William D. Adams
In March of 2017, I travelled to Vietnam with a fellow veteran of the American war. It was our first visit to the country since our military deployments there — mine in 1968–69 to an Army advisory team deep in the Mekong Delta , and his to a Marine helicopter unit near Da Nang in 1970–71. We spent two weeks on the road, travelling from Hanoi in the north to Chau Doc in the south, some of it by bicycle. I kept a journal during the trip, reproduced here in its entirety.
Wednesday, March 15
I’m on the plane from Seoul to Hanoi, feeling excited and eager now that this journey is finally happening. It didn’t seem real until I boarded the plane, a Korean Air Boeing 777 with lots of first-class and business seats. When I went to Vietnam in 1968, the only American planes going to Hanoi were B 52 bombers and fighter jets.
Hanoi was a perfect abstraction to me then, the distant and mysterious home of Ho Chi Minh and the mythical generals, and the object of so much destructive American attention. Now, 50 years later, it’s the subject of an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. With President Obama. How is that possible?
I am trying to remember my flight to Vietnam in early June of 1968. It left from Travis Air Force Base and stopped in Hawaii and Manila. A long, mind-numbing flight, so full of dread. I remember the crushing heat and humidity when they opened the door in Manila. A harbinger of things to come.
We landed at Bien Hoa Air Base sometime in the morning, after what seemed like an eternity on the plane, and boarded buses for the headquarters of the Military Advisory and Assistance Command in Saigon. It was very hot — early June, around the beginning of the monsoon. Along the road from Bien Hoa to Saigon there was a large Vietnamese military operation moving into a tree line. The buses stopped suddenly and we could hear gunfire in the trees. On the bus ride. On the morning of the first day.
We were put up in modest officers’ quarters in downtown Saigon, and over the next several days we received briefings and orders. On the afternoon of the first day, my uncle Ernie whisked me away to his beautiful apartment in downtown Saigon and then took me out to dinner. We ate on the veranda of the Continental Palace Hotel, looking out upon the Opera House, which was then the National Assembly building of the Government of South Vietnam. It was a beautiful evening and we drank gin and tonics and ate Italian food. It was so strange and so memorable.
Ernie worked for the CIA and had been in Vietnam for several years. He was perfectly opaque about his work, but I’m quite sure that he was a high-level analyst of some kind, with perhaps diplomatic role, as well. The next night, my last, we ate at the Caravelle Hotel, where Joe and I will be staying. I remember standing on his porch after the 8pm curfew watching gunships rain hell down on an area just across the Saigon river, where NVA and VC troops still made their presence known three months after the 1968 Tet offensive.
I saw Ernie several times more. He visited me early on in Moc Hoa, the location of my first assignment to a Special Forces B Team. He arrived in an Air America helicopter, which impressed the team commander. I saw him again when I went on R&R, and then again when I left the country. I never saw him again.
Thinking about all of this reminds me that the executive officer in Moc Hoa was killed about 10 days after I arrived. His helicopter set down accidentally on a land mine at one of the A Team camps and all the occupants were killed instantly. It seemed so utterly random to me.
The Special Forces B Team in Moc Hoa had a huge pet python named Snuffy. A favorite periodic entertainment was Snuffy’s feeding. Every week or so a chicken or two would be set loose in the pen. Snuffy would wake up slowly and eye his oblivious prey. Then he would strike, sometimes from a considerable distance.
A few weeks after the team’s executive officer was killed, Snuffy escaped from his pen. He wandered out into the perimeter of the compound, a death zone full of landmines. He was eventually found and returned to his pen. But for the few nights Snuffy was on the loose, I had terrible nightmares.
So many memories — things I haven’t considered for many years.
Thursday, March 16
We are on the plane from Hanoi to Hue. I was sorry to have arrived a day late in Hanoi. Terrifically interesting place. Intense street life, lots of young people, a lively art community, remarkable collection of architectural styles. Beer at the Metropole late one night with two young Americans working in Hanoi, one a high school friend of my son’s in Maine. The world is so much smaller.
