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Jewel of Saigon

                              by Don Kirchner


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It was on another one of my trips to Saigon that I met her. Normally trips to Saigon were in and out, but every once in a while I could arrange to be there for an extra few hours or even a whole day.  Having gotten to know the director of the USO facility there, I could stay in their more “civilian” environment, or I could borrow the director’s official vehicle and cruise the city––a highly questionable choice at best, but one I made frequently.

Not much for the bar scene, I generally avoided that district but finally agreed one day to take my crew to see it. “No partying,” I told them...we’d just walk through the area and feel for the moment as if we were on a weekend pass. Each bar looked the same, one after another. Spotting one that hinted of a bit more class than the rest, we attempted an entry through a small group of scantily-clad bargirls standing at the door.

"Hey, Gee-eye. Wannee suckee?  Fuckee?"  Hands reached out for us like survivors of a sunken ship. A different time and it could have been kids or beggars on the streets of Milan or Morocco, reaching out for my father and his G.I. buddies with their cigarettes and chocolate bars.

Gingerly working my way through the heavily perfumed, groping bodies, I made it through unscathed to the interior of the darkened room. Up front, the bright light over the bar contrasted harshly the darkness around the cheap tables and plastic chairs. On a barstool by herself sat a woman dressed in clothes I could tell even through the darkness were unlike anything at the front door or out on the streets of Saigon. An emerald green, satin dress clung tightly to the curves of her body, reflecting in the light a size and shape I knew could not be entirely Vietnamese. A long slit up the side of the dress revealed a nicely shaped caramel leg all the way to her hip. I could almost see the fleshy curve of one buttock as she shifted on the stool. Long black hair flowed tantalizingly down the open back of her dress, accentuating an exquisitely-tapered back that beckoned me to touch it like new moss on the smooth surface of a well-worn river stone.

The way this one sat indifferent to what was going on at the front door intrigued me. Although I’d never been to Paris, she had that look I’d seen on canvas, captured in pastels by the brush of a painter sitting on the banks of the Seine. As I moved closer, I was amazed to see in her well-manicured, delicate hands a thick, American novel in which she appeared to be deeply engrossed. 

Approaching her from the left side I could see that not only was the book in English, but it was a current best-seller––no small undertaking for an educated American, let alone a Vietnamese bar girl. I stepped up to the seat next to her and cleared my throat to get her attention.

"Yes?" she peered up at me over small but elegant half-rim reading glasses. 

"Do you speak English?" I asked hesitantly.

"Why not?" she answered curtly, removing the glasses in an apparently well-practiced manner. “It helps with my reading.”

More than slightly taken aback, I stood dumfounded for a moment. There would be no "suckee-fuckee" dialog with this one, I could tell right away.  “May I sit here?" I asked.

"Your prerogative," she flatly brushed off my question as a thin strap of her satin dress slipped down over her shoulder. Taking in a long, deep breath as my mind raced to come up with an appropriate response, I sat down and ordered a beer. This was going to be most interesting, I could tell.

“So, Gee-eye,” she mimicked the other girls. “You wannee something from meeee?” She drew it out in mock tease.

“Just your company, if it’s available,” I replied.

“Could be,” she replied coyly. “But only if you buy me ‘Saigon Tea.’ They try to pass it off as ‘champagne,’ but it’s really only watered-down tea. If you sit with me, you’ll have to buy a bottle of it. Anything else is a different matter.”

“I don’t have time for anything else,” I said, “but I don’t mind buying a bottle if you’ll talk with me.”

“No problem,” she seemed relieved. “What would you like to talk about?”

“You,” I said. “Seems like you might have an interesting story.”

For the next two hours she had my undivided attention as she told me how she had grown up in Pleiku, high in the central mountains of Vietnam. Built and populated largely by French colonists who occupied the country until the mid-1950’s, Pleiku was one of the more picturesque and cultured cities in Vietnam. Her mother was part Vietnamese and part Chinese. Her father was French, and took her back to France with him just before the North Vietnamese ran them out. As a refined, half-French, Vietnamese/Chinese girl, she wouldn’t have survived long under their control.

Educated at one of the finer private schools in Paris until he died a few years later, she managed a two-year stint in an American university before being forced back by an expired visa to Vietnam to live with her mother’s relatives. Eventually making her way to Saigon, she quickly discovered there wasn't much work for a young and educated Vietnamese woman of French descent. The French weren't warmly remembered in those days, and she was much too refined for a menial position as a clerk or a housekeeper.

