Sunday, August 27, 2006
This is not a war story. While I was in the Vietnam war, I want this to be more about Vietnam the country, contrasting what it was like for me in 1968 versus when I spent three weeks there in 1999.
The point of the second trip was to create what I think of as “color memories” to replace the “black and white” war memories I had held in the intervening 30 plus years. As all who have visited Vietnam will attest, it is a beautiful country as are its people and it deserves to be remembered for that beauty rather than the ugliness of more than 25 years of war against the French and later the Americans.
I also went back hoping to find what happened to a young girl who became my friend and probably saved my life one day in Quang Tri. An almost hopeless quest with more chance of finding the proverbial needle in a haystack but something I needed to attempt nonetheless.
Was I successful?
Yes and no just as with most things in life.
We were four (also pictured is Dave in the center who got to Vietnam a few months after the rest of us) adventurous Southern California boys who, as all like us in the mid to late 60’s, were confronted by the reality of the Vietnam War. Basically the choices were go to college full time with a draft deferment, get drafted without a deferment or enlist. We chose the latter and within less than 6 months of our first day in the Army, found ourselves in Vietnam.
We enlisted under the “buddy” plan guaranteeing we would stay together through basic training, which for us, was at Ft. Bliss Texas (a misnomer if there ever was one.) After basic we all went to artillery school at Ft. Sill Oklahoma. Once that was complete we volunteered for Vietnam however that is not as noble as it might first seem. In 1967 if you were in one of Army’s combat arms (infantry, armor, artillery) you were almost certain to go to Vietnam.
We were assigned to the 199th Light Infantry which at the time (December 1967) was operating near Saigon. However when we got in country, all our orders were changed to B Battery, 2nd Battalion/19th Airborne Artillery, 1st Calvary Division, then located mid country in An Khe. The battery had been overrun a few months before suffering 50% casualties and needed replacements immediately. What are the odds? Four of us from the same city and schools, friends since 6th grade, now all together in a unit in Vietnam with less than 30 guys total.
We were happy to stay together however that later became a double edge sword when Steve was killed 6 months to the day we arrived. That day we all grew up immediately and the war and being in the Army ceased to be an adventure. Now it was brutally real.
Saturday, August 26, 2006
During the war my only exposure to Saigon was the Saigon docks after a trip up the Saigon River before being loaded onto Army buses which took us to an area where we boarded helicopters heading back to the field. No sightseeing trip this.
After 10 months of my year tour, the 1st Cav was pulled from I Corp just south of the DMZ and sent south to deal with the growing VC/NVA problem in Binh Duong, Hau Nghia, Bien Hoa, Binh Long, Phuoc Long, Tay Ninh Provinces all the way to Cambodia. While many of the division including Ron and Tom, flew down, I spent 5 days on Navy ship LST 715 heading south until we reached the Saigon River. A vacation really.
These pictures are of what I didn’t see including some famous locations such as the Presidential Palace, Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral, the Saigon Post Office the Caravelle and Rex Hotels, home to many of the press covering the war in and around Saigon. Also pictured is the NVA tank that allegedly was the first to enter the grounds of what was then the Presidential Palace. I say allegedly because I came across another in Hanoi that was also purported to have been the first.
Sneaky Commies. Anything for the tourists.
These photos show the Saigon Central Market and are fairly typical of the way most Saigon residents shop. Very crowded, narrow aisles with goods of all types piled everywhere. Chaotic to the uninitiated and kind of reminiscent of other crowded markets I have visited in places like Tijuana Mexico, Xiushui Jie (Silk Alley) in Beijing before the authorities and commercial interests turned it into something more respectable, Itaewon Seoul Korea and Akihabara Tokyo, the center of the universe for all things electronic.
Friday, August 25, 2006
If you spend any time on travel logs of people who have been to Vietnam as tourists you will find reference to the Cao Dai Temple. Cao Dai a combination of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, Geniism, and Taoism.
I was told that during the war, neither the VC/NVA nor the South Vietnamese or Americans bothered Cao Dai to any great extent. To those of you who were not there, that may not seem significant but it was. They were located about 90KM north/east of Saigon right in the path of the infiltration of the Communist forces. Right next door to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels. In other words, in the middle of the war.
You will find essentially the same pictures you see here on countless websites just as you see the Eiffel Tower on most all picture logs of Paris. There is a reason for that and if you go to Vietnam you need to visit Cao Dai to see why that is for yourself.
I was in and around Tay Ninh towards the end of my war year in Vietnam but not unexpectedly had no idea of the existence of this wondrous place. Just as well. At 20 I would not have known how to begin to appreciate it as I do now.
Most all who visit Saigon will as well visit the Cu Chi Tunnels located about 45 miles southeast of Saigon. Seventy-five miles of underground honeycomb tunnels that during the war were an underground city unto itself sheltering hundreds of VC fighters and in some cases their families.
Really an amazing feat of personal engineering. The predecessors to the Viet Cong, the Viet Minh who fought the French throughout the 1950’s, began digging the tunnels in 1948, mostly by hand sometimes no more than two meters a day.
Now as with so much else in Vietnam, Cu Chi Tunnels are a tourist destination where one can do as you see me doing, crawling, literately through sections of the tunnels and, if you wish, shoot an AK47 assault rifle for $1 a bullet. And, of course, buy all the requisite souvenirs including “authentic” GI Zippo lighters supposedly from the war but in reality, fresh off the production line in some Saigon back alley shop.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Most westerners who visit Vietnam will travel north and south by air however for the more adventurous among you there is the Reunification Express train. Wondering about the name? Think about it in the context of the train resuming service after the end of the war.
These pictures show the Saigon rail station (“Ga”) as well as my traveling companions, Mrs. Nguyen and her daughter Jennifer of San Diego California, traveling with Grandma who lives in Saigon to visit relatives in the north.
I spent much of the morning prior to pulling into Da Nang, sitting on a bucket between cars watching the Vietnamese countryside pass by as did the woman you see sitting opposite me. A wonderful way to see the country much of which would be difficult if not impossible to reach were it not for the train.
This was an over night trip from Saigon to Da Nang. By western standards the accommodations may seem a bit primitive but hey, you want adventure don’t you? Just bring snacks and water and you’ll be fine.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
So much of my time in Vietnam is clear in my mind even after all these years. Things like that imprint on you.
Two such places were our time on LZ’s Suzie and Pedro. Rain, mud, mold and an occasional mortar or rocket attack. These photos taken around the battery position portray both LZ's well.
Depressing, wet, at times scary.