Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dadlands: The incursion

Back to Tuy Hoa for a story from my Dad's Vietnam war letters:

A day off today. We need it after what happened last night. We had just returned to our quarters after having flown until 1 am when the mortars started coming in. They hit in the aircraft revetment area, about a mile away. The fracas brought us all out of bed and we were standing around outside (the mortars had stopped) watching the fires when an Air Policeman came up saying that about 10 Viet Cong had gotten on to the base and were headed in our direction. 

I envied him. He was wearing a helmet and flak vest and carrying an M-16. I was wearing underwear and shower clogs and didn’t even have a cigarette.
Tuy Hoa Airport (former air base)
He suggested we get into a bunker and we did. I didn’t like it, though, because there were about 30 of us in there and if the VC really wanted to get personnel (normally they don’t – they want airplanes) they could get us all with one hand grenade or satchel charge. So I left and went back to my quarters thinking that if they really wanted me, they would have to go through all the hootches and find me. 

I stayed in the hootch for a while, then got dressed and went outside again because if an evacuation were started
, I didn’t want to be left behind. There were 2 helicopter gun ships orbiting overhead dropping flares and occasionally cutting loose with machine gun fire. Suddenly, one of the helicopters wheeled around and cut loose five rockets into an area about a half mile away. Maybe a mile. All the calmness I had regained in the preceding hours left me in a flash but by then things were pretty well under control. An all clear was declared shortly and we went back to bed.

This morning I hear that there were 2 search and rescue C-130s totally destroyed, either by mortars or satchel charges. They killed 9 Viet Cong. Five Americans were injured, only 2 seriously. 

Tower, Tuy Hoa Airport

I hesitate writing you about all this but it makes such interesting writing and besides it’s very unlikely to happen again before I leave which isn’t too far away.

Apparently the security people got caught napping. Security will undoubtedly get much better now. The whole thing rattled the base a bit. Somebody remarked that it was almost as bad as Cleveland.
-- Tuy Hoa, July 29, 1969

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dadlands: French Onion soup and a steak

One of the things I find funny and a bit sad about my Dad's old letters is his dogged search for Western food all across Southeast Asia. There he was in culinary wonderlands like Bangkok and Saigon, ordering hamburgers, steaks and fried chicken -- and with such disappointing results!

A couple of nights ago I had Southern Fried Chicken and it was more like Southern Fried Roadrunner. It wasn't much larger than a sparrow and was in perfect condition -- pure muscle. I don't know how they ever caught it. It could easily have beaten back a dozen men. -- Bangkok, Jan. 29, 1968

The irony is, after the Great American Ethnic Food Revolution of the 1980s, Dad became a big fan of Vietnamese and Thai food, along with Afghan, Puerto Rican and all sorts of other cuisines that had suddenly popped up in the strip malls of Northern Virginia. I wonder if he ever looked back on his Bangkok burgers as missed opportunities.

Anyway, I wanted to order one of those classic Dad meals as part of our sentimental journey up the Vietnamese coast. When Chad spotted French onion soup and steak at a place around the corner from our hotel in Hue, we knew the moment had arrived.

 Everyone seems to specialize in French Onion soup and most of it is delicious. Most of it is made with a little chicken and ham in it and is quite different from the French Onion I am used to. It is also often served with a lot of cheese mixed into it so that it is quite thick. -- Bangkok, Jan. 14, 1968

This soup was probably a bit more like the French Onion my Dad was used to. There were no bits of meat in it, but the broth tasted like beef stock flavored and darkened by lots of caramelized onions. I could have used more cheese -- I like lots of cheese -- but it was a perfectly good soup.

The steaks were marinated which was just perfect.

I wish I could find a good old American steak. They marinate everything over here. I've never had a steak in a restaurant that wasn't heavily marinated. -- Bangkok, Jan. 19, 1968

They had also been pounded for tenderness, and were quite tasty. In fact, after weeks of sampling as many Asian tastes as we could, it was nice to eat something familiar -- sort of like pushing a culinary reset button. The ice-cold bottles of Tiger beer didn't hurt, either.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Dadlands: The razor's edge

 Barber, Da Nang
I stopped writing for a while to go to 1200 Mass, get a haircut and have lunch. The Vietnamese barber that cut my hair was less than 5 feet tall. They make me a little nervous when they get out the razor. Many of the barbers working at our bases in Vietnam have turned out to be Viet Cong.  --Dec. 29 Tuy Hoa

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dadlands: Tuy Hoa

Well, as expected, Burma turns out to be a difficult place to blog. First of all, they block, and secondly, even if you use a proxy to get around the censors, the connections are so slow and unreliable it's just too frustrating to try and post anything.

