|Good Morning Vietnam Day 4
August 3, 2009
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
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
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
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.
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
Before going back to
our hotel, we stopped at the
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
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
Most of what was the
headquarters for the
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
Heading back into
I had to get some visa
photos made for future border crossings, then we walked over to the Binh
Than Market, a
We had lunch at one of
the hundreds of food stands and had just enough time left to walk over
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
The UN called for a
national election in 1954, but the
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
The bride and groom
both live in
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
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
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
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
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
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
In the 1980s, Phuc’s
parents died, and her daughters emigrated to
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
From my 1969 journal:
Settling In at Long Binh
Long Binh, Vietnam, March 25, 1969
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.
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.
Long Binh, March 26, 1969
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.
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.
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
Below: Left: Long Binh today. Right: Long Binh circa 1970, Former Long Binh Post is now an industrial park.