the hell out of me," I retorted. "I imagine they presume that is how they are supposed to live while at war."
Obviously, the extension cord idea was out of the question. Without any apparent solution to the kerosene dilemma, I decided to return to Saigon and get in a bit of exercise. That invariably assisted me in solving problems.
I borrowed a bike from one of my comrades, whose cover in Saigon was as a public relations consultant to President Diem. As a side note, the guy ended up being the second most highly decorated VC of the whole war. (Modesty does not permit me to boast about who was first.) Brilliant man. Absolutely top drawer at styling Diem to appear worse than he actually was.
As I peddled around Saigon visiting the typical tourist sites, I pondered and pondered. Still nothing came to mind. Then I decided to trek over to the zoo. I recollect this as though it were yesterday. I was standing near the monkey cage. With a blink of an eye, I was surrounded by a pack of screaming, jumping, and running third-graders and their teacher, a very frazzled middle-aged woman.
Those tykes were climbing the bars, imitating almost everything the monkeys were doing, chasing each other, and merely being kids. I had to chuckle. Then, I turned to the teacher and proclaimed, "If only we could harness their energy, we could illuminate all of Saigon for weeks."
Like a bolt of lightning, it dawned on me: I could get a treadmill and have children run on it day and night, thereby generating electricity for the tunnels. However, the more I regarded that idea, the more I realized it could bankrupt the cause. You know how much kids eat. It was not feasible.
While I scratched my head, one of the miniature monsters knocked over my bike. The idea evolved. That is precisely how the stationery bike being peddled and thereby generating electricity in the tunnels was invented.
After phoning Daddy Ho and reporting to him of my latest concept, I launched the bike-peddling strategy in all the tunnels. Being merely one man, however, it immediately became clear to me that I required assistance. Therefore, I ordered the underground general to find me a team of engineers, mechanics, and students to aid me with the tactics and installation. It was a gigantic undertaking, and I required all the support I could muster.
The initial rendezvous with my underlings was held at the Rotary Club, after hours, where one of our agents was the club manager. Nice place and the perfect cover for a VC planning session.
The club manager had an intimate cocktail hour before the meeting was to commence. I was standing around, chitchatting with a group of engineers, when in walked some students who had volunteered from Saigon University. And there she was. The girl on the plane from Paris, the one toting all those shopping bags. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I knew at that moment, when I discovered she also was a VC, she would one day be my spouse.
I, of course, made her my personal assistant for the complete project, which meant we would tour the tunnels together, setting up teams of riders for the bikes.
I held her hand in the smoke-free tunnel around the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
I kissed her for the first time in the tunnel at Cu Chi, which, as our luck would have it, became a big American base.
I told her I loved her in the tunnel at Danang, which, as luck would have it again, became an immense American base.
I proposed to her in the tunnel at Bien Hoa, which, as luck would have it, became a large American base.
We were wed in a tunnel at An Loc.
We spent our romantic honeymoon in a tunnel at Tay Ninh.
Our first child was born in a tunnel at Xuan Loc.
As any fool can imagine, the tunnels have very special memories for me. I was young, handsome, virile, madly in love, and accomplishing grand feats for the Revolution by generating more clean energy for the tunnels than Ho and I had ever hypothesized.
Since I was one of Ho's favorites, if not his favorite, my spouse and I owned our own annex in the tunnel at Danang. When the Americans arrived, as luck would have it, they built their PX right over our abode.
Indeed, you are probably thinking: How could those SOB's be so darn lucky with their tunnel systems being at the right places before the Americans started building? Here and now, I am aware that I am going to appear as though I am taking much of the credit for historical events, but here is how it happened.
As I related previously, my wife was a student at Saigon University. An engineering student, to be precise. She graduated with honors after our initial tour of the tunnels and desired to do something meaningful for the cause, in her own right.
Ho arranged a position for her in The South Vietnamese Office of Building Permits. The administrator of that organization was a friend of his from the early days. Ho's crony, incidentally, was one of the top-ranking VCs planted in the South Vietnamese government. There were so many, so very many.
My spouse began her position there shortly after our first born began kindergarten in 1962, the same year that the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was established in Saigon under the command of General Paul Harkins.
Ho sensed that the office of building permits would be a direfully indispensable office in which to toil.