After lunch we saw two museums; the National Museum of Military History and the Hoa Lo prison, the infamous Hanoi Hilton. I have to say that I was reluctant to visit these places. It seemed a bit too predictable to me, and I had thought instead of just wandering around Hanoi or visiting the Museum of Ethnology. But I was very glad I went. At the National Museum of Military History I realized, again, how completely Vietnam’s national identity is tied to its military history and the ancient pattern of occupation and resistance, occupation and resistance; the Chinese, again and again, the Japanese, the French, the Americans — two thousand years of resistance. This may be in part an artifact of modern historiography (and ideology), but the pattern is deeply rooted in the culture. And so just as the basic American narrative is about the creation and preservation of the republic, the Vietnamese narrative is about the endless military struggle for independence. There were American and French historians who knew this, of course, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. But no one in power was listening.
The Hoa Lo Prison is a central part of the story, representing the physical suffering of the Vietnamese people at the hands of the French. What struck me is how relatively little space and time the American war occupies in the museum’s overarching narrative, almost as if it were a minor episode in the larger plot, which is much more conspicuously about French colonialism. So hard to be the under-appreciated American.
Dinner with a prominent artist, Le Thiet Cuong, in Hanoi had been arranged by a writer I met through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The artist invited two additional guests— a journalist and a poet. With the help of our guide and interpreter, we had a remarkable conversation about the war and contemporary Vietnam. The topics included the harshly repressive nature of the current regime.
The poet was born in Hanoi and served in the American war as an NVA communications officer. He was present at the great battles in Quang Tri Province in 1972–73, which demonstrated the vulnerabilities of the ARVN forces absent U.S. infantry and air support. The other guests were too young to have served in the war, but both are currently active on cultural and political fronts.
For his part, our guide, Viet, has an incredible family history related to the war. His father was a spy for the Vietcong in the central coastal region and was briefly imprisoned by the government. At times I caught myself thinking how remarkable it was that we were having dinner with the son of a VC spy, an NVA soldier, a dissident journalist, and an important visual artist.
Cuong’s mother cooked dinner: boiled chicken appetizer with chili sauce, incredible homemade spring rolls, a rice and fish dish, chicken soup, tea. And whiskey. Lots of whiskey.
Joe admitted to me this morning that memories are also coming back to him in strange and unsettling ways. He told me a story about having struck a wire while taking off with a helicopter full of Marines. The helicopter pitched violently to the side and rolled over into a monsoon-flooded field. His door gunner drowned. Tough stuff.
Friday, March 17
I am sitting on the terrace of our hotel in Hue, looking out across the Perfume River toward the ancient Imperial City. Sampans ferry up and down the river. I can see the wall of the Imperial City. Over its first defensive fortification, I can also see an enormous Socialist Republic of Vietnam flag waving in the breeze, as it did briefly during the Tet offensive in 1968. It’s an eerie sight, so full of symbolism.
We toured the Imperial City yesterday. Impressive, though badly in need of extensive renovations. Hard for a country still struggling to develop its economy.
Notwithstanding the nature of the current regime, there seems to be great pride in the history of the monarchy and the imperial Vietnam that preceded the French occupations. I was glad to have seen the Korean fortresses and royal palaces as a prelude. Korea has gone much further in its preservation efforts, a function at once of its greater wealth and more continuous and homogeneous national history.
In 1968 the NVA attacked the city from the west, after infiltrating the country from Laos. Yesterday we rode our bikes in the countryside north of the city, and then west toward Laos. From the tops of the hills, the border with Laos was visible in the distance, which explains a lot about how difficult and intense the war was in this part of the country.
The countryside remains very beautiful, notwithstanding the immense changes. Much of the agriculture, primarily rice and vegetable farming, appears to be done (still) by hand. Late in the day, we made our way to the tomb of the greatest of the 19th century emperors— Minh Mang. Incredible site, badly eroded but still impressive.
Had dinner last night at the home and gallery of the artist Boi Tran, who was featured in Anthony Bourdain’s episode on Vietnam. We were hosted by Boi Tran’s niece, a senior at the National University in Ho Chi Minh City. We learned a lot about Hue and its place as the anchor of traditional Confucian values, especially filial piety. What a different world! Filial piety! How these traditional values and the values of socialism mesh with the contemporary world is in some sense at the heart of the drama of Vietnam’s development.
