The Man from Saigon
In The Man from Saigon, Susan Gifford, a reporter at a women’s magazine based out of Chicago, is surprised when her editor hands her a plane ticket and gives her an assignment to report on the war in Vietnam. Arriving in early 1967, she is struck by the cocoon of Saigon, how people there go about life as normal, often in luxury, despite the war, and even with violence in the city. At times, she feels guilty about her ability to return to a relatively safe zone after being in the field with soldiers. (Much like Americans could leave Vietnam.)
Shortly after her arrival, a Vietnamese photographer, Son, approaches her and says they are partners as if it is a fait accompli. Despite warnings from some colleagues that he can’t be trusted, Susan sees only the benefits of having someone with her who can photograph and translate. Homeless, Son basically moves into her hotel room, turning her bathroom into a photography lab and sleeping on the floor, that is when he doesn’t disappear to see his mistress in Huế.
Meanwhile, Susan has fallen for Marc Davis, a television reporter with a wife in New York who has spent most of his married life in Vietnam and has seen so much he either is numbing himself with drugs or is compelled to go back into the field. Susan adopts his recklessness, and her editor cables her to take fewer risks. She choses a story that seems easy–traveling with a convoy to bring supplies to a refugee camp. But, the convoy is ambushed, and in the fighting Susan and Son get separated from the Americas. In the jungle, they are captured by three Vietcong soldiers who themselves have been separated from their unit.
As the three Vietcong soldiers force Susan and Son to march with them as they search for their unit, they encounter the devastation left by American forces in the form of abandoned and destroyed villages. Susan is confounded that the soldiers haven’t shot Son; usually, that is the typical procedure with “collaborators.” But Son has become withdrawn and uncommunicative.
Flashbacks show the stories that Susan covered and in so doing provide windows into different areas of the war such as riding in a helicopter that’s being shot at or serving as a nurse in a military hospital or a doctor in a civilian hospital.
Some sections are told from Marc’s perspective, and while his overarching focus is on using his connections to find Susan, his flashbacks reveal the duplicity of the military leadership and the horrific conditions of the refugee camps.
My favorite parts of the novel were the flashbacks which seemed well-researched and reflected the facts as I understand them from my own reading. I was amazed at how many different aspects of the war Leimbach was able to incorporate into the book, which is why having reporter protagonists was particularly useful.
Leimbach also humanized the Vietcong soldiers. When Susan first met them, she called them by nicknames (e.g., “Gap Tooth”) but as her captivity lengthened, she developed affection for them and thought of them as fully developed people. I did wonder a bit about the role of Stockholm Syndrome and if that played a role, but that wasn’t addressed in the novel.
In the promotional material, Susan and Son’s relationship was highlighted as the key to their strength throughout their captivity, but their interactions were my least favorite part of the novel. Son was such a cipher and never completely honest with Susan, and Susan didn’t seem to care. In fact, I was disturbed that Susan seemed to see herself so much in relation to Son and Marc instead of as an individual. I also wasn’t wild about the ending. Susan continually gave Son so much credit for what he did for her, but he really didn’t do that much while sacrificed quite a lot for him.
The Man from Saigon, though, is well-written and an accurate depiction of the Vietnam War, so I enjoyed it for that aspect if not the representation of Susan’s relationships.