“I saw some smiling pilgrims at a pagoda yesterday,” a Western diplomat confided soon after I arrived in Hanoi in April. “That just shows how people aren’t too unhappy under communism.” An odd judgment, I thought. He might as well have inferred from seeing a couple of pilgrims sharing a sandwich that the economy was booming. Yet Vietnam is one of the world’s poorest countries.
At any rate, I was happy to be on my way to South Vietnam after an absence of twelve years. There were to be official celebrations in Saigon marking the Communist “Liberation” of 1975. Besides, I had old Vietnamese friends to find. I wanted to know how Mme. Dinh and her family were being treated in Hue, or wherever I might find them. I had known the family intimately for twenty-one years and if Mme. Dinh’s smiling sons, daughters, and grandchildren were still smiling, that would say something about the new Vietnam.
I had longed for, and dreaded, this return. But during the first days in Hanoi I let nothing depress me—not the rain on potholed roads, not the ramshackle transport, not the absence of soap, not toilet paper so rough you could have smoothed knots out of planks of wood with it. I was unrattled by the hamfisted search of my luggage in my hotel room which left prickly-heat powder over everything. I was calm in the face of aggressively barking customs men at Hanoi’s cockeyed airport, who shouted, “Open that—open that—” in what seemed like barely controlled rage that passengers should have come to Vietnam at all.
In retrospect, that airport “welcome” was a portent. It revealed the contempt in the minds of some officials for the people they dealt with that I also found in Saigon. There the press department officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs arranged for two hundred TV and newspaper journalists, mostly American, a visit to what they claimed was a political reeducation center for former “criminals” of the old Saigon regime. With its swimming pool and its little lakes and sleek buildings, the place was obviously a new tourist center. After three weeks of official evasions and deceptions this, many thought, took the prize.
But that was still to come. During the first week, full of hope and accompanied by my official guide, Mr. Thai, lately of Reading University, I sat with my knees around my ears in a threadbare Russian plane, without overhead racks or oxygen equipment, on the way to Hue.
In this beautiful city, once the imperial capital of Annam, languidly sprawling along the banks of the Perfume River, I had first run into the Vietnamese who later became part of my life. Were they still here? Applying for my visa in London, I had specifically stated that my reason for going was to see what had happened to these friends. I had heard nothing of them since the disintegration and chaos of 1975 and the Communist occupation …