I’m conscious of the trap of seeing this entire experience through the lens of what it means to me and to the past. In so many ways, Vietnam is a very different place and so clearly not at all stuck in its past, or at least not the past that is of interest and relevance to me. For most Americans, the trap here was (and still is) always to see Vietnam through the lens of our own history and preoccupations.
Saturday, March 18
Remarkable day. We took the van along the infamous Route 1 from Hue to a spot just north of Da Nang. Gorgeous mountain and coastal scenery. We then road our bikes along a beautiful and tranquil stretch of road adjacent to an enormous inland lagoon. After pausing briefly for water, we started up Hai Van pass, a 600-meter climb over 6 miles of congested road at an 8 percent grade. Very hot down below. About halfway to the top, the wind started to howl and we were soon shrouded in fog. Very wet and windy, with gusts as high as 40 mph. I made it to the top, but was right at the edge of my ability the last few kilometers. On the descent, the professional cycling team of Hanoi went roaring past.
At the bottom of the pass, the sun reappeared, and the skyline of Da Nang came into view. Dozens of high rises in the distance. Da Nang is now Vietnam’s third largest city at 1.5 million. We stopped briefly at Red Beach, where the 9th Marines first came ashore in 1965, marking the beginning of the American war. After lunch, we took a jeep ride up Monkey Mountain, now a national wildlife preserve. Joe flew over the mountain dozens of times when his helicopter unit transported troops and equipment to areas north of Da Nang. Near the top we saw a macaque moving about in the trees. Descending from the mountain, one could see the full length of China Beach, stretching some 20 miles to the south and now covered with new resort hotels.
We rejoin the coastal highway to look for the site of Joe’s helicopter base. All that remains is a wall and a few concrete hangers. Everything else is gone. A new coastal highway covers the runway, and in place of Joe’s compound and other American facilities are the many hotels and condominiums that now line the beach. Four Seasons. Ritz Carlton. Crown International Club. Hilton. Further down the road we pass by two high-end golf courses.
Joe was astonished. When he was here in 1970 there was no road along the beach and the only buildings were temporary military quarters for the pilots. The beach itself was virtually uninhabited, and there was nothing on the approaches to the beach but bunkers and scrubby sand. Da Nang was still to the north, a more modest city then, where the Marines went to drink and meet women. Now the beach is a boom town, hotel after condominium after hotel, attracting investors and tourists from all over the world. The Miami Beach of Southeast Asia.
In one way this is unsurprising, and a good thing for the country. The beach is an unusual resource, and the country must continue to develop. But at the same time, I found the contrast very painful. So many lives lost or ruined, so much misery inflicted on all sides. For what? Today hundreds of thousands of tourists descend upon Da Nang each year, some investing in Vietnam’s explosive growth. The country is one of our largest trading partners, and Americans are welcomed here with open arms. And they come by the tens of thousands. What, then, was it all about? Thousands of Marines died near Da Nang, ostensibly to save the Vietnamese from communism and Southeast Asia from becoming a Soviet outpost. We lost the war, and fifty years later Vietnam is a juggernaut of commerce and development. What a terrible, tragic waste.
Before going to Hoi An, we climbed Marble Mountain, a very significant religious site containing several Buddhist monasteries. A remarkable place, and this week the site of significant pilgrimage. Many hundreds of Vietnamese made the climb up the mountain with us to visit the beautiful caves where monks worship and meditate. After the Americans withdrew from Vietnam, they learned that the mountain’s caves held a hospital for VC and NVA soldiers. Joe and his fellow pilots flew over the mountain every day, never suspecting the hospital or even knowing about the monasteries. It’s a story so emblematic of the American war and of Americans in the war.
Sunday, March 19
We left the hotel in Hoi An this morning and traveled up river by sampan to a small village known for its ceramics. An old place, with a very long history of pottery. Our guide introduced us to the matriarch of one of the families of potters there. She is 94, which means that she was born in 1923. She would have seen a good piece of the French colonial period, the Japanese occupation, the war with the French, the American war, and the victory of the North. She had three sons, we were told, all of them now dead. One died in a reeducation camp following the NVA’s victory in 1975. I did not ask about the fate of the others, but I can imagine. Being a young man in this part of Vietnam between 1950 and 1975 was a high-risk enterprise.
