I return to Vietnam 42 years on

Note:  This return to Vietnam was accomplished in March, 2010 with my friend Gil Ross. It had been 42 years since I had been there last. I published a book of photos from the previous years compared with the 2010 trip. If you want to see the photos, buy the book (cheap):

http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/1919031 

Prelude to Vietnam 2010

I departed for Vietnam, in June of 1968.  Our entire company went by troop carrier ship, a re-rigged old naval ship named the USS Barrett (re-named the Grin ‘n Barrett) for a three-week trip.  This beast held every one of 5000 troops and all their junk. Officers slept in the higher reaches two to a room, or singles for Major and above.

The rest of the unwashed were packed like sardines in the bowels of the ship. Bunks that consisted of one layer of canvass and a small pillow, each 12 inches clearance from the next one and 18 inches walkway between stands of bunks.  The mess hall looked like the one at Alcatraz.  Food resembled that dished up in “The Dirty Dozen” (“I think I stepped in something that looked like this once.”) Showers were salt water and cold.  At the end of the salting, you could pull another string and get something like 30 seconds of (cold) fresh water to rinse it off.

There was absolutely nothing to do and the boredom was excruciating.  Some guys read, some played endless cards; some slept interminably, others wandered around deck aimlessly. The weather was mostly placid but now and then a storm hit and the ship (without gyros) tossed like a cork, promoting a deck full of green guys crossing their toenails at the rail.  Three weeks is a long time for this.

Finally after what seemed like an eternity, we started seeing small islands for about a day, then we pulled into Subic Bay, The Philippines for fuel and supplies. Everyone on board got the afternoon off the ship to wander around the area, get something to eat and see the few sights. Dire threats awaited anyone that didn’t make the curtain call.

So off we went to see whatever we could in the brief time available.  Rowdy troops managed to find trouble quickly, a few ending up in the local brig. I found what looked like a good place to have a real meal and I was halfway through my steak when a fight started in the next room and the manager threw anyone and everyone who looked remotely American out. I didn’t get to finish my steak.

A couple of days later, we steamed into Quinyon Bay, surrounded by beautiful islands and dozens of sampans going about their daily routine of fishing.  I have some restored 8mm movies of it in my collection.  After we were off-loaded, we were to be transported by 2-ton troop carrier trucks from Quinyon to Ankhe, in about the middle of the central highlands, a three or four hour ride I think.  But after some consultation with the veterans, it was determined that we were all far to green to be trusted with anything resembling a firearm. So, we were issued empty M-16s for effect, and piled into trucks, about 30 guys per truck, with an armed vehicle between every two carrier vehicles. 30-cal machine-guns on each side of those things, and they absolutely were loaded.  So off we went to meet our destiny.

Ankhe 1968.

As I sit here I am wondering what remains of the base at Ankhe. That area was the headquarters of the 1st Air Cavalry (Airmobile) and there were literally hundreds of helicopters of all varieties parked in a huge area of portable steel gratings on the ground (The Golf Course). We resided at sand bag laden hooches near the 12th Field Hospital, a MASH looking affair.  The nearest Evac (evacuation) hospital was in Quinyon.

The Vietnamese nationals quickly learned that the American troops made more money in one week than any of them ever saw in a lifetime.  A cottage industry of selling anything not bolted down to the Americans sprang up instantly. Of course, since there was virtually no round-eyed females to be had unless you were an officer and had access to nurses (also officers). These were all guys in their early 20s with a fairly intense head of steam for sex, and willing to pay for whatever passed for it.

In the town of Ankhe, there sprang up what came to be known as the “sin city” area, down at the end of the “strip” (curios and trinkets for sale). It was a town square, each building of which was hastily fashioned into a liquor bar of the American variety. The California Bar, the St. Louis Bar and so on.  These joints were populated by what came to be “bar girls”, young Vietnamese females in their early 20s or frequently younger, willing to make more money the hard way than they or their families ever dreamed of. Chump change for the GIs. Prostitution became a growth industry.  And venereal disease followed closely. Figure the epidemiologic permutations.

Since this was a private enterprise that directly affected the troops, the Brass got tired of seeing them line up every morning for sick call complaining of drips. So they threatened to (and actually did at some point) make the town off limits. That accomplished a very strong inducement for American ingenuity to save the day. Sneaking off and on base became an endeavor the logistics of which rivaled Omaha Beach. Sneaking girls on base was an art form.  They would actually sneak them in hidden in empty milk trucks.  You’d see a line of fidgety GIs outside a hooch and some scrawny Viet girl inside with innards that must have been made of leather.