A woman of fine European lines and exquisite physical beauty, she stood out far too much for most Vietnamese women to handle. Turning to the only other profession that would make decent money added all the more to her challenges as a woman who made more money than a general in the Vietnamese Army. Scorn and contempt from the “common” people of Saigon kept her off the streets and in the darkened rooms and chambers of the bars and brothels.

Later the next week I managed to get a day off and hitched a ride on a shuttle flight to Saigon. It was early in the morning, but the girls were already at their posts in the doorway of the bar when I arrived. Working my way carefully through the throng of tiny hands with their brightly colored fingernails reaching for my arms, hair and crotch, I moved toward the bar while my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside. Sitting on her barstool with the book now nearly finished, she turned and looked at me as I approached.

“Hey, Gee-Eye, you wannee something from meee? “ she mocked the others again.

“Yes,” I smiled back at her as I sat down. “I wannee you eat chop-chop with me.”

“Chop-chop?” She replied. “You in wrong country, Gee-Eye. That Chinese.”

“Maybe, but it’s good enough for now. Would you like some breakfast?”

“Breakfast?? Now I know you’ve got the wrong country. Vietnamese don’t eat breakfast. Fish heads and rice are the staple or our diet, and it’s way too early for that.”

“Not yours, I’ll bet. Can you get away for a while?”

“Ooooh... You buy very much ‘Saigon Tea’ for that. I go see Mama-san first.”


The principle source of transportation in Saigon, other than foot or bicycle, was a contraption called a “cyclo.” A three-wheeled motorcycle with a seat for two in front of the driver, it was a thrill ride to be experienced. We climbed out of ours at the Grand Hotel after a twenty-minute ride that made Thaddeas Toad’s Wild Adventure pale by comparison. She had changed into a more traditional Vietnamese dress to blend in with the local scene, and together we enjoyed a Western breakfast she hadn’t had in years––with real champagne and orange juice. Later we strolled in the more affluent section of Saigon and in the civilian-operated USO, where we bought American trinkets to add to her collection of treasured items back in her room above the bar.

Arriving back at the bar around noon, she directed the cyclo driver around to the back, where she unlocked the door and invited me in. Upstairs we entered a room that could just as easily have been in Paris. The huge bed was covered with a lace bedspread and satin pillows––definitely imported. Outside the window the constant noise of traffic and people milling in the streets below seemed far away as she unbuttoned the dress she wore and stepped behind a beautiful French partition.

“Make yourself comfortable,” she called out from behind the divider as I heard a zipper open and a rustling of fabric I could tell was expensive. A few minutes later, she appeared in front of me in a tight satin dress that clung to her like a second layer of skin. Her hair was pulled up elegantly with two little curls dangling down on each side of her face. Kneeling down in front of me, she unlaced my boots as I gazed down at her exquisitely shaped body.

Removing my boots and socks, she moved up my body, undoing the belt and zipper of my flight-suit pants. A wave of anticipation swept uncontrollably over my body as I inhaled a scent of jasmine, incense and the scent of a light but potent French perfume. Pulling my shirt open and off my shoulders, she began to kiss the skin beneath my navel. Hesitating, she looked up at me softly then stood up and pulled me toward the bed.

We’d always been warned about being out of sight and beyond the protective arm of the military when in “civilian” sectors of Vietnam, but if this was to be my time to go I couldn’t have welcomed the event more. She was totally, completely present with me in that moment. There was no doubt in my mind she was thoroughly enjoying herself as she took me confidently and sublimely into another world where the war didn’t exist, and the noise in the streets below us diminished into nothing more than muffled noises.

Stroking and caressing me in ways I’d never felt before, she held me and loved me like an ancient temple goddess healing a fallen warrior. With each passing minute I felt my body energized and my sense of bliss heighten in ecstasy. She knew what she was doing, and I knew this was not her ordinary routine. I doubted even that the “meter” was running on this one. Even if it was, it would be worth any price.

For an hour or more we moved together and slid against each other and intertwined our arms and legs with each other, and felt each other in a vaster space of union and bliss. She was no longer Vietnamese or I an American, but rather we were one in spirit and heart as two human beings––a man and a woman connected through time, space and vastly different cultures to feel a common sense of purpose and joy in each other’s arms.

