It is hard to believe how much Vietnam has changed in the last 50 years. Tay Ninh Province, where I served, is hardly recognizable. Located northwest of Saigon, the province borders Cambodia on the north, the west and much of the south. The province was a main terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Fifty years ago, the northern part of the province was uninhabited jungle and dangerous territory. That area is now developed with residences, shops, restaurants, and farms, as well as a national park. Tay Ninh City, a former backwater, has turned into a real city.
Saigon (even though it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, many locals still call it Saigon) has grown into a real metropolis, boasting a population of about 12 million people and 8 million motorbikes. While Hanoi has about 5 relatively tall buildings, Saigon has dozens and more are under construction or in the planning stage. Wages are rising and people are optimistic about the future. Although the government is still reluctant to allow political freedom and dwells on the past with anti-U.S. propaganda at historic sites, the people everywhere in the country are welcoming and friendly to Americans. The country is up and coming.
One of my trip objectives was to find some of the kids from the orphanage I had worked with in 1968-1969. It was run by the Cao Dai Church, a universalist religion headquartered in Tay Ninh City. When my wife, Kelly, and I arrived at our hotel in Tay Ninh, the interpreter I’d hired told us the orphanage had been closed by the Communists when they took over in 1975. However, she said her grandmother had worked in the orphanage and remembered me.
We met with grandma, Do Thi Cung, a delightful 78-year-old, on February 2. She remembered me because I’d brought umbrellas for the orphanage staff during one of my visits. She told us she had lost touch with the kids but she knew that some of them had ended up in America. After the orphanage closed, she continued working for the church in another capacity. Meeting with her was a real highlight of the trip.
The Cao Dai Great Divine Temple and Holy See were about the only things that remained as I remembered them. The ornate temple is one of the two attractions that bring tourists to Tay Ninh and it is well worth a visit. The church was established in 1925 and claims upwards of 5 million members around the world. The other attraction is Nui Ba Dinh, or Black Virgin Mountain, an extinct volcano that towers over the rather flat province. Fifty years ago, it was dangerous territory but now it has a gondola that takes visitors about halfway to the top. I remember directing artillery fire against parts of the mountain back in the day.
With our history of ugly conflict with the Communists, who ultimately prevailed, it felt a bit odd to be well received by almost everyone we met. I’m pleased we are able to get along now and I hope our two countries can strengthen our bonds, as each has strategic interests in doing so. But, one can’t help but wonder whether the resort to war those many years ago was really necessary.