Finally the Brass got tired of busting the GIs and ordered the medics to go deal with the VD issue. So we went in and gave each girl a number. They became registered prostitutes. They had to have a number and a shot card to work. No tickee – no laundree.  And they all came to clinic once a week for an exam and most likely 2.4 million units of procaine penicillin in each of their scrawny butt cheeks.  That seemed to do the trick and how the medics became de facto pimps with no benefits. Probably also contributed to the inevitable penicillin resistant strain of gonorrhea.

And so it came to pass that my pal Big Al Daly (no I’s no E’s) decided at some point in our tenure to sample the wares. We were, after all, subject to the same forces of nature that guided the rest of the known universe.  What follows is an painfully accurate portrayal of how it worked.

We both entered and sat down at the bar. Poof….instantaneously a bar girl landed on each of our laps. Each hanging out the usual female accouterments one would expect for that occupation. Bartender in Pidgin English, “May I help you, sir?”  “Well, yes, my good man I will have a bourbon and water o the rocks.”  Bar girl, “I’ll have a tea”.

(Now, at this point you must understand what a “tea” is. Technically it’s a “Saigon Tea,” a tiny thimble full of probably real tea, since the girls can’t sit around all day drinking expensive booze.)

Now back to the story. My watered down bourbon arrives in the company of a thimble full of Saigon Tea, which the girl wolfs down in one gulp, quickly requesting another (at about two or three dollars a pop.  I am nursing my overpriced and under-ethanoled drink when it becomes apparent that some persuasion might be needed to develop my interest (in purchasing more drinks).

At this point many of those highly desirable female accouterments find themselves in much closer proximity to sensitive areas of my body, accompanied by whispered promises of fulfillment in its most primitive form. But first, some more drinks to get both of us in the mood.  Several rounds are put forth, each paid for on arrival.

Finally, I run out of money and the wallet is bare. The girl looks at the empty wallet, looks at me and promptly excuses herself for a bathroom break. She never returns. The barkeep then asks if there will be anything else?  I look over at Al shaking a similarly bare wallet.  No, I guess not.  We depart sadder and wiser and lighter in our cash reserves.

Day 1:  Hanoi

We are at the Softiel Hotel in Hanoi, but scratch the surface and it is really the Metropole, a hotel that has been around for over 100 years. A bastion of French hotelry. Five stars and very classy. Very old world. Probably a lot like the grand Hotel in Berlin. Bell boys in caps. You can’t turn around without someone in a uniform demanding to help you, then stick their hand out for a tip.

We repaired to the very well stocked bar on arrival and were greeted by a very cool and bluesy chanteuse singing with a three-piece band in the classic French style. Open the bar menu and there is a history of the place, replete with a photo of Joan Baez serenading cowering hotel guests in the METROPOLE Bunker during American bombing of Hanoi in the 60s.  One can probably assume Hanoi Jane passed through here a well.

The amenities are very, very nice and very pricy. Fifteen bucks for a drink. God knows what the food costs. So we resolved to find our way out on foot to seek whatever fortune we could find. We walked around the lake in the center of the city (where McCain was fished out dumping his plane) and found a very nice place with a few people that looked like us having dinner. A French and Swiss couple and another American couple.

The prices were ridiculously cheap. It was like two dollars for a drink, and we walked out of there after a full dinner, including appetizer, two drinks each for about $25.00 including a generous tip for great service. We also happened upon several very nice, clean hotels for fifty bucks a night.  So five stars is nice but it absolutely not worth the rip-off prices. If I had this to do again, I’d definitely make the arrangements myself.

We toured the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum but were not able to view the molding stiff as that portion of it was closed on weekends.  We then toured the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”, the prison camp where John McCain was interred for five years.  It reminded me of the Colditz Castle in Germany where downed British and American pilots were similarly interred. It was originally run by the French to detain and torture the Vietnamese (there is a functional guillotine on the premises). It was pressed into service specifically for American pilots shot down, actually quite a few.  The propaganda says the American pilots were treated much better than the French treated the Vietnamese, which is probably true but it definitely was not a pleasure resort. There is a photo of McCain visiting it in 2000.

The most fascinating part of today’s adventure was crossing the street on foot.  Any street. It was literally a death-defying act. The traffic in Hanoi defies all logic, and definitely defies any known traffic rules.  No one pays any attention at all to any roles of the road. They cruise right through red lights.  U-Turn and go against one-way traffic. Thousands of motor scooters and mo-pads all surging like red corpuscles in a frog’s webfoot under a microscope.

