THE MAKING OF VIETNAM 5

Big chunks of plaster had fallen from the ceilings. Lightbulbs dangled from cords. The apartments rented for $3.50 per month. Some of the bet¬ter-off families had a mattress in the bedroom. As in other cities, the mattress was a new amenity in Vinh and sales were booming. You could hardly drive a block without seeing someone lugging a mattress out of a shop, wrestling it onto his motor scooter for transport home, displaying a broad smile of anticipation. I wondered if mattresses would be Vietnam’s downfall. The Vietnamese were among the most industrious people I’d ever seen. They got up with the dawn and thought nothing of laboring twelve or fourteen hours. What was going to happen when an entire na¬tion realized thread-thin mats stretched over cement floors were lousy for sleeping, that big, deep mattresses provided a powerful incitement for not getting up early to go to work?
Luc offered to drive me to the Huu Nghi Hotel; as we passed the two college dormitories I visited earlier, he asked if I were an American. I told him yes, and he said, “I have one question. Is it OK to ask it?” It was a question I would only hear once in Vietnam: “Why did America do this to us?” His tone was neither hostile nor challenging. I think he was sim¬ply bewildered and, even after so many years, had never heard a satisfac¬tory explanation.
I wasn’t going to get suckered into apologies. “You have to put it into the context of the Cold War and what the world was like in the 1960s,” I said. “The Korean War had just been fought to stall the spread of com¬munism in Asia. The United States and Soviet Union were confronting each other with proxy wars in Asia and Africa. Washington viewed Ho Chi Minh as just another Soviet-backed communist trying to take over a democratic country. No matter how great the miscalculation might have been, the United States didn’t do business with communists. There is lit¬tle Ho could have done to change that. We came to save the South, not destroy the North. But we got drawn in deeper and deeper. It was like poker. The pot got too big, and for a lot of reasons, no one was willing to walk away and leave all those assets on the table.”
Luc listened without commenting, and I knew my explanation had fallen short. He asked what the American people thought about the war now. I said, “Everyone agrees it was a great tragedy for both sides.” Luc nodded and let the subject drop.
The state-owned Huu Nghi Hotel was quite acceptable, though it could hardly be described as a tourist draw. I was the only guest. The cav¬ernous dining room,with its metal chairs and long, uncovered tables, had the ambiance of a Soviet mess hall, but it was clear the new local chef had attempted to spruce up the menu, which included chicken testicles with ginger, sauteed frog with banana, and turtle with leg of pork. The turtle dish apparently was not in demand, and the sole star of that entree splashed around its tank by the cashier’s register, awaiting the inevitable. It was 7 P.M. A waiter approached; I ordered water buffalo steak. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We close at 6:30.” He found me a loaf of French bread and filled a glass with ice cubes. I repaired to my room, where my dinner companion was a bottle of whiskey.
A list of hotel regulations was posted in English on the wall. Number 7 warned: “No harboring the social evils: prostitution, gamble, criminal.” It made no mention of the massage parlor just off the ground floor, where, I assumed, social evils were readily available at a reasonable price. Number 8 stated: “The hotel just taken upon oneself about guests money and wealthies when both of sides are having the transfer between the guest or receptionist or room servant.”
Clearly, Vinh’s tourist industry was still in its infancy.

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