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Good Morning Vietnam Day 4

It is now August 4, and this is the first time that I have had time to write anything down. The last few days have been a whirlwind, trying to cram everything into a trip that is clearly too short.


We are now in Dalat but return to Saigon via air late this afternoon.


Stepping back a few days, my friend Phuc and her nephew who was getting married here picked us up a the Tan Son Nhat about midnight Thursday (we lost a day crossing the date line), and we checked into a hotel next to a new house she built in the Binh Tan District of (southwest) Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).


Gone is the old French-built terminal that I remember from 40 years ago. Tan Son Nhat now has a modern new international terminal  that could be anywhere. There is no more “welcome to Vietnam” rush of hot humid air. Everything is air conditioned.


People take Swine Flu very seriously here. Every airport employee wears a surgical mask. In fact, I found out later that they electronically scan every incoming passenger for elevated temperature (indicating a possibility of fever), and one of individuals in the wedding party who had the misfortune to be too hot was detained in a hospital for two days until tests indicated an absence of Swine Flu.


Friday, we headed downtown to see how once familiar places had changed. The first thing you notice is the traffic. Forty years ago, traffic was already legendary, but it was nothing like today. Where once bicycles ruled, an endless sea of motorcycles, motor scooters and motor bikes prevail. There are some taxis, buses and trucks, but Saigon predominantly moves on two wheels that carry families of four, cargos of hundreds of pounds, construction materials, you name it.


The traffic flows organically, like a river, seemingly with no rules of the road, few traffic lights and no traffic cops. If you want to make a left turn, you just do it in the face of a thousand oncoming vehicles. They part and weave almost magically with no one slowing or stopping. About half the people driving motorcycles, and probably 2/3 of the women wear surgical masks to protect against air pollution. These masks are available in every imaginable designer color and pattern. Everyone, by law, has to wear a helmet.


Similarly, pedestrians just wade into the stream, and the traffic just flows all around. Everyone seems to be protected by an invisible shield that keeps them safe. I saw only two very minor accidents where someone’s motor scooter had gone down with no damage and no injuries.


Saigon has more than doubled in population in 40 years, from about 3 million to over 6 million. What hasn’t changed is the basic urban pattern, perhaps the ultimate mixed-use new urbanism with every building street frontage a business of some kind, more often than not spilling out onto the sidewalk and sometimes into the street itself, with at least four stories of residential above.


The taxi to downtown took about an hour, and we were dropped off at the Hotel Continental that as much as anything marks the heart of old Saigon, one of the old French hotels and once the hangout of Graham Green. Although high rise hotels have been planted all over downtown, the main streets and landmarks were like old friends with a fresh coat of paint. We took in the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Old Post Office and the City Hall (now Office of the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City). We had lunch on the rooftop of the Rex Hotel, once an American military billet with a famous rooftop bar that has changed little. I used to hang out there and used the same rooftop swimming poll that is still there. We spent a good part of the afternoon walking the entire length of a street named Yen Do in 1970 but now Ly Chinh Thang looking for the apartment several us rented where Al Tolbert lived and the rest of us use as a base. It could not be found – probably torn down for a new building.


Before going back to our hotel, we stopped at the Reunification Palace, formerly the seat of the South Vietnamese government and the home of South Vietnam’s last real president, Nguyen Van Thieu. There wasn’t much to see there, although it was supposedly furnished the way it was in 1975 when Saigon fell, and the formal spaces are used from time to time for government events. The basement was still full of American made radio equipment, and the “War Room” with tactical maps was intact. On the grounds were the two tanks that broke the gates down in 1975.


Other than being even more bustling and cleaned up, Saigon at the street level is much the same place, although 40 years ago and a year after Tet 1968, there was barbed wire and concertina everywhere, sandbagged checkpoints at every corner and official building and armed military personnel and police everywhere. The streets were swarming with military vehicles and uniformed military from South Vietnam, Australia, Thailand, Korea and the U.S. Last time I was here, I had a loaded .45 on my waist, and we had to check our weapons in at the Rex Hotel lobby before heading for the rooftop bar. The entrance to the Rex was sandbagged and ready for an attack. All gone today and replaced by attractive hostesses.


We headed back for dinner with the family and to catch upon sleep.