So now that I'm back in Jakarta, I'll try to get some Burma posts up. But first, I'll wrap up the story of our trip up the Vietnamese coast to some of the places where my father was posted during the war.

For the serious Dad-ologist, Tuy Hoa is the ultimate destination. It's where he wrote some of his best letters, and also, probably not coincidentally, the base he liked the best out of all the places he was stationed in Vietnam.

This is the first time I've really been proud of a troop carrier operation. We've really got a good bunch of people over here. -- Tuy Hoa, Oct 9, 1967 

Like many of the old airbases left over from the war, the Tuy Hoa facility has become the local airport. We went down there on a hot, brutally sunny morning. There were no flights scheduled in or out that day and access to the airfield was limited.

I strolled around taking some pictures of the terminal and parking lot and then the assistant director came out to see what we were up to. He said a lot of Vietnam vets come by to look at the place. We chatted a little and then walked back to our waiting taxi. Just as we were pulling out of the lot, the assistant director ran up to say we could walk partway out to the airstrip and take some pictures, which was nice of him.

Like most airstrips, it was a whole lot of nothing, but it was still cool to stand out there for a minute and watch the windsock flutter.

Some of the structures certainly seemed old enough to be original. Looking around, it was easy to imagine myself 40 years back in time. The hard part was envisioning this vast emptiness bustling and full of people.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dadlands: Dong Ha

After the lovely visit to Quang Tri we pretty much blew through Dong Ha. We stopped to look at a war monument north of town. A lot of these monuments look like they've been shipped in by the boatload from the old USSR. They don't do much for me, personally.

To take the edge off the coffee, we stopped for a bowl of beef noodles at the stall next door to the memorial. They were extremely tasty and, instead of the usual plate of bean sprouts, scallions and basil, they came with a mound of local watercress. It was mustardy and peppery and delicious in the soup, and we polished off the whole plate.

Dad related the following tale about Dong Ha:

We have our own special brand of fireworks here. The last holiday we had (I forget which one) the guys at Dong Ha fired off a bunch of flares in celebration. One of the flares dropped in the bomb dump and blew the whole thing up, making for quite a display. Blowing up ammo dumps seems to be a favorite sport. They blew up one at Hue and another in A Shau valley. -- July 4, 1968, CCK Air Base, Taiwan

Dadlands: Quang Tri

 Sign advertising DMZ tours, Quang Tri

Dad was stationed in Quang Tri, right up by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Vietnam, for a couple of weeks in late 1967. This was well before the southern highway there became the “highway of terror”, but it still wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to work. First of all, it was a dull assignment, overseeing shipments of supplies into a newly-established Marine camp.

There is really nothing to write about at all. We had a few airplanes in today and it rained. That is pretty much the news. It rained, rained, rained and rained. -- December 13, 1967 Quang Tri

In the second place, he was supposed to go back to the relative comforts of Da Nang on the last plane out every night, but he often got stuck in the field instead.

I am spending the night here at Quang Tri. ... The Marines have given me a cot and an air mattress (which they call a rubber lady) and I have found a nice sleeping bag and a pillow.  -- December 2, 1967 Quang Tri

Bomb, Vinh Moc tunnel historic site, Quang Tri

Thirdly, and most important, it was a scary place to be. Quang Tri was a “soft” assignment compared to what a lot of ground troops were facing, he wrote after wrapping up his stint --

but we still had small arms fire around the perimeter and mortars and artillery going off constantly and quite frequently air strikes just outside the perimeter. B-52 strikes up in the DMZ used to roll us out of the sack. I am tired of sleeping in a sleeping bag and worrying about being overrun and I am really thankful to be going back where I can sleep in peace again. -- Dec. 14, 1967, Saigon

Chad and I drove up to Quang Tri on a motorbike from Hue and tooled around town, which didn’t take very long -- it was pretty well flattened in the war and remains small today. On the road behind the train station, we were hailed by some people at a cafĂ©.

The sheer radiant force of their welcome reeled us in. Soon we were sitting around drinking coffee and looking up words in the phrasebook.

The coffee was awesomely potent, so concentrated it was thick and almost chocolatey. It came in the spotted glasses that everyone seems to use on the north central coast. Were they originally sold with jelly in them, like the glasses my mom collected in the 70s? Did an enterprising gas station give them out free with fill-ups? Or did some super-salesperson make the rounds of every coffee stand and soup stall for 100 miles around?

