A month or so after Virgil’s Suitcase Sunday I went for Sunday dinner at DBs. I was coming to really enjoy these visits. They were a nice break from the Dai Nam mess hall or the NCO club. I’d taken pictures of neighbors and their children with the new lenses Virgil had helped me get at the PX.
Virgil’s new Honda was parked in the Yard, a bit more mud spattered but still shiny. He’s been out of the city by the look of it.
My curiosity about the money had grown during the past weeks. Given the amount of money, I suspected what they were doing was illegal but maybe not and it seemed to be going to a good cause — the civilian defense force and the people of the neighborhood, who but for their infusions of cash were desperately poor.
That they had made all this money by currency exchange intrigued me. It seemed so easy. Dare I try it myself? Which Indian tailors participated? Which ones would turn me in and keep my money in the bargain? What would I do with the money? Treat Miss Yen to dinner in a fancy restaurant? Would she ask questions? How big a crime was money changing? Was it a crime at all? Everybody did it so it seemed. There was a lot more I needed to know.
Without mentioning that DB lived on the economy in such a place, I started by asking Miss Yen about the riverside slums the next time we met for lunch. She seemed alarmed that I might venture into that part of the city, even armed.
“You have no experience with these streets, It doesn’t matter what your uncle told you. You don’t know enough to be roaming about unescorted. You stay on the streets the MPs patrol. You stick with Sgt. Pigeon.”
She was forceful and direct. She clearly meant it as a warning. I had not yet told her about DB’s hooch or my encounter with the civilian defense force. Yet already she was scolding me like an errant child.
My uncle was an Air Force Colonel and had visited Saigon frequently in the early sixties. His assignment was to gather intelligence on-the-ground, unfiltered by diplomats, and report to Washington. Saigon had not yet been overrun by refugees despite Diem’s brutal regime, which among other horrors had put a bounty on Viet Cong heads. This, of course, resulted in village squabbles as well as ancient feuds being settled by naming someone VC. This was only one of his news items.
Before I left Ft. Monmouth for Saigon, Uncle John had briefed me on the good and the bad. He described Diem’s regime and also the city’s beauty as he remembered it a few years earlier. “Modeled on Paris, Perl of the Orient,” he’d said. He even gave me the names of some good restaurants. On the flip side, he warned me about the gambling dens in Cholon, “the biggest in the orient, rivals for Las Vegas,” he’d said. “But watch yourself, and don’t take all your money with you.”
But Miss Yen had a bit different take on the city’s fortunes.
“These people aren’t respectable even as peasants any more. They are refugees from the countryside. Their land from the land-reform is gone. They are chased form their villages by the VC, by the Americans and by the ARVN. The government wants them herded into camps. Most are desperate and that makes them dangerous. They become thieves and pickpockets. Did you read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist?”
“You should. Have you finished ‘The Ugly American’?
Miss Yen had embarrassed me several times about my lack of education, so I’d begun reading books people recommended or I’d heard about or finally, some of the books I should have read in high school English. On the other hand, I knew a lot more about physics and electronics that she ever would. I was more than a little tempted to tell her so. But then she already knew that, so it would just make me sound defensive.
“Anyway, like Dickens’ London, many of these children are orphans living by their wits. They run in gangs with no adults about at all. The stories are horrible. They get a little Honda and ride double. One has a knife and the other drives. If they see a woman walking; fool enough to have her handbag on her shoulder by a strap, the knife comes out and the strap is cut and she no longer has a handbag. They and the motorbike are gone. My friend, Su Lin ……. her sister had a friend with a pretty ring on her finger who was walking in the street. They cut her finger and took the ring. It makes me sick to think about it. I have nice jewelry but I don’t wear it out. I don’t wear expensive clothes on the street either, just a plain au dai.
“All this since the end of Diem. Six years. Since I left for school in Paris. And it gets worse every week. Diem was bd enough but this is beyond anything I ever imagined. And I’ve seen war all my life.”
She was clearly upset and she had told me earlier what had happened since her school days at Lycee; at the corruption, at the influx of desperate people on the make with nothing left to lose, at the rowdy and arrogant soldiers of all ranks and nationalities crowding the sidewalks but most of all at the concertina wire and barricades. “These are the very symbols of decay, emblems of the filth and squalor that have overcome our most beautiful and civilized city.”
Though my curiosity was still gnawing at me I skipped the questions about money changing. Maybe another time. Maybe I could get the answers from Sgt. Pigeon.