The next morning, Saturday, we rented a car and driver primarily to go out to what was once Long Binh where I lived and worked. I knew there was almost nothing left from reading accounts by others, but I had to make the trip.


A trip that once took less than 30 minutes from downtown Saigon was over an hour on a new four lane toll road with traffic that makes I-880 look like fun. What was once open countryside is now filled in solid with industry, new residential development and even a Disneyland-like theme park. Using maps and the GPS on my I-phone, I was able to almost pinpoint to location of the former compound of the HHC 159th Engineer Group. It is now some livestock product-related industrial compound owned by the C-P Group, one of Asia’s largest companies. Ironically, I met the president of the C-P Group in Arkansas several years ago, and we will be guests at his home on August 11 in Bangkok.


Most of what was the headquarters for the U.S. military in Vietnam and the home of about 75,000 soldiers in an area almost as large as Richmond is now an industrial and business park. When I was here 40 years ago, I don’t think there was a tree in sight, but the jungle has returned with a vengeance. Trees and grass are everywhere. The only thing left is the cluster of buildings on a hilltop that once housed the headquarters of the United States Army Vietnam (USARV). It and the area around it have been taken over by the Vietnam military and are mostly inaccessible, although driving up to the gate we could see some military training facilities such as firing ranges. What was most interesting is that most of it seems to have been turned over to agriculture with uniformed soldiers doing the farm work. A herd of cows crossed the road right down the hill from the gate.


I spent some time in one of the USARV buildings in early 1970 when I was assigned to the board of a general courts martial for two trials, and we often used a helipad adjacent to the buildings when making inspection tours out into the countryside. Long gone are the perimeter protective berms, rows of defensive wire and the 175 mm guns, although one of them is on display at the war museum in Saigon.


Heading back into Saigon, we had the driver wait for us at the 100-yaer old Jade Emperor Pagoda before dropping us off again at the Continental. An interesting feature at the Pagoda is its famous turtle sanctuary.


I had to get some visa photos made for future border crossings, then we walked over to the Binh Than Market, a Saigon landmark since the early 20th Century. It’s a giant public market in the heart of Saigon adjacent to a huge traffic circle where you can find almost anything. It looks the same as it did 40 years ago, except then the interior of the traffic circle was also packed with market stalls. Now it is immaculately landscaped.


We had lunch at one of the hundreds of food stands and had just enough time left to walk over to the War Remnants Museum (formerly War Crimes Museum) located in the former USIA building. I think this museum has been toned down some over the years to make it more palatable for tourists, but is still a pretty sobering place. It is pretty well designed for a museum. It tells the story of the Vietnamese quest for independence from the Vietnamese perspective and treats neither the French nor the Americans with sympathy.


Despite the war, everyone here could not be friendlier. Anybody serving the public speaks “get along” English, and I am enjoying using my modest Vietnamese when I need to.


If you are not familiar with recent Vietnamese history, the key points are that independence was declared after the occupying Japanese were defeated in 1945, Ho Chi Minh wanted to form a republic with a constitution based on the U,S. Constitution and asked for U.S. assistance. Instead, obsessed by fear of communism, the U.S. helped return France to run Indochina as a colony and largely financed the French war until the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Spurned by the U.S., Ho Chi Minh successfully sought assistance from Russia and China.


The UN called for a national election in 1954, but the U.S. backed a partition of the country and set up Diem as president in the South. As pressure against the South Vietnamese government increased from the North, the U.S. stepped in to protect its anti-communist investment, and the rest is history.


The big wedding was Saturday night. Phuc and the women of her family spent the day getting ready with a house call manicurist and beauty parlor. The actual wedding ceremony was a small family event early in the morning, so what we went to was really a reception. It was held in a conference center called the “White Palace,” (yes, in English), a huge modern building near Tan Son Nhat, along with several other wedding receptions. By my count, there were around  600 guests seated at between 30 and 40 tables, each seating 16 persons. I’ve never been to a wedding event so big and so professionally choreographed.


The bride and groom both live in California, but apparently the bride’s mother considered it important to hold the event in Vietnam. Dozens (or maybe hundreds) of friends and family flew in from the U.S. Phuc’s two daughters and their families from California were there as well as her two brothers (one being the father of the groom) and one sister. The event included dinner and professional entertainers, toasts, visits to each table by the bride and the groom, and professional video clips of the bride and groom posed in various romantic backdrops. Other than one other person, we were the only westerners there.


