I was on the rooftop of the Huong Sen Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, looking for a bite to eat. It was only 6:00 a.m. but the breeze was already blowing hot and humid. The sun was disconcertingly bright.
My flight had landed at Tan Son Nhat airport at midnight but I wasn’t able to sleep a wink. I decided to get an early jump on the complementary breakfast. After procuring my cup of cà phê, I scanned the restaurant and spotted a group of journo types eating at a table.
I recognized two of them. One was Tim Page, war photographer extraordinaire. The other was Nick Ut, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his photo of 9-year-old girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, running from a napalm strike that hit Trảng Bàng village during the Vietnam War.
I knew Nick Ut from way back, but I had never met Tim Page. I introduced myself and Tim Page immediately launched into a qualitative breakdown of the weed in Vietnam vs. Cambodia.
“The weed in Vietnam is shit,” he told me, “and I don’t know why that is.”
“How does it compare to the weed back home?” I ask him.
“I’d give the weed here a rating of seven. I spent 168 days in Cambodia last year. That’s where the smoke is.”
“I tell people to fly straight into Phnom Penh,” he added, “I don’t even bother coming through Vietnam anymore.”
It is the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and Tim Page is here to attend the reunion of war junkies who covered it, or “old hacks” as they refer to themselves.
“The Vietnam War hacks have a certain camaraderie,” he says, “it’s a Band of Brothers-type syndrome that you won’t find from hacks who’ve covered Iraq and Afghanistan, or that horrible war in Bosnia.”
“What makes that so?” I asked.
“There was that decadent colonial ambience about the place,” commented Carl Robinson.
Robinson arrived in Vietnam in 1964 as an aid worker for USAID. He quit in 1968 and immediately joined the Associated Press. He stayed until the evacuation of Saigon in 1975.
He now runs the Google group “Vietnam Old Hacks,” for correspondents who covered that war. He is also the chief organizer of the Old Hacks 40th anniversary reunion in Vietnam.
“The French really created and urbanized this country,” Robinson said. “Saigon was a French city. There was atmosphere about the place. Food, good cuisine, best French restaurants I’ve ever had were in the old Saigon. Vietnam is a beautiful country. I think we all developed a true affection for this place.”
“Vietnam was unique,” Page says. “If you’re going to have a war, this was a great place to have it. It was dangerous as hell. You could be caught in an ambush one hour, and the next you’re back in the relative safety of Saigon drinking a cold beer. Smoking some great opium. Eating good food. There were, are, beautiful women.”
Page fully embraces the patina of drug fueled excess that surrounds him. The 1960’s were, after all, a paradoxical time, exhibiting a yin yang dichotomy. There was the bad acid trip hallucination that was the Vietnam War, contrasted with the free love psychedelia of Woodstock.
Tim Page submerged himself into both worlds. He arrived in Saigon in 1965 at the age of 20, working as a photographer for UPI. After the war, Page freelanced for Rolling Stone Magazine.
“Woodstock was a blur,” he tells me. “I was on six tabs of Sandoz acid, and recovering from war wounds. I had a hole in my head, part of my skull was missing. I was on crutches. I was in bad shape and left after three songs.”
In 1967, Page was arrested at the infamous New Haven Connecticut Doors concert, and was thrown into the same jail cell with Jim Morrison.
“By the time we got to the jail,” Page recalls, “we were stoned out of our fucking minds. It was unreal. It was straight out of a movie. I’m sitting in jail with my girlfriend, some drunks and Jim Morrison. After his attorneys took him out of there, I never saw Jim again.”
His drug fueled antics, immortalized in Michael Herr’s Dispatches, became an inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s role of a gonzo photographer in the movie Apocalypse Now.
New Zealand born war correspondent Peter Arnett, arrives and joins us at the breakfast table.
Peter Arnett was in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975 covering the war for the Associated Press. He won the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting in 1966. He went on to report from conflict zones including the Gulf War and the Iraq War for CNN and NBC. Arnett recently published the book Saigon Has Fallen, about his experiences during the Vietnam War.
