Coming into Sai Gon

by Malcolm Arthur, Jul 12, 2004 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

July 2003

It was night as the 747 approached Tan Son Nhat airport in Sai Gon. I thought to look for the lights and surmised it would be like any other city seen from the air at night, pretty but really just a bunch of lights. I looked out the window beside me and my face stuck to the glass. These lights are different. These lights are Sai Gon. I had a feeling of weakness and something welled up from my gut and leaked out my eyes. I could not turn away. My Vietnamese seatmate asked me what I thought about coming into his country but I could not answer him, couldn't make a sound. I just had to look at the lights as we came down.

In my head I said the words over and over again as on a looped tape," I am here in this place, I have really come back," Now I know what the word "overwhelmed" means.

I am an old V-Nam vet but I did not come here chasing ghosts. When I served at Pleiku and Tan Son Nhat I flew in the back end of C-47s above the fray and only occasionally experienced enemy fire that I could see or hear. On the ground my friends were nguoi Kinh, local folks, and a Dutch businessman's family. I learned enough Vietnamese to get by. It helped that I am a language mimic and got the pronunciation and tones from the start. I had no interest in finding old battlefields, no terrible memories to confront or atone for.

Before I embarked my Viet Kieu friends (emigres) had warned me that to get easily by the customs desk I would have to fold a $5 bill into the front of my passport. Otherwise I would have to wait for hours and have my bags gone through two or three times. My travelling companion was a Catholic priest who had been going back annually for 10 years. He refused to pay the bribes on principle. I worried about it and considered paying for both of us but decided I would do as he did and expected to wait a long time.

At the customs desk I went alone. Cha Viet stayed back so the customs officer would not know we were together. I put my bags on the counter and presented my passport. The officer looked quickly at it, scanned my customs declaration form , smiled and said, "Welcome to my country, I hope you are happy to visit," and handed back the passport. I took the bags and went forward to wait for Cha. He, too was welcomed as an invited guest. He was surprised and told me a lot can change in a year.

None of my friends at home had been back for the last three years and I knew I would have a lot to tell them when I got back.

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