Sunday turned out to be a special treat. Phuc hosted about 40 people, including family, friends and the bride and groom at her ancestral home in a rural village, Rach Kien, about a 30-minute drive southwest of Saigon. I had visited there 40 years ago when her parents were still alive and living there. The house, extremely modest by American standards, was built by her grandfather, a district chief, 100 years ago. When I was last there, it was surrounded by farmland, but now the village is encroaching. A nephew’s family lives there now.


Rach Kien is a poor place, and when we arrived there were maybe a hundred people gathered quietly in the front yard. Phuc had arranged to have 100 large bags of rice brought to the house, paid for by here and her daughters. They were stacked in the living room and handed out to each of the gathered villagers. When those were gone, the family handed out a stack of paper money about two inches thick until it was gone.


The house is one story with a rooftop deck over a more recent addition in the back. Everything is open to the air with no glass windows, but there are shutters. The original house had one large room and two bedrooms. The addition, separated by a small courtyard, has two more bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom.


All the water comes from rainwater stored in a cistern. There were several small dogs and chickens in the yard, which was lush and informally landscaped with native shrubs and trees. Out back was a pond that meandered through the immediate neighborhood. While we were waiting for lunch, coconuts were harvested from a palm in the yard and the milk served.


Lunch, prepared both in the courtyard and the kitchen, was a real banquet, which included barbecued duck and pork bought at a roadside stand on the way down, a curry with chicken and yams, rice and noodles, salad and a dozen different kinds of fruit. Fruit is just amazing here, with such exotics as Durians, Mangosteens, Pomelos, Rambutans as well as bananas and dozens of others available everywhere.


I want to tell you a little about Phuc. Her father was a school teacher in Rach Kien. She was born in 1948 and married at age 18, moving from Rach Kien to Saigon. Coming from a middle class family, her mother sent a maid with her. She had never worked, inside or outside the home.


By 1968, she had two daughters, and her husband disappeared somehow in the fog of war. For the first time, she had to support herself, and her natural bent as an entrepreneur emerged. She opened modest restaurants and bars in a couple of locations south of Saigon where the 9th Infantry Division was then operating, catering primarily to American soldiers. When I met her in 1969, she was moving around between her shops constantly, leaving her daughters with her parents as necessary. By then, the parents had also moved into Saigon. Rach Kien was not always a safe place to be.


In the early 1970s, she married again, this time to a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese Army. They had a son shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975, and her husband was shipped to Hanoi for twelve years of “reeducation.” She visited him twice, traveling to Hanoi by train.


Under the new regime, times were hard. The communists cut off her father’s pension, and she was constantly watched and made to perform menial labor by the conquerors. She had no viable means of supporting herself and her family. Her father was sick, and I managed to obtain special medication from a local doctor and have it sent to Vietnam for his use. By 1980, she had had enough and paid a contractor in gold to take her to Indonesia by boat, but he took the money and disappeared. (In an unlikely sequel, she tracked him down in Los Angeles years later and successfully sued him to return the money to her).


On the second try, she was more successful, and she and her 4-year old son became “boat people,” ending up after a life-threatening voyage in an Indonesian refugee camp for nearly a year. In 1981, she wrote to us, asking us to sponsor her to come to the U.S., which we agreed to. She had friends in the growing Vietnamese community in San Jose and wanted to go there but got sent to North Carolina instead. We sent her plane tickets and picked her up in San Francisco in 1981.


Phuc had only a suitcase of clothes with her and no money, but her entrepreneurial skills kicked in, and she plunged back into the restaurant business, first with the type of food coaches you see at construction sites and later with restaurants. She has been very successful, and in fact, one of her restaurants, Pho Saigon, is in the Pacific East Mall in Richmond.


In the 1980s, Phuc’s parents died, and her daughters emigrated to California, where they are now married with families as is her son.


Phuc has used a lot of the proceeds from her economic success to help peole in Vietnam who are still struggling.


That’s it for now. The sun is out in Dalat, and we have to fly back to Saigon this afternoon. More about Dalat later.


From my 1969 journal:


Settling In at Long Binh


Long Binh, Vietnam, March 25, 1969


Dear Folks,


I’ve finally arrived to a permanent location, got a job, etc.


