(We) Miss Saigon

We completed our stay in Vietnam with a couple day visit to Saigon. The highlight of this visit was a Friday night dinner with Mr. Trung Ha and his great family. Sheila Marcelo, founder and CEO of Care.com in the Boston area, was kind enough to make an e-mail introduction for us with Mr. Ha. Amazingly, our first e-mail exchange was on Thursday morning and we were having dinner together on Thursday night!

Mr. Ha and his family were not only kind hosts, but incredibly interesting. In the 1960′s and 1970′s, Mr. Ha was Minister of Finance for South Vietnam, the youngest Minister in the history of the country. Meanwhile, his wife and her two sisters (all three were at our dinner) started a pharmaceutical company in the 1950′s, called OVP Pharmaceuticals, and grew it to a successful market position by the mid 1970′s. Then, the bottom fell out for them and many, many others in South Vietnam as the U.S. withdrew and North Vietnam took control of the south.

Mr. Ha and his family were fortunate to be able to leave South Vietnam (many weren’t) and come to the U.S. They (including his wife’s two sisters) spent three months in a stopover camp at Camp Pendleton, California. It was hard for me to imagine this educated, refined, and kind family going through this experience. They lived in the U.S. for twenty years, living in Newton, Massachusetts. He went to the Kennedy School at Harvard, then got his M.B.A. at Harvard Business School. He and his wife had several children there (and one of their sons joined us for dinner).

In 1995, they were approached by the government of Vietnam and asked to return, which they did. The sisters — Mrs. Nguyen Cao Thang, Mrs. Ha Truong Bich Tuy, and Mrs. Truong Bich Diep — started a new pharmaceutical company, also called OPV Pharmaceutical (www.opv.com.vn), which has now grown to about 700 employees!! You can read about the history of this fascinating company at http://www.opv.com.vn/eng/index.php?page=about_5. And Mr. Ha serves as an advisor to many companies, including OVP, as well as managing private investments. It was so interesting to hear their perspective on their time in Vietnam and the U.S., and their views of Vietnam’s potential in the future. It was inspiring to hear of a family that in many ways started three times (Vietnam, then the U.S., then back to Vietnam), and have done so well, so consistently. And it was impressive to hear about three sisters who’ve worked closely and productively together for fifty years!!

Saigon 270 After our dinner with the Ha extended family, the rest of our stay in Saigon was destined to be a bit of a letdown. We did go out to the Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour and fifteen minute drive from downtown. The drive is far from memorable, but it’s fascinating to see how the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese rebels who fought against U.S./South Vietnam side) were so effective. There is a vast system of Saigon 288 underground tunnels, not one of which big enough for me to navigate. Our nine and eleven year old could make it through, with difficulty, and Elizabeth barely survived her experience. And the Viet Cong would spend all daylight hours in these tunnels, for month after month.

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Saigon 272

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The engineering behind these tunnels was ingenious. They had work spaces near the surface, and areas to retreat to further below. They had longer tunnels that led to the river for access to boats and supplies. They did their best to cover every entry point to avoid detection. They were booby-trapped throughout with nasty spring traps (see video at http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/440303/619697#imageID=28699927), almost all made from the residual of U.S. weaponry (for instance, the metal from a shell was turned into barbs in a spring trap). The entry points were disguised (see video http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/440303/619697#imageID=28699927), and even the chimneys were structured so that the emitted smoke was dampened and clung to the ground. As we walked through the surroundings, I could only imagine how unnerving it must have been for the U.S. soldiers responsible for patrolling the area and searching for the enemy.

Saigon 314 During our stay in Saigon, we also went to the War Remnant Museum, which was a very emotional experience. The displays were much less propaganda-ized than I expected. And many of the visitors were in tears as they walked through the museum. One interesting statistics (I haven’t verified it) is that the U.S. dropped about 2x the number of tons of explosive in Vietnam as it did in WWII and the Korean War combined.

Saigon 256 We did a few other sight-seeing things in Saigon (a visit to the Post Office and the Cathedral of Notre Dame). And we met with representatives of C.A.R.E. who were helping support a volunteer group focused on AIDS education and prevention. They were very dedicated, and helping considerably in the battle against AIDS. And, like everywhere we have gone on the trip, we were shocked at how kind and thoughtful people are. At the end of our visit to this non-profit (which is working miracles on no budget whatsoever), they gave us a very nice present for visiting!

My take on Saigon is that it’s a very energetic, up-and-coming city. For Americans, particularly those with any interest in the Vietnam War and its aftermath, it’s worth visiting Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. If you have little interest in the Vietnam War or the economic future of Vietnam, though, you might not find the attractions of Saigon worth the trip there.

For our photo gallery on Saigon, go to

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/440303/619697#imageID=28699567

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