In many ways,Trinh Thi Ngo seemed an unlikely candidate to become the voice of communism. She grew up in Hanoi, under French colonial¬ism, the daughter of a prosperous owner of a glass factory. She took pri¬vate English lessons and perfected her command of the language watch¬ing French-subtitled Hollywood movies, among them Gone with the Wind, which she saw five times. After working as a volunteer at the Voice of Vietnam, she was chosen, largely because of her unaccented English, to begin broadcasting to U.S. troops as Autumn Fragrance.
“Yes, I wanted to make them a little bit homesick,” she recalled. “But my real goal was to tell GIs they shouldn’t participate in a war that wasn’t theirs. I tried to be friendly and convincing. I didn’t want to be shrill or aggressive. For instance, I referred to Americans as the adversary. I never called them the enemy.”
Her scripts were written by propagandists in the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) who lifted their material from articles in Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times that Hanoi’s diplomats in Eastern-bloc countries sent home. Sometimes activists from the United States brought the arti¬cles when they visited Hanoi.
She paused, perplexed. “You know,” she said, “Jane Fonda never came back at all after the war. I wonder why. She made a tape I played that was very good. I heard that some years ago she made a public apology in the United States for coming to Hanoi during the war. Do you know if that’s true?”
I said yes, she had made a televised apology to Vietnam veterans and their families for her 1972 visit when she was photographed at a North Vietnamese gun emplacement. Mrs. Ngo seemed puzzled. “I never read that in the newspapers here,” she said, and I didn’t think it appropriate to add that this was not surprising because Hanoi told its people only what it wanted them to know.
Neither did I mention that the problem for Hanoi Hannah was that her broadcasts weren’t very credible. In fact, GIs liked her music but didn’t believe a word she said. Even North Vietnamese officials didn’t be¬lieve what they heard on Voice of Vietnam. If they spoke English, they tuned in to the Voice of America (VOA), the BBC, or U.S. Armed Forces Radio for news. But Mrs. Ngo was politely insistent: Her reports were not exaggerated, and her scriptwriters only used accurate accounts from the southern battlefields.
One of those accounts, which I heard one night on a fire support base with a unit of the ioist Airborne Division, told of the annihilation of a U.S. battalion and the loss of fifty U.S. planes in a battle near Ashau Val¬ley. It struck the soldiers gathered around the radio with me that it was us she was talking about. “Hear that, dude? Fuck, man, we been blown away,” one said. As far as I could tell, not a shot had been fired on the perimeter all day.
After the war, Mrs. Ngo was awarded the First Class Resistance Medal for her work, then she slipped quietly into anonymity, surrounded by young Vietnamese at the Voice of Vietnam who had never heard of Khe Sanh or Hamburger Hill, much less Hanoi Hannah. Occasionally the station asked her to do some voice-overs or translation, but mostly she was free to keep her own hours and come and go as she pleased. De¬mands were few.
With her career winding down, Mrs. Ngo said she hoped she would have the time and money to visit the country she had spent eight years talking about. “San Francisco has always been a dream,” she said. “And the Golden Gate Bridge and Hollywood, I’d love to see them, too.”
I asked if she could make one final broadcast to GIs who had been in Vietnam, what would she say? “That’s easy. I’d tell them: ‘Let’s let by¬gones be bygones.”’
IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG TO FIGURE OUT that Saigon was still a free- spirited place marching to its own drummer. If Hanoi was Salt Lake City, strait-laced and restrained, Saigon was New Orleans, flashy and a bit wicked. The sex trade was booming, and hookers virtually hunted down their clients, cruising the sidewalks on motorbikes. The city’s most fa-mous bar, Apocalypse Now, was packed until 2:00 or 3:00 A.M. every night with twenty-something expats and locals. (“I don’t think the Viet¬namese here understand the significance of the bar’s name,” the bartender said. “They’re too young. They just like the place.”)
The country’s first air-conditioned mall, the Superbowl, was drawing throngs of shoppers. Industrial parks were springing up. The monument that South Vietnam had erected to “our gallant allies”—a huge statue of a GI with several allied soldiers at the gate of Tan Son Nhut Airport—had disappeared, replaced by an open-air market. The six-story, fortresslike U.S. Embassy on Le Duan Street—its roof the point of departure for the last Americans in 1975—had been torn down and in its place, a stone’s throw from the Club 2000 disco and a Mercedes-Benz dealership, stood an attractive new rambling building that housed the U.S. Consulate Gen¬eral. The staff was so swamped with visa applications from Vietnamese who lined up at 7 A.M. each weekday that within weeks of opening it had become the fifth busiest U.S. consulate in the world.
Across from the Majestic Hotel, on the far banks of the Saigon River—where Viet Cong guerrillas used to move freely through shanty¬towns and no American dared venture—towering neon signs blinked out a red-letter message for the future: HITACHI . . . FUJI . . . COMPAQ. Their reflection shimmered across the nighttime waters, bathing anchored freighters and gliding sampans in an eerie glow. The placards of progress, or at least change, were everywhere.