We landed at Cam Ranh Bay yesterday AM early – processed in-country in about two hours and had the rest of the day off while assignments were being made from Saigon. I kind of wish I’d never seen Cam Ranh – the vision will linger and spoil me. It’s a beautiful spot on a peninsula of land surrounded by huge mountains – a lot like Honolulu – and has one of the finest white sand beaches I’ve ever seen with Hawaii-type surf, etc. Everything was quiet and resort like, hot but with a refreshing sea breeze. Nobody carries weapons – it looks more like a war at Ft. Polk than Cam Ranh.


But then all good things end. I got an initial assignment to the 20th Eng. Brigade with hdqtrs [headquarters]. In Bien Hoa so we flew in there at 4:00 AM this morning. This part of the country is an entirely different story in appearance. The Bien Hoa-Long Binh complex sprawls for miles and miles in every direction – dust, red clay and thousands of slum looking temporary buildings, miles of barbed wire, bunkers, etc.


Anyway, the 20th Eng. Bde. [Engineer Brigade] Is made up of three groups, of which – the 159th – is my assignment – to be liaison officer between headquarters of the 159th and he 20th Bde. S-3. I’ve got very little idea of what the actual work entails except that it involves keeping track of 159th Group projects and writing progress reports, statistics, etc., for reports to the parent organization, the 20th Bde.


The 20th Brigade altogether seems to have all the support responsibility for IV and V Corps areas, or, the whole southern third of Vietnam. Our group, more specifically, has responsibility for a sector more or less surrounding Saigon and extending to the east, south and southeast. Ultimately, I will have to become familiar with each of the hundreds of projects in these areas. The lieutenant in the job now has 25 days left, so I’ve got that much time to get in the groove.


Even though the area here looks somewhat more garrison-like than Cam Ranh, it’s still very quiet and peaceful. Most of the people here scoff at the blow-up the press gives to incidents with the VC.  I don’t reasonably see where they could be anyway; you can drive 30 miles in any direction and still be on this gigantic complex.


At any rate, I’ve got my gear, quarters and mama san. Tomorrow will start studying up on my job – let you know more about it as I find out.


Love, Tom


At Bien Hoa Airbase, someone from the 159th Engineer Group came to pick me up in a jeep. When we got to the 159th Engineer Group headquarters in Long Binh, maybe five miles away, I was ushered in to an interview with the Assistant S-3 officer, a Captain Terry Ryan. He asked me about my education and job experience and informed me that I was to be the replacement Liaison Officer (LNO) for the HHC (Headquarters and Headquarters Company), 159th Engineer Group, one of three groups comprising the 20th Engineer Brigade.


I was assigned a room in a “hootch,” which was, in this case, about 10 feet by 15 feet in a long building originally constructed with louvered walls and wire insect screen. It was a double row of such rooms, each with outside entrances, all assigned to officers. The roof was corrugated steel. Because the engineers were good at snagging stuff, it had a window air conditioner, and like the other rooms, the original louvers on mine had been covered with plywood. That air conditioner ran, without respite, until the day I checked out a year later, at which time it died.


The room had a single bed, a desk, a chair and a metal wardrobe cabinet. The bedspread was a camouflage pattern poncho liner.


At the company armory, I was issued an M-14 and a belt of magazines. Apparently, there was a shortage of M-16’s, and for some “garrison” soldiers, M-14’s were deemed appropriate to defend the post perimeter. The lieutenant I replaced gave me his .45 with pistol belt and two magazines.









area of responsibility


Parrot’s Beak



Long Binh








Long Binh, March 26, 1969


Dear Folks,


A little of the mud is starting to clear about what’s going on around here. I went out today with the guy I’m going to replace to look at some of the job sites. Most of the group’s work is in this immediate area or on the main highway 60-150 miles north of here. Enclosed is a map showing the area covered by the 159th Engineer Group. A better definition of the job is becoming clear, but only on the essential matters: making reports to the chief of operations at brigade HQ and being an agent to obtain and pass on information between units on the job and the brigade HQ. Actually, I work directly for the Group operations officer and act as an inspector for him also – and might get to do a little design work, etc., as time allows. So as you can see, there seem to be elements of “do your own thing” along with the rest.