For the rest of the morning, we rode our bikes in the countryside outside Hoi An. Far more densely populated than the area around Hue, and not as charming, but still very interesting. We passed by several celebrations at clan houses that dot the countryside. One was blaring a weird version of Baa Baa Black Sheep, in English. Another featured something in the genre of French cafe music. So strange.
We stopped for water and cashews at a vegetable farm. We learned that farmers in the area had been given private property rights several years ago after decades of collective farming. It’s an interesting signal regarding the direction of the economy.
Last night at dinner I asked our guide, Viet, a rather direct question about the repression of dissent in Vietnam. He answered carefully that there were no meaningful organized public expressions of dissent, and then added rather quickly that most Vietnamese are happy with the steady expansion of economic opportunity. “Guarded” doesn’t really begin to capture the caution of his response.
And who knows if this is true? The journalist we met in Hanoi was pretty candid about the heavy-handedness of the government with regard to his own situation and that of other journalists and historians. He said that it was impossible to write truthfully about the recent history of Vietnam or about current events.
So the economy opens, as in China, while politics remain tightly closed and repressive. And there are the painful memories of reeducation and the cruelty of the communists. It’s all part of the complicated and tragic story of this place, even as the investors and tourists flood into the hotels on China Beach
Monday, March 20 and Tuesday, March 21
On the way to the Da Nang airport, we stopped at the Cham museum. Small but very impressive collection. The Chams ruled central Vietnam from the 2nd to the 14th century and constructed remarkable temple complexes that were excavated by the French in the early 20th century. In different places and times, the Chams practiced Hinduism and Islam and maybe Buddhism, too. It reminded me how culturally and religiously diverse Vietnam is and has been for centuries.
There is a Cham village just outside Chau Doc, where I was stationed for the greater part of my tour. The Chams were pushed into the Delta when the Viet people gained control of the central part of the country.
We landed around 2pm at the Saigon airport, a vast and modern international facility. When I left Vietnam in May, 1969, the airport was called Tan Son Nhut. It felt something like a county airport, surrounded by hundreds of military buildings and planes.
On the ride into the city, one gets a sense of the size of Saigon: 9 million people spread out over a huge area. Mopeds and bikes everywhere, in perpetual and frenzied motion that only a particle physicist could understand. We checked in at the Caravelle, where I’d had dinner with my uncle Ernie in 1968. Directly down and across from my room, I could see the Continental Palace Hotel, where Ernie had also taken me. Just below, the Opera House then the National Assembly.
Before dinner, Joe and I went out for drinks at the Continental Palace, and we sat at a table on the street, almost exactly where I sat with my uncle Ernie almost 50 years ago. It was a strange and eerie feeling, being so near and yet so far from that time. The city moved all around us, in its many contemporary forms and frantic urgency. So cosmopolitan now. All the European trade marks are on display; expensive cars and beautiful women. In 1968 there were very few cars, and the streets were full of GI’s. So vastly different.
Joe and I ate dinner at an upscale Vietnamese restaurant. We sat next to two young and loud American women, who seemed to be working in Vietnam. A different kind of American presence here. Joe and I talked about our families. Back in the hotel room I couldn’t get over the view of the city and its skyline, so much like what one would see in Singapore or Seoul. Capitalism at work. Perhaps we didn’t lose the war after all.
The next morning we started our day by climbing on the back of motor scooters. Our drivers were college students. We set off and merged with the frenetic rush hour traffic, an experience not for the faint of heart. I was holding on to bars on the back seat, white knuckle tight. Joe seemed relaxed and carefree, taking movies as we rode.
My driver was a young university student named Tso. He was born in Saigon, but his parents are from a farm in the north. When I asked him what it was like visiting them on their farm, he allowed that he is desperately bored when he’s there, and uncomfortable too. To deal with his discomfort, he stays in the house most of the day and plays video games.
Our first stop was the memorial that marks the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc. We’d seen his monastery in Hue, and we were now at the place where his life reached its fateful conclusion. It was the beginning of the end for President Diem, and perhaps for the Americans, too. Nothing was the same after that.
