I had to rework some parts of the full package on the fall of Saigon since I first wrote it for The Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Oregon, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
I ran a somewhat similar version, including other thoughts, on another anniversary when I was in Laredo, Texas, and for the Korea Times in Seoul. Yet every time I try to put this together, there are so many flashbacks of sidebar stories I wish to include. But as the years pass, a compulsive guessing game continues to which I fear finding answers.
For instance: where, I still ask myself, is the beautiful woman who has come to symbolize for me the lost world of old Cambodia? Offering a fruit in her hands, sheathed in an emerald-green sarong, she moved with the sensuous grace of celestial dancers carved on the friezes of Angkor. She came one Buddhist holy day to a 15th century temple as late monsoon clouds darkened the sky. Our eyes met fleetingly through a curtain of incense perfumed by jasmine, and then she melted into the vivacious swirl of worshipers.
Where is the lovely girl, who wrenched herself up from a hospital floor in the refugee camp of Aranyaprathet decked with flies and feces to tell me her story? An American pilot had mistimed his bomb drop by a few seconds, so her right arm was now sheared off, the collar bone jutting out naked and already greenish with decay. Her little body trembling with pain, she looked at me and smiled: the fathomless stoic smile I think saved Cambodia from collective insanity — and melted my heart.
And what about Mark Basinger. He was just 17 months old when his father died. He has no memories of the man who left on a train in August 1966 and never came back. His mother remembers, though. And when she recalls Capt. Richard Louis Basinger, her tears flow.
Mark still watches old newscasts from Vietnam and thinks: “That’s where my Dad died.” And he wants to know more. He has pieced together a Web site that pays tribute to his Dad, his more than 350 helicopter combat missions, and his death on May 12, 1967 when his helicopter was hit by an enemy mortar round near a Marine outpost at Con Thien.
Capt. Basinger was 24 years old, 14 years younger than the son who so desperately wants to connect with him. Mark now wants to go to Vietnam. He will, he hopes, visit the spot where that helicopter crashed.
“I’m just trying to feel a part of him,” Mark says. But his mother tells him he need not go to Vietnam to do that. “Look in the mirror, son,” she says, “and you’ll know your father.”
And where, I wonder, is Helen Nguyen — the stunningly pretty mamasan at a Tu Do Street bar in Saigon. She didn’t have any time for me because I wouldn’t buy her the $25-a-shot Saigon tea. Our paths crossed again shortly before the fall of Saigon and she didn’t want to let me out of her sight. She brought a mattress and slept outside my hotel room door.
And remember Ha Thi Tran? I left Saigon three days after the Viet Cong gained total control of the city. Helen joined me and one member from India of the International Control Commission on Vietnam as we made it to Bangkok via Hanoi. Ha didn’t want to go to Hanoi and failed to show up in Bangkok a week later as planned. Neither did she make it to the sprawling refugee camps of Aranyaprathet on the Thai-Cambodia border. She was not on any of the refugee boats in the years to come and I continue to search for her today.
“I am not going to Hanoi because there is more hell in there than the rest of this ugly war put together,” she said. And I understood why Ha, being a South Vietnamese feared going to Hanoi.
By Joe Joshi
Senior Editor, Korea Times
On Monday, April 28, 1975, a late-afternoon thunderstorm rumbled outside the open balcony windows of Saigon’s Independence Palace as 71-year-old Tran Van Huong, lame and nearly blind, clutched the arm of an aide and stepped slowly away from the microphone. He had just given up the presidency of South Vietnam after only six days in office. Another aide scurried forward, removed the red-and-saffron seal from the rostrum and replaced it with another, the outline of an apricot blossom containing the Yin and Yang symbol, an Asian sign for the combining of opposites to make up the universe.
Only then did ex-General Duong Van “Big’’ Minh, chosen as president to make a last desperate plea for peace, begin speaking. He appealed, as expected, for an immediate ceasefire, unconditional negotiations and national reconciliation.
Later, as war correspondents stood on the palace steps to watch members of the new “peace government’’ drive away, a correspondent for the Hongkong Standard said: “Perhaps now we can have some hope in this catastrophe.’’
He was wrong. The Viet Cong’s answer came less than an hour after Gen. Minh’s speech when a series of explosions buffeted the city. Communist pilots flying captured American fighter planes were bombing Tan Son Nhut Airport, though no one knew then where the planes had come from or who were flying them.
The heavy flak guns at the palace balcony opened up and there was pandemonium as policemen and soldiers all over the city began blazing away at the sky. The firing lasted perhaps a half-hour and then sputtered out. Soon the nervous city began to move again, its people hurrying through the dusk to get home before the 8 p.m. curfew closed in.
