SAIGON 4

District One—the downtown commercial core—is still officially called Saigon, but the greater megalopolis, with a population of 6 million, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, a year after peace came to Vietnam. The name never really caught on. It was like renaming Boston “John F. Kennedy City.” It was cumbersome and just didn’t sound right. It brought to mind no images of tamarind-shaded boulevards or summer days around the pool at the Cercle Sportif or high tea on the veranda of the Continental Hotel, where Graham Greene’s cynical, middle-aged British newspaperman warns the idealistic young American diplomat Alden Pyle—the Quiet American—about the perils of involvement in Vietnam. “I hope to God you know what you are doing there,” he says. “Oh, I know your motives are good, they always are. … I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings. And that applies to your country too, Pyle.”
The name didn’t even carry a reminiscent whiff of the French and American Wars that so shaped the city’s character. So to most people, in informal conversation at least, Ho Chi Minh City was still Saigon. Dur¬ing the war 17,000 Americans lived in Saigon, and the city had all the trappings of a tiny Fort Bragg. Tu Do (Freedom) Street was full of GIs, many in fatigues with M-i6s slung over their shoulders, and they swag¬gered from bar to bar, where comely young women lurked in the door¬ways, calling, “Hey, Cheap Charlie, you buy me Saigon tea?” Now Tu Do had been renamed Dong Khoi (Uprising), and the Americans on the street were businessmen in white shirts and ties and tourists checking out upscale boutiques that sold Rolcx watches and Calvin Klein jeans and Gucci leather. But I wasn’t ready to write an obituary for the seductive Saigon I had once known. Strip away the thin veneer of communism, and there, among the ghosts of a wartime past, was a city that still, had the soul of a hustler.
Before boarding the train in Vinh, I had made several appointments in Saigon. The first was at io A.M. with Trinh Thi Ngo, who had moved from Hanoi to Saigon in 1975 with her husband, a retired engineer, and now lived in a modest three-bedroom apartment near the former Presi¬dential Palace, which she had often referred to as the “den of puppets.” I had never met Mrs. Ngo but often heard her voice—smooth as silk, her English impeccable—flowing from the radio into the nighttime darkness of some outpost where I was holed up. In those days she was known as Hanoi Hannah.
“This is Thu Huong calling American servicemen in South Vietnam,” she would begin her daily thirty-minute broadcasts that ran from 1965 to 1973, using an alias that translated as Autumn Fragrance. Then she would play a melancholy song (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was a fa¬vorite), read news of antiwar protests in America, and, on Fridays, recite the names of Americans killed in action that were printed in the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
Mrs. Ngo greeted me in a white ao dai, the figure-hugging trousers worn under a knee-length tunic, split up the side. She was sixty-seven, dark-haired with perfect posture, and quite lovely. Her English had grown a bit rusty with lack of use over recent years, but it was certainly serviceable, and her voice was still soft enough to sound mysterious, even sexy. Listening to her broadcasts, we used to speculate what Hanoi Han¬nah looked like. “Aw, she’s probably a dump,” one GI offered. “No way, man,” his friend said. “She’s gotta be a babe. Check out that sweet voice.”
I told Mrs. Ngo—skipping, of course, any mention of the occasional vulgarities that would pop out when they heard her alluring voice—that soldiers used to wonder if she was beautiful and that many considered her North Vietnam’s most prominent figure after Ho Chi Minli. In fact, Hanoi Hannah and Ho were the only two North Vietnamese most GIs had ever heard of.
She giggled, feigning surprise. “Oh my,” she said, “I wasn’t a celebrity. I did love that time in Hanoi, but I was just an ordinary citizen trying to contribute to my country. I’d been doing the broadcasts for about four years before I even found out the Americans were calling me Hanoi Han¬nah. How in the world did they come up with that name?” I told her some GI just made it up and it caught on, like the names of propagan¬dists in other wars: Tokyo Rose in World War II, Seoul City Sue in Ko¬rea, Baghdad Betty in the Persian Gulf.

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