© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

21st Century Vietnam Leaves War In The Past


Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang, Saigon, they're names that were stamped on the American psyche a half-century ago, when the United States waged war in Vietnam.

The names remain mostly the same, but NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg found the once war-torn Southeast Asian nation has made great strides to leave its trouble past behind. And here's Susan's audio postcard.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Strange to visit a nation you knew all those years ago in connection with death, humiliation, determination, misjudgment and loss. Today's Vietnam has grown vigorously and impressively beyond that war. But its place names echo in the mind from old newscasts and newspaper front pages.


STAMBERG: Hanoi, the capital, now of re-unified, rapidly redeveloping Vietnam. A bustling city, where the day starts with breakfast on the streets - steaming bowls of noodle soup, enjoyed at low tables on low plastic stools. By afternoon, public address speakers on utility poles add to the din.

It's an announcement being made on a Tuesday afternoon and no one, except this reporter, has stopped to listen to it. My guide, Nguyen Thai Yee(ph), explains that a traffic safety campaign is being launched.

NGUYEN THAI YEE: Because of the past years, traffic deaths are so high. And they want people, no matter who they are - the students, laborers, the farmers, intellectuals - they have to be involved in this campaign.

STAMBERG: In Hanoi, you wish the campaign had started six months before you arrived.

The motorbikes of what Thai Yee calls this two-wheeled culture keep on going in absolutely antic chaos. No one stops. So you walk very slowly. You don't look at them. Keep on walking and pray that they see and go around you; but for a former New Yorker - piece of cheesecake.

Our guide, Yee, dips into a different basic food group for advice on navigating crossings. Sticky rice, he says. Walk slowly and steadily in a group, stick together like rice and you'll get across.

Same maneuvers, although less traffic, in Hue, once the imperial capital of Vietnam. In 1968, one of the longest, bloodiest battles of what the Vietnamese call the American War took place here, the Tet Offensive, the communists facing down U.S. and South Vietnamese forces in Hue for 25 days.

Just after Tet this year, at four A.M. on a February morning, ringing out through the darkness from Hue's ancient Citadel - epicenter of the bloody Tet battles - the faraway, deeply peaceful sound of a gong.


STAMBERG: And the city is absolutely silent, nothing moving except the leaves on the trees. And the gong, that bell in the distance.


STAMBERG: Further down Vietnam's south-central coast, on the South China Sea, not far from Da Nang, the lovely old trading port of Hoi An also came under attack in 1968 during Tet. But another war is underway there now - in my hotel room.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

STAMBERG: On television, "Gone With the Wind" with a voice-over translation in Vietnamese. There's Rhett. There's Scarlett. There's the green velvet drapery dress. I fell asleep before the Vietnamese version of: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a bleep. But on Day 10 of my sojourn in Vietnam, it was nice to be in the American South for a bit.


STAMBERG: Further south in the resort town of Nha Trang, 450 followers of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Tit Phoo Teen(ph) have gathered to hear him lecture. Waiting, they stand barefoot in pale gray robes, chanting.

Our guide, Yee, translates.

YEE: The prayer is to focus their mind. They try to chant up to the point that they no longer get distracted. Similar to a bee keep looking for the flowers. And when he lands on one right flower, by that time you can catch him, he doesn't even care.

STAMBERG: He's in a different state.

YEE: Yeah.

STAMBERG: In the war years, the U.S. Air Force had a special operations base in Nha Trang. In 2012, Nha Trang on February 14th -Valentine's Day - Vietnamese Buddhists chant to attain enlightenment.


STAMBERG: This audio postcard ends at sunset on a Saturday evening, in what used to be called Saigon. Today it's Ho Chi Minh City, although plenty of signs still announce Saigon shops, Saigon restaurants and Saigon Bars. I head for one of them in the Rex Hotel...


STAMBERG: ...to the place where at five o'clock every evening, the press corps came to be briefed, and they came to call it the Five O'clock Follies, because they were not believing what the government was telling them in the nightly news briefing.

Can you tell me where they did the Five O'clock Follies?

YEE: On the fifth floor.

STAMBERG: The fifth floor?

YEE: Yes, on the fifth floor.

STAMBERG: Is there a big room there?

YEE: No. No, it's a bar.

STAMBERG: From this 5th floor rooftop, in the distance, you can see the rooftop where U.S. helicopters hovered in 1975, in that last, desperate evacuation of Americans and South Vietnamese at war's end. The building is framed, now, by glass and steel high-rises.

With its lush, sensual plants and soft lamps, the Five O'clock Follies bar is still an end-of-the-day refuge for tourists, and the occasional foreign correspondent come to re-visit a wartime haunt. Lubricated with fine imported wine and decades-old memories, they can watch as the lights come on, giving a glow to the bustle of 21st century Saigon.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAM HUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.