My Thirty Year Anniversary Trip

Vietnam: August, 1969 - August, 1999

When I was in elementary school, I remember writing more than once about what I did on my summer vacation. It never seemed that I ever did anything terribly important or exciting. As I continued on through junior high school, high school, and college, I no longer received writing assignments that involved chronicles of my uneventful, singularly uninteresting summer vacations.

The summer of 1969, though, was different, although no one ever assigned me to write about it. That was the summer that a human being walked on the moon and the summer of Woodstock. It was also the summer I graduated from the UCLA library school with a master's degree in library science and volunteered to go to Vietnam as a librarian with Army Special Services. Although I didn't realize it then, what I did that summer changed my life not just for the next year, but for all the years that followed. Now thirty of those years have passed, and it is September again, so I am writing about my summer vacation just like I did in elementary school. This time, however, it was exciting and important, for me, anyway, as I returned to the places where I spent a year in 1969-1970: Saigon, Cam Ranh Bay, Dong Ba Thin, and Nha Trang.

On August 16, I arrived in Taipei for four days of papers and presentations discussing new information technologies in libraries. Then it was off to Bangkok for another week of meetings at the annual conference of the International Federation of Library Associations. This was the business part of the trip.

I had never been to Taipei and I still feel as if I was never there. Except for a dash across the street to the Chiang Kaishek Memorial, a large walled compound with a plaza reminiscent of Tiananmen Square featuring a Lincolnesqe statue of Chiang Kaishek inside a towering memorial hall, and a whirlwind visit to the National Palace Museum, every moment was spent in the sleek and modern auditorium of the National Library. I am particularly sorry that I was not able to see more of Taiwan, since the devastating earthquake that shook the island a month to the day after my departure, will surely have changed it greatly. I still don't know how the National Library staff and collections fared.

I have been to Bangkok many times since my first visit in 1969, but there were still some surprises. It didn't seem that it could be possible, but the incredible traffic and resulting pollution were worse than my last visit in 1992. The Thai hope that an elevated train, which was being tested while I was there, and a subway system that is under construction, will alleviate some of the congestion and improve breathing for the general population. The mass transit projects are certainly changing the face of Bangkok, the elevated railway in particular casting Sukhumvit and Ploenchit Roads into shadow. I was also surprised to discover a large and bustling Starbucks Coffee Shop on Ploenchit Road sandwiched between the J.W. Marriott and Holiday Inn Hotels.

Some things are still the same though. The hotels used by so many servicemen and women during R&R trips are still in business and thriving. I stayed at the Florida in 1969, and it is still there along with the Miami, the Honey, and the Ambassador. Even the names, chosen most likely to appeal to homesick American soldiers, have stayed the same.

On August 28, meetings and business completed, I flew on Thai Air from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. Vietnamese use both names almost interchangeably. As the plane landed at Tan Son Nhat Airport, the Muzak system was playing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" by B.J. Thomas. It was a strange sensation. That was the very song that was popular when I landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base on August 30, 1969. I remember hearing it on the radio again and again during the two months I spent in Saigon, blaring from the radio tuned to AFVN in the snack bar at the Meyerkord BOQ, as the rain pounded down on the tin roof. I was somewhat surprised to see the revetments, corrugated metal enclosures for airplanes and helicopters, still in place along the runway at Tan Son Nhat. Some held the rusty hulks of planes and choppers, but brand new modern versions nestled inside a few.

Driving into Saigon along the street we knew as Cong Ly, I was struck by the new construction and renovation, completed and in process, of both buildings and infrastructure. There was far less barbed wire hanging over walls and roofs. Large, modern, glass buildings surrounded the downtown area around the Cathedral and the old Presidential Palace now the Reunification Palace. Prominent on the river front at the end of Nguyen Hue was a large glass structure with Citibank emblazoned across the top. Sadly, the flower stalls down the center of Nguyen Hue between the river and Le Loi have been displaced to make room for skyscrapers and large, modern hotels. The flower market was a charming piece of old Saigon, even during the war, but times change and now they have been moved to an area where the real estate is less valuable.

