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We can learn from Vietnam

/ 05:21 AM August 01, 2011

After serving as the nation’s first commissioner of tourism under Presidents Ramon Magsaysay and Carlos P. Garcia, my father rejoined the Philippine Foreign Service when President Diosdado Macapagal appointed him ambassador to South Vietnam and Cambodia.

At that time, Vietnam was divided at the 17th Parallel with the North led by the legendary Communist figure Ho Chi Minh and the South by the CIA-backed Catholic mandarin Ngo Dinh Diem. The Philippines, following the lead of the United States, recognized the Diem government and Trinidad Legarda became one of our first envoys to the new nation.

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It was during my father’s tenure as ambassador that saw significant events taking place in the country that would eventually lead to the failure of US intervention in Vietnam.

In June 1963, a Buddhist monk Quang Duc would burn himself at a Saigon intersection near the US ambassador’s residence as a sign of anger and sacrifice against the oppressive Diem regime. Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, the sister-in-law of President Diem who was known as the Dragon Lady, would remark that “If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue, I would be glad to supply the gasoline and a match.” A few months later in November, South Vietnamese army commanders led by Generals Duong Van Minh, Tran Van Don and Le Van Kim carried out Operation Bravo Two overthrowing the Diem government with the full support and encouragement of US Embassy officials.

Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were captured and executed inside an armored personnel carrier in Cholon, the Chinese section of the city. Madame Nhu happened to be in the United States on a tour to round up support for Diem. Diem’s older brother, Catholic Archbishop Thuc, was in Rome. A younger brother, Can, was not so fortunate. He was arrested and shot by a firing squad.

Last week, some 50 years after my father left Saigon for a new assignment in Switzerland, I took the family on a visit to Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of the Father of a Reunified Vietnam. It is a nation that holds many memories for our family.

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While preparing for our trip, I came across a departure card issued by the Bureau of Immigration. The card indicated that there was no need for departing Philippine passport holders to fill out such as document. Guess what?! When I reached the immigration counter at Naia, I was told to fill out such a card and with a line behind me, one can imagine the inconvenience and delay caused by the bureaucratic snafu. When I complained to the immigration supervisor on duty, Edwin Bugtong, he was profuse in his apologies and explained that there was a mistake in the old card which, in the first place, should not have been distributed to the travel agencies.

Upon disembarkation at Tan Son Nhat International Airport—big surprise!—arriving passengers, whether foreign or domestic, were not required to fill out any kind of immigration or customs cards. We simply lined up at the immigration counters for processing, then picked up our luggage from the carousel and headed for the exit. However, there was one difference. Before exiting the terminal, our luggage had to go through an X-ray machine.

One observation about the Tan Son Nhat arrival area: There were so many immigration booths available that the long lines we sometimes encounter at Naia were almost nonexistent. Part of the problem is the way our arrival area is configured. Instead of a wide space that would allow a greater number of immigration lines, ours is small and constricted, resulting in lengthy queues.

Another surprise: When we left Ho Chi Minh City, there were no immigration cards that had to be filled up and no airport tax to pay! If Vietnam can do without immigration or customs cards for arriving or departing passengers, there must be something they know that we don’t. No wonder their visitor arrival figures are constantly on the rise with foreign tourism expected to increase by almost 20 percent this year. I have no doubts that in the next few years, Vietnam will overtake us in tourist arrivals if it hasn’t done so already. And this is a nation that only recently went through so much destruction and suffering as a result of two wars—one against the French, followed by another against the United States. By the way, Vietnam defeated both despite the technological superiority of its enemies. Literally, it was a fight between rubber sandals and combat boots.

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As in many countries in the region, Filipino professionals are all over the place. We stayed at the Hotel Equatorial, a five-star establishment in the Cholon District. The general manager, James Montenegro of Cebu, is a graduate of Hotel Operations in Les Roches-Hotel Management School in Switzerland. Married to Marian Javellana of Davao City, they have two girls and have been here almost four years following an assignment in Hotel Equatorial in Selangor, Malaysia. Many hotels in Manila are headed by expats while our very own are welcomed in hotels abroad.

Dennis Mendoza is a ranking executive of Tan Hiep Phat, the leading beverage manufacturer in Vietnam. Married to Marissa Ampil, the couple also has two daughters. Andy Belmonte, nephew of House Speaker Feliciano B. Belmonte Jr., is the assistant manager of Sheraton Saigon. And of course, the music is often provided by Filipino bands.

There are a number of tourist attractions worth visiting in Ho Chi Minh City but perhaps the most memorable would be the Cu Chi Tunnels that played such an important role in the Vietnam War. An underground system of tunnels almost 200 kilometers long with several levels, they contain medical facilities, training platforms and manufacturing sections for improvised explosive devices and booby traps. The tunnels represent the greatest symbols of the determination, the perseverance and the willingness to sacrifice of the Vietnamese people.

Fifty years ago, the streets of Saigon were filled with bicycles, cyclos and small French taxis. Today the bicycle and the cyclo have been replaced by motorbikes and Japanese and Korean taxis and mini-vans. Tomorrow their streets will be filled with sedans and SUVs and they will be exporting more rice to feed the Philippines and the rest of the world.

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TAGS: Buddhist monk Quang Duc, Bureau of Immigration, Ngo Dinh Diem, Ngo Dinh Nhu, Philippine Foreign Service, President Carlos P. Garcia, President Diosdado Macapagal, President Ramon Magsaysay
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