Crossing the street against an endless stream of traffic that never stops, never slows and behaves totally unpredictably is a fascinating experience. Like my similar experience in Palermo, here’s how it works.  The stream never slows and there are no breaks and it never ends. If you wait till there is a break to give you some time, you’ll be waiting this time next week.

You simply step off the curb and slowly start progressing across the street in a steady manner. The oncoming traffic simply adjusts for you as long as you are predictable and you don’t make any unexpected moves. The windward stream adjusts outward and the leeward stream goes around the other side. You become a traveling obstruction adjusted for.  Meanwhile, your eyes are closed any you’re hoping if there is a God and you’ve been living right because you’re definitely going to die here. Then you arrive on the other side and thank God for looking after you.

 

Day 2:  Rural Vietnam on two wheels.

Bikin’ boys with the locals.  Picked up our bikes for the day’s journey to nowhere in particular. Old 125 cc Yamahas, but that was fine because the speeds attainable was not much higher and 30 – 40 mph anyway.

Then set out to find our way through Hanoi traffic from the moving rather than ambulating end. I was a little apprehensive about this since we had little or no experience in this kind of traffic, but not to worry, apprehension turned to stark terror soon enough.

Getting out of town on a relatively quiet Saturday morning was relatively easy. There weren’t all that many cars and this lulled us onto a false sense of security. Once we hit the highway, or what passed for it (all two lane), we headed north towards Dien Bin Pho but would not actually get there and even if we had, all the historical artifacts had long since been claimed by the jungle.

We passed through beautiful mountains dotted with brilliant green rice paddies. The scenery was sensational. You’ll all be seeing this soon.

Then the dark clouds started to appear. One of the bikes snapped a clutch cable, which wasted some time fixing. Then another of the bikes blew an alternator and drained the battery. We found a scooter-bike shop and put in another battery, unsure whether it would charge as there was no ammeter. Now it’s getting to be about 4 p.m. and we’re well over 100 km from Hanoi.

We head toward Hanoi and the traffic starts freshening the closer we get. Ultimately we get onto a feeder road to Hanoi, a two lane road in terrible repair, parts of it dirt with lots of rocks.  It’s now 6 p.m. and it’s just about dark and we find out that w cannot read the topography of the road because it’s the same color as the sky. We’re dodging rocks.

Then we start dodging motor scooters, about half of which have lights. None of the bicycles have lights. Then we are dodging water buffalo. Then dodging dogs casually ambulating across the road. Then big trucks using the might-makes-right-of-way-axiom.  Then scooters going the wrong way.  And crossing the road in mid-stream traffic.  And pedestrians doing the same.  And it’s endless.  A steady stream of traffic breaking any and all rules.  Entire families of four sandwiched onto scooters.

Then Gil hits a mo-ped.  Two girls on a mo-ped with no lights try to cross cut traffic and appear right in front of Gil who tries to avoid them but fails, bringing them together.  No one is hurt and both are on their respective ways quickly.  But the warning is now arriving in real time.  It’s serious now, we are courting death.  If one of us goes down, the traffic behind can neither stop nor avoid.

I am now starting to get a terrible sense of foreboding that worst is to come when we actually enter the city. Then the second battery blows on our guide’s bike and it dies. We all pull over to the side to discuss the situation. It’s now 8 p.m. and we are 25 km from the hotel.  We have to traverse half the diameter of Hanoi, a city of 7.5 million people.  We’re too far out for a taxi and there is no place safe to put any of the bikes. Finally after some searching we find a family willing to lock up the broken bike overnight.

There is only one option, our guide ride my bike with me on the back and Gil follow closely so we set off again and sure enough it gets worse.

It becomes a cosmic maelstrom of every kind of vehicle fighting and manipulating to go forward with no semblance of order or rules.  Every man for himself in a steady stream of relentless traffic with a mind of its own.  Total insanity.  Everyone honking to give warning of no one knows exactly what. European style Roundabouts but with no rules other than survival of the first to arrive at an opening.

We made it back after I started making deals with God again not do die in ‘Nam (40 year later).  I think he’d heard it all years before.

I think we’re lucky be alive.


Day 3:  Hue

So we fly to Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam with a ton of history, nearly destroyed in the Battle of Hue in 1968, shortly before I arrived in country.  The few times I did pass through, I recall that the city was basically leveled. Especially the old Citadel, where most of the ancient history was to be found.  There is an enormous pile of bricks and stones in front of the Citadel that used to fly the South Vietnamese flag. It’s still there and now flies the big red star. It is in the process of being restored courtesy of UNESCO, so I’m told.

