‘Old hacks’ return to their Saigon haunts for a last hurrah 35 years after the fall.
On April 29, 1975, the end of the Vietnam War was at hand. Helicopters were hitting pickup sites around Saigon in what became the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Dutch photographer Hugh Van Es, working for United Press International (UPI), attached a 300mm lens to his Nikon and focused on a Huey loading passengers off a rooftop four blocks away. His photo, often mis-identified as being the roof of the U.S. Embassy, became the defining image of the fall of Saigon—bringing him fame and a whopping $150 bonus from UPI. Van Es had shot hundreds of battles in his seven-year tour, but would be mainly remembered for this one photo.
On the 30th anniversary of the war’s end, Van Es and I joined a small group of veterans and journalists to visit some battle sites we had survived. We climbed Hamburger Hill, burned Joss sticks and drank a bottle of Tequila to honor fallen friends. Van Es, who lived in Hong Kong and continued to cover the world’s hot spots after Vietnam, died in May 2009 at age 67 after suffering a brain hemorrhage. His friend Derek Williams, a CBS sound man during the war, spread the news to old friends and colleagues via the internet, and condolences rolled in to Hugh’s wife Annie. Subsequently, the e-mail list of Van Es’ friends morphed into the Google discussion group “Vietnam Old Hacks” that now has 257 members. This April 28, on the 35th anniversary of the end of the war, the Old Hacks gathered in Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, and many of the buildings we used during the war have been torn down. However, the Caravelle Hotel, where ABC and CBS news bureaus were located and where we could film a commentary from the roof with billows of smoke from airstrikes in the background, is still in vogue and was the center of our reunion activity.
As Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, wrote, “Instead of happy childhoods we journalists had the Vietnam war.” Many of us who were practically just kids recall those dangerous years as challenging but mostly positive. It sure as hell beat covering City Hall back home! Vietnam provided the greatest battlefield access and restriction-free environment of any modern war. Being a reporter there was probably the best thing I’ll do in this life. Returning with old friends was an exceptional privilege.
In the “dispatches” that follow, two journalists—Anne Morrissy Merick and the late Kate Webb—describe a reporter’s life in the Saigon of old, and an “old hack” just back from Ho Chi Minh City offers some observations of the Vietnam of today.
Like Alice Through the Looking Glass
New Zealander Kate Webb covered the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia for UPI. In 1971 she was captured and held hostage inside Cambodia for 23 days. In 2002 she wrote about her experience as a combat reporter, excerpted below from War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam. She died in Australia in 2007.
Out in the field you were all in the same predicament, with nothing between you and the piece of metal with your name on it except the whim of the Great Classifier in the Sky.
But back in Saigon it was different. You got back more often than not stinking, sweat caked, mosquito bitten, and badly in need of a shower; the images of the last week or ten days—the loss, the nerves, the bitterness, the adrenaline, the heat—to lights, booze, laughter, and martinis on the terrace of the Caravelle or the Continental.
I would find myself mesmerized by the little pats of butter, the fresh French bread, the clink of ice, the feel of silk underclothes, and the whiteness of the tablecloths. I reveled in it, and I felt guilty and a sham. The people I had been with were still out there.
It was weird. It was Alice through the looking glass.
Often only hours before you took that first sip of Ricard or your martini, the ice cold on your tongue, you had been watching a medic give up on a kid of 18 or 19 and flip a cold poncho over his face. Often you could hear the artillery of a battle across the Saigon River.
Living the ‘Good Life’ at the Caravelle
Anne Morrissy Merick was one of many women reporters who broke new ground covering the war. Her first tour was in 1967, and she spent seven years in Vietnam as a correspondent for ABC. In 2002 she wrote the following recollections of the Caravelle Hotel, excerpted from War Torn.
Across Lam Son Square and the Parliament Building stood the most modern and Westernized of Saigon hotels, the Caravelle, which was owned by the Catholic Church.
It was to the roof bar of the Caravelle that correspondents gathered to talk over the day’s activities. And from this venue you could often watch as American fighter planes dropped flares out in the countryside.
The Caravelle had an elevator that worked most of the time. It had an excellent restaurant featuring the French cuisine, spacious rooms, and a large staff of employees to fill our Western needs.
It was headquarters to a number of American news organizations. ABC and CBS had their Saigon bureaus in the big corner suites on the second and sixth floors. Several major publications, including The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and the London Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express, also had their offices there. It was my home for a good part of the seven years I lived in Vietnam.