His longevity in the field of war journalism is an uncanny thing. About Peter Arnett, David Halberstam once stated ”What’s interesting is, at a certain point, your nerves go. My nerves got shaky after a certain number of years. I was tired of being scared. Peter has an extra gene.”
“Good morning everyone,” Peter says, pulling up a chair.
“Good morning mate,” Page replies.
“How did you sleep, Peter?” asks Carl Robinson.
“Like a log,” Arnett replies, “The room is very comfortable. Thank you for setting this all up Carl.”
“Thank the Vietnamese government,” said Robinson.
Robinson is referring to the fact that the Foreign Press Week “Old Hacks” reunion has been sponsored by the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.
“It’s a bit incongruous,” Carl Robinson said, “to come back now and be thanked for helping them win the war. We weren’t out to help them win the war, we were just telling the truth as we saw it. It was a non censored war and we could send out any picture that we wanted to. There were very few constraints.”
“I want to remind everyone,” Robinson added, “the bus to Cholon leaves from the front of the hotel at 7:40. I’ll see you all downstairs.”
After breakfast, we board the bus taking us to the War Veterans Association of Ho Chi Minh City.
“Did you and Tim Page work together in Vietnam?” I ask Peter.
“Tim took the photos for my Pulitzer Prize winning story,” he said. “It was published on the front page of the New York Times.”
“Did you guys hang out during the war?”
“There would be banging on my door at three in the morning, and a loud voice demanding: ‘Darvon Peter, give me some Darvon.’ It was Tim Page. He’d be withdrawing from opium.”
“Did this happen a lot?” I asked.
“It would happen on occasion.”
“We didn’t hang out much,” Peter continued, “basically because he was a freelance photographer and I was writing for a wire service. The freelancers, like Sean Flynn, Dana Stone and John Steinbeck Jr., lived together in a house in Saigon. They had the luxury of being able to go out into the war zone for a few days, take photos, then come back to Saigon and party. Those of us writing for the wires had a different lifestyle. We had to keep our wits about us. We had complex stories to file on a daily basis, so we couldn’t get too far out.”
Carl Robinson joins us at the back of the bus.
“We’re in Cholon now,” he tells us. “You can see by the store signs, they’re all in Chinese.”
Cholon is the Chinese section of Ho Chi Minh City, located on the west bank of the Saigon River.
“Cholon was once its own city,” Robinson explains, “but in the ’30’s it merged with Saigon. This is the area where Eddie took the picture of General Loan executing the Vietcong.”
The photograph in question was shot by AP photographer Eddie Adams on February 1, 1968 and shows police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Vietcong prisoner Nguyen Van Lem with a pistol shot to the head. The picture garnered Adams a Pulitzer Prize and became one of the most memorable photos of the war, along side Malcolm Browne’s “Burning Monk” and Nick Ut’s “Napalm Girl.” But Adams came to regret the notoriety of the shot.
“It haunted him for the rest of his life,” said Robinson.
“The general killed the Viet Cong,” Adams has said, “I killed the general with my camera.”
The photo was co-opted by the anti-war movement, underscoring perceived cruelties perpetrated by the American war effort and its South Vietnamese ally.
“What you hear is that General Loan was justified,” Peter Arnett said, “because this prisoner murdered an entire family in cold blood. But Loan didn’t know that. His soldiers found some guy from a neighborhood where people had been killed, marched him up and said this is the guy that did it and Loan shot him. It wasn’t as if there was a trial or any kind of investigation.”
When our bus arrives at the meeting hall, we are greeted by the local Vietnamese press. Assembled at a long table are a dozen Vietnamese officers (ret) dressed in full regalia adorned with medals. They had served during the American War, as the Vietnamese refer to the period from 1962-1975. The veterans run through numerous domestic and foreign policy issues, after which, the press are invited to introduce themselves.
