Saigon is a city in Vietnam where major combat operations took place during the Vietnam War. Joel wrote the song as a tribute to many of his friends who had served in the war. In the song, Joel imagines what it must have been like deep in the combat-addled terrain.
This is a very unusual song for Joel, who stays away from political songs and never served in the military. He composed it after he was asked to write a song by a veterans' group. Since Joel had no firsthand experience with combat and no interest in espousing his views on the topic, he was reticent, but the group told him that they would tell him what to write.
Joel remembered a book called The Red Badge of Courage, whose author Stephen Crane based the story on the Civil War based on accounts with those who fought in it. Joel took a similar approach, and wrote the lyric based on his conversations with veterans.
In his 2014 appearance on a Howard Stern-hosted town hall, Joel explained:
"I wanted to do that for my friends who did go to 'Nam. A lot of them came back from being in country and really had a hard time getting over it, and still to this day I think a lot of them are having a hard time. They were never really welcomed back, and whether you agreed with the war or not, these guys really took it on the chin. They went over there and they served, and they never really got their due.
It was all about them depending on each other. When they were over there, they weren't thinking about mom, apple pie and the flag, they were doing it for each other - to try to help and save each other and protect each other. That really hit me."
At some concerts, Joel would bring Vietnam veterans on stage when he performed this. "It's like bringing them home and giving them a little bit of a welcome back," Joel said. "I like to do that for them."
Phil Ramone, who produced this song, said: "We never thought it would be a hit, but we knew it meant a lot to Billy Joel and to the people we lost in Vietnam. Then later, when he does it once in a while in a show, the place just comes apart. I think that happens a lot that we don't think something will be as powerful and it turns out that it does come out powerful." (courtesy: The Celebrity Cafe)
In the UK, this was released as a double-A-sided single along with "Leave A Tender Moment."