I stayed at the newly enlarged and totally renovated Caravelle, now known as the Delta Caravelle, Hotel. The old dining room and roof bar is still a bar, but little else is recognizable. It is a five star hotel with CNN and HBO, a fitness center loaded with weights and treadmills, gourmet restaurants, and a lovely swimming pool. While I was there "Good Morning, Vietnam" was playing on late night television.

I walked to the places I remembered from 1969 and which I had gone back to "visit" on my two previous trips in 1992 and 1994 - the Meyerkord, the building where the Headquarters Area Command Special Services library had been located; the Rex Hotel, the Cathedral; the Splendid BOQ. Amazingly, they were all still there. The Meyerkord looks a little worse than it did on my last trip in 1994. It is now a school, the Ho Chi Minh City Institute of Science and Technology, and the bookstore is located on the site of the snack bar. Somehow this seemed fitting to me. The buildings where the library and the Splendid were located appeared to have undergone some renovation and really looked quite nice. The Rex had expanded into the space that used be occupied by the Rex movie theatre, the site of many bombings in the sixties. Next door was an expanded Federal Express office, larger than the previous location in the main post office. The Rex roof bar and the rooftop swimming pool looked much the same as they did in 1992 and 1994 and not a whole lot different from how they looked thirty years ago in 1969. A Parc Hyatt sat partially completed on the site of the Brink BOQ behind the Continental Palace Hotel.

Saigon was clearly undergoing a transformation fueled by the influx of loans and investment capital. It was no longer the Saigon of 1969, and I found myself saying Ho Chi Minh more and more. This too seemed fitting.

Bright and early the next morning, August 29, the guide and driver from Vido Tours collected me at the hotel, and we set off on the eight hour drive north on Highway 1 to Nha Trang.

Flashback: On August 29, 1969, at the Ontario, California airport, I struggled, laden with luggage, up the steps into the Western Airlines plane that flew me to San Francisco where I caught to a bus to Travis Air Force Base to board a Braniff Airlines (contracted to the Military Air Transport Service (MATS)) flight to Saigon. Dressed in my brand new dark blue uniform complete with straight skirt, hose, black pumps, white gloves, and hat, I was totally unprepared for what I was about to encounter. In 1999 I was far better prepared, clothes-wise and otherwise.

As we drove out of Saigon toward Long Binh, I immediately noticed that the road had been improved and widened since I had traveled on it on the way to Vung Tau in 1994. The road improvements were still in process, and a large section of road on the outskirts of the city was under construction. Motorbikes seemed the most popular mode of transportation, displacing the bicycles, but not yet displaced themselves by automobiles. New businesses alongside the road included a mini-Disneyland amusement park and a water park.

Long Binh was a great surprise. In 1994 the area around the old USARV (U.S. Army, Vietnam) headquarters was barren and empty, with only a very few of the USARV buildings being used by the Vietnamese military. In 1999, it was a different place. An export or foreign trade zone had sprouted up on the land bordering Highway 1 below the hill where USARV headquarters had been. The area was bustling with activity, although the Saigon English language newspaper had mentioned that the rapid growth had included neither sufficient nor adequate housing for people from the provinces moving to the area to work in the new factories. On the corner, directly below the former location of USARV, where Highway 1 turns left toward Saigon, was a large supermarket attached to a mall. The guide said that this was a favorite spot for Saigonese to come on Saturday to do their grocery shopping. Motor bikes swirled around us with passengers holding tight to the morning's purchases.

We left Long Binh heading north through Xuan Loc on the way to Phan Thiet. The guide mentioned that his father had spent three years in a re-education camp in Long Thanh just outside Xuan Loc. He pointed out the site as we drove past. Highway 1 was newly paved and widened here also, leaving room for most traffic to move fairly rapidly. The road was filled with motorbikes, bicycles, and SaigonTourist buses packed with Vietnamese on their way to a weekend holiday in Nha Trang. Recent floods had destroyed several bridges along the route, however, and passage over the temporary structures serving as interim bridges was reminiscent of the bus ride from Hanoi to Haiphong in 1992, when all traffic crossed rivers on railroad trestles. The guide volunteered that the flooding that had destroyed the bridges was the result of deforestation in the mountains.