The South Vietnamese government, terribly afraid of losing any control and being referred to as a puppet of the Americans, demanded that it should and would decide where American military bases would be constructed. My suspicion has always been that some of those wise guys, or maybe double agents, at the CIA had their fingers in on that decision. In my humble opinion, it was either totally stupid or absolutely brilliant, depending on whose side you were on.
My wife, through her strategic and important post at the permit office, arranged for the bases to be assembled over our tunnels, thereby allowing us easy inside access without being detected by the American military.
Additionally, I have to elucidate, the permits, devised by my spouse, spelled out quite clearly that the American engineers could not, under any circumstances, construct basements. The purpose for that clause was absolutely simple: Quite a few U.S. generals fought tooth and nail for the right to have them built, with the idea, I assume, that they could have their own private rumpus rooms underground, away from prying enlisted eyes. Nonetheless, the South Vietnamese permit office held its ground. No basements. Period.
Meanwhile, I spent most of my time visiting tunnel systems, developing better bikes, setting up more efficient generators, nailing up the “NO SMOKING” signs the VC smokers had torn down.
Quickly, oh so quickly, the years rolled by. Our family was getting larger. By the time our tenth child was born, I was overworked and grossly out of shape.
At the end of 1967, I made a trip to Hanoi via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which by then was a 10-lane highway with stop lights, school crossing guards, R & R centers, toll booths, restaurants, motels. I desperately desired to see Uncle Ho and spend some quality time with him.
I remember it so vividly. It was around Halloween. I was bringing him a present, an assortment of candy I appropriated one night after the PX in Danang had closed. Ho had such a sweet tooth. He just loved candy corn and all that other orange and brown sugary candy shaped like pumpkins and turkeys and goblins.
After arriving in Hanoi, I perceived immediately that Ho was tired and somewhat bored. Forlorn, he talked about the war dragging on and on, with no end in view. Ho was fed up to his back teeth with it all and merely wanted this war to disappear.
With a heavy heart, I briefed him, "The Americans are not going away, and we are not going to surrender. Maybe the solution lies somewhere in the middle."
Then and there, I realized that his staff was enormously stale. Maybe, I thought, he required a fresh idea from a brilliant person. As I began speaking about striving for something unique and novel, I was also attempting to choose the right moment to lead him into the next room, where I had arranged a celebration in honor of his half-birthday party.
Ho's birthday was in April and he had a party then, but he also liked to celebrate in October. You know how kids will answer that they are three-and-a-half when you ask them how old they are. Imagine a grown man telling a journalist from "The New York Times" that he is 65-and-a-half. Indeed, we each have our quirks.
This half-birthday was, I felt, important because everyone in Hanoi was so busy that everyone forgot to celebrate Ho's halves in years. I believed it was about time we began re-celebrating this marvelous tradition, Ho's Half.
While chatting about bombs and bridges and Brigitte Bardot, I slowly guided him toward the door, flung it open, and bellowed, "Surprise!" Joining me was a chorus of voices belonging to General Giap and his staff, Premier Pham and his staff, and Ho's whole household staff and their families.
Ho was truly overwhelmed and turned to me with tears in his eyes. I stared into those baby-browns and conveyed, "Uncle Ho, you and our glorious Revolution require more surprises to keep us going."
I will never forget the look on his face that split second before he gave me the biggest bear hug I have ever received in my life.
After releasing me, he swiftly turned to the other leaders of our great cause and asserted, "Comrades, I have a wonderful idea, given to me by my brilliant surrogate son. I wish to discuss my surrogate son's excellent inspiration with you after we finish the cake and ice cream."
The idea, in case you have not already surmised, turned out to be the Tet Offensive.
I was a major part, if not the major part of the high-level planning of the biggest military surprise since Pearl Harbor. At that point, Ho wanted to confer upon me the rank of four-star general in charge of the attack of the Saigon area, but I declined.
Quite frankly, I personally knew far too many generals—South and North Vietnamese, French and American—who were all, to put it bluntly, paper-pushers. Not for me, thank you. I wanted to be useful and keep those ideas flowing for my country and for my leader. No desk job for this clever kid, no thank you.
Ho understood completely—he was most mindful that I would stagnate and die if I had to sit behind a desk—and promptly gave me my next important assignment. I was ordered to set up a pedicab business in Saigon and gather information from the Americans. A very, very consequential responsibility, I might add.