We pass through the Saigon flower market, then on to Cholon — Chinatown. Frenetic and crowded, the epicenter of traditional wholesale buying and selling in the city. Captivating, and utterly unlike the modern city center. No high rise buildings; no fancy European trademarks; every possible kind of food and commodity, and a swarm of people selling and buying. I was unaware until Viet told me that Chau Doc served as a major point of passage for Chinese immigrants coming to Saigon centuries ago.
Our guide led us on to the Catholic Church in Cholon. President Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Diem, took refuge there in 1963 when the coup d’état against them began. We saw the pew where they waited and prayed. They were ultimately persuaded to leave and given promise of safe passage in an armoured personnel carrier. Hours later they were assassinated in that same vehicle. The ugliness of the time, and just the beginning.
We went to lunch in a simple pho restaurant that was owned by the family of an important VC agent and participant in Tet, a kind of Paul Revere figure. While we were there, another guide and couple came in, and they were told pretty much the same story. I’m coming to understand — a little slow on this — that the American war has become a tourist industry in Vietnam, for veterans and for others just interested in the war. I find myself resenting this, and feeling reflexively certain that my own interest, but not theirs, is authentic. But really, why is that? War fascinates, for reasons good and bad. WWI and WWII are high tourist attractions in France. Why shouldn’t that be true here?
After lunch we drove past the former Presidential Palace and briefly visited the Notre Dame Cathedral and the old French post office. My uncle Ernie lived in this neighborhood in 1968, and I looked briefly for his apartment, not surprisingly without luck. We then had a brief, dispiriting visit to the war museum in Saigon. Heavy on propaganda and light on insight.
Later in the afternoon we went to the Rex Hotel and sat on the terrace above the plaza leading to city hall. The grand statue of Ho Chi Minh lies just in front, laying claim to the city. In the 1960’s, American journalists came here to drink and complain about the military briefings — the “five o’clock follies” — which took place daily in a conference room on the ground floor.
Wednesday, March 22
At last, into the Mekong Delta.
Driving on old Highway 4, now a four-lane divided road between Saigon and My Tho. The delta landscape comes into view — rice fields and coconut palms and bananas. Scattered among the fields are new factories and industrial parks. Much less densely populated than the central regions of the country. And apparently much wealthier.
We meet the Mekong River near My Tho, turn right, and start riding our bikes toward Cao Lanh. Tiny road by the river, bordered by small farms. The landscape and the intense heat are so evocative for me. Everything looks and feels familiar and I suddenly feel very happy.
We finish our ride near Cao Lanh and leave the bikes for a covered sampan, which takes us to the west side of the Mekong. There is a table in the middle of the boat, where we eat an incredible lunch of fried river fish, spring rolls, catfish soup, and fruit. The cook is a beautiful girl, perhaps 19 or 20. More memories.
We arrive on the western bank at Vinh Long, which I visited at least once during the war. From there we drive again to the Bassac River, the western branch of the Mekong. There we board another, much faster boat for Chau Doc.
Arriving late afternoon in Chau Doc was at once thrilling and anxiety-producing. I became aware of the intense expectations that I have. It’s a beautiful late afternoon in the dry season, with huge cumulonimbus clouds soaring above the river and the city. The sun is low in the sky and everything takes on a gauzy golden glow.
The river is full of boats and activity. We disembark at the recently constructed Hotel Victoria, which commands the intersection of the Bassac and the Tan Chau canal. It’s a powerful scene and I am struck by its strangeness and beauty. After checking in and cleaning up, we set out walking through the city, heading toward the former Vietnamese provincial headquarters and Camp Arnn, my home in 1968–69.
Nothing looks familiar in the center of the city, except the river. There is now a beautiful concrete quay that runs for several hundred yards along the bank, a lovely open space where people congregate to exercise and talk and stroll. At some point it occurs to me that Vietnamese military facilities I’m trying to find have probably given way to newer buildings, as the river bank has given way to this new public space.
We pass through the city market, which occupies the river bank for several hundred yards. It’s an extraordinary place, with every possible kind of fruit and vegetable and fish and meat, delivered in small stalls overseen principally by women. I don’t recall anything of this magnitude or richness during my time.
Leaving the market we keep heading north along the river. I start to worry about the fading light and start to walk faster, sweating profusely. I think I see something familiar and then I realize that it’s really not familiar. So much change; so many more people and buildings than I recall.