This Long Binh post is just like a primitive-type post in the states once you get inside the perimeter. In our group area are the standard office and quarters buildings, outdoor latrines and recreational buildings (movies, “O” club, tennis, basketball courts, etc., and a handball court in the design phase). I‘ve got a 10’ x 15’ room in the BOQ with a bed and a wall locker. As various people leave, I’ll be in line to inherit the finer things in life such as air conditioning, refrigerator, rugs, etc. It’s common practice of course to strip a room when its occupant leaves, so I’ll have to live in poverty for a month or so until I can play buzzard. There are about 25 officers in the headquarters and headquarters company. The engineers definitely have the highest standard of living in the army (can’t compare with air force, of course). What we can’t find in our own organization we have the most marketable services to barter with.


As I mentioned before, I got my first glimpse of the countryside today. This whole area, including Saigon, is considered secure enough to roam at will during the daytime, but a weapon is always carried along. It’s considered not exactly dangerous, but inadvisable to drive around outside the compound after dark, unless with a convoy or something. Most of the projects are within a few minutes drive from here. The others I can reach by catching a helicopter or plane from Bien Hoa. The villages around here are, of course, amazing but exactly what one would expect. I remember Martin’s term “dogpatch,” which pretty aptly describes the situation. Whatever “spring offensive” that happened around here seems to be over. For the first time in a month and a half, the base is back to the lowest class alert.


The weather is quite hot but pleasant, more so than Ft. Polk in the summertime, due to the constant breeze and cool evenings. The rainy season doesn’t start until May or June.


Every possible thing for day-to-day needs is available here and cheaper than at home, so the old “care package” is an anachronism as far as I am concerned. I do want you to send me some books, which I will list, and some magazine subscriptions. See that my subscription to Architectural Record and Progressive Architecture are renewed (check copies at home for information). Also send me the Northwest Arkansas Times and the following books from my shelves upstairs: 1. Structures Syllabus from East Bay AIA (big red lose leaf binder), 2. History of Architecture Syllabus from some AIA chapter in California and the three or four books on history of architecture. Also send all the structures manuals and textbooks that I have (including wood, concrete, steel, etc.).


Give me Martin and Jack’s addresses (I lost them somewhere). Everything is fine. I am looking forward to an interesting year.


Love, Tom


Historical Note: In response to the buildup of U.S. forces in the Republic of Vietnam, the 20th Engineer Brigade Headquarters was reactivated May 1, 1967, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and deployed to Vietnam in August 1967. During the Vietnam conflict, the Brigade numbered over 13,000 officers and enlisted men organized into three engineer groups, with 14 battalions and 31 separate companies and detachments. The Brigade provided all non-divisional engineer support in Military Regions III and IV during eleven campaigns. Units cleared more than one-half million acres of jungle, paved 500 kilometers of highway, and constructed bridges totaling more than six miles in length. As US forces were withdrawing from Vietnam, the Brigade was inactivated September 20, 1971.


Below: Long Binh Post, 1969. Top -Typical Long Binh perimeter berm with periodic bunkers and artillery positions for 155 mm howitzers and 175 mm guns.

Middle - United States Army Vietnam (USARV) Headquarters at Long Binh Post on a hill in the center of the sprawling facility. In the lower left corner is the helipad we generally used.


Bottom: Long Binh Post

















I arrived at Long Binh approximately one year after the 1968 “Tet Offensive,” and there were still some folks around who had been there at the time. They recounted how one self-important Engineer officer had gotten his finger shot off while “defending” our sector of the perimeter. Apparently, in an effort to commemorate the one-year anniversary of 1968 Tet, there were several forays by Viet Cong against the Long Binh Perimeter in the spring of 1969. Below are flyers left by the marauders in the wire and picked up by the 159th Engineer Group G-2.


The 159th HHC compound was located adjacent to QL-1, the main highway from Saigon. To get there, you entered the main Long Binh gate, turned left about a block. Between the compound and the highway, maybe 200 feet, was a wall of sand-filled 55-gallon drums and sandbags and lots of barbed wire. It may also have been mined. Further on, just down the hill and adjacent to the 159th compound was the 46th Engineer battalion compound. They had a really nice swimming pool.


Below, Part of Long Binh Post along QL-1


HC 159th Engineer Group


Long Binh Gate 1

(Main Gate)





Below: Left: Long Binh today. Right: Long Binh circa 1970, Former Long Binh Post is now an industrial park.