The rooftop balcony of the Majestic Hotel commands sweeping views across the Saigon River where tiny sampans mix with giant cargo ships and ply their trade. Loaded with history and nostalgia, its bar is also a venue for the Old Hacks Reunion—a once-in-five-year affair when Vietnam War era combat reporters get together and trade tales from the past and down a few of their favourite ales.
Great survivors, like Peter Arnett, Jim Pringle and photographers Tim Page and Al Rockoff, were there this year. But their ranks, like their hairlines, are gray and thinning.
Thirty-five years after end of the Vietnam War, the journalists’ gathering here to celebrate their own separate anniversary seemed to pose the ultimate of ironies, reliving privileges they once practiced here, such as freedom of speech, that are still often denied native Vietnamese living on the streets below.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Still, there are no shortages of cheerleaders in Vietnam. Gushing praise for the leadership in Hanoi is sprinkled liberally across the pages of state-owned newspapers. To report anything else would risk accusations of unpatriotic behavior and even treason.
To minimise the risks of negative reporting, foreign correspondents have been barred from living in old Saigon since April 30, 1975—the day Russian-made tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace, signalling an end to South Vietnam.
Visits to Ho Chi Minh City by Hanoi-based journalists require special permission—letters to bureaucrats who can sit on a passport for weeks. Once obtained, costly government guides are appointed and the list of dos and don’ts ensures honest reporting is blunted by well-intentioned minders.
Interviews about the personal life and progeny of Ho Chi Minh, the nation’s father, are off limits. So is talk about the ethnic and social differences based on old borders that divided North and South Vietnam or along the earlier French colonial lines of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China.
Post-1975 re-education camps and the later eviction of ethnic Chinese that resulted in the deaths of untold thousands at sea are not popular conversation points. Meanwhile, social networking sites like Facebook are blocked and international TV news broadcasts are restricted to financial stations like CNBC. Al-Jazeera, BBC and CNN are unsighted and you can’t buy a magazine at the International terminal of Tan Son Nhut Airport.
‘Essentially this is still a communist government. They have a market economy, but underneath they’re still a socialist state,’ says Pringle, a former Reuters, Times of London and Newsweek correspondent from the rooftop of the Majestic.
The population of Ho Chi Minh City (as Hanoi insists on calling it) has tripled to about six million people since ‘liberation.’ Its infrastructure remains US built, but is getting old, and creaks.
Vietnam doesn’t warrant comparisons with Burma or North Korea, but like the belligerent Junta in Rangoon and the paranoid hermits of Pyongyang, dissent is deeply frowned upon. This was evident by a crackdown leading up to the 35th anniversary.