HO CHI MINH CITY — The small group who assembled at Manila Airport recently were waiting for flight PR 591, although the departures board had left blank PR 591's destination.
The green light was flashing for "immediate boarding," but it was 90 minutes later that the Philippine Airlines jet taxied onto the runway.
The destination was Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City.
So began an unusual 15 days of travel throughout Vietnam by nine Americans. We were among the vanguard of what the Soviet-supported Hanoi government hopes will become a sizable influx of American visitors.
Tourism Bridges Gap
For Vietnam--victorious over the United States in a war that ended 12 years ago--is in great need of the dollars that the American tourist would spend, and also hopes to use tourism as a bridge to the restoration of diplomatic relations.
The Vietnam tour-promotion brochure says its one- and two-week tours, escorted by English-speaking government guides, are "an opportunity to see a rare country, a rare people."
They are certainly that.
The government is learning about the desires of visitors as the tour season progresses, so there may be changes.
But for now, tourists with one-week visas see only South Vietnam. Visitors staying longer also travel to Hanoi and Haiphong in the north, and are permitted a comparison of the Sovietized north with the less-disciplined south.
Ho Chi Minh City still exudes a vitality that has reminders of the wartime American presence. For example, the roof garden restaurant and bar of the Rex Hotel has a posted sign: "Staff may decline to serve drunkards." That is not Asian subtlety but Yankee directness.
Vietnam veterans may remember that the Rex Hotel roof was an officer's club during the war. Today's plea for decorum is printed in three languages: Vietnamese, English and Russian.
Reminders of War
There is something for every adventuresome tourist in Vietnam. Besides sad reminders of war, the now unified nation is rich in cultural history, with its temples, pagodas and palaces.
And there are trips up the Perfume River from Hue and another on the famed Mekong River from My Tho and an all-afternoon cruise among the cathedral-like rock spires bursting from Ha Long Bay.
Roughly 100 Americans have visited Vietnam during this first year of organized tourism for Westerners. The majority, however, were Vietnamese-Americans being allowed to return to their homeland for the first time since the war for brief reunions with kinfolk.
Although classified as tourists and required to stay nights at the designated tourist hotel, those with whom we became acquainted were allowed to break away from the tour schedule to spend days with loved ones and friends and were even granted extensions of their visas.
Tourist officials indicated that they favor visas only for people of Vietnamese origin who left before war's end in April, 1975, and not the so-called "boat people" who fled the Communist regime afterward.
Rewarding Sights, Sounds
We deplaned at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhut Airport, now quiet after its frenetic pace during the peak of American involvement, with a few American fighter planes and helicopters rusting in revetments. The sights and sounds of Vietnam at peace were rewarding to all of us.
Our band of five women and four men were a varied lot. The majority were seasoned tourists who doted on experiencing "out-of-the-ordinary" travel, and on this trip they certainly got their money's worth.
Several were innocents abroad, "just curious about Vietnam." Surprisingly, we included no military veterans of that conflict.
Besides me--a former correspondent in Vietnam, Martha Arsenault of Largo, Fla., had been a longtime civilian in what, at the time, was Saigon. She'd been a nurse, escaping the day before the city fell to North Vietnamese forces, and was hoping for a reunion with a Vietnamese woman with whom she had worked.
Our group had widely different outlooks and at times there was tension, particularly some impatience when some of the travel arrangements proved rudimentary.
Dang Dinh Ky, the government director of tourism interviewed in Hanoi, urged American travel agents to make the Vietnam-bound groups as "compatible" as possible.
For example, he said, if an all-veteran group asked far enough ahead, it could be taken to old American bases for a look-see (except for the Soviet-occupied naval base at Cam Ranh Bay) and could tour combat-memory places such as Khe Sanh.
Temples, Museums, Sights
For a group with mixed interests, director Ky explained, it was better to stick to temples, museums and scenic sightseeing, with plenty of time for shopping in pungent markets and at government shops where dollars, rather than dong (the Vietnamese currency), are required for payment.