The End in Saigon: Oddities (5)

I wrote yesterday about the failure of the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, to call for an evacuation as it became unquestionable that Saigon would fall to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. One of the eerie results was that I and other Americans were repeatedly approached by locals asking us to arrange for their evacuation or to get enough money to buy their way out. The following, from Last of the Annamese, tells of two incidents I lived through:

At lunchtime, he [Chuck, the protagonist] stopped at the shoe repair on his way to the snack bar [in the DAO building at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon]. Behind the counter of the miniature shop stood a Vietnamese in khaki shirt and shorts—no doubt once the property of the U.S. Army—and the inevitable clogs. Chuck handed him the green cardboard ticket he’d found in Ike’s room and watched him search through shelves. The man was already old, even though he looked like he’d never grown up. He had the face of a young boy, but his hair was graying and his skin was creased.

The man put a brown-wrapped package on the counter. “Five thousand three hundred twenty pee [short for piastres].”

Chuck counted out a wad of bills.

“You want give me tip, sir?” the man said, his eyes hungry.

“You’re supposed to get a tip?” Chuck said.

“The prices, they go up. Now cost fifteen hundred pee for one bread. And DAO, it set what I can charge. So now I ask customer for tip.”

Chuck put another thousand pee on the counter.

“I thank you very much, sir.” The cash vanished.

Next Chuck went to the dry cleaners. The clerk was a young girl in shapeless black pajamas. Her ready smile reminded him of Huong [the servant of a friend]. She took his slip and produced two class A Marine uniforms on hangers for his inspection.

“Six thousand five hundred pee, sir.”

He reached for his wallet.

“You meet my mamma, sir?” the girl said.

At the end of the counter sat a caricature of an ancient Chinese woman, her white hair smoothed back into a bun. Brocaded pajamas hid her tiny frame. Her face was a map of lines, her cheekbones protruding. She smiled and nodded, her eyes mere slits.

The girl took his money. “My mamma and me, we very afraid.” She leaned toward him and whispered. “We Chinese, sir. We work for American. The VC tortures us, kills us. You help us?”

Chuck was jarred. “Look, I just work here. I don’t have any planes or boats.”

“You American, sir,” she said, as if that explained everything.

He slung the uniforms over his arm and escaped to the corridor.

End of quote. At the end, when Saigon fell, almost all the Vietnamese and Chinese who worked with us were left behind. The North Vietnamese killed many and sent the rest to “re-education camps” where many more died.

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