We arrive and the weather is noticeably hotter and more humid.  It will get worse the further south we go.  We pass customs, there’s a guy holding a card with our names and we are led to………….you guessed it……motorcycles!  They pack our bags in a truck, we hop on and head for the hotel. The traffic in Hue is not nearly as insane as Hanoi; same rules of the road (anarchy) but fewer vehicles.  We’re getting used to the drill now and everything goes smoothly.  Roads seem wider and traffic more predictable. A flag with a big red star is on every corner.  Our hotel is equally as nice as the Metropole but a lot cheaper. We had dinner in an outdoor setting, under trees, filet mignon, squid appetizer, drinks for under fifty bucks American for the entire meal.  The room is fit for kings.

The females do not wear the traditional female dresses (au dai) anymore here. Only the hotel employees and just for effect.  The Au Dai has silk pants, covered by a silk skirt ankle length slit to the waist on both sides.  Very classy and colorful. In the 60s, they all wore them everywhere.  Now they all wear fashionable Western garb.  Calvin Klein jeans.  Fashion hosiery and four inch heels.  And since there aren’t too many Lamborghinis around to drape these classy legs over the leather seat, a mo-ped or motorbike must suffice.

It’s quite a sight. Their boyfriend weaving through traffic, girlfriend on the back sitting sidesaddle, legs fashionably crossed with a short skirt. Dangling a high-heeled shoe on their toe.  Looking bored.  I got some great photos of some pretty nice gams in traffic. Best one however was a really beautiful girl riding her own scooter, short skirt, hosiery, four-inch heels, button-busting blouse. Steering and throttling with her left hand.  Texting with her right hand, all at the same time.

 

Day 4:  Bikin’ boyz do Danang

150 Klicks to Danang, the home of one of my units at Red Beach.  Passing through Phu Bai we passed a bunch of rusted, abandoned buildings on our right said to be Camp Eagle, home of the 82nd Airborne.  On the way we stopped for some water and a bite of lunch and were greeted by an elderly Vietnamese gentleman who took a great interest in us. As it turns out he was billed by his sons as either a former Viet Cong or an NVA regular, we weren’t sure which but we were reasonably sure he wore a green helmet and carried an AK-47 in the 60s. This was right down the road from Camp Tomahawk, on the top of a mountain, accessible mainly by helicopter in the 60s. Home of the 101st Airborne as I recall.

He was involved in the war effort in this area and had a well healed gunshot wound in his right bicep.  He fished out an American dog tag with the name of a trooper on it, and it was pretty clear how he obtained it. I’ll check the names on the Wall and see if it’s on there.  So we got our picture taken together, no hard feelings and we were on our way.

Crossing Hai Ban pass in which the entire Danang area opened up in a beautiful panorama.  Red beach to the right proceeding to China Beach, which was a three-day R & Ro center in the 60s for in-country combat troops and considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  Down the mountain we went, and into Red Beach.

I didn’t really think there was going to be any remnants of my unit or the large Marine battalion across the street.  The new order of Vietnamese would have no incentive to preserve any of that.  It was all wood and sandbags and was probably easy to obliterate. They were probably pretty interested in getting rid of anything remotely American.  And this was prime beachfront real estate.  Walking out of my hooch and looking right or left yielded a view of beach.

No way that works now.  All that land is now stuffed with condos, hotels, massage parlors and junk businesses. So it was all ripped up and is now basically the Viet equivalent of strip malls all up the entire of red Beach, complete with a four lane highway running the entire length of the beach, 100 yards away.  I did manage to find where I thought my unit might have been, by stretching my memory as to the perspective of the mountains to the left as I faced the ocean. There was no trace of anything American.  On to China Beach which now looks just like Daytona Beach or any other beach in Florida.  Hotels and entertainment businesses for the tourists everywhere.  Beach is still pretty though.

I remember Danang as basically a great big, smelly fishing village, not much else. Now it is a bustling metropolis, and a very modern one at that. It’s very clean, modern buildings, wide manicured roads. Very beautiful city I think. So no joy as to finding any remnants of the past.

On to Hoi An for what is said to be an intact fishing village that has resisted change through the centuries.  My guess is it’s a big flea market of junk tourist crap, but we’ll see.

Day 5:  The Boyz do the Ho Chi Minh Trail

In a car today for the rather long trip back up to Marble Mountain, left turn and over to a remnant of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply line that fed supplies to the Viet Cong and NVA in the South. The highway follows part of it fairly faithfully, and it was a long trip, probably 300 miles down to Pleiku City in the Central Highlands. Our driver was a North Viet Regular that drove trucks along the northern portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the 60s. We smiled and shook hands.