Yes, they had that much condensed milk in them. And yes, they needed it.

The coffee also came with tiny cups of similarly potent tea, as is often the case up north. I'm not sure what the story is behind that, but it left me buzzing.

We figured out everyone’s ages and how many kids they had, and then our host, Phu, had to leave. We downed our last life-giving gulp of coffee and hit the road too, glad to find Quang Tri a much friendlier place than Dad experienced in 1967.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Dadlands: Hue

Dad didn't write much about Hue, probably to avoid upsetting my mom. Only by way of a picture caption in one of his letters do I know that he was there at all. (The picture has since disappeared.)

All it says is:

Hue. We were flying a medical evac mission. This was not long after Tet.

Hue was among the bloodiest and most grueling battles of the Tet Offensive, so, depending on what "not long" means, I'm guessing flying medical evac from there wasn't very pleasant. Also, Dad hated blood, needles and anything else having to do with hospitals. But he liked being useful. Shortly after beginning his tour, when he started flying combat-related missions, he wrote this:

The flying is interesting and challenging and best of all, it's important. The Army and Marines depend a great deal on airlift. ... Sometimes we evacuate the wounded troops which is a job I don't like to do. I'll do everything in my power to get a wounded kid out though. It's a great comfort to the troops over here to know that they will be evacuated very quickly if they are wounded. -- Oct. 6, 1967, Tuy Hoa

As for me, it was horrifying to realize that American bombs had destroyed Hue, with its walled palace compound modeled on the Forbidden City.

The compound only dates back to the early 1800s, but the place has a magic beyond its years. The sprawling, leafy grounds practically insist that you lounge around for an afternoon.

Some of the structures have been spectacularly restored since the war while others are still in shambles. You can wander to neglected spots and feel like you're the only person who's been there in decades.

We did, in fact, lounge around the grounds for most of the day, watching the caretakers whip the place into shape. The biennial Hue Festival was just a few days away and there were statues to polish and lanterns to hang.

They were even making decorations out of conical hats, one of the city's most famous products.

Hue. Magical. I can only hope it stays undisturbed for centuries to come.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Dadlands: Flying with the stars

From my dad's Vietnam War letters:

Yesterday we started off at Da Nang expecting to make a couple of trips to An Hoa. I could think of a lot of places I'd rather go. When we got to Da Nang we found that our loads weren't ready so they asked us if we wanted to take a USO troupe to Saigon. Are you kidding?!! 

 USO starlets entertaining the troops in Vietnam, late 1960s

The troupe included 4 or 5 guys and a blonde who looked pretty sharp. I decided it was time to take a group snapshot that we could put up on the bulletin board with the caption "War is Hell." It was a bad decision. At closer range she looked tough as nails. It turned out she had nothing on under her thin pullover blouse and that she was very proud of that which was unsupported. She took such a deep breath of air and pulled her stomach so far in that I was afraid she would explode and injure me. Her conversation was full of the show world "darling" etc. etc. I disliked her enormously.

We started off for Saigon, which is a pretty good haul, and I made a second decision. Since we are constantly in contact with radar sites en route, I thought it would be novel if she made one of the transmissions. It was decided she should make the initial contact with "Portcall" Control, a particularly jovial bunch. We wrote out a script for her and cued her on the mike. 

My gosh, what a mess she made of it. She expanded that 5 second transmission to 30 seconds by inserting extraneous "darlings," "babys" and "lovers." Once she had started there was no way of turning her off. I slunk down in my seat, covered my face and blushed like crazy. Bill Von Thaden, the navigator, hid his face in his arms on his table. We couldn't believe it. When she finished Portcall screamed “Speak to me baby!" but there were very few other comments. We later decided she had stolen their thunder by saying it all. We all got a kick out of it and roared with laughter at the bar last night. 

Much as I don't care for show people, I had to admire them. They had been to some pretty grim places trying to cheer the boys up. That takes guts. Some of the things they saw weren't very pleasant. They didn't have to come over here if they didn't want to.

June 24 Cam Ranh

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dadlands: Da Nang

Our chosen vehicle for the ride north was something the tour companies call an "open bus": it hits all the tourist towns up and down the coast, and you can jump off anywhere and then get back on a day or two later without having to buy a new ticket. They also feature "sleeper" buses with tiers of beds, which is a pretty exciting concept when you've been trying to sleep on regular buses. We figured this was not only a pretty cheap option ($25 from Saigon to Hue) but would assure us a decent, non-overcrowded, non-smoky bus.

