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Jewish World Review July 27, 1999 /14 Av 5759

Chris Matthews

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Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win -- HO CHI MINH CITY -- It's Saturday, July 17, 1999. In a vast room I behold the human spectacle of a thousand young Vietnamese women at work. Silent and alert, they maintain an assembly line creating one ready-to-sell pair of Nike running shoes after another.

They are among 35,000 Vietnamese now drawing monthly salaries that match the annual income in the rest of the country. This explains both the discipline and the smiles as these women, dressed in identical blouses, head to lunch.

While not exactly Monica Lewinsky's cup of tea -- nor anywhere near her salary expectations -- these made-in-America jobs mean a regular cash flow to rural families where the only other field of opportunity is the rice field.

My tour of the vast Nike plant, located a half hour from downtown Ho Chi Minh City, was a strange but telling welcome to this country from which so many men of my generation never returned.

"Well, it's one, two, three, what are we fightin' for? I don't give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam."

Don't try remembering the war and the protest music. These women working six days a week for Nike, most of them in their late teens and 20s, couldn't if they had to. They were barely alive during those last horrible hours of evacuation in April 1975.

Speaking of which: Remember the American Embassy where people fought hand-to-hand to board those last helicopters? It's been torn down, replaced by the new U.S. consulate that officially opens next month. This far- humbler installation, which has a sister consulate in San Francisco, expects to service 350,000 visa applications a year.

That's right. The Vietnamese like us!

They especially like our currency. Visit the former presidential palace here in Saigon and you're instructed to forget the local currency and pay in dollars. When I ask the young tour guide what he thought of those South Vietnamese presidents living in such grand style, I expected a well-rehearsed, party-approved condemnation. Instead, I'm treated to a zesty declaration that it was a "good" thing that the top guy got to live so well.

Here was a kid clearly thinking of the future. Showing us the giant old radio equipment in the basement once used by the South Vietnamese president to run the war, our state-of-the-art guide joked it was built by "Bill Gates!"

The grown-ups here are even hipper to change. Twice in 24 hours I would hear the story of the three Cuban economists who asked their Vietnamese host what should be done about the gap between rich and poor in their country. "More direct investment!" came the blunt answer. "That will create more jobs."

Wandering through this steamy city, I noted still other signs of the times.

Remember the Hotel Rex, scene of the daily "5 o'clock follies," those off-the-wall press conferences where American military spokesmen would parade the daily "body counts?" From that rooftop today, you can see the downtown high-rises that've sprouted up since "the American war."

A block away is the Caravelle, the famed hang-out for war correspondents. Its rooftop bar is now called "Saigon Saigon," a defiant double declaration of the name most people still use for the city.

That evening I visited a somewhat seedier spot called "Apocalypse Now." One part of the club is packed with American expatriates, many of the them wearing the sad, lost faces of guys who miss what went on here back three decades ago. Across the room is a hotly lit billiard table dominated by young Vietnamese pool sharks and a dance floor crowded with their youthful, disco-centric compatriots.

At a counter near the door "Apocalype Now... Bar, Cafe" T-shirts are for sale, souvenirs of the surreal.

At Tan San Nhat Airport, a name that echoes from that deepest well of memory, I'm charged $10 U.S. to leave the country.

That's a lot less than it cost us the last time.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington Bureau, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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