We push on, getting eventually to the Vinh Te canal. There is a narrow, arcing bridge over the water, not something I recall. On the other side is a small pagoda. Hopes fading, we cross over the canal and peer around the corner. I see nothing down the long row of houses that looks familiar or anything like a compound. I feel totally disheartened and confused.
I ask our guide to speak to two men sitting at the corner talking. One of them appears to be about my age. He offers a long explanation of how all the military facilities of the war time have been taken down and replaced. We ask where he served during the war. He tells us that he was a member of the 21st ARVN Division, based in Can Tho. Incredibly, he adds that he served for three months at Nui Co To mountain during one of the many operations we conducted there. I shake his hand and we smile at one another in a gesture of solidarity.
We head back to the center of town for dinner. I feel totally crestfallen. What I most wanted to see is gone. And I’m not even confident I can tell where, exactly, the camp was. Totally disorienting, as though some part of the reason for coming is slipping away.
We eat dinner in a simple place with good food — noodles (of course), chicken, some fish. The best food here is almost always found in these very simple places that offer a limited number of local dishes.
We walk back to the hotel through the center of town. I’m astonished by the changes. At one of the main intersections, the key corners are occupied by an OCB bank, a Honda dealer, and a giant electronics store called “thegeoldidong”, illuminated in bright neon. Inside it looks a lot like any comprehensive electronics chain store in the U.S. or Europe; everything from televisions to toasters to cell phones to laptops and electric kitchen appliances. When I was here in 1968, most of the rural villages lacked electricity, never mind televisions.
Thursday, March 23
We begin riding this morning in the town of Nha Bang, heading south toward Tri Ton. We climb a steady grade into Nha Bang pass, a high point in the road surrounded by steep hills. This place was the butt of many jokes in 1968, owing to the sniper who lived in the hills. I remember how barren and uninhabited it was then. No longer.
We descend into the beautiful plain approaching Chi Lang. Neat rows of coconut palms separated by brilliantly green fields of young rice. Nui Cam mountain rises on our right, and the endlessly flat and receding expanse of the Mekong Delta is off to our left.
I stop in Chi Lang to take a picture and take note of the market and the busy street. I’m thinking that there was nothing here in 1968, but I’m not sure.
I’m astonished by the approach to Tri Ton. It’s a big and busy place now, utterly transformed. I look in vain for my friend Peter Scott’s district compound, which was clearly visible from the road in 1968. Now the city runs off in all directions, dense and busy and confounding. I finally see something familiar, the Theravada buddhist temple complex. We stop and explore and take pictures. It’s an impressive place, much larger than I recall.
Back on the bikes, we leave Tri Ton heading south toward Nui Co To. The road narrows, making the traffic worse. Worst of all are the huge dump trucks coming and going on both sides of the road. Large quarries emerge on the east and southeast flanks of Co To mountain, enormous scars on the landscape. It’s one dramatic sign of the environmental damage that’s been the price of Vietnam’s incredible development.
We round the southeastern corner of the mountain and the traffic suddenly disappears near Co To hamlet, where Peter and I visited the Mobile Advisory Team sometime in 1969. Much earlier in my time here, I nearly got killed in a helicopter that came perilously close to an F4 Phantom dropping bombs on Co To. My fault, as I recall. The deputy province advisor gave me an astonished, unforgettable look.
The stretch of road along the southern flank of Co To is very calm. No cars or trucks, not even a scooter. It’s the most tranquil and relatively untouched landscape we’ve seen in Vietnam. Like Chi Lang, beautiful rice paddies are punctuated by rows of mature coconut palms running to the mountain’s edge. The mountain is bigger than I remember, and not an easy climb, I think. I can’t rid my head of the ominous, almost mythical significance that Co To had for us.
We roll through O Lam hamlet, near the base of Tuc Dup knoll. It’s a sleepy and deeply impoverished place, now as then. I had a terrible experience here one night in the dry season of 1969, I think. On a joint operation between local and regional militia in the surrounding area, a firefight broke out between Cambodian and Vietnamese soldiers — our soldiers. Several were killed and several local civilians were seriously wounded. One of the wounded was a young girl, and she and others needed to be moved to a place where they could get medical attention. I decided to take them back to Tri Ton in the jeep, by way of the western and northern road around Co To. There was no room in the jeep for anyone but the wounded and a driver, and so I sat on the hood of the jeep with my rifle, looking for signs of landmines or worse. I could hear the little girl and the others sobbing and moaning in the back of the jeep. The road was pitch dark, and I could see very little in front of us. It seemed to take forever to get to Tri Ton, but we finally did, unscathed. My memory is that Peter was waiting at the Tri Ton compound, but I could be wrong. I was a mess.