ABC originally assigned me to a room on the third floor….Fellow ABC colleague Roger Grimsby, who gained fame as an anchorman in San Francisco and New York, had lived there when he did his tour of Vietnam. He told me that most of his time was spent on the commode— a problem that affected all of us at one time or another.
On my first morning “in-country,” I was awakened by the sound of squealing in the walls near the head of my bed. I had visions of being overrun by rodents. I later learned that my noisemakers were a covey of starlings that had found a home in the eves outside my window.
Rats were a frequent menace in Saigon. I had several invade my room while I lived there. Whenever I saw one, I would ring for the hall boy, stand in the middle of the bed, and wait until it was chased away. He never killed them, so I assumed they continued to multiply—not a pleasant thought.
Cu Chi, April 28—A small world after all. It’s unreal to return to Cu Chi after 40 years and find it is now a Viet Cong Disneyland, Vietnam’s most popular tourist attraction. During the war, there were 180 miles of tunnels, some built directly under the 25th Infantry Division’s command post. Hynh Van Chai, an officer who served in the tunnels and lost his right arm in the war, tells us that of the 18,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese who served in the tunnels, 12,000 were killed and 3,000 disabled. Tourists can fire authentic AK-47s or M-16s for $l.50 per round. Black pajamas are made to order on the spot, and Ho Chi Minh sandals go for 8 bucks.
Ho Chi Minh City, April 29—Back on the roof. Forty years ago on the Caravelle roof, we sipped cold beer to ward off the 85 degree heat at 10 p.m. and watched tracer bullets arc over the Saigon River a few miles away. Tonight, the heat is still oppressive but rather than tracers, the view is lit by garish neon signs atop the surrounding skyscrapers, touting Gucci, Rolex or BMW. Six floors below, the roar of motorbikes is ever present. There are 5 million motorbikes in the city, one for every two residents.
Ho Chi Minh City, April 30—Liberation Day Parade. An estimated 50,000 crowded the streets leading to Independence Palace for patriotic speeches and marching military units and civilian workers. After goose-stepping army units filed past the reviewing stand, today’s reality took over and thousands of workers marched smartly past in orange jump suits and ao dias. Paper mache tanks representing 1975’s final assault on Saigon rolled past, curiously met by dozens of ballet dancers in pink tutus. Russian generals, advisers during the war, sat in the reviewing stands weighted down by medals on every spare inch of their uniforms.
Ho Chi Minh City, April 30—Still crazy after all these years. Security was heavy at Liberation Day festivities. We passed through x-ray machines and were escorted to viewing platforms. Our minders said party Gen. Sec. Nguyen Manh was the top Politburo official making the keynote speech, but it actually turned out to be President Nguyen Minh Truit. Several of my colleagues, still displaying distain for authority as they did 40 years ago, ambled through battalions of security to meet President Truit. Jim Pringle, formerly of Reuters, and Don Kirk, former Christian Science Monitor reporter, approached the president, shook his hand and asked the question that had circulated here for years. “Mr. President, are you as some sources say, actually the illegitimate son of Ho Chi Minh?” President Truit smiled and replied, “Thank you very much.” If you are a rising politician in Vietnam, it doesn’t hurt to be known as the son of Ho Chi Minh, legitimate or otherwise.
Ho Chi Minh City, April 30—Truth still a casualty. Voices here in Vietnam and at home still appear reluctant to have an honest dialogue about the war. Journalist veterans of the Vietnam War are used to hearing from American hawks how we betrayed the country by being disloyal journalists, that by doing our jobs we were traitors. However, here in Vietnam the spin from local journalists is that we were “lackeys or dupes” of American political and military leaders. In dozens of published interviews, our quotes and explanations were badly mauled and censored.
Hanoi, May 5—Making a buck off John McCain. Near Truc Bach Lake is a curious monument noting that “here in October 1967 John McCain was shot out of the sky in his A-4 aircraft by local citizens militia.” The monument shows McCain kneeling. In the few minutes I took to photograph the monument, I was confronted by three Vietnamese. The first was a young woman who explained in perfect English that she was a university student collecting funds for disabled students. I donated a few dollars. Next a Buddhist monk in saffron robes silently extended a brass bowl and I was blessed, after handing him a few dollars. Then a young man in a work crew digging up the walkway around the lake offered me two rusted .50-caliber shell casings. He said he just dug them up and that they had probably been used to shoot down John McCain. When I told him I thought McCain had been shot down by an SA-2 missile, he quickly shuffled off to find a more gullible tourist. “
Don North covered Vietnam as a freelance reporter beginning in 1965 and later became a staff correspondent for ABC News. In 1970 he returned for NBC News. North was later a producer of the television series The Ten Thousand Day War.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.