The original Ho Chi Minh Trail led from North Vietnam, through a river bank for a lot of the way (still there but not much water in it as China has cut off a lot of the water flowing south by building dams). There were perforators from Laos and Cambodia, especially round the Kon Tum, Pleiku area.

We passed the site of the airfield at Dak To, which had been torn down and all the asphalt removed. The runway area is still there and is flat as an ironing board for what appeared to be to be well over a wile or longer. NO buildings survived.

Dak To was the site of at least two major battles, one in 1967 involving the 173rd Airborne and North Vietnamese regulars, both committed and entrenched. Said to be one of the bloodiest and hard fought battles of the war. The 173rd are Airborne rangers and they don’t lose encounters. They were ultimately victorious but at a very high cost in human life.

Then came the second encounter in April of 1972, in which the Armed Forces Vietnam (ARVN) were entrusted to protect the airfield resources.  The NVA walked right over the ARVN, taking the field in five hours, vividly demonstrating the ARVN after all the years of training were incompetent and unable to hold positions. Kon Tum was also involved.  As I recall (stretching my memory), I think this was the final straw that convinced the politicians Vietnam was a lost cause and it was now a matter of getting out any way possible, honor notwithstanding.  There was no attempt to take Dak To back.

I have shots of the jungle in this area as I remember it, thick, tenacious and foreboding. There are also a couple of Russian tanks on display The Ho Chi Minh Trail was like the Mexican border, totally porous and impossible to control.  Any attempt to interdict simply resulted in work-arounds.  Ultimately napalm to spread the firestorm along a wider path, and Agent Orange to defoliate the area so the paths could be observed from the air. Neither was effective in anything other than spreading more human suffering.

Gil asked me if I had any personal trauma in coming back here. I recall Joe Lex remarking two days ago that he felt OK about it. He said, and I quote:  “It’s a different place now and I’m a different guy.”  I pretty much agree with that.  It really is a different place now and I am a different guy as well.  But to be honest I must admit to one quirk that has persisted, definitely noticed by Gil.

My hackles go up when I am approached by a young Viet female chirping in my ear she wants to be my new best friend, and that goes for kids equally.  She only wants to sell me something and the kids want a handout.  Back in the day they were both exceedingly dangerous and you learned quickly never to accommodate or turn your back on them, lest you find a bomb in your pack standing there like Leonard Smalls wondering which grenade is without a pin in Raising Arizona.  Who knows, Joe Lex might choose to expound on some of his quirks.

Tomorrow sniff around Pleiku to see if we can find any remnants of the 71st Evacuation hospital here.  I am beginning to think not.  All these structures were built of wood and wood is valuable and can be re-used and I’m pretty sure it was all torn down immediately and retreaded elsewhere.

Then off to Ankhe where I spent a year near the 12th Field Hospital at the base of Hong Kong Hill at Camp Radcliff, home of the First Air Cav. (“Death from above” in Apocalypse now).  I am hearing that the Viet Army has a base there now and we not be able to get into the area.  Depends on exactly where it is and we won’t find out till tomorrow.  My luck it’ll be like the Griswalds, arriving at Wally World after all that to find it closed.  But the village will still be there and presumably Sin City as well.  So we’ll see.

Day 6:  Ankhe in 2010

Off this morning by car again to Ankhe, with another guide that knows the area.  This particular guide was the guy that took Gen (ret) Hal Moore back to the I Drang Valley in 1994. (“We were soldiers once….” film of the same name starring Mel Gibson).  The area had been completely overgrown by jungle and could only be found using GPS.  He was accompanied by NVA General An who was directly in charge of the attack strategy at I Drang that resulted in one of the bloodiest encounters of the entire war (1965).  Moore was able to find the area where, both sides out of ammunition from days of fighting, continued to fight it out hand-to-hand using bayonets.  Age 72, Moore lit an incense stick and wept openly.

We reached Ankhe and predictably found a town that had grown exponentially since the 60s.  I recognized none of it.  The original Ankhe was a strip of hooches and huts on the left side of the road, rice paddies on the right that ran for about 300 yards, culminating in a quadrangle of stucco buildings fashioned into bars to serve the American troops (described in previous sagas).  The whole of Ankhe was Camp Radcliffe, home of the 1st Air Cavalry, the 173rd Airborne and a few minor league light infantry unit. Home of the “Golf Course,” a huge expanse of metal plate covering the ground to stabilize it for the 500 or so helicopters parked there. Hueys, Cobras, light observation helicopters (LOCHs), Sikorsky Sky Cranes, modified to carry troops, Chinocks.