We could not know it them, but the bombs falling on Tan Son Nhut signaled the last battle of the Vietnam War.
Before dawn Tuesday, when artillery, rocket and mortar fire began pounding the airport, government resistance quickly evaporated.
That day, under the guns of Marine helicopters from a naval task force offshore, the final evacuation of U.S. Embassy staff and other Americans began. In the rush to get out of a city going mad, many desperate would-be refugees were seen clinging to the landing gears of the “iron butterflies’’ and babies were thrust at departing Americans by mothers hoping to at least get one child to a carrier of the 7th Fleet.
But most Vietnamese began to lose hope of being evacuated when U.S. Marines and American civilians used pistol and rifle butts to smash the fingers of men, women and children trying to claw their way over the wall of the U.S. Embassy. Those who didn’t make it also saw that helicopters landing on ships of the 7th Fleet were quickly unloaded and heaved overboard to make room for the next one.
Refugees who used sampans to reach the U.S. carriers sets their boats on fire to keep them from falling into communist hands. It was getting dark now and the tranquil waters, as far as the eye could see, was covered with burning boats. It looked like a vision from hell.
Those who made it to the ships, and those who didn’t, wept.
At that point, my life changed… Something died in me. I was on the waterfront with an arm around Ha Thi Tran, my Vietnamese girlfriend. Amid the clatter of helicopter blades, she silently wiped away her tears and I was shaking.
I had seen many horrible things in Vietnam, but could always turn to Ha for comfort. She was a breath of fresh air, a pretty girl of 22 with a quick, natural smile that made others smile. And she loved to wear the ao dai (Vietnam’s traditional flowing tunic over trousers with slits up to the waist). Ha always was so focused on whatever she did and could analyze situations others could not even comprehend. She made me feel there was some hope in this crazy Asian war.
We returned to the Caraville Hotel and sat by the window of our third floor room. I opened a bottle of beer as Ha pleaded on the phone with the operator to get us a line to Washington, Hongkong, Bangkok, Singapore, Tokyo… anywhere.
Amid the chaos on the street below, we could see Vietnamese women offering money, gold or sexual favors for sponsorship promises and refugee documents, but nearly all the foreigners had left Saigon by then.
Ha and I stayed up most of the night talking about how our lives had taken us in different directions since we met in early 1969 under a hot, cloudless sky at My Khe beach near Danang. Most Americans remember it as the GI oasis called China Beach.
We also recalled our daily trips to Vietnam’s media centerpiece, the MACV (U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam) center in Saigon where Ha would translate the daily command briefing which put information (true and false) on the record during the 5 o’clock briefings.
There were several hundred reporters in Vietnam and competition was fierce. There also were would-be journalists, actors, teachers and some characters of dubious background with ambition and a taste of adventure. Many were frequently wounded. In the end, more than 70 were dead or missing.
Ha also was with me a few days earlier when 76 infants were killed in one of the first flights of Operation Babylift.. The C-54 Galaxy cargo plane was loaded with 300 infants, toddlers and caretakers when it plunged from the sky near Tan Son Nhut Airport.
Memories of that tragedy tore at our hearts as we talked about it that night, even though we were already numbed by the war’s horror.
Operation Babylift was authorized to evacuate 70,000 Vietnamese orphans, many fathered by American GIs. Some 2,000 children, with toddlers placed in cardboard boxes along the isles of the aircraft, made it to the U.S. before Saigon was lost to the communists.
Although Ha’s parents were not rich, they helped their only child acquire an education. Ha was studying business administration in Philadelphia.
We finally went to bed exhausted and dreamed of the country she had lost.
The day after that, Wednesday, April 30, Saigon surrendered. The gold-starred red-and-blue liberation flag fluttered over the palace.
After 30 blood-soaked years, the Vietnam War was over.
Filipinas forced into sex trade
By Joe Joshi
June 2, 2003
Dongducheon – Shirley, a young Filipina, stands in front of the bar where she works in vampish boots and a skirt so short it leaves little to the imagination.
“Work,” she says simply, a helpless smile spreading across her pretty face. “Work, that is why I came. In the Philippines there is no way to make money.”
Prostitution is an old trade but not an honored one, so Shirley prefers not to give her family name. At age 21, she has a plenty of company in this U.S. military base town where bars have names like The Dungeon, DMZ, Sunshine, Papaya, Blackjack, Platinum and Olympia and young women loiter at every corner on the strip.
More than 99 percent of the bar girls are foreign, most of them from the Philippines. Others come from Bulgaria, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. All of them cater to the sex tourism boom in this town close to the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea.