In the tour company's defense I will say this: only once did the bus actually break down in the middle of the highway and have to be pushed by the passengers until the engine cranked. But in many other ways, the open bus was a disappointment. On the sleeper from Nha Trang to Da Nang, they stuffed in so many passengers that several people ended up sleeping in the aisles. And when I woke up in the middle of the night, someone was sneaking a smoke. Grrr!

Anyhow, eventually we got to Da Nang: a no-nonsense city often overshadowed by its more scenic neighbors, Hue and Hoi An. Still, it has pleasant sea breezes and some cool old buildings.

If you get up early enough, you can stroll around town and see people exercising: some doing circuits on their bicycles, others walking or stretching. These two women were playing badminton on a side street. I think this must be a political thing; in the USSR, too, everyone was encouraged to exercise in the morning.

Dad didn't write too much about Da Nang, except for one story about a USA troupe which I will devote a full post to later. He also mentions making a supply drop from air for the first time. As the war went on, North Vietnam was getting increasingly effective anti-aircraft weapons, and the Air Force began dropping loads rather than expose its planes to harm by landing and offloading cargo.

It was quite an experience. There are supposed to be a bunch of panels laid out on the ground to help you line up and to be used as timing points. I never did see any of them. I think the wind must have blown them away. I knew we were lined up about right and fortunately Glen Burnett saw some guy holding up a piece of one panel so he was able to give me directions on the run in. Glenn did a beautiful job of directing us in. Of the three airplanes that made drops, ours was by far the best score.

I remember that a tune kept running through my mind which I finally recognized as the theme from "12 O'Clock High." That struck me as being absolutely absurd.  -- October 18, Tuy Hoa

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dadlands: Cam Ranh Bay

Our first stop on our way up the coast was Cam Ranh, only we didn't stop there. There wasn't enough time, partly because I had given my knee a good whack in a fall at Angkor Wat and wanted to get it checked out at the international clinic in Da Nang. (No worries; it was just a bad bruise and is well on its way to recovery.)

I was ambivalent about Cam Ranh anyway, because honestly, Dad never had anything nice to say about it.

This is still a dreary place even though they have added on an entirely new kitchen. I don't really know what it is about this place but there is something that makes it less than pleasant. It is the poorest place that I know of in Vietnam.

I did have enough time to snap a picture of the naval base as we flew past it on the bus.

There's a monument, too.

Happily, "air power" is taking on a completely new meaning on this part of the coast.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


We're off to Myanmar a.k.a Burma early tomorrow morning. I'm not sure how much internet access we'll have, so I've set up the next few posts to go up automatically. After that perhaps I can update from wherever we are. Nauq twe dhe da paw! ("see you later" in Burmese)

Shwedagon pagoda, Yangon (Photo:

Entering the Dadlands

So, as you know if you've read as far back as Udon Thani, part of the rationale behind this trip to Vietnam was to go to some of the places my Dad talked about in his letters home in 1967-8 during the war. If you start in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), swing east to the coast and work your way up, you can bag quite a few Dad towns: Cam Ranh Bay, Tuy Hoa, Danang, Hue, Quang Tri, Dong Ha. So that's what we decided to do.

I guess this is as good a time as any to say a few words about my father, for those of you who are not my siblings, haha.

Dad was a career Air Force guy. He flew fighter planes in Korea. Then he got married and had five kids, the youngest of whom -- me -- was in diapers when he got assigned to fly fighters in Vietnam. He promptly swapped assignments with a colleague, which doesn't even seem like it should be possible, if you ask me. I mean, you can trade military postings the way third-graders trade sandwiches in the lunchroom? Anyway, he traded fighter planes for the less glamorous duty of flying enormous C-130 cargo planes so he would have a better chance of coming back to us alive.

How did he feel about the war? I hesitate to extrapolate much from the letters, because he died several years ago and isn't here to explain them himself. Furthermore, they were a) subject to military censorship and b) designed to be positive in order to keep my Mom's spirits up. But I can highlight a few things:

He was a product of his era and saw Asians as different from Westerners. Here's what he wrote about the orphanage he visited in Udon Thani:
We have it so good in the States that it's impossible to imagine the plight of these people. The Bishop will only allow Catholic couples to adopt the children because Thai couples of other sects and religions might make slaves of the children. That sounds unbelievable but in a nutshell I think it embodies their attitude toward life. No wonder we can't understand the East.  -- June 10, 1968, Udon Thani

