My father's flight, a United 747 from Hong Kong, arrives late at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City. It's midnight, 30 hours since Dad departed the United States and more than 40 years since he first landed at this airfield. Back then Ho Chi Minh City was Saigon, and Tan Son Nhat was essentially a military installation across the street from the headquarters of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.
The fluorescent tubes that line the terminal ceiling highlight Dad's fatigue; the pallid light reflects his waxy complexion. As I escort him into the sweltering night, the layers he wore for the flight--heavy beige corduroy pants, an undershirt, a sweater, and a windbreaker--hang from him shabbily. Onlookers line the welcoming area, a wall of expectant faces. Preoccupied with returning relatives or prodigal sons bearing gifts from abroad, they watch him pass with the same abstract curiosity with which they view other We stern arrivals. Dad smiles wanly.
We bypass persistent cab drivers seeking fares and make our way to my Toyota; our driver, Anh Hai, has the engine running. Stocky and bowlegged, with cropped black hair and a thick mustache, Anh Hai offers my father a snappy salute and an eager handshake. Dad reaches for his suitcase, but Anh Hai won't hear of it and retrieves the bag himself. He has anticipated my father's arrival for weeks, since hearing that Dad served here during the war. Anh Hai served as a chief load master with the South Vietnamese 241st Helicopter Squadron based at Phu Cat airfield, between Nha Trang and Da Nang. He is eager to meet a kindred spirit from his youth.
As Anh Hai eases the RAV4 into traffic, neon lights from restaurants and karaoke bars project liquid dollops of purple and crimson into the car. Even at midnight, the streets thrum with revving engines and squealing brakes. Surrounded by pedestrians in constant motion, gleaming SUVs, and run-down taxis, we are assaulted by car horns and gasoline vapors. Hundreds of motorbikes--whose riders' identities are eerily obscured behind Mickey Mouse helmets and Hello Kitty facemasks--dart and weave through traffic. Their horns bleat feebly, as if they are asphyxiating on their own exhaust.
"Saigon," Dad muses, "has been swallowed by Ho Chi Minh City."
Not that he's surprised. Since I arrived here nine months ago to begin a tour as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, I've tried to prepare him for what he would find. Little remains of the Saigon he remembers, the one he knew during the war--where the streets abounded with bicycles and open-air markets, and slow barges drifted along the river. Though relics remain, the labyrinthine streets are now swarming with Hondas and Vespas. Glass-encased, floodlit skyscrapers tower above them. Clothing shops display fashions by European designers, and electronics shops are crowded with fiat-screen TVs and the latest mobile phones. Nightclubs with DJs pump heavy bass into the teeming streets.
Everything conspires to compete with Dad's memories, so I keep the conversation simple. I point out bits of old Saigon that remain, like the Rex Hotel, where the Army held briefings the press called "the five o'clock follies" or "the jive at five." I show him the old U.S. Embassy--now the consulate where I work--and the point on its wall...