Along the road were an amazing number of huge Roman Catholic cathedrals, far outnumbering and dwarfing the more modest Buddhist, Cao Dai, and Protestant temples and churches. The size and number of cathedrals reminded me very much of Quebec, where a large, Gothic cathedral was the centerpiece of every small town and village. There were also many, many graveyards, cemeteries, and tombs, often sitting in the middle of irrigated fields and paddies.

As we approached Phan Thiet, I spotted the first of many places for which I had received photo requests, Takou (Buddha) Mountain. After taking pictures in three different mediums (still, video, and digital), we drove through Phan Thiet, heading toward Phan Rang. The landscape changed very quickly becoming much more arid with fewer green fields and irrigated rice paddies. Although there is some rice cultivation in Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan provinces, grape vineyards for the cultivation of table grapes, fishing and salt harvesting are the primary agricultural pursuits here.

Just south of Phan Rang, we stopped at a beautiful, small beach called Ca Na. Buses of Vietnamese on their way up the coast had also stopped here to admire the scenery, take pictures, and buy bunches of large purple grapes, peanuts, and pork and rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves from the many vendors along the beach.

North of Phan Rang, we encountered a turnpike! The local government had set up a toll plaza to raise funds to maintain the road between Ba Ngoi and Cam Ranh. As I had found to be true while driving in other areas of the south on previous trips, the villages along the road paralleling Cam Ranh peninsula were built-up, bustling, and looked fairly prosperous. The area looked nothing like it did in 1969, when instead of houses and shops there was a swath of deserted, desolate scrub reaching back from the road. Signs bore familiar names Ba Ngoi, Cam Ranh, My Ca, Su Chinh, Dong Ba Thin. I recognized the road that had led to the My Ca bridge and checkpoint over which all traffic to and from Cam Ranh peninsula had to pass. Now the road was blocked by a gate, and a Vietnamese military installation occupied the area between the road and the bay.

Across the bay, I caught a glimpse of Cam Ranh peninsula. I was shocked by the fact that it was covered with trees, up onto the mountains that had split the peninsula down the middle and right down to the shore of the bay. I could not remember any trees on Cam Ranh, only sand and scrub. I wonder is this the fruits of a reforestation project? Even more, I wonder if trees were there before the Americans turned it into a giant supply base, and if so, where did they go? What wiped them out? Dioxin, perhaps?

We passed the site of the headquarters of the 18th Engineer Brigade in Dong Ba Thin. It is now a sprawling Vietnamese Army and Navy base with lots of new construction going on. The actual site of the 18th Engineers Headquarters, where one of my libraries was located, seemed to be a parade ground where Vietnamese sailors were marching and drilling

Most of the land from Dong Ba Thin to Nha Trang was very built up, but some areas were still rural with rice paddies backing up against the side of the mountains, just as they did in 1969. Missing, though, were the charcoal kilns which had lined the side of the road in 1969. The guide said that they had been removed by the government in order to control pollution.

As we drove into the suburbs of Nha Trang, it was very difficult to recognize anything. Nha Trang is much bigger and there seem to be many more roundabouts (traffic circles). A beautification project was in progress, planting flowers and bushes down a newly constructed concrete median dividing the north and south-bound sides of Highway 1. I caught a glimpse of the large white Buddha sitting majestically on the hill. Practically everyone who spent any time in Nha Trang remembers the Buddha, and I had several requests for pictures of it. We passed the Nha Trang Cathedral and the train station and turned right at the Grand Hotel onto Tran Phu, the street known as Duy Tan in the sixties, that parallels the shoreline and the beautiful white sand beach overlooking the bright blue water of Nha Trang Bay.

We passed the street that had led to the 8th Field Hospital, and what had been the entrance to the Air Base and the Aerial Port, and to Camp McDermott past the CORDS and 8th PSYOPS compounds. Nothing looked the same, really. The city had expanded into much of the area. The Aerial Port is now the Nha Trang Municipal Airport. What had been Camp McDermott was mostly a huge vacant lot. This had been the case with other former U.S. military installations I had encountered on previous trips, so I wasn't surprised to see that it was no different here. While the Vietnamese military have taken over many of these installations, they seem to have no need for so much land, so a small portion is utilized and the rest is left to lie fallow. I probably would have had a very difficult time recognizing the specific areas at all, were I not able to get my bearings from the beach and the street.