On the other hand, he never demonized or dehumanized the other side. Here's what he writes about picking up a load of prisoners in Qui Nhon:

The prisoners were mostly North Vietnamese and were the most pathetic bunch I have ever seen. Many of them were just kids. They sure looked scared and I felt sorry for them. One of the prisoners had only one leg and was reputed to have killed 50 Marines. Some of the guys were angry with him because of it. Maybe it was wrong of me, but I wasn't angry with him -- I was sorry for him. He was only doing his job just like our own people do. It isn't his fault that he did it well. It just points up the ultimate stupidity of war.  -- October 9, 1967,  Tuy Hoa

He did not revel in the alleged glories of war. By the time I was old enough to remember, he never told war stories. He didn't pressure us to join the military -- although he couldn't possibly have been prouder when my brother graduated from the Air Force Academy. Here’s what he wrote at the end of a stint near the DMZ, where mortars and light arms fire were a nightly occurrence:

War is not a part of my nature and I feel sorry for the poor guys who live through this kind of thing day and night. I hope they are better equipped for it than I.  Dec. 14, 1967, Saigon

I think Vietnam made him more cautious about the use of military force. And I think greater exposure to other cultures softened his view of divisions between nations. Toward the end of his life he tutored kids at our local high school, many of whom were immigrants from all over the world. He also mentored kids from various backgrounds at our church Youth Group. I think he welcomed the chance to make up for the tragedy of the war in some way.

Anyway, that’s my Dad as I remember him. Perhaps my siblings would like to chime in? Sadly, I don’t even  have a picture with me to post. Just imagine a guy with a flat-top haircut working on our family’s motley assortment of second-hand cars on a Saturday afternoon, with just the family dog for company. Or imagine him showing my brother how to fix engines, or going to my sister’s flute performances, or single-handedly getting me through high school Physics despite my nightly fits of tears.

That’s my Dad. I can almost see him now.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Puppets on a pond

I was in a lousy mood when we got to the water puppet show. I was tired and hungry and sweaty, and we'd been walking around a Saigon park for at least 40 minutes searching for the exceedingly well-hidden puppet theatre.

But it was hard not to be won over by two birds engaged in a courtship dance ...

or a dragon boat full of powerful men setting out to sea ....

Or a set of dancing ladies turning in unison.

Water puppetry was devised in North Vietnam as a rice-paddy entertainment. As with Indonesian shadow puppets, it also serves the ritual role of appeasing the spirits and engendering harmony. A small group of musicians provides the accompaniment and also supplies narratives and voices.

The grand finale was a fire-spitting dragon, which also sprayed water over the audience. Rawrrr!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Cool, baby

In Saigon, the women wear floppy hats, masks, dark glasses and even cotton gloves to protect themselves from the sun. And so, by extension, do their babies.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Full-on Saigon

Saigon is not the kind of city that lies around waiting to be discovered. Saigon grabs you by the throat and demands attention.

The instant we stepped off the bus from Phnom Penh, a guy with a little bottle of glue was trying to fix Chad's sneakers (which were, in fact, badly in need of repair). Half an hour later, when I set out on the search for a guesthouse, a guy came up to me and bellowed "CHEAP ROOM EIGHT DOLLAR." He led me down a little alley where I walked through various families' living rooms -- TVs blaring, kids squabbling -- and climbed up narrow spiral staircases to examine their rental rooms.

Down another alley I decided to splurge on a small hotel with air conditioning and wifi. The room was so tiny, the door only opened partway before hitting the bed. But for $10, you can't expect lots of wasted space!

The intersecting network of alleys was a constant jumble of motorbikes, food sellers, kids playing, and people just hanging out. All the residents leave their front doors open in the hope of catching a cool breeze. You can walk down the alley and see what everyone's watching on TV and eating for dinner.

It's hard to square all this commercial activity with the idea that Vietnam is a Communist state. It couldn't be more different from the USSR in the late 1980s,  where I spent four months as a student. There, everything for sale (and it wasn't much) was gray or brown and shaped like a box. The common refrain was "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." Saigon is a riot of shapes and colors, and everyone seems to be working around the clock ... even those who look too young to hold down a job.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

X-Men for Boss

X-Men for Boss may be perfumed, but it is definitely a guy's shampoo. You can tell by the ass-kicking name, the masculine brown color and most especially, the nubbly little dots on the side of the bottle. As you will recall from our previous exploration of Watchout Soap, there is nothing more manly than nubblies.

PS: Don't forget to brush your teeth.