My unit was attached to the 12th Field Hospital right under the base of Hong Kong Mountain to the North.  As previously understood, this entire area was now a huge Vietnamese Army camp, including the entire of the area below Hong Kong Mountain.  We could not get near it.  We were however able to survey the area from a big nearby hill, and I could see pretty much what was and wasn’t there through a 200 mm telephoto lens.  Naturally, everything remotely American had been torn down and disposed of.  There was no trace of anything I recognized, but I definitely recognized the area. We did see the remains of the Golf Course; all dug up again and essentially abandoned land. One of the short runways for the big helicopters remained intact and still had asphalt on it.  The Vietnamese use it to dry rice and other veggies in season.

A newer highway had replaced the old Highway One that ran through Ankhe, and the old side-of-the-road strip was long replaced by businesses and dwellings. It would be impossible to know where the old quadrangle was much less finding remnants of it. Ankhe had moved on, as I had.  It was naive of me to expect any of it might have been preserved. The other former inhabitants of the area had moved on too, much to my surprise.

The Montagnards were a radically different racial stock than the Vietnamese.  Said to be of Polynesian stock that probably arrived back in antiquity by large ocean-going canoe.  They were tall, lanky, dark skinned, flat nosed and black straight hair. They were barefoot, wore loin cloths and the women were bare breasted. They did slash and burn agriculture, grew yams and the women weaved ornate cloth to sell to the Vietnamese and the occasional American (I have several in my collection).  They lived in thatched huts on stilts. They were quite primitive and had little or nothing to do with the Vietnamese. They lived on what amounted to reservations mostly in the central highlands. Many photos of them to show you later.

Much to my surprise, they have assimilated much more Western culture than I ever dreamed they would. I thought they would be the last to fall. We visited a Montagnard settlement and found their hooches were lined in metal scrounged from the Vietnamese (one sheet was from a shell case, dated 1967).  They have radio communications and satellite dishes.  The kids wear ragged Westernized t-shirts and pants. They have western toys and other accouterments to play with. They are marrying Vietnamese now and diluting out their bloodlines and their culture to the point where it is now unrecognizable to me. I thought it sad. Again, they have moved on, as have I.

I don’t know why I am so surprised that nothing remains of my former life here. We crossed over a pass where the Viet Minh attacked and wiped out a French convoy about 15 klicks from Ankhe on Highway 19.  This was June 1954 and they annihilated the French, setting the stage for Dien Bien Phu. The French constructed a cemetery with white headstones for each of the French Soldiers killed.  After the French were ultimately defeated and shown the door, the Viet Minh ripped out all the headstones and crushed them into powder.  So it was to be for us.

Then on to Quynhon cross the Ankhe Pass, a frightening stretch of close order switchback passes ideal for ambush. I remember it well and it is described in earlier sagas.  During the drive, we were given some notes by our guide written by a previous veteran visitor describing this area in detail with some great photos.  I noticed that this missive, written by a guy named Ray Smith (in a tank unit near in Kon Tum, where my college roommate was wounded in a tank).

Day 7:  On the Beach at Nha Trang

Driving down the beautiful coastal road to the coastal city of Nha Trang, said to be one of the top three tourist attractions in South East Asia, I vaguely remember having come through there in the old days but never for any length of time. There was a huge Buddha there, several stories tall that I’ll be looking for, as there is a photo of me in earlier photos standing at the base of it. Will be a good before and after shot.

Our guide remarked as to the fate of everyone in the country after the Americans abdicated in 1975, leaving anyone that had any dealings with them to the tender mercies of the NVA.  Anyone suspected of having any dealings at all with the Americans was rounded up and packed off to “re-education” camps (Prison).  Our guide was in one for two years (the average length of incarceration) and during that time survived on five cups of rice daily.  One for breakfast, two for lunch and dinner).  He weighed 70 pounds when he was finally released and had scurvy and beri-beri. His re-education consisted of being reminded he had been on a losing side.

The government of Vietnam is technically Communist, or what passes for it in South East Asia but the reality is they have a stronger interest in making money and becoming a part of the global community, because of the obvious benefits (not getting screwed like North Korea). The coastal areas are replete with high-end hotels, resorts, condos and entrepreneurial businesses that make huge profits.  Most or all of those who had to get their mind right in re-education camps went on to start businesses and all seemed to be forgotten,

When you drive down a street in Anywhere Vietnam, you see street cleaning, ongoing construction, new buildings, reasonably good roads and seemingly productive people all going somewhere and doing something (albeit with insane traffic rules). The people we met seem optimistic as to Vietnam’s future. We met four Americans that work in the embassy that are very positive, and were ware of the meeting in Emergency Medicine in Hue and warmly thanked me for going out of my way to do something good for Vietnam. I didn’t tell them we were an embarrassment 😉

Our guides were very obviously afraid of coming in any contact with any Vietnamese Soldiers.  We were told the army is paranoid and has no sense of humor for foreigners poking around.  On several occasions we rushed ahead as quietly as possible to avoid being noticed.  We were busted by the city cops for driving with one tire over the solid white line, an absolutely hilarious situation as three blocks later we encountered a blithely driving the wrong way in traffic without so much as a by-your-leave.

