Unlike the hundreds of news correspondents who converged on South Vietnam when the American Marines first came ashore in the early 1960s, Lisette Vo immediately stood out from the pack. Her name and features were Vietnamese, but she was taller, which made her look more American and she spoke the language perfectly in an upper-class style that revealed her boarding school upbringing. This was a tribute to her Vietnamese father, who came to Washington as an executive with the French oil conglomerate Total and married Lisette’s mother, an American of French descent and daughter of an H Street lobbyist.
She arrived in Saigon in 1963, right after graduating from Georgetown University, and found her way to the NBS News bureau on the eleventh floor of the Caravelle Hotel. It took the bureau chief no more than five minutes to decide to hire her. He needed something to distinguish NBS—the North American Broadcast System—from the competition. Lisette Vo was perfect. He saw her as a rising star covering the Vietnam War, America’s first television war.
Since then, Lisette had earned a couple of Peabody awards and became a ratings hit back in the States. Against the advice of her parents, she used a big chunk of her first year’s salary to buy a new blue-and-cream-colored Citroën DS. Whenever she pulled up in front of Le P’tit, everyone noticed. “Lisette’s here,” was often heard throughout the bistrot.
She fell in with the routine of life as a war correspondent— morning coffee and a pastry at Givral’s, find a chopper to take her out on a mission so she had something to cover for the day, then get her film out of the country that afternoon. Whenever there was a lull in the fighting and she needed to feed the TV news maw, Lisette covered the daily press briefing conducted by the Joint United States Public Affairs Office, or JUSPAO.
In no time at all, the Saigon press corps jokingly nicknamed the briefings the Five O’clock Follies and the name stuck. Even the folks at JUSPAO used the term, shortening it to “the Follies.”
Over time, the Follies devolved into a cacophony of government briefers speaking in officialese while jaded American and other foreign correspondents and local Vietnamese journalists— including the communist press—shouted out questions and made snide comments. In addition to the official program, Army and Air Force PR types worked the room, pitching story ideas about their respective branches of service to any reporters who would listen. The mix included suspected undercover VC operatives, who watched from the sidelines, hoping to gather intelligence on troop movements.
The Follies were both work and a daily social event for journalists, military people, and civilian government employees. Everyone met their friends there and decided where to go drinking that night—the Rex Hotel’s rooftop bar, the veranda of the Hotel Continental, or Le P’tit Bistrot, a piano bar tucked into the first floor of the Caravelle Hotel, where Lisette could always counte on running into The Washington Legend’s Sam Esposito—the correspondent she’d met the day she arrived in Saigon.
Lisette and Sam had become nearly inseparable. Sam liked driving around with her in her Citroën with the windows open, watching her long black hair blow in the wind. Her hair had a slight wave to it that she inherited from her mother. Though she’d heard Sam’s corny pun a hundred times, Lisette laughed whenever Sam said, “Let’s make ice cream,” as he pressed the essuie glace button on the dashboard, making the wipers slap back and forth over the dusty windshield.
This time, as Sam and Lisette drove to a news conference at Tan Son Nhut, the car windows were rolled up tight. Today’s rumor mill said there were North Vietnamese sappers in the city riding on bicycles, pulling alongside foreigners’ cars, and then tossing hand grenades into the backseats.
While she drove, Sam reminded Lisette, “Ten years ago—hell, a year ago—you wouldn’t see half the correspondents in South Vietnam rushing to attend an embassy news conference. We’d be out on patrol with the Army. When we wanted to get to a battle, see things for ourselves, the chopper pilots were more than willing to take us. We could always hop on a Huey. We’d ride out with the troops and report what we saw with our own eyes. Remember, we didn’t learn about My Lai because some information weenie told us about it at the Follies!”
Sam never tired of reminding Lisette and anyone else within earshot how it was when Americans were running the war. Access was easier then. The Pentagon ordered every field commander to make sure correspondents had complete freedom to go wherever they pleased—including into firefights alongside the grunts. The brass wanted the press and the American public to see lots of pictures on TV and in the newspapers of Army helicopters taking U.S. servicemen to the fight. They wanted the public, and of course Congress, to see how quickly our choppers could move soldiers into and out of battle.
While Sam rambled on, Lisette noticed how empty the streets had become. Every shop’s security gates were down. A few were guarded by teenagers armed with antiquated rifles.
“Sam, look,” she said. “Where is everyone? This looks pretty ominous. Maybe they know something we don’t.” Where dozens of pedicab drivers normally hung out in front of the Continental palace Hotel, there were now none. The local police had rounded up all the pedicabs—or cyclos—and corralled them behind concertina wire at the old Brinks Hotel, the Visiting Officers Quarters for Americans that had been abandoned since 1973. The cops feared that the cyclo drivers, who were mostly destitute, would be easy prey for Northern infiltrators, who would turn them into saboteurs for a few piasters.
Farther up the road, they saw a teenager siphoning gasoline from a Renault taxi, whose wheels were gone and windscreen shattered. At a makeshift tire-patch stand, its owner sat on a plastic stool hoping a passing vehicle would have a blowout. He also sold gasoline, which he stored in one-liter glass bottles next to the open charcoal fire he used to vulcanize the tire patches.
Nearing the civilian side of Tan Son Nhut, traffic slowed to a walk. The roadway was packed with bikes, Hondas, a group of children carrying suitcases, and mothers with their daughters dressed in silk ao dai.
An elderly couple wearing peasant pajamas shuffled along in the middle of the roadway. On the shaded esplanade in front of the terminal a man, who looked to be in his eighties, was sleeping in a pushcart between cardboard suitcases and using a burlap sack as a pillow. A dozen nuns in gray and white habits were arguing with two Air Force sergeants at a table that had been set up in front of the terminal. Like everyone else, the nuns crowded the sergeants’ table, desperate to get on a refugee flight and flee South Vietnam—the sooner the better.
As Lisette inched forward, a Honda with a man and two toddlers sitting astride the gas tank sputtered past the Citroën. A young woman sat sidesaddle behind the man, her ao dai tunic blowing in the wind. She carried an open parasol to shade her face from the sun.
Sam gestured toward the overloaded motorbike. “Appearances still matter here. I bet she thinks if her complexion is too dark she’ll look like a Montagnard and they won’t let her on the plane.”
“Café au lait is not so popular in the U.S.,” Lisette quipped.
“Well, I hope she gets out, I hope they all do,” Sam remarked. “And I hope we’ll learn something that I can use for the next edition. The embassy has been stonewalling until now. Maybe something is going on. They wouldn’t call us all out here for nothing.”
“Sam, the word I got was that there had been a big meeting yesterday with Thieu, Martin, and someone sent out from the Pentagon. No matter what, I’ll get some footage. We'll make the evening news," Lisette cut the wheel right and then sharply left to avoid a motorbike that cut in front of her and went on, "Yeah, the evening news. I don't know if anyone still cares back in the States, but at least they’ll know there’s still a war going on here.”
Excerpted from "Escape from Saigon: A Novel" by Dick Pirozzolo and Michael Morris. Copyright © 2016 by Dick Pirozzolo and Michael Morris. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.