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Jim Pringle: Of Viet Cong grand-daughters and lost colleagues

During a distinguished Reuters career James Pringle’s byline appeared over coverage from Buenos Aires, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Havana, Nairobi, Peking and Biafra. Now he writes a personal reminiscence for The Baron on a return to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

HO CHI MINH CITY and PHNOM PENH - Standing on the media platform watching the tiny, chocolate soldiers of the Vietnam's People's Army goose-stepping past, followed by the exquisite, black-uniformed grand-daughters of the Viet Cong in tight formation, I could look forwards to the leadership dais, and backwards to the onetime Reuter office at 15 Han Thuyen, pictured right, and my own 2nd floor flat, immediately behind us through the trees of the park that is also Saigon's lovers' lane.

Our office, selected, I think, by an earlier bureau chief, Nick Turner, was in the most strategic position of any media group, just 200 yards from the presidential palace, and in the other way in a direct line with the American embassy. That really served us well in the January 1968 Tet Offensive, the battle that was a psychological victory for the guerrillas over the Americans and a harbinger of the final end - though still some years away - of the Vietnam War.

Both the palace and the embassy were principal targets. At one stage, I actually heard the VC talking urgently in the street immediately outside. That was shortly after bullets flashed past the windows of the downstairs office, and I told the telex operator to “douse the lights”.

The disappointing news is that the whole of Han Thuyen, a beautiful terraced street, is to be demolished to make way for high rises. Vietnam is no different than anywhere else. 

The parade celebrated the 35th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon, and was the latest, and some say last, re-union of correspondents who covered Vietnam.

In Cambodia, earlier in the past ten days, we had the first and only reunion of correspondents - called the “Vietnam Old Hacks” - who covered Cambodia, usually, as in my case, the same people who were in Vietnam. 

We commemorated the 37 foreign and Cambodian journalists who were killed in Cambodia, and the 34 foreign and Vietnamese journalists killed in Vietnam.

Looking behind me, I could see the office door through which, in the “second wave” offensive in May 1968, Bruce Pigott, then 23, and Ron Laramy, 31, exited for the last time, to be killed an hour or so later in Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown, in the bitter street fighting there. Earlier, I had stood outside the office thinking about them, and how their careers, and lives, were so abruptly cut off.

I also thought about our fantastic Vietnamese staff, who came to work through the shooting and mortar fire to punch out, not only our copy, but that of a dozen American and British newspapers and magazines, and help us cover the war. These were Mr Bo, Mr Tho, Mr Bien, Mr Lan, Mr Dinh, Mr Anh, the lovely Miss Tuyet (“Snow”) and “Mde Cookie”, who fed the bureau chief, who lived above the office.

It was very sensible in Vietnam to always have someone close to a telex, be it the bureau chief or someone else, in from the field.

In Cambodia, where more correspondents died on the terrifying roads than were killed in Vietnam, I paused to remember Sok Ngoun, our reporter, interpreter and driver, who was bludgeoned to death by the Khmer Rouge after the fall of Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975.  

Peter Sharrock, once our man in Phnom Penh in the war, was to have been present, as an archaeological academic now at SOAS, to guide our group through the Khmer sculptures at the National Museum, but was prevented from coming by the volcanic cloud downhold on UK flights.

In our midst in Cambodia, there were two journalists who were portrayed in the movie The Killing Fields, Jon Swain and Al Rockoff, and there was also the “heavy smoker” Tim Page, still trying to find the remains of his photographer friends, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, who disappeared 40 years ago and who probably died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Because my wife, Milly, is Cambodian and we have a house in Phnom Penh, on the Old Hacks’ last night here we were able to give a reception, where a whole pig was consumed and also much of the hard stuff and, by Rockoff and Page, much of the soft stuff.

POSTSCRIPT Garden of Stone

The Chilang Garden was always a pleasant little haven in the heart of Dong Khoi, previously Tu Do, Saigon's main shopping street diagonally across the road from La Pagode, a relaxed coffee shop popular with hacks, with charming waitresses from Cholon.

Now, one third of the garden has been taken over by the 18 storey marble and glass Vincom Center, a shopping mall with outlets of Armani, Versace and Jimmy Choo.

It looks as if, before long, the whole garden will be needed as extra parking space, further depleting the amenity of Dong Khoi, which is also losing, of course, the Eden Building, with Givral's.

About the last thing that Ho Chi Minh City needs is another shopping mall.

Still, a lot of party honchos from way back have an interest in such franchises just as they once had first choice of houses (the former Reuter office was occupied for years by a high level NLF personage, whose daughter was gracious enough once to invite us in).

But I wonder if it was for Versace and Armani that the National Liberation Front sacrificed in the tunnels of Cu Chi, and many other battlegrounds.

Was the bottom line of it all a shopping mall? One doubts that this was meant to be case.

PHOTO: Milly Pringle ■