The Vietnamese absolutely do block some Internet sites, some newspapers and curiously Facebook.  Beats me why Facebook.  Major Western news sites are also hit or miss blocked.  Go figure.

We pass by Tuy Hoa, former home of the Tiger Division, Republic of Korea. The ROKs were all highly trained rangers and had no sense of humor when it came to war making with the Viet Cong and were much feared by them.  The ROK rangers showed no quarter, ever. They were feared by all. The hangars for aircraft at by Tuy Hoa airport in the 60s were still there because they were made of reinforced concrete and hard to tear down. They stood out against the rest of the skyline like big sore thumbs.  Out of place.  In 1969, the rest of the skyline would have been out of place.

We bump along the coast down to Nha Trang and it became apparent that almost all of it was being groomed for resorts.  Earlier in Quenyon, I had a chance to speak briefly with one of the American Embassy guys who was briefly vacationing there. I mentioned that technically the Vietnamese government was communist but they weren’t acting much like the Communist Manifesto required.  His response was that they figured out that Communism didn’t make them any money, and in the end without making a profit they were doomed to be “third world.”

So in essence they have become quiet capitalists, staying out of the way of entrepreneurial activities, especially as it pertains to raking in money from any source possible.  And as a practical matter, the coastline is ideal for tourism and they have figured out that money spent creating resorts pays nicely, as everyone knows tourists are ripe for gouging from every direction.  The resorts we have been staying at have been phenomenal. All right on the beach, with all the comforts of home.  Very, very nice.  And (chuckle), the Vietnamese have created their own brand of tourist gouging.  What follows is freely my personal bias and should not be accepted as gospel fact.

Internet access in the rooms is by cable only. WiFi is only available in the bar and dining room.  And even though free, there is a password involved that the waitress or barkeep knows. So my Airbook doesn’t support cable. I wander into the bar and ask for the password and the waitress gives it to me, and BTW, would I like to order a drink?  Get the strategy?

The Vietnamese hotel and restaurant personnel have developed a preternatural cheerfulness bordering on the spooky. Every interaction with them is greeted by wide smiles. “Sir, your dog is dead, would you like complimentary drink?”  (Big smile).  And every question demanding a yes or no answer is always answered yes.  You have to be careful about that.  When you did a little deeper, you find out that yes means sort of. Then you dig a little deeper you find out that yes means no, but we surely wish the answer could be yes.

Yesterday morning our departing van from the hotel was met by a chirpy female banging on our window (with a big smile).  As soon as we settled our bill they immediately ran to the room to see if we had stolen anything, and they emerge carrying a towel that they cheerfully advised us we had dirtied to the point where it couldn’t be cleaned “You must pay!”  (Big smile).  That brought me out of the side door fangs bred, but I was interdicted by ex post facto Hippie Gil (What Me Worry?) Ross who fished out some Dong to pay rather than make a scene. It’s a temptation to jerk them around a little to see how long the smile goes, but that’s just me being jaded about tourist atrocities, none of which are unique to Vietnam.

Day 8: Saigon.

Now in Saigon, at Ton San Nhut Airport, which was about a block long in 1969 and much of it was dirt floor. Green sign in the boarding area that said:  “In case of mortar attack:  Don’t panic, don’t run.  Lie down and cover your head.”  Most troops departing spent the night on the tarmac sleeping on their duffel bags. Now a bustling, modern facility.

On the way in to the hotel passed the Pasteur Institute, still there, re-built of course.  I used to make runs there to drop off biological specimens for examination and bring back medications. When in Saigon, I stayed in the old Caravelle Hotel, now re-built into a towering skyscraper and cruised down Tu Do Street, now bustling four lane road.

We’re staying at the Hyatt here, nice but obscenely expensive. They have WiFi in the rooms, but when you connect, all Internet roads to a Hotel page. The girl came up to help us get connected. Yes……(big smile) US$18.00 a day.  Per room or per laptop we ask?  (Momentary frown)…..Oh…so sorry….per laptop…(Smile returns) would you like to order drink? (US$15.00 per drink).  No thanks…….lady do you know what aggravated robbery means (big smile).   “No sir……you call if I can help more” (huge smile).

