Copyright 2000 Orange County Register THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER April 23, 2000 Sunday MORNING EDITION SECTION: NEWS; Pg.
A01 LENGTH: 1574 words HEADLINE: THE FALL OF SAIGON; For village, peace is progress enough
BYLINE: PHIL GARLINGTON
The Orange County Register
DATELINE: TAM VU, Vietnam:
A lot of village names got changed after the communist victory in 1975. The new regime banished them if they smacked of decadence or imperialism. But during what folks around here call the American War, this village was Binh Phouc. John Depko says it took maybe half a minute for the teen-age grunts in his platoon to transliterate that name into something crude that summed up their feelings about being sent to the Mekong Delta in 1969.
Depko was one of the guys who fought here, was wounded here, received a medal for what he did here, and whose life was forever changed by what happened here. Now he's a senior investigator in the Orange County Public Defender's Office, fighting for the accused. Maybe you've read about him.
He's the guy whose dogged insistence on reopening old files eventually led to the release of DeWayne McKinney, imprisoned 20 years for a murder it's very unlikely he could have committed. In a way, McKinney is a free man because of what happened right around here on Feb. 6, 1969. Depko had come to Vietnam as an infantry lieutenant and platoon leader in the 9th Infantry Division. He was a staunch Nixon Republican from Orange County. He went home a hippie, a vegetarian and an advocate of nonviolence. But most of all he went home thoroughly disillusioned with his government - "all the lies. "
The operation Depko helped lead to try to save the bridge over the Cau Quan had not been well-planned. Two platoons tumbled out of the helicopters at dusk. Up near the DMZ, the Marines would have reconnoitered with fire, or by lobbying grenades into the tree line. But there were too many people out here in the fertile Mekong for that, women and children from the village
A new bridge had just been rebuilt, the former having been blown by the Viet Cong. The captain took one platoon across the bridge, and Depko's platoon had the other end. They just had time to hunker down behind some low dikes as night fell.
"I was lying on my back when green fireflies began dancing around my head," Depko says. Actually, tracers from an AK-47.
Then the tapping of machine guns and a blinding flash as a grenade exploded, peppering his legs with fragments and sending his rifle and gear spinning into the darkness. Despite being wounded from the grenade, Depko rushed around trying to get his soldiers to return fire. Nobody fired back. Within minutes, four troopers were dead and half the others wounded. Depko finally found a rifle and aimed a volley at the winking muzzle flashes in the jungle. It was useless. The Viet Cong demolished the bridge with charges, then ebbed away. For his valor in trying to rally his stunned command, Depko received the Bronze Star. Depko deserved the medal, but he was galled by the lie in the citation. The VC conducted a textbook guerrilla attack, pinning down the guards while soldiers blew the bridge. But in his citation, the military brass said
Depko's actions "had routed the enemy. "
"As I continued my tour, I saw ineffective and even disastrous military operations falsely portrayed as victories," he says. When he returned to the States, Depko joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and campaigned for peace candidate George McGovern for president. Depko says he's happy in Southern California and never wants to travel in a Third World country again. But he is curious about the village that was once Binh Phouc.
A DIFFERENT IMPRESSION
I'm here in the delta, and there's a breathless saturated heat. Everything grows in tropical luxuriance, including
coconuts, bananas and pineapples. It's heavily populated, with farmers wading around in the fields in conical yellow hats.
Standing on the bridge over the Cau Quan, I'm looking around at things Depko probably saw on any mind-numbing, energy-
sapping afternoon. Billowing white cumulus, all quadrants. Flooded blocks of rice paddies, lime green with new shoots, and
punctuated with strutting geese.
Gathered around the houses are concrete, temple-shaped tombs, set above the water table, like in New Orleans. Beneath me,
on the river, the crew of a wooden junk is unloading roof tiles that would do fine in Mission Viejo. The bridge is one of
hundreds in a flat countryside laced with rivers. The village has closed in around the bridge, built in 1994. The thatched
huts of Depko's day have given way to narrow brick-shaped stucco houses with steeply pitched roofs. Villagers still recline
in hammocks, but the mass-produced plastic patio chair has taken off. Tam Vu is seven or eight miles off the main drag,
Highway 1, and isn't in the guidebooks, so it doesn't get many foreign visitors.