Lying together for a while afterward, we felt at peace and together with nothing else to do but bask in each other’s warmth. Finally she sat up and looked at the clock on the far wall.

“I have to go,” she said. I started to protest. “I really do. I have to work on occasion.” I looked at her quizzically. “These people can be very difficult at times,” she added ruefully.

“When can I see you again?” I implored.

“Most anytime. But we can’t always do this. For a price, yes––but in a different room, under different circumstances. This happens to be my room, and it’s normally off-limits to ‘customers’. ”

With that, she dressed quickly in another outfit and moved toward the door.

“Just go out the way we came in,” she said as she opened it. “And leave your money in your pocket. This one was for us.” With that, she quietly closed the door behind her and disappeared.

We spent several days together in the succeeding weeks, which turned into a regular thing for us over the months. She was the "Mama-san's" right-hand woman. The old Mama-san was no lightweight in the business, and was grooming her to take over at some point. The two of them worked well together, and after a few trips I was welcomed in the back rooms that were hers and the Mama-san's private quarters.  

My military base was isolated and dangerous to reach by jeep or truck, but by helicopter, to which I had unlimited access as a pilot, it was a short, half-hour flight over jungle-covered hills and rivers. I found myself often needing to go to Saigon to "transport personnel," or do "maintenance flights" in between combat missions.  Pulling maintenance duty or flying single-ship supply runs instead of rallying with the boys to fly off into gunfire and hollow “victories” enabled me to spend increasing time in Saigon, much to my crew’s delight.

We still saw our share of action, however. When not called out on combat missions there were always distress calls to answer, which more than a few times had us in the thick of someone else’s battle. On maintenance test flights we could count the red tracers streaking toward us in the blackness of night, and occasionally felt the thud of a round hitting the fuselage somewhere. Counting bullet holes in the rotor blades after some flights was a most disconcerting experience.

Once on an outing with her I mentioned that it would be a unique experience for some of the men back at my base to be able to enjoy the company of her “associates.” Before long, she had it all worked out––how many, who and under what circumstances. Calling in a few favors from a few trusted friends, I helped her create a night that could rival the best episode that ever came out of “MASH 4077.”

Landing a helicopter at the U.S. Army Hospital in Saigon just after the 10:00 curfew, I had arranged with the night ambulance crew to take me to the bar where she lived upstairs. A couple of captured North Vietnamese AK-47 rifles made a perfect trade for “services” from the crew. Backing up carefully to the rear door of the building, we were delighted to watch ten of the sexiest, most scantily-clad women we’d ever seen rush from the door to the back of the ambulance. Back at the landing pad, they backed the ambulance as close as possible to the helicopter, where my space-helmeted, armor-plated crew strapped the ladies into their seats as delicately as if they were nitroglycerin.

The night proved highly entertaining as half-naked women appeared in doorways then disappeared into others all night long. As the Officer-In-Charge that night, I was hard pressed to keep unwelcome eyes from seeing what could have turned into the most controversial courts-martial of the decade if any of the women were discovered. That proved especially true in the wee hours just before dawn of the next morning when the commanding officer and the operations officer both stood talking with me while two of the women bare-footed their way across the open walkway behind them, clad only in panties and bras.

My time in Vietnam drew to a close all too quickly. She knew it was coming, and made herself more and more scarce in the last months I was there. Finally she just wasn’t there anymore. She had “urgent family matters” to attend to back in Pleiku, according to a note she left for me. I was up for release from military service back in the states, but before I could even begin the hopelessly complex process of getting an “in-country” discharge, my time was up. A formal request from the Director of the USO offering me a civilian job fell into the hands of a “Major Burns”-type commanding officer, who couldn’t tolerate me or anything he saw as “unconventional.” The request was denied before I even learned of it.


The “freedom bird,” as we called the World Airways DC-8’s that brought American troops into and out of Vietnam, banked sharply to the east, high over the central mountains of Vietnam as my eyes strained to distinguish French-style architecture of a city far below that I thought might be Pleiku. I wondered if she was really down there, and what it would have been like had I stayed.

The seat I was in this time was definitely not “my prerogative.”



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Revised: June 29, 2012 .

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