Returning to Saigon

By |2018-02-19T04:14:24+00:00January 14th, 2015|Travel|

I’m wide awake at 03:30. After bragging yesterday about how I’d beat jet-lag through careful planning and some really expensive socks, I’m wide awake at 03:30.

That said, I know it’s not jet-lag. I woke up thinking about Saigon. And Laos. Taiwan and Thailand were just “safe-haven” postings, more temporary quarters than anything.

We lived in Laos for four years, our longest posting by far. The longevity of the tour probably has a lot to do with the fond memories I have.

Saigon: not so long. A year? Year and a half? But the city looms large in my thoughts this morning. I keep hearing Martin Sheen’s voice in my head.

Saigon. Shiiit.

A lot of my “memories” of Saigon have actually been reconstructed. Things were fast and furious during The Fall (as the period of about January to April is referred to in my family, and many others’, I suspect). And I was just 13. Not your average American 13, but young nonetheless. I had to study the war and the country and its history as an adult to learn most of what I know now.

Other memories are… snippets.

School bus with steel mesh on the windows for hand-grenade protection, following a different route every day.

School in a three-story house, my class of about seven kids on the top floor, correspondence courses taught by volunteers.

School abruptly closed in March; no fuss, no muss, just “No more school, kids.”

Lunch at the Cercle Sportif—the small, crunchy, thumb-sized chả giò that remain the best damned chả giò in the universe in my head, making Vietnamese food in the States a sad disappointment.

Basketball at the Defense Attaché Organization (DAO) compound, kicking butt in Cholon against a Chinese team and almost causing a riot.

The basketball trip to Thailand we started planning in February that was abruptly cancelled in March as South Vietnam crumbled so fast, the map in our living room my mom had put up to track the madness became useless.

Very sad get-togethers in our apartment with American, French, Vietnamese friends and co-workers who’d evacuated from up-country with the clothes on their backs, listening to heartbreaking stories of friends and colleagues left behind.

A chopper flying past our fifth-floor apartment at 259 Trương Quốc Dung, comically chasing the high-altitude bomber that had just bombed the President’s palace.

Standing on our balcony counting the seconds between flashes and the accompanying “boom” of mortars, trying to guess if they were in-coming or out-going.

My appendix, bursting with the most inopportune timing, and my amah covering me with Tiger Balm or Vick’s Vapor Rub, because that’s what you did.

The C-5A. The god damned C-5A.

Saigon. Shit.


  1. Jubie January 14, 2016 at 10:17 am - Reply

    We arrived in Thailand at the Start of Summer/1974. Just as things were beginning to crumble around you in Saigon, I suspect. We seemed to miss each other by only a year here or there in our various postings overseas, LOL! But we share some background. Also, I believe you’re younger than me by like one or two years. Another great entry, keep them coming. I enjoy them.

  2. Pat Brady January 15, 2015 at 12:07 am - Reply

    Wow, so interesting. One of my best friends escaped Vietnam in the 70’s and now lives happily with his wife and twin boys in Lake Forest, OC. So many of my former employees while working in Irvine also escaped in the 70’s and 80’s and I loved all of them – so special and such great employees.

  3. Joellen January 14, 2015 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    Great reading, Kim. I am hanging on every word. You are bringing back lots of memories of my own three years in the Philippines ( age 8 to 11) when my Dad was stationed there. Snakes were a common theme there too. My best story was about the large python that the MP’s killed on our street. After it was killed and measured to be almost 12 feet long, our house maid informed my Mom that she had seen it slither under our house (quonset hut) late one night the week before. When my horrified mother asked her why she hadn’t mentioned it before, the maid said that the pythons were really good at controlling the monstrous rats that plagued the Naval Base and she hated the rats more than the snake. We had to admit she had a good point but we were never allowed to camp out in the back yard after that!
    Can’t wait to read the next installment.

    • Kim Life January 14, 2015 at 8:16 pm - Reply

      Joellen, you made me laugh out loud! I was just talking to James on Skype and read this to him–we agreed with the maid, but yeah: I think your mom made the right call on the back yard!

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