Population? Maybe a couple of thousand. I went out to what the locals call the tank base. Evidently, American armor was
stationed here at some point in the war, and the one relic left is a rusting antenna mast. Beside it a painted poster
depicts Ho Chi Minh hoisting barbells. The former base is now a soccer field. As I wandered around, I was popular right
away. Local school kids in their uniforms, white shirts with red neckerchiefs, clumped around and practiced their English
word, "Hello. " We all had a hearty laugh. American visitors seem to amuse Vietnamese children. And that's probably
progress for the very quiet, very peaceful little village of Tam Vu, nee Binh Phouc, in the Mekong Delta.
April 27, 2000 Thursday MORNING EDITION SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A01 LENGTH: 1067 words HEADLINE: THE FALL OF SAIGON; 25 YEARS
LATER; Ho Chi Minh City has taken to modern life; Fifth in a series
BYLINE: PHIL GARLINGTON,
The Orange County Register DATELINE: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam BODY:
The Rex, the Caravelle, the Continental. The downtown grand hotels anchor the pulsating, glitzy nightlife of this
increasingly Westernized city. The streets teem with motorbikes carrying stylishly attired examples of what the Hong Kong
media call the "GenerAsian," thousands of very hip young Vietnamese cruising on their Honda Dreams, cell-phone toting and
e-savvy. For a long time after the collapse of Saigon in 1975, however, this lifestyle wasn't tolerated by the ruling
regime. Still, the government hasn't completely capitulated.
You still can't get a Big Mac here. I'm thinking about this while relaxing on a terrace to catch my breath and dry off
after walking around downtown. I'm gazing across the boulevard at the hordes of shoppers heading into a giant mall. It
looks pretty much like Little Saigon in Westminster. When Jan Moorhead, a Vietnam War Red Cross worker from Orange County,
returned here in 1995, she wondered if the country might be turning back toward the harsh Cold War communism of the three-
colored wall poster model depicting triumphant workers, fists upraised _ of Orwellian loudspeakers on the street corners
blaring propaganda. Didn't happen.
Of course, right this minute, because of the coming anniversary, the palings in front of government buildings are plastered
with posters depicting triumphant workers. But they come down next month. Moorhead used to work just a stone's throw from
the Rex. Now a state parole officer, and before that an officer with the Orange County probation department, she's a self-
described adrenaline junkie, imbued with the idealism of her generation, and wanting to do something for her country.
Moorhead eventually became the manager of the USO Club for servicemen here, in what is now an office building.
More than 100,000 young soldiers came through the USO annually during the height of the war. Most of them were still teen-
agers, and Moorhead and her staff fed them ice cream, burgers and encouragement. Once travel restrictions were eased,
Moorhead returned to look at a Vietnam at peace. "But my impression five years ago was that there was a lot of propaganda,
and that the government was cracking down again," she says. In late 1995 the government launched a particularly vitriolic
effort to control "social evils. " The drive was mainly against drugs and prostitution. But the bureaucrats also went after
"ideas from the West" which they felt were polluting Vietnam's cultural heritage. Things like karaoke and English-language
advertising. And rap music.
The campaign encouraged citizens to turn over their American video and music tapes. Many did, and the tapes were publicly
burned. In the end, it worked out pretty much like anyone would expect. Today, Top 40 tunes can be heard coming from every
restaurant and bar on Le Loi Boulevard. The politburo's principled line against karaoke has been a dismal flop, as anyone
strolling downtown will notice. Hip-hop is big. Coke and Pepsi have plenty of advertising. Now the government has a new
crusade, and one may be a little more realistic. Following the lead of China, the politburo has stepped up an attack on
another Western evil: plastic bags. Hard-line Beijing already has outlawed plastic bags in markets. Vietnam merely declared
a one-day, nationwide moratorium on Earth Day.
But shoppers are being encouraged to use traditional bamboo baskets to carry home purchases. Also, as part of an AIDS
awareness campaign, the government is sponsoring a national contest to name a new brand of condoms, even though Vietnam
already produces a couple of lines, "Yes" and "Hello. " And the English-language daily, The Viet Nam News, reads like a
"Saturday Night Live" parody of a government-controlled newspaper. The front page always emphasizes high level talks
between ministers that consistently produce an exchange of ideas and cooperation on relevant issues. Interested readers get
such news as, "Permanent member of the Politburo Standing Board of the Party Central Committee called on Vietnamese writers
to work for the sake of preserving the nation's identity and its cultural values. " But the newspaper is supported in part
by advertising from the multinationals. And some of the ad copy provokes a smile: "Mitsubishi Lancer: One Class Above. "
It's a city that would make Jan Morehead happy. And it's city that might make some of the soldiers she tended to as a Red