Miser got us rooms at the Five Oceans in Cholon and we went out to get reacquainted with the city. Saigon was still sordid and fabulous. Neither of us had eaten actual food since departing San Francisco so we indulged ourselves, feasting on lobster and salted crab at classy La Miral and then savoring small dishes of unimaginable flavors cooked in modest family restaurants with just a few tables in the yard, sampling morsels of eel grilled on stove carts in the street and unidentifiable meat smoldering on braziers yoked across the cooks’ shoulders on chogie poles and lowered to the curb. We strolled on, flirting with all the other food on offer: shrimp from the Saigon River, sparrows roasted in oil and butter, frogs’ legs, skewered snake, buffalo-penis soup, steamed mudfish, baked butterfish, shark. We finished at the open-air place near the Old Market that had cobra on the menu and bananas flambé for dessert. Both of us settled for espresso.
We walked again under the brilliant crimson blossoms of the flamboyante trees, moved through the flower market and avoided clusters of Vietnamese draft dodgers who idled on shady street corners hustling hot watches. At the PX, GIs and the odd American deserter scored reel-to-reel tape recorders and electric fans for locals to resell at inflated prices. Chinese drug dealers scooped coke off sidewalk tables with elongated pinkie nails, and Macanese hoodlums carted bricks of cash to their moneychangers. Outside the British embassy, turbaned Gurkhas guarded the gates while, close by, street urchins hawked one-liter bottles of gasoline. Whatever lit your fire, Saigon had it all.
Astrologers trading in futures, mama-sans extolling taxidermied civet cats and live bear cubs. Stick-thin men selling U.S. Army–issue rations and assault rifles, flak vests, toilet paper, jackets made from GI ponchos lined with speckled parachute silk. Whether it inflicted pleasure or pain, whatever you desired was yours. Hell, armored personnel carriers and helicopters if you had the cash, a howitzer for four hundred bucks, an M-16 rifle for forty, a woman for ten. Or a tooth yanked out curbside for a dime.
We ambled past clubs with live bands imitating famous rock groups, and Cholon gangsters taking their leisure in open-sided billiard halls. Near the Central Market, refugees squatted in giant sections of stockpiled sewer pipe. We stepped around night soil and lean-tos on the pavement. Lights burned in MACV SOG and in General Westmoreland’s old office on 137, rue Pasteur. The brass was working overtime.
In the morning we put on our work clothes—civvies—and reported to the Headquarters Support Activity, Saigon (HSAS), office. A dozen of us worked out of the rickety place, not much more than a bunch of desks. We were special agents loaned out to HSAS by our various investigative and counterintelligence agencies—ONI, OSI, CIC, CID. U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and us—U.S. Army, “El Cid.” GI slang for Criminal Investigation Division; “Sidney” behind our backs. The work didn’t make us popular with our fellows, who considered us barely better than snitches.
No investigators were commissioned officers, although we frequently went undercover with officers’ ranks. Our mandate was mainly to investigate crimes against U.S. personnel and property. Miser and I had been teamed up for a couple of tours, him an E-7 noncom, me a warrant officer, a rank halfway between the lowliest lieutenant and the highest-ranking sergeant. Early on we investigated the occasional homicide, but mostly we looked into the pilfering of supplies, scams like selling the U.S. military thousands of inedible eggs for thousands of American breakfasts, and the unexplained deaths of dozens of sentry dogs. As terrorist acts began to target U.S. personnel and dependents, the American head count rose steadily, along with our caseloads. We didn’t get much support. Our little outfit had to improvise even as we found ourselves investigating suicides, rapes, security violations, even espionage and treason.
Our boss, Major Jessup, gave us a perfunctory welcome-back and instructed us to trade our civvies for jungle fatigues and fly up to Pleiku to investigate a threat against a company commander who had called in artillery on his own position, earning him a medal for valor and a bounty on his head of eight hundred and seventy dollars. Not from the VC; from his own men, for shelling some of their buddies into hamburger. The brass hats loved their heroic young West Point star. Eighty-seven recent high-school graduates had pledged ten bucks apiece to see him dead.
“Local talent in Saigon would’ve done it for fifty,” Miser growled. “The kids could’ve saved their fucking pennies.”
“Never mind that, Sergeant,” Jessup snapped.
The U.S. Army wasn’t about to charge nineteen-year-old survivors of horrific combat with mutiny and solicitation of murder. The solution was obvious; Major Jessup strongly suggested we put it into effect the moment we got to Pleiku: “Get his ass out of there!”
“Yes, sir,” we answered.
The second case Jessup assigned us was out in the boonies and wasn’t going to be anywhere near as simple or quick.
A chunk of our work involved GIs’ attempts to smuggle dope home: cannabis and heroin, both extremely high grade and insanely cheap. The purest scag went for a dollar or two a dose, commonly sold roadside by kids. A buck would buy you the quintessential experience of the exotic East: a dozen pipes in an opium den. Fifty dollars got you six pounds of marijuana, though most everyone bought rolled joints, ten for fifty cents, or special cartons of Salems—ten bucks instead of the two you’d pay at the PX. The Salems were perfectly repacked by hand with opiated grass, and the carton artfully resealed so you couldn’t tell it had ever been opened.
All you had to do was step up to the perimeter wire anywhere holding a sprig of anything, and you’d be set upon by vendors of marijuana and heroin. Business indicators were all good. Mainlining GIs were on track to outnumber stateside addicts. Normally the South Vietnamese drug trade was off-limits, untouchable, none of our concern. Saigon was a smuggler’s wet dream, as Miser often pointed out. We couldn’t even arrest Vietnamese nationals who were stealing from American supply ships and American supply depots, much less the ones smuggling narcotics in and out of their own country. Besides, transporting and refining them was practically a South Vietnamese government enterprise. Which is why the second assignment came as a surprise.
The major said, “We need you to bust up a drug operation in one of the Highland provinces.” Miser and I exchanged glances, wondering if the major was serious. “Half the proceeds turn up like clockwork in the Hong Kong bank account of a Viet Cong front organization. Their cut’s way too big to be just a tax or a toll. Which means the VC are in partnership up there—in business with somebody.”
He paused to see if he’d gotten our attention. He had.
“Since the forties, the Communists have sold captured Lao opium to traffickers in Hanoi to help finance their arms purchases, and even bought quantities to sell. But actually growing dope . . . that’s new. They denounce the imperialist French for their government-sponsored drug dealing, but evidently the North Vietnamese need an infusion of U.S. dollars to buy supplies, so they’ve parked their ideology while they stock up ...