Tim Page asks the veterans if they could assist in the search for his missing colleagues.
“I know now,” Page said, “that there is no hope of finding my brothers Dana Stone and Sean Flynn alive. But if you could help us locate their remains, we can find closure, and put their spirits to rest.”
“They were last seen,” he added “on April 6, 1970, leaving Phnom Penh on Highway 1 towards a Vietcong checkpoint.”
There was some discussion amongst the officers, then the General spoke: “We are very sorry for the loss of your colleagues. We have made every attempt to find the missing and to date have identified and returned the remains of over 700 Americans killed in Southeast Asia. You must remember that Vietnam lost over a million lives during the war, and there are thousands still missing. But we shall make every effort to work with you in your search.”
After the meeting we are taken for a tour of the Palace.
It’s past noon and the sun is beating down with a certain viciousness. The humidity is overbearing. There are grumblings from the group.
“I need a beer,” Tim Page comments, “What do you think Peter?”
“That sounds about right” Arnett responds. “I sure could use a drink.”
Beer is the perfect antidote for tropical climes. There is no shame in imbibing.
After we jostle for position on the front steps of the Palace for a group photo, we’re taken to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch.
The waiters bring out servings of fried shrimp on sugar cain.
“The search for Sean and Dana inspired me to write Requiem,” Page explains while working at an ice cold bottle of Tiger Beer. “It has photos by photographers killed or missing in action from both sides of the conflict. Horst Faas and I edited the book.”
Horst Faas passed away in 2012.
“Host Faas hired me,” said Carl Robinson. “It was 1968 and I had just quit USAID, looking for a reason to stay in Saigon, and Horst staggered out of a restaurant bar owned by Mr. Ottavi.
He said ‘I know you from somewhere.’ I told him I met him four years earlier through David Halberstam, and I was looking for a job. He said ‘Sit down, we ought to talk,’ and at the end of the night he offered me a job with the AP.”
“What made Faas a great photographer?” I ask.
“He was German,” said Robinson.
“Known for precision,” I offered.
“Precision!” Robinson punctuated the word with a faux German accent.
“He was really almost a scary guy to work for,” Robinson said, “He was very intimidating. He could be really hard and thankfully I didn’t have to cop his abuse very much. He was a real task master. They were like mentors to everybody. Peter Arnett on the writing side, and Horst Faas on the photo side.”
“The camera literally saved Horst’s life,” Peter Arnett said. “He always carried this big metal camera case into the field, and people would laugh at the Kraut with the big bag. One day, he was under attack and a mortar round blew up near him and the shrapnel slid off the metal case into his thighs. He would’ve lost the crown jewels or died, if it weren’t t for that bag.”
“Which reminds me of Jurate Kazickas,” he continues. “She’s a tall, good looking woman, covering Khe San for Look Magazine in 1968. She was hit with shrapnel during a rocket attack. She was medivacked to a field hospital with about ten wounded soldiers. She’s laying on a stretcher unconscious, in her bloody fatigues, and the doctor is doing triage. Jurate had her hair pulled back, looking like a typical soldier, and as the doctor checks her for vital signs, he pans down to her lower extremities and, not knowing she’s a woman, says, ‘Oh, this poor bastard’s lost the crown jewels.”
We’re headed back to the hotel on Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard. You’d be hard pressed to find evidence of a communist victory today in Saigon. Capitalist establishments like the Apple Store, Starbucks, Polo Ralph Lauren and Carls Jr. line the streets. Saigon Hi-Tech Park is home to foreign firms like Samsung and Intel. Skyscrapers loom over the horizon and there’s gambling in large casino hotels like the lavish newly renovated Vegas style Rex Hotel.
Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, with a growth rate of 6.28 percent during the first half of 2015. With 4.2 million Vietnamese living overseas, and 30,000 foreign executives living in the country, the potential for continued investment is enormous. It is certainly an exciting time in Vietnam’s history, and I felt fortunate to be here with this extraordinary group of people.