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Santa Monica or Saigon? 

A tale of two brothers

Wednesday, Nov 22 2006
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More than three decades after the last American choppered out of Vietnam in defeat, the French-inspired three-hour lunch is alive and well in the town officially known as Ho Chi Minh City. (Only a handful of die-hard party cadres refer to this sprawling former capital of Indochine by its revolutionary title; all respect for Uncle Ho aside, it’s still Saigon.) People are clustered in groups at streetside coffee stands and upscale cafés all over the city, chatting and laughing through the hottest part of the day while watching their ca phe dripthrough tiny aluminum filters into glasses of sweetened condensed milk.

It’s noon on a steamy Friday in May, and District One’s Bambu Café is already filled with upper-middle-class office drones having the fixed lunch, priced at 19,000 dong ($1.20) and served by eager-to-please teenage waitresses on bamboo trays with delicate ceramic bowls of rice, fish or meat, sautéed vegetables, soup, fresh fruit and unlimited iced jasmine tea. One hard-working air conditioner struggles to combat the sun slanting through Venetian blinds onto the laptop screens of young professionals who have come to catch up on their e-mail and enjoy free wireless Internet — at least when the management remembers to activate it.

From my upstairs window seat I pick out Mike Do’s vintage Yamaha Virago emerging from the traffic maelstrom of Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, or Southern Uprising Street, named for the 1940 revolt that gave birth to that provocative red flag with the yellow star. Do (pronounced Doe) is clad entirely in loose-fitting black cotton, with chin-length curls, tanned skin and a look that make you think he’s Mexican, Polynesian, Thai maybe. But surely not Vietnamese, and probably not American either — that is until he opens his mouth, and you realize he’s both of those. His “Hey, what’s up, girl?” betrays a California childhood, but the respectfully downcast eyes and gentle tone are the stuff of an Asian upbringing. He’s composed, deferential. The kind of guy your parents would probably like you to bring home, unless of course they have something against long hair.

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Today, Mike’s got some good news. “Art House is about to become a reality!” he says excitedly, referring to his latest Vietnam experiment — a commercial, film and visual-effects house of his own. This success has involved a fair amount of sacrifice, coming after he ditched what most Angelenos would consider an enviable burgeoning career in motion graphics, traveled and worked with some of the top people in Southeast Asia, and endured a painful business failure that would have turned a lesser man bitter.

But Do is a confident, some might even say cocky, 33-year-old in one of the youngest nations in the world. (About two-thirds of the population were born after the war.) And in a city where the most popular motorbike models are Honda Dreams and Futures, there’s very little interest in harping on the past. Vietnam’s recent acceptance into the World Trade Organization and President Bush and Secretary of State Rice’s presence at last weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit here make it pretty clear that for the country’s 84 million people, the future is now.

Only a year and a half has passed since Vietnam fêted the 30th anniversary of the end of the conflict that claimed 58,000 American lives and as many as 3 million Vietnamese. The atmosphere at the April 2005 festivities was one of gloating, of the underdog still flaunting its against-all-odds victory over the world’s superpower. Authorities festooned streets with red flags and boastful banners, put on ostentatious parades and dug up stories of war widows and heroic veterans who had their propagandistic lingo down and were willing to regurgitate it for the Western media corps.

The government’s official version of its history holds that on April 30, 1975, Northern soldiers freed South Vietnam from a puppet regime run by “imperialist captors,” effectively bringing an end to what people here call the “American War.” Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) and a fair percentage of residents in the former South Vietnam prefer the version that depicts Communists overthrowing a quasi-democracy and setting in motion a mass exodus of boat people, mostly Southerners who had been getting by under their capitalist (albeit corrupt) system and wanted nothing of the Northerners’ form of revolutionary government.

Most of these Vietnamese-Americans and those left behind commemorate April 30 as a “National Day of Shame” rather than one of liberation. They have had a hard time putting the fall of Saigon behind them, as was uncomfortably demonstrated by the 1999 uproar over a shopkeeper’s display of the Communist flag in Orange County’s Little Saigon and the chaos involving the same symbol at Cal State Fullerton five years later. Just try walking down the street in the O.C. wearing a bright red T-shirt with a yellow star and see what happens, especially after Huynh Bich Lien comes home next month.

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