Astounding! I thought I died and went to Heaven. My own pedicab business in the Paris of the Orient. Indeed, a very, very dangerous mission. Too marvelous for words!
My spouse and youngsters and I rarely sojourned to Saigon since she had a government job that required her to travel quite a bit, helping to set up American bases over our tunnels.
As a side note, my wife was a dedicated worker, but not her coworkers. She confided to me many times that the Saigon bureaucrats never went to work. They merely had their paychecks sent to their banks and maybe showed up once a year for the annual office Tet party.
On the other hand, she, as well as other VC agents, indeed toiled at the job. Why? Because by doing her job in our enemy's government, she—as well as the other VC plants—helped the Revolution.
Enough about those South Vietnamese slackers. I was explaining about my new mission, to own a pedicab business, a chain of them, and reside in Saigon. Moreover, and best of all: Spy on the Americans!
Things had changed since the first time I spent any time in Saigon in the late 1950s. Diem had been assassinated, Kennedy had been assassinated, the Marines had landed, Johnson was President, business was booming, and American troops were everywhere. Indeed, I do mean every place!
My sisters, by this time, were all married, and my mother was not getting any younger. I arranged with Ho to move the entire family to Saigon to assist me in my new clandestine endeavor, Trung, Jr. and Brothers-in-law Pedicab Service.
Of course, Ho could not merely give me the money from some petty cash box. So, I had to investigate about acquiring a donation from someone who did business with our agents in Saigon.
Hurriedly, I rushed to Saigon to arrange the financing of the pedicabs.
A number of our agents were business owners and also members of the Saigon Chamber of Commerce. As a guest of one of the brothel owners, I went to the weekly luncheon to see what I could arrange. It did not take long to acquire the endowment.
One of our agents, who headed up the illegal money exchange operation in Saigon, introduced me to an American by the name of Guido from Chicago. He made weekly trips to Saigon to launder money from his company's pizza parlors in the United States, which were mainly in business to launder money for various American mob families. Hence, the nickname "dough."
While chewing the fat, I discovered that Guido was a major contributor to Kennedy's campaign as well as to Nixon's in 1960. He also supported any candidate who was anti-drugs and for law and order.
I could not for the life of me determine why this guy was against the businesses he operated. Then, my luncheon host explained that Guido did not want any competition.
"But why support both political parties?" I inquired.
The answer was penetrating: “In order to hedge his bets. He wins no matter who wins an election.”
This was one fellow from whom I could learn a thing or two.
Money from Guido in hand for the pedicabs, I phoned the family to pack up and get to Saigon. We had a mountain of work to accomplish.
By January, we were in business, peddling around Saigon, gathering valuable information, and planning tactics for the eventful Tet Offensive at the end of the month. It was a heady time, and we all threw ourselves into our mission.
I devised the system where each of my brothers-in-law kept a quarter of what they made, paid me a fourth, and the other half went for VC activities in South Vietnam. The harder they labored, the more money they made for themselves, for me, and for the Revolution.
Overnight, I became a leading member of the Chamber of Commerce, thereby allowing me to establish deals to drop off customers at establishments that gave us a cut—brothels, restaurants, tourist shops, hotels, bars.
The Tet Offensive of 1968, of course, was a huge surprise to the Americans, and the reporters claimed it was a victory for our side. Indeed, that was hardly the truth. It set us back quite a bit; however, you must be aware of what the old sage once said: When someone hands you lemons, make lemonade. That is exactly what we did.
Tet was the terrible turning point for the Americans, even though they won. In the eyes of the American people, thanks to the American press, the American military was losing. Amazing, is it not? Black is white.
Our official order from the top after Tet was to merely bide our time and wait for the American soldiers to depart. Nevertheless, although there were numerous promises and announcements that the troops would be home by Christmas, it was obvious to just about every Vietnamese that the Americans intended to remain a very long, long time.
Indeed, I am aware that this is sounding like hindsight on my part, but the impression worldwide and in America was that by January 1968, just before the Tet Offensive, America was winning and would be leaving within a short time. That was 1968. The troops finally left in 1973. That is six more years. Count them: 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973.
Everything everywhere all through 1968 was building, building, building. My family and I worked hard, saved our share, and gave many piasters to the cause. Then, in 1969, my world turned upside-down.
