Writers are never supposed to begin stories with bird’s-eye views from an airplane. But no arrival in my travel life has compared with my approach to Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport in 1995. It was my first trip to Asia, and everything looked so familiar. A thin muddy river twisted through wide brown-and-green rice fields. Descending, I gradually could make out little roads, then little motorbikes topped with a person to two, and then, there, the famed conical hats. Wow.
I don’t really remember April 30, 1975 – the day Saigon fell – but I grew up seeing these images I spied below me. Except this time it wasn’t from grainy helicopter footage from the Vietnam War on the History Channel. It was real.
While working at House Beautiful magazine in the ‘90s, I’d break the monotony of the sconce talk by calling Now Voyager, an air courier company in New York. I’d dial up daily just to woo at their recording of courier flights available the next day or two: “Buenos Aires $79! Caracas $99! Dublin $119! London $99!” Finally in 1995, I took one: a $149 flight round-trip to Hong Kong. And then boarded a plane for Vietnam. A year later I moved there.
Most days living in Saigon I’d drive my 50cc Honda motorbike by the old US embassy and the Independence Palace, sites linked to April 30, 1975. Only occasionally did I think of the images we’ve seen – of the last helicopter taking off the embassy rooftop, or the North Vietnamese tanks crashing down the gate of the South Vietnamese president’s home. It’s easy to forget about the war when you’re in Vietnam. Vietnam’s moved on. And in 18 months living there, not one critical word was uttered to me, an American back in Vietnam. But, still, I always feel connected to it, and to April 30, 1975. So does my wife. On April 29, 1975, she and her family managed to fly out of Saigon, a day when some jets were shot down. They made it out, eventually finding a new home in an Oklahoma barn.
Writers look for anniversaries to come up with story angles. It can be a lazy sell, but I don’t mind the prompts to return to significant events. And no, that horrible war doesn’t suddenly mean any more today because of an anniversary. But I’ll be thinking about it.