The city reborn

After more than 30 years, Paul Theroux returns to Saigon and finds it changed, but still scarred by

Saigon, revitalised, hectic, not beautiful but energetic, was a city driven by work and money and young people, a place of opportunities, big and bright and loud, yet strangely orderly and tidy. I had seen it before, under a bad moon; I could say it had been reborn. In travelling the entire length of the country, introducing myself as an American (because it was usual for Vietnamese to ask), no one ever said, "Look what you did to us."

But the older Vietnamese remembered everything. I was hoping to meet one, and I did. Walking in the city one day, I bumped into a grey-haired man who volunteered a hello.

"Where ya going?" he asked. He was Vietnam ese, but his accent was American. Stocky, bluff, coarse in an offhand way, he said he had a motorbike - did I want a ride anywhere? I said I wanted to find the bar where they sold "fresh beer".

I didn't say so, but because he looked about my age I wanted to hear his story. He took me to Trung Tam Bia Tuoi, a saloon in a barracks-like building in a fenced-in compound, where we drank beer and ate spring rolls until I could barely stand.

He wouldn't tell me his Vietnamese name. He said everyone knew him as Omar, a name he had bestowed on himself, "because in Doctor Zhivago, Omar Sharif has a wife and a girlfriend - and I do too".

"Did you fight in the war?" I asked.

"Yeah. For the Americans. I was a Marine. Ninth Infantry, in the Delta. Then they shipped me to Danang."

"I was in Danang after the pullout," I said. "Spooky place."

"Like I don't know that?" Omar said. "After Saigon fell I was arrested and put in prison. They grabbed me because I'd been a soldier with the US. They put me in a camp near the Cambodian border. It was shit. We worked all day and studied all night." Then he chanted, "Lenin-Marx-Ho-Chi-Minh, Lenin-Marx-Ho-Chi-Minh."

The next day, we visited the War Remnants Museum. The museum is a visual history of Vietnam's road to independence - a bloody road of corpses and landmines that occupied most of the 20th century and began with the war against the French. "Vietnam has the right to enjoy its freedom and independence," Ho Chi Minh had written, and he shouted this to cheering crowds in Ba Dinh Square in 1945. This defiance had the French oiling up their guillotine (also on display), but less than ten years later the French army was humiliated and destroyed at Dien Bien Phu. And then it was our turn.

This ghastly pictorial of torture, massacre, carpet bombing, herbicide, defoliant, terror, dioxin sprayed from planes, Vietcong soldiers pushed out of helicopters or dragged to their deaths, civilian killings, and tanker trucks of napalm driven by grinning American soldiers and lettered The Purple People Eater - this gallery of horrific condemning photographs, in ten rooms, was all the more shocking for being the work of mostly American or foreign photographers. Several rooms in the museum were devoted to protests against the Vietnam War, not just in the United States (the Kent State shootings were featured), but also in Britain, Holland, West Germany, Sweden and elsewhere.

"Propaganda," Omar said.

I pointed to a photograph and said, "That's me."

It wasn't me, but it could have been: the same wild hair and horn-rimmed glasses, the same winter-pale face, as I picketed the White House in the rain with a few hundred others. In early- and mid-Sixties America it was regarded as treasonous to be a war resister, but that period was chronicled in detail and gratefully remembered in the War Remnants Museum.

"Let's get a beer," Omar said. And at the beer joint he said, "You're funny, you know that?"

"Tell me why."

"All that time at the museum. I saw you writing in your notebook."

"So what?"

"You think people here are interested?" He laughed. "No one wants to hear about it." He drank some more, then stared into his empty glass as though he'd seen a spider at the bottom. "Maybe that's why I like you. It was terrible, man. Terrible."

Omar, like many others his age, had been consumed by the American war effort, and by the French, whom his father had served. And while he meditated on defeat and betrayal, the young were thinking about the future.

It was possible to see in the photographs that one of the aims of the American generals was to flatten Vietnam, to burn it to the ground in order to flush out the Vietcong - the fury, the revenge, the despair, the irrationality, the nihilism that possess the demoralised warrior when he sees there is no way out. And we failed.

The Vietnamese have had their own revenge in the expression of the most rampant, selfish, and opportunistic capitalism. Copyright infringement, Mickey Mouse piracy, fake Rolex watches, knock-off designer goods, bootleg books and CDs and DVDs of popular music and successful films - it was all available, as was the wholesale imitation and manufacture of virtually everything we've ever tried to make.

Some days later I had a meal at the Hotel Con tinental - the "Continental shelf", the veranda where I'd gotten drunk before Saigon fell, watching the smoke rise from the city's outskirts, had been enclosed and was now an Italian restaurant. The Vietnam I had seen in 1973 did not exist any more. And for most young people in the south, the war was not even a memory. One reason for this was that in all the years of war, from our first appearance as military advisers in 1961 until the fall of Saigon in 1975, we did not put up a single permanent structure. The French had left some graceful old churches, colonial schools, handsome villas and grand municipal buildings, but in 14 years and after the billions of dollars spent, the United States had not left behind one useful building. Apart from the landmines and bomb craters and amputees, it was as though we'd never been there.

© 2008, Paul Theroux

"Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" is published by Hamish Hamilton in the UK on 4 September 2008 (priced £20)