Ho died that fateful year, and I changed radically within a short time. With the great man's vanishing, the bureaucrats in Hanoi started jockeying for power. The Soviets, who were helping to finance our fight, were getting bossy and pushy. And I realized that I enjoyed what money could buy.
That period of waiting for the Americans to leave created quite a dilemma for the VC who owned businesses in Saigon. They started to become Capitalists. Not like the South Vietnamese, who had everything handed to them from the Americans. Those walruses did not know how to scramble for a buck. No, it was something else.
Indeed, I realized that without Ho the North Vietnamese high command was similar to the South Vietnamese high command, spoiled by handouts. The fellows in the field, hustling and raising money, were the ones who did all the work and received none of the credit.
Then and there, I began to think: Why should I work hard to help support lazy people? My brothers-in-law were grumbling, too. I knew it was all coming to a head.
The turning point for me came sooner than later.
Over dinner (my mother concocted her extraordinary dog stew) one Sunday, I shouted, "I think Communism stinks. Capitalism is number one. If you work hard, you get ahead. It is the rugged individual who makes all the difference."
Talk about a group therapy session. It was unbelievable. We all agreed that we had become Capitalists and absolutely loved the idea.
Indeed, once I realized that I was a Capitalist, I began to view the war in a different way. Right then and there, my family and I decided to cease sending half of our money to assist in financing the Revolution.
After ending our VC deposits, we worried that someone would visit us from Headquarters and demand to learn why. Nothing happened as we waited for a shoe to drop.
Shortly afterwards, I discovered that over half of the VC agents in Saigon had become Capitalists themselves, including the bookkeeper who had been pocketing our donations for well over a year before we stopped contributing.
I was livid, but there was nothing we could do. Well, not exactly. There was one thing: Ask Guido for assistance in the matter!
Alas, the bookkeeper left the country shortly before my brothers-in-law and I hired Mr. Guido to break a few limbs. The numbers cruncher flew out of Saigon with all our money and all his limbs intact, I am sorry to report.
I am not going to mention any names, but if you, Mr. Bookkeeper, are reading this right now, I would appreciate a cashier's check for the amount you stole plus interest. As an enticement, let me mention that Guido is still a dear, dear friend of mine and a devoted business associate.
Speaking of the conversion to Capitalism. Indeed, I should have figured out my true calling much sooner than I did. Honestly, I loved making money and buying nice things for the home. Furthermore, I noticed that people with money were happier than people without money. Although I am brighter than a rocket scientist, it did not take one to see the writing on the wall.
I quickly comprehended that Communism, as we knew it, was going to fail in the long run as long as the little guy had a shot at making money.
I imagine those think-tank guys had it all figured out: Have a war, drag it on as long as possible, pour money in, make the Communists discover how marvelous it is to have a chunk of the pie, and before you can say "light at the end of the tunnel," you have converted Communists into Capitalists.
There is probably a group of international executives sitting in a room somewhere smugly smiling because they planned the whole thing. They have every reason to be proud. The brilliant plan worked.
Civil War, baloney. It was Capitalism against Communism on a global scale. Vietnam merely happened to be the right place at the right time.
Indeed, smart guys, such as I, seized every money-making moment. Truly, I am damn proud to be a convert to Capitalism.
Allow me to elaborate further. If you think in those terms of Capitalism creating Capitalists and Capitalists making money, spending money, and creating more Capitalists who are happier than Communists, it is not too difficult to discover who the real heroes of the Vietnam War are. The real honest-to-God heroes were the guys making money during the war, those wise men who owned construction companies, ice cream plants, banks, military hardware businesses—tanks, guns, bullets and the like. Those are the heroes for whom America should be building monuments.
In fact, I have a recurring dream: I fantasize of an enormous granite wall, similar to the one I urged Maya Lin to design, etched with the names of companies that did business in Vietnam during the war. But, I am sure I know why they desire to keep a low profile about their colossal involvement. What else but modesty, pure and simple. It almost brings tears to my eyes when I contemplate how humble and full of humility those patriots are.
In closing, only one thought comes to my tired old mind: Long live Capitalism and the captains of industry, my idols!
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
General Westmoreland's Houseboy (and VC Spy) Talks
The Library Card
A Saigon Warrior's Journal
Memories Are Like Clouds