Most of Last of the Annamese is set in Saigon between November 1974 and the end of April 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. I knew the city well. I had lived there on and off for thirteen years. Granted, before 1973, I didn’t spend much time in the city because I was off in the field supporting combat units. But after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in 1973 and my final tour began (as head of the covert National Security Agency (NSA) operation in Vietnam), I lived in the city with my wife and four children. I was away only for short trips with my South Vietnamese counterparts.
When I first arrived in Saigon in 1962, the French language was as common as Vietnamese. Many French citizens still lived there, and some Vietnamese, particularly in the upper classes, preferred to speak French. So I got plenty of practice in both Vietnamese and French. To use my Chinese, I had to go to Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon—its name means “big market”—where the residents often spoke the Beijing dialect of Chinese, the language I had studied, even though it was not their native tongue.
Saigon was a gracious cosmopolitan city back then. The restaurants and cocktail lounges catered to the French. They were, for the most part, not expensive by American standards, and they welcomed me because I spoke their languages. I rented a tiny apartment downtown on Tu Do Street which I used infrequently because so much of my time I was in the field.
By the mid-sixties, Saigon had begun to stink, literally. As the war forced more and more refugees into the city and hygiene declined, the canals that riddled the city were more and more polluted with human waste and garbage. Each time I returned to Saigon from the U.S., I noticed the stench as soon as I deplaned at Tan Son Nhat (the airport on the northern edge of the city); by the time I’d been there a week, I’d grown used to the smell and was no longer even conscious of it. Newly arrived Americans would remark on it until they, too, became inured.
By the time I arrived with my family for my last tour in 1974, Saigon was in decay. The buildings, even private residences, were in serious deterioration. The city’s population had grown beyond congestion. Maimed soldiers crammed the streets. The poor, who had no place to live, were everywhere.
When the end came in April 1975, and I escaped by helicopter under fire, the city was in chaos. I fled from a place I had loved once. Now it was ataxia incarnate.