These memories and others fill my head as we round the corner and arrive in An Tuc and the entrance to Tuc Dup knoll. In another of this trip’s surprises, and in this site of steady and intense violence across many years, we find a lovely provincial park dedicated to the VC and NVA who used this knoll as an operating base. I can’t imagine how terrible it was for them; in my time alone, hundreds of thousands of pounds of bombs and other ordinance were loosed upon this place. And many ARVN and some American lives were lost in trying to take it from the VC. We finally did, at the very end of my tour, as I recall, only to lose it again shortly thereafter. Peter will know the details — perhaps I misremember. But it was a special example of the pointlessness of our efforts to take and hold ground in Vietnam.
The park is tranquil and lovely. Bougainvillea and other flowering trees and shrubs dot the landscape. There is a map of the knoll pointing out the various caves in which the VC lived and worked for years — command caves, weapons caves, caves for medicine and food, a crazy network of subterranean rooms.
We start up the mountain. It’s not an easy go — not terribly steep, but a complete jumble of enormous boulders stitched together in a honeycomb of openings and deep holes. We climb and explore. There are signs explaining the uses of the various caves, and paths with helpful steps hammered in the rock. I finally understand why the VC clung to this place and how they resisted efforts to take it away. And how truly terrible it must have been to live here and endure the airstrikes, agent orange and regular doses of tear gas.
From Tuc Dup we ride north, then west, then briefly southwest before turning northeast again toward the village of Ba Chuc, very near the Cambodian border. The beautiful Nui Truong mountain comes into view, and we ride directly for it, through more fields with brilliant green shoots of young rice. I remember coming to the nearby Special Forces A Team at Ba Xoia several times, a beautiful and remote place. I still have a picture of a young Khmer boy that I took just outside the camp’s perimeter.
What I did not know about Ba Chuc is that it was the site of a brief but terrible spree of murder and mayhem carried out by the Khmer Rouge in 1978. Something like 4000 people were murdered here in a matter of several weeks. A year or so later, the decade-long war between Vietnam and Cambodia began just a few miles up the road, when Vietnamese forces crossed the border just beyond the Vinh Te canal at Tinh Bien.
We stop briefly at Nui Sam mountain on the way back to Chau Doc. The mountain has become an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists from around Vietnam, and a short four-lane road now connects the village at the foot of the mountain to Chau Doc. At dinner that night, we dine on tapioca noodles, river fish, and local vegetables in a small place on the road to Nui Sam.
Friday, March 24
Looking (again) for camp Arnn.
The night before leaving Chau Doc for Phnom Penh, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about Camp Arnn. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe I hadn’t gone far enough up river to find it. And so I got up at 5, took my bags downstairs, went outside, and started walking toward the Vinh Te canal.
Beautiful morning, early light, with the market just opening. What a place. Beyond the market, I realized that I was not going to have time to walk the entire distance, so I approached a cyclo driver and motioned in the direction I wanted to go. He nodded, I got in, and off we went.
We crossed the canal and kept going north on the river. I looked intently at the row of houses that seemed to stretch endlessly beyond the city, looking for something that might have once been a camp. We passed two schools, rather new, that would have taken significant pieces of land to construct. But no signs of the camp. We kept going, at least two kilometers beyond the canal. Still nothing. And so we turned around.
I’m now convinced that I was right about the location, and that the camp is indeed gone. I was enormously relieved that I had looked again. I never would have forgiven myself had I not tried.
Up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh.
On the boat for Phnom Penh at 7. We head a bit south on the river, then turn west on the Tan Chau canal. Memories of the marijuana-fueled boat ride with Peter and our embarrassment at having run out of gas. Saved by the US Navy! The canal is busier now, with many more and larger boats, but in other ways very familiar.