So we found out the address of a nice Vietnamese place three blocks away, went over there and had a huge meal that was great and many drinks for under US$50.00 for both of us.

We went to the former Presidential Palace which is now a museum full of North Viet propaganda, but we were able to tour the entire facility, including Thieu’s reception room, dining room, bedroom and bunker.  It was very interesting, as I had never been allowed to get near the place in 1969. His Mercedes is preserved there and everything is exactly as it was in the 60s, including the old dial phones. An American Huey helicopter still resides on the top floor helipad.

Final Reflections: 

Getting close to leaving the country now, and I am starting to reflect on the trip and other things pertaining to it.

This hasn’t really felt like a nostalgia trip. Vietnam has changed so radically and yet has so stayed the same.  In 1969, basically the entire country was a big American military base. Many guys here never saw any of the cities or the rest of the country. Ankhe City didn’t exist. Camp Radcliff dwarfed the entire region. Same for Camp Holloway In Pleiku, Camp Eagle in Phu Bai and endless others.

Now I am seeing a lot of the real country for the first time without the Army green and camouflage that had obliterated every landscape. Therefore, this trip is much more of a simple tourist effort than a trip back in time.  Thomas Wolff was right on more accounts than one; you can’t go home again and you can’t go back in time to re-live either.  Trust me, I have tried.

I When I was 25 years old here, the road ahead of me became very clear.  It was only a matter of finding effective and creative ways to stay on the road and I would eventually reach my destination; my dream if you will. I think I came back here to find some thread of a previous existence to reinforce where I ultimately ended up. Or at least illuminate the me that once was for comparison. Much like the end of Private Ryan where the old man turns to his family and asks his family to reaffirm he had been a good man in front of Capt. Miller’s headstone. Hal Moore going back to I Drang and weeping bitterly as the cost of the path that put him in his present reality.

It was in Vietnam that I discovered purpose in life and resolved to go forward to defined goals.  I have done that successfully. The road in front of me no longer leads to a dream. I have lived the dream more than my wildest expectations, and now the road has come to an open field, where no matter which way I turn the scenery changes little, when I proceed, it’s into the abstract and when I turn around, my goals are all behind me.

Many in my present intimate reality were not alive in 1969.  Many of those have moved away from me on their own paths. My kids have found their goals and rarely, some never look back to see where I am. Where I am is of no use to them. Perhaps as it should be, certainly as it is.

Coming back here is a much emptier experience than I had previously anticipated. There is no more road. I reluctantly see that my past no longer exists and that is a difficult reality to grasp.  I stand in places I know I stood before and I get no special revelation.  Most or all of the areas where I Iived my life are no longer recognizable.  I feel no particular clarification or verification of any of my life as a result of going back to the past.  Whatever I might have been seeking has eluded me.

This experience has brutally pointed out that there are more yesterdays in my life than tomorrows, and that the yesterdays are fading. Perhaps I yearn for a “Somewhere in time” where Chris Reeves desires to go back so intensely and approximates himself into a time warp so accurately it actually happens and he is given another chance at another path to take. But alas, in the end it might be possible to have it transiently, but the coin always lurks that brings it all tumbling down.

And so we come back to the clearing at the end of our road and make what we can of it.

“Goodbye to all my friends at home

Goodbye to people I’ve trusted

I’ve got to go out and make my way

I might get rich you know I might get busted

But my heart keeps calling me backwards

As I get on the 707

Ridin’ high I got tears in my eyes

You know you got to go through hell

Before you get to heaven”

Steve Miller Band (1977)

5 thoughts on “I return to Vietnam 42 years on

    • i belive the 17th field hospital was in ankhe. the 4th infantry was there before the 173rd. 1st and 50th mech inf. like to, hear from some one

      • The 17th Field Hospital was there in AnKhe right next to the 1st Air Car golf course. The 172nd Preventive Medicine Unit was right next door up against Hong Kong Hill. I think part of the 153rd Airborne was across the street. It’s all now a Vietnamese training camp now and foreigners can’t come near. Most of the Montagnards are gone now. Only a few left and very westernized.

  1. Been there and done that. 1968 USNS Geiger from Long Beach to Subic Bay, then Quinon to Fort Radcliffe, Ankhe. What a hell year. Malaria twice, a dear john, no r&r, One trip home to bring remains of best friend home, then back for remaining 8 months to feel like I. wasn’t sure if I wanted to make it home. Hit twice but didn’t do me in. Many years,booze, and meds later still see shrink for ptsd and lead a why am I still here life,living in my man past. Hope the flipside is better, cuz I no bic.

    .

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