My hotel (actually resort is the more appropriate term) was right across the street from the area where Camp McDermott had been located. I had come to this same beach in 1969-1970, and the sparkling white sand and beautiful warm azure sea was just as beautiful as I had remembered it. Many Vietnamese families and individuals enjoyed the beach along with the tourists who were mostly Japanese and European. I didn't encounter any other Americans. Just after sunrise, children engaged in a rousing game of soccer on the sand before heading off to school.

There are few cars and trucks in Nha Trang. Almost everyone travels by motorbike, bicycle or cyclo, although the new motorbike taxis seem to be taking business away from the more traditional cyclos. There is only one high rise in Nha Trang the ill-conceived Nha Trang Lodge across the street from the Grand Hotel. The guide said that the city government realized immediately after it was built that it was a mistake and have not allowed any other high rises to be built along the beach.

I spent one day in Nha Trang sightseeing, although it was difficult to tear myself away from the beach. I had only seen the Buddha from the air before, so it was exciting to climb the steps and see it up close. I learned that the Buddha had been built in 1963 to commemorate the sacrifices of the Buddhist monks who had immolated themselves as a protest against the Diem regime. The faces of these men were carved onto the base of the lotus blossom on which the Buddha sits. Halfway up the hill there was a memorial to the one Buddhist nun who immolated herself.

The other major sightseeing attraction in Nha Trang is the Po Nagar Cham Towers. Having visited the Cham Museum in Da Nang in 1994, I was very interested in seeing these ruins. The towers were built between the 7th and the 12th centuries at a location used for Hindu worship as early as the 2nd century AD. There are four towers remaining of the original seven or eight. A restoration project appeared to be in the beginning stages. I knew nothing of these archaeological ruins in 1969 and was glad for the opportunity to see and learn about them now.

The sightseeing trip ended with a ride to one of the rocky promontories that jut out into Nha Trang Bay. There we encountered vendors - men selling soft drinks and bottled water and a woman selling post cards and paperback copies of Sorrow of War, The Lover, and The Quiet American. All of the men were veterans of the South Vietnamese Army. When they learned that I had been in Nha Trang, Dong Ba Thin, and Cam Ranh in 1969-1970, one of them volunteered that he had worked at Dong Ba Thin in 1972. They all spoke French, and I was able to talk with them in French, just as I had talked with many Vietnamese 30 years ago.

Few of the younger Vietnamese speak French now. Everyone wants to speak English. It seemed to me that almost everyone I met was thirty or younger, and English is the lingua franca. The Japanese tourists and the Vietnamese communicated with each other by speaking English!

I spent one afternoon walking the length of the beach from my hotel to the Grand Hotel and back. Even though it was much the same, at the same time it was very different. I felt, much more strongly than I had in Saigon, that I was leaving Vietnam USA and Vietnam the War behind and entering a tranquil, peaceful place to relax and watch the sun, sea, and surf. Vietnam was becoming Viet Nam, a place for a lovely vacation rather than a place to relive thirty year old memories.

The ride back to Saigon was broken up by an overnight stay in Phan Thiet. The hotel was located across the street from a huge 18 hole golf course, but both the hotel and the golf course appeared to be under-utilized. The Vietnamese must prefer Nha Trang, I think, and so do I.

I was glad to have the opportunity to return to the places where I spent my life-changing year in 1969-1970. I was sorry not to be able to go onto Cam Ranh Peninsula, still the site of Russian and Vietnamese military installations and off limits to tourists, but visiting Nha Trang and driving along Highway 1 made the trip more than worthwhile. I was sorry too, not to have included Dalat in my itinerary. I guess I'll just have to go back!

LINK TO Ann's photos of this trip

Link to the Command Military Touring Show (CMTS) Vietnam

Copyright 1999 by Ann L. Kelsey
All rights reserved

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