Memories of Saigon
Saturday 5 June 2010
I was interested in Jim Pringle's surmise that as bureau chief in Saigon 1962-64 I had probably made the inspired decision to move the Reuters' office to 15 Han Thuyen, from where it had a ringside view of the Tet offensive attack on the US embassy and, later, the North Vietnamese tank entry into the presidential palace in 1975. Steve Somerville has since set the record straight - it was not my decision, as I was no longer bureau chief. Coverage of the Vietnam war will long continue to be a topic of research, so even such apparently mundane details can be of interest.
When I arrived in Saigon in May 1962 and took over the bureau from Peter Smark, the Reuters office was a partitioned-off section of an old French villa on Hong Thap Tu (Red Cross) Street, one of two adjacent villas serving as the HQ of the national news agency Vietnam Press, just across the road from the presidential palace. Reuters had a contract with VNP and part of the deal was our occupancy of a small area of their premises. But in 1963 that arrangement had to end.
When the battle of Ap Bac occurred in January 1963, the first major military setback of the war for government forces, I reported things the presidential palace did not like. I had driven in Reuters’ Hillman Minx to the scene of the battle while it was taking place 30 miles south of Saigon, then driven back to Saigon late in the evening and filed, and then returned to the scene next morning and helped load dozens of Vietnamese army dead from the paddy fields onto armoured personnel carriers. It was the beginning of real tensions between the regime and the major news wires including Reuters.
A little later, in May 1963, the "Buddhist crisis" broke out, and my reporting – with invaluable input from my Vietnamese assistant Pham Xuan An whom we now know to have been the intelligence chief for the Viet Cong - was necessarily unfavourable to the regime. I was soon told VNP could no longer house the Reuters bureau. (I should make clear that Pham Xuan An at no stage ever tried to give Reuters’ coverage a pro-communist bias. He was just so incredibly well informed that we knew when we were being lied to by the Saigon government and the Americans.)
Having become unwelcome in VNP's premises, I searched and found quarters in Rue Catinat (Tu Do), the most central and fashionable street in Saigon. It was an ideal location, with room for the NY Times and others also to set up desks, and I moved my personal living quarters in as well, to be on hand 24/7.
I resigned from Reuters in September 1964 after being refused a request not only for additional staff as the war was getting bigger but also for an RTT communications link to make me competitive with AP and UPI. On my resignation becoming effective in December 1964, I became a Saigon-based free-lancer, and discovered only later that the office had been moved to Han Thuyen by my successors.
There's a funny personal footnote to all this. I continued to use the services of Reuters' wonderful office manager, Pham Ngoc Dinh, to handle immigration and travel matters for me, so I occasionally had reason to visit the office on Han Thuyen. In January 1968, on the eve of the Tet offensive, I had to leave Saigon and return home to NZ for health reasons. When I called in to pick up my passport from Dinh, he gave me a tipoff that Tet was not going to be peaceful. I knew he could only have got that information from Pham Xuan An, who by that time had moved to Time Magazine, but was also the principal planner of the offensive for the communists. But that is by the bye.
During my absence from Saigon I continued writing about Vietnam, and wished I had kept personal copies of my dispatches during my time with Reuters as a resource for research and memoir-writing. When I returned to Saigon some months later, I planned to seek possession if possible of the office file copies of my old dispatches. I wandered up to the Reuters office on Han Thuyen on the morning after my arrival in Saigon and saw Dinh standing on the sidewalk with a pile of cartons. "Hi Dinh", I said, "what's all this?". "Oh sir", he replied, "it's all your old dispatches. No room for them in the office, so we're sending them to the tip". How's that for serendipity? I grabbed those boxes of files, had them shipped out courtesy of RNZAF, and treasure them to this day. ■