Few Vietnamese used banks, and almost none had credit cards. The well-heeled didn’t like banks because a lot of wealth in Vietnam had been created through graft, and no one wanted his illegally earned money go¬ing through the official system. Also, middle- and working-class Viet¬namese didn’t trust banks. They kept their money in cash or gold, under beds and in kitchen cabinets—an accumulative fortune that lay idle in a capital-starved nation. If they bought a house, they went to the seller car¬rying suitcases of dong—suitcases in the plural because it took 15,000 dong to buy one U.S. dollar. When my bills were due each month, I didn’t write a bunch of checks. I stockpiled a drawer full of dong notes (Viet¬nam didn’t have coins) and made some phone calls. An hour later the bill collectors—from the telephone company, the Internet service, the land¬lord, the butcher, the wine shop—would be knocking at my door to take payment in cash.
DESPITE THE ECONOMIC DOWNTURN, there were noteworthy achievements along the way. One was agriculture. Food production dou¬bled between 1990 and 2000, and people no longer felt threatened by famine. In addition to its rice surplus, Vietnam became the world’s sec¬ond largest exporter of cashew nuts, after India, and third largest coffee exporter, after Brazil and Colombia. Nearly one-quarter of its robusta coffee went to the United States. The coffee was grown in the Central Highlands, where I had spent much time traipsing around with the 4th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne. Even the largest of the High¬lands towns, like Plciku and Ban Me Thuot, were sleepy backwaters in those days, populated mostly by ethnic minorities. I caught one of the thrice-weekly flights from Danang to Plciku to see what effect the coffee boom had had on one of Vietnam’s most beautiful regions.
In many ways, Pleiku was where the American War began. On Febru¬ary 7, 1965, when the 23,000 U.S. military personnel in Vietnam were classified as advisers, the Viet Cong attacked a U.S. Army compound on the outskirts of the town with mortars, killing eight Americans. In retali¬ation, President Lyndon B. Johnson began the sustained bombing of North Vietnam on February 24. Hanoi announced a general mobiliza¬tion. “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom,” Ho Chi Minh said—words that one day would hang in eighteen-karat gold outside his mausoleum. On March 8, two battalions of U.S. Marines landed at Danang. Johnson offered Hanoi aid in exchange for peace on April 7. Hanoi rejected the overture the next day. In the tit-for-tat escala¬tions, you could hear the whisper of history and Charles de Gaulle’s warning to John F. Kennedy in 1962: “I predict that you will, step by step, be sucked into a bottomless military and political quagmire.” By the early spring of 1969, U.S. combat troops in Vietnam numbered 543,000.
Nothing looked familiar to me. Pleiku had been burned to the ground by South Vietnamese troops fleeing the Highlands in March 1975 and re¬built with Soviet assistance five or six years later. Bulldozers had claimed all but the memories. I couldn’t find the press hooch where I had awak¬ened one night to look at a starlit sky and wonder if it could be true what VOA was reporting—that a man was walking on the moon at that very moment. The sprawling base that had housed the 4th Division was easy to find, but it had been turned into a coffee plantation. The runway of the U.S. airfield in Kontum to the north was used for drying rice and giving driving lessons to young Vietnamese, something they desperately needed. Pleiku’s dirt roads had been paved, and the first traffic lights had been in¬stalled. The population had swelled from a few thousand when I had last seen the town to 70,000. A new movie theater was packing in crowds to see Cyberbyte Monster. New buildings were going up all over town, and instead of looking like Stalinist housing projects, as they did in Vinh, they reflected the sweeping, open style of Montagnard architecture. Everyone seemed to have a Chinese-made motor scooter. Fueled by high yields of coffee, black pepper, and rubber, Pleiku was booming.
The Highlands reminded me of Vermont, where I had spent the sum¬mers of my youth. The mountains and wooded valleys and rushing streams calmed me. The People’s Committee in Pleiku knew it was guardian of a tourist treasure—the Highlands were Vietnam’s last re¬doubt of elephants and tigers and the Javan rhinoceros—and it devised a twofold plan to attract foreign visitors and cash in on a potential bonanza: keep prices high and make it difficult for tourists to explore the region. Then the town’s fathers sat back and waited … and waited. And when tourists flocked to beach resorts in Danang and Nha Trang and to Ha- long Ray and Sapa and skipped the Highlands entirely, they scratched their heads in puzzlement.
Like individual states in the United States, the provinces of Vietnam had considerable autonomy in determining local policy. And in Pleiku, the Communist Party had opted to give government control top priority, even as the rest of the country was becoming more liberal, more open, more accessible to foreigners. It forced tourists to spend the night inside city limits and required them to get a $20 permit if they wanted to visit an old battlefield or a village inhabited by ethnic minorities. Sometimes it took a week to get the permit. And it set the room rate at the dreary Pleiku Hotel at $38, about what a luxury four-star hotel cost in Ho Chi Minh City. A sign in each room warned: “Do not play games and bring prostitutes into room.”
The fact that the Highlands were the last place where the xenophobia of the late 1970s still openly lingered was not surprising. For more than a decade after the fall of Saigon, the government fought a low-level war in the plateaus around Pleiku against guerrillas belonging to the United Front for the Struggle of Oppressed Races (FULRO), which had about 10,000 combatants in 1975. They were Montagnards—a generic term for Vietnam’s scores of upcountry minority groups—and many had fought as mercenaries for the French and the Americans. Most were Protestants, with little affection for the ethnic Vietnamese majority. As recently as 1992, a surviving band of several hundred guerrillas remained in a remote corner of Cambodia, continuing cross-border raids. They later surren¬dered and were integrated into society or flown under UN auspices to the United States, bringing a delayed peace to the Highlands.