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Published: Monday, 7/9/2001

Kelly's Vietnam diary

KELLY'S VIETNAM DIARY

Friday, May 25 - Geoff, Bob, and I got up at dawn to run. Our route was around Hoan Kiem lake, which is in the heart of Hanoi. Legend has it that the gods gave the emperor Le Loi a magical sword which he used to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. After the war, a giant golden tortoise grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths of the lake.

I doubt a golden tortoise, or many other creatures, could live in Hoan Kiem lake today. It's the most frightfully polluted body of water I've ever seen.

As with Saigon and Hue, the park around the lake is filled with Vietnamese playing games and doing exercises. In one corner of the park there is a group massage going on, with people in two lines beating on each other's backs. In another, women are doing exercises to music from a boom box.

People in Hanoi seem more standoffish than in the south, but are not unfriendly. A Vietnamese jogger kind of adopted us, and navigated us through the crowds surrounding the park. There is a market near the lake, and who should we encounter there but Do Nguyen, who, as usual, was up before us. I wonder where he gets the energy.

In the morning, we met with Douglas “Pete” Peterson, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. An Air Force pilot who was a POW for nearly seven years, Mr. Peterson is a big fan of the Vietnamese. He has become friends with the two of three men who captured him, going to their homes for dinner.

“Vietnam is a country of enormous potential,” Peterson said. “They are a people who want to be friends with the United States.”

In the afternoon, we visited the Ford plant in Vietnam, which is located about halfway between Hanoi and Haiphong. Ford Vietnam has 258 employees, of whom 255 are Vietnamese, by far the highest proportion of locals employed by any of the 11 auto companies in Vietnam. Ford is the only American company, but it's holding its own against the Japanese and the Koreans.

“Vietnam is the only country in the world where Ford outsells Toyota,” said Deborah Aronson, the general manager of Ford Vietnam.

This is an assembly plant. No manufacturing is done here. Workers work 60-hour weeks, and make $100 to $150 a month. Almost all are college graduates who speak English. This is an awfully good job in a country in which there is chronic underemployment.

Last year was the first year Ford Vietnam turned a profit, selling 1,224 of 14,000 locally produced cars, up from just 345 cars in 1998. Ford had been selling just one model, a sedan called the Laser. But the day we were there, Ford rolled out the Ranger pickup truck.

The Ranger will sell for about 12 times the per capita income of Vietnam. Who, I wondered, would the customers be? Tony Nesbitt, an Australian, heads the marketing for Ford Vietnam. He said 60 percent of the target market is government/commercial, 40 percent private. Ford estimates there are 2.1 million Vietnamese who earn $15,000 a year or more. The target is the entrepeneur in Saigon. And although few individuals can afford to buy the pickup truck, Nesbitt thinks villagers could pool their resources and buy one for their village, so women wouldn't have to take things to and from the market on their bicycles.

A problem Ford and other automakers will run into is there aren't many roads in Vietnam, and with all the mountains and rice paddies, not many places to put new ones.

Saturday, May 26 - In the morning, most of us visited Hoa Lo, the prison our POWs called the “Hanoi Hilton.” Most of it has been destroyed to build an office complex. The government has set up the rest of it as a museum to the cruelty of the French colonialists. The only mention of American POWs is one small room, where the signs say the Americans were well treated, in accordance with the Geneva Convention, despite their “crimes against humanity.” This is, of course, hooey. They have a few propaganda photos tacked up. One of them shows the Americans attending Mass in a nearby cathedral the French built. In the photo, it is clear that the POW closest to the photographer is giving him the finger. The Vietnamese haven't picked up on all of our cultural nuances.

Some in the group visited the mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh's body is on display, except for the three months each year when it is sent back to Russia to be repickled. The lines to get in are a half mile long, four or five people deep.

The Vietnamese may be apolitical, but - up here, at least - they sure do revere Uncle Ho.

But then, he's portrayed as a kind of combination George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Santa Claus.

We flew to Da Nang in the afternoon. It's the fourth largest city in Vietnam, and on a per capita basis, the most wealthy. The wealth is generated by the seaport we built.

Cruise ships dock there frequently.

We're staying on China Beach, which is as beautiful as I remember it, at a Japanese resort, Furama, located about where the Marines came ashore.

Sunday, May 27 - Today was reserved for sightseeing, shopping and beach fun. We went to Hoi An, a tourist town which basically didn't exist before 1995. We toured a silk factory. The tour ended in a shop, where most of us bought custom-made clothes at ridiculously low prices. As Dodie Gaines said, we went from cocoon to credit card awfully fast.

Monday, May 28 - We came back to Ho Chi Minh City today, Memorial Day. Jim Taylor, Tom Saam, and Dan Foote had a surprise for us: the remains of two people they suspected were American MIAs. They, along with Toledo Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, turned them over to the U.S. consulate in a brief, moving ceremony. Jim Taylor teared up and Tom Treece cried. It was a fitting conclusion to a trip that has been an exorcise in healing for many of the Viet vets in the group. Welcome home, brothers!



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