Lina, who is very popular among the soldiers who frequent the club where she dances, put Dongdecheon’s lure simply: “One-zero-zero-zero,” she said laughing, “instead of one-zero-zero” – indicating a chance to earn $1,000 a week instead of $100.
But the laughter can be short-lived, promised money illusionary and the human cost high. Scratch the surface in the bar area and a world of violence, xenophobia, disease and misery is revealed.
For the sex trade, the balance of supply and demand could scarcely be better. “The business of trafficking for sexual exploitation is booming,” said Lee Bong-chol, who manages a neighborhood convenience store. “It is an industry now worth several billion dollars a year.”
Some of the Filipinas come here without illusions, however reluctantly, that prostitution for a wealthier clientele is the only way to feed their families and fashion a future. Others come deluded, lured into thinking they will work as singers or barmaids, but are forced into unpayable debt and deprived of all freedom in the end.
Maria, a Filipina with so many curves, it made my head spin just looking at her, was waiting outside the nightclub for a soldier who had just paid a $200 bar fine for her. Maria told me she saw no alternative to her current work on the strip. Her parents are dead, killed in a car crash when she was 16 and still at school. She took a succession of odd jobs, but they were insufficient to support her 10-year-old sister. Hardship, dead ends, vague dreams of getting married and maybe finding happiness, brought her to this God-awful place.
She stops talking abruptly, saying she has to go, when the soldier comes out and puts his arm around her waist. Of the $200 bar fine, Maria will get about $33. The bar owner gets the rest.
Maria takes a wad of notes out of her bag and hands it to her bouncer who has a distant look, track suit, Adidas sneakers, gold chain and sleeves short enough to reveal the bulge of his muscles.
Lorna, 19, also from the Philippines, is standing outside a nearby strip club. Unlike Maria, she is in the second category of women, those deceived, trafficked and ultimately trapped. She came to South Korea believing she would marry a rich man. Her husband turned out to be a poor farmer.
Lorna says she was locked up 24 hours a day and escaped when she was allowed to see a doctor. She was recaptured by her broker and had her passport taken. She was then told she had been “sold” to the bar where she now works. She has no money, she says. Her gaze is vacant.
Some of the Filipinas at the clubs are undocumented workers, others have three-month tourist visas arranged by gangs that bring them under false promises. Their stories tend to resemble one another. The women may be teachers, farm laborers or unemployed, ages 18 to 30. Often they have one or two children to support. They receive false offers of temporary work and good earnings. Travel and visas are arranged for a large sum of money – the women’s debt to the gangs that organize their transportation and work. After arrival, passports and any money are taken and the women are deposited in small guarded apartments. Then they are told what their real job is to be.
The average rate in brothels is $200, but no more than a tenth of that reaches the women’s pocket. Their “owners” buy food and pay rent, and the debt becomes intractable. The women are terrorized because they are often unable to pay off the debts. And they are paralyzed, afraid to go to the police, terrified the gangs will do something bad to a member of their family back home if they try to escape.
The trade in women from the Philippines has spread throughout South Korea and is increasingly well organized. The gangs that dominate the business are slick, flexible and elusive. Everywhere, women are reluctant to testify because they are afraid.
If they are going to testify, these women need witness protection, often new passports and assurances they can remain in South Korea. But government authorities will not provide this. And the gang members are much more sophisticated than the police.
At age 21, Raquel graduated from college with a degree in business administration and left the home of her poor, widowed mother to come to South Korea and clean the houses of upper-class families.
For years she scrubbed the floors, washed dishes, hung laundry and baby-sat toddlers — all the while cowering as employers called her stupid and sexually harassed her. Now she is a nightclub dancer.
“Many times I had to leave my job because of the sexual harassment,” said Raquel who has no valid travel document or permission to work in South Korea. “I always had to eat after my employers did, on separate plates, as if I were a pet. In fact, I think pets have more privileges.”
She has no pension plan, no social security, no health insurance, working practically in slavery. That’s because South Korea remains in the dark ages when it comes to the treatment of foreign workers, particularly the undocumented ones. This is despite repeated efforts by activists to reform antiquated labor laws and President Roh Moo-hyun’s promises to improve conditions for all workers.
One young Filipina outside a bar who refused to give her name, has a tattoo of a rose on her upper arm and a ravaged look in her big brown eyes. She seemed a waif broken before she could live.
She sells her body voluntarily. At least this is “voluntary” work in the sense that it is the only work that she has been able to find that allows her to make what she called a “reasonable living.” She plans to stop working next year.
“I met an American GI here who is my stable boyfriend and he wants to marry me,” she explained. “He understands why I have to do this. If things work out, I plan to go and live with him in America.”