We pass the area where the VC attacked during Tet in 1969. Peter was on the ground and I was in the command helicopter circling above. Pretty difficult few days. I remember the helicopter taking a tightly banked turn above Vinh Loc. Looking almost straight down on the hamlet, I saw a VC soldier emerge from a structure and take aim at the helicopter. Several rounds hit us, forcing us to leave the operation. No one was hit, amazingly. Later that night I remember talking to Peter on the radio and hearing the distress in his voice.
We take a hard left turn at Tan Chau and head north on the Mekong. Approaching Cambodia, the river banks become much less densely populated and the few house are more primitive. Beautiful and rich landscape, with Theravada temples and small hamlets appearing periodically along the bank. We disembark briefly at a sleepy border crossing where we pass through customs. Two more hours to Phnom Penh. It’s a beautiful and fitting way to leave Vietnam.
Saturday-Sunday, March 25–26
We visit Phnom Penh briefly on the way to Vientiane, where Joe flew helicopters in support of USAID and CIA missions following his Marine service in Vietnam. That experience clearly meant a lot to him, more than his time in Vietnam. He shares with me that he felt more connected to the people in Laos and to the mission there than he did in Vietnam, where his unit was disconnected from the people and the context. That was true of so many Americans in Vietnam, and I am once again grateful that I served as an advisor. Peter, I know, shares this view.
In transit from Vientiane to Hanoi, Seoul and Detroit, I’m thinking about what I saw and learned this time in Vietnam and what the journey meant and means to me.
In one important way — in places like Chau Doc, but elsewhere, too — I end up with the powerful feeling that the American war, and my own experience in it, has been swallowed up, engulfed, by the nearly 50 years of history since, and by the amazing energy and purpose and achievements of the country since 1975. In this sense, and like Camp Arnn in Chau Doc or the district HQ in Triton or Joe’s helicopter base in Da Nang, there’s very little or nothing left of that time. Vietnam is an utterly transformed and different place from the one I knew and experienced.
It’s so much bigger, to begin with. The population today is roughly 90 million, nearly twice what is was in 1968, and something like 65 percent of the people in the country were born after 1975. The economy, too, has changed and grown at a breathtaking rate since 1995, when the international sanctions came down — on average over six percent per year between 2000 and 2016. In the cities especially, where most young Vietnamese now live or seek to live, the construction boom is relentless, with all the attendant environmental consequences, economic dislocation, and threats to traditional values. The visible and most superficial artifacts of the war, the things we most easily associate with our own experience, have been buried beneath all of this frenetic energy. An entirely new and different history is unfolding now, freed from the specific anxieties and needs and memories of my generation.
For me there is both hopefulness and sadness in this. That a country so devastated by war and the titanic suffering it caused was able to move on and create so much is enormously impressive. But it also saddens me to know that the sacrifices that were made here, both by Americans and especially the Vietnamese, are becoming harder to imagine, retrieve and understand.
Of course, deeper down, in the less tangible worlds of culture, character and identity, the past isn’t really gone. The war changed us, the countries and people who fought it, decisively and forever, in both very good and very bad ways, And for better and worse, the changes are now etched in who and what we have become — they’re part of our collective and individual DNA.
I am not sure I know now or ever will know exactly how it changed me. I was so young and so vulnerable, and so unprepared for what I saw and did. Experiencing the complexity and scope of Vietnam this time around, and being better able to grasp it, puts me in touch with that vulnerability in a new way. I am sure that the pressure and violence of the experience made me more anxious, fearful, and cautious. I’m also sure that it made me much more curious and capable in some important ways.
The countries were greatly changed, too. The war undermined the legitimacy of our political institutions and processes in the United States, and we are still dealing with the effects of that, which include the 2016 presidential election. And our military institutions were terribly damaged, as well. On the Vietnamese side, I am sure that the length and harshness of the war made the communists tougher and even more rigid, and that the state that emerged from the war is more severe and repressive than might otherwise have been the case. I’m not sure I see positive outcomes for either country.
There was no revelation or epiphany behind these thoughts, no singular moment or dazzling insight. Only another rotation in the grinding, uneven progress of perspective, and perhaps understanding. That’s all there is, and that’s enough.
 In light of the government’s repressive tendencies, I have selectively avoided using the names of some of the people we met on the trip.