About 20 minutes out of Tan Son Nhut Airport, as we passed through 20,000 feet in altitude, I couldn't help but think of the men, women and children on the C-5A that crashed April 4, 1975. We passed near the crash site, a nondescript field of green and brown. Fortunately, for me, our flight had a different ending.
At the end of the Vietnam War Tan Son Nhut was a maelstrom of activity, military aircraft landing and taking off, soldiers everywhere. Today it's quite different, with large white planes painted with flowers from Thai or China Air. But remnants remain. As we taxied to our gate, we passed a long line of hangars, half circles of cement strung along one side of the runway, unused today yet still there. Also by the runway were what looked like three-sided bunkers, for what, I don't know, slowly eroding under the unyielding tide of erosion and growing grass.
Not unexpectedly, lines awaited us as we entered the airport, a host of foreign nationals wanting to enter the country. In our group only two had any problems, both Vietnamese born and American adopted. One was questioned about her intentions. The other almost didn't get into the country because of descrepancies with her birthday. Both are typical problems adoptees face when returning to Vietnam. Apparently, there is extra suspicion for those who return. Why are they coming back? What do they hope to accomplish? What do they plan to do?
A crowd awaited us outside the airport. Well, not us especially. They just waited there, dozens and dozens of people, a few holding signs searching for tour groups or taxi hires. But most just sat there or stood there, in the hot, humid air, waiting and watching. No one knew why.
Saigon is a teeming sea of colors and sounds. As we drove into the city in our royal blue bus, tides of motorscooters and bicycles surged around us. Thousands of men and women drove by, tooting and honking their horns yet driving with a civility and calm rarely seen in such circumstances. Most of the men wore clothes in various shades of khaki. The women ranged markedly from very Western clothes of jeans and T-shirts to bright silk pants and tops slit on the sides to those in flip flops and triangle hats. But almost all the women wore baseball hats and masks or bandanas across their faces. I thought it was because of the smoke and fumes for all the vehicles. But I later learned the women wanted to preserve the whiteness of their skin. That is the epitome of beauty in this Asian culture, apparently, white, white skin.
We stopped at the hotel for an hour's rest, a hotel blessedly equipped with showers. I'm not quite sure how long it took for me to go from opening the door to my room to entering the shower, but the minutes could be counted on one hand. After 17 hours in the air - 1 from Sacramento to LA, 14 to Hong Kong and then 2 to Ho Chi Minh City - I was ready to stand under that stream of hot water for hours, washing away the sweat and gunk and uck that accumulates on you as you spend hours in an enclosed space with hundreds of strangers.
We got lunch at a diner nearby, the kind of place resembling some Asian restaurants in the States with pictures of dishes on the wall and a massive refrigerator stocked with a host of strange sodas. We were ushered up to the second floor with most of the other foreigners, apparently because we were still wimps about the heat and humidity and the first floor was open air and not air conditioned. We carefully avoided the tap water and lettuce and although the place is known for its beef noodle soup, most of us avoided that, too. Did I say it was hot here?
A walk through a nearby market came next, a huge warehouse of cubicles, cement billets stuffed with wares, populated with young women wearing cotton shirts and pleading smiles asking you, "Madame, madame, very beautiful purse, embroidered, only 10 US dollar." We didn't stop to buy anything that day on the advice of our guide who said we likely could find the same thing elsewhere. Besides, don't buy things on the first day when you're overwhelmed with it all, he said. So we trudged along the maze-like pathways of the market, past stalls with shirts and shoes, carvings and crystal jewelry, and a very aromatic section of vegetables and spices and other things I didn't recognize although dried fish seemed to be the dominant odor.
We drove through the city then, a quick tour with few stops. We paused at a huge cathedral built during French colonial times in the style of Notre Dame, with spires and windows and three stars in lights. Nearby, a newer building, encased on glass with stark impersonality, rose to the sky. Vietnamese say it's the ugliest building in the city. They're talking about the cathedral.
We passed by the American consulate, the only building in the city that people aren't allowed to take pictures of. It's located on the grounds of the old embassy of helicopter evacuation fame. Walls still surrounded it but the building is new. The Americans tore down the old building after Vietnam and the U.S. normalized relations in the mid-1990s.
Reminders of the war abound. Some streets are lined with dirty yellow walls topped with barbed wire and cut glass, all left from the war. The entire city looked like this then, a monochromatic collection of stucco and stone. Today, colors fill your eye, bright blues and yellows, narrow buildings sandwiched together, five, six stories high with trellaced balconies and wrought iron decorations. It's all a mix of styles, modern and military, colonial and crumbled.
For all the reminders of the war, the Vietnamese people seem less than interested in the past. They're consumed by their future, with talking of building a new town to "international standards" on land across the Saigon River. Most people still call their city Saigon, although the official title is Ho Chi Minh City. When Vietnam became one country in 1975, the government went about changing names, removing almost anything French or American or non-Vietnamese. But the city had been Saigon for decades. That is hard to change.
Our group is primarily adoptees, some with spouses or a parent. One women arrived in America through babylift and will return to Vietnam this summer to adopt a baby girl. Vietnam only reopened the international adoption program last year. Another left Vietnam when she was 6, joining a family in Ohio. In all, there are 15 of us, including me, a Vietnamese woman from Colorado and a nun who worked in the orphanages from 1972-75 and cared for hundreds of children, including a couple on the trip here. We go to the orphanages tomorrow and they are sharing their feelings of anxiety and excitement, uncertain of what they will find and how they will react. But that is what this trip is all about for them. That's why it's called the Motherland Tour.