Return to Vietnam 40 years later

Don Bocik's Return Trip

I had been trying to plan a return trip to Vietnam for many years. The year that it finally happened was 40 years after I had been assigned to my duty station in country.

I had tried unsuccessfully to recruit one of my commanding officers from that era, but I feel the trip would have been unhealthy for him. He has Diabetes 2 and a pacemaker. I told him that I would take lots of pictures of the area that we crossed so many times in those years. After I returned I did go visit him and show him the pictures and gave him some for his collection.

I have a son that really likes to travel, He was in the Navy and did two six month deployments to the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf. So I asked him if he would be interested in taking a trip to Vietnam with me, and he jumped at the opportunity.

I made arrangements through a company that I had contacted about 6 years prior to getting it all combined in a trip for my son and I.

The trip was to start with us departing Chicago, O’Hare Airport, non-stop flight to Seoul, Korea. There we had a layover before continuing our journey to Vietnam. We landed in Saigon, Vietnam after a 5 hour flight from Korea. It was midnight Vietnam time.

After picking up our baggage, going through customs and getting our visas we finally made it to the outside of the terminal. We were then greeted by a large amount of taxi drivers who wanted to take us to our hotel, but we had an interpreter and a driver that were to pick us up when we landed and transport us to our hotel. We got to our hotel around 1:30AM I suppose. We finally showered after that long flight from Chicago, Il to Saigon, Vietnam.

The next morning we had breakfast in the hotel and then our driver and interpreter picked us up for our drive to Vinh Long. It had been my Sector Headquarters in 1965-1966. We made a lunch stop at My Tho on our way to Vinh Long.

While we were driving on the roads, that by the way have a lot of construction going on just like in the USA, I noticed how lush the countryside was. After all the years of war and destruction of the sides of the roads, they were now covered with trees and plants.

The road to Saigon from Vinh Long had a ferry that used to transport vehicles and people across the Mekong River in 1965 through 1973. A brand new suspension bridge was constructed by the Australians a few years ago. A wonderful sight.

Bridge at Vinh Long

We arrived at our 2nd hotel early in the afternoon. Our driver and interpreter were free the rest of the day. My son and I just started walking around Vinh Long. Our hotel view was that of the Mekong River. We were in Vietnam at the end of the rainy season. So just like clock work every afternoon the rains would come.

The hotel that we were in was not a very good one so we decided to change hotels after one night. We were going to spend the next two nights in Can Tho, Vietnam. It is further south.

The next day we were going to the Sub-Sector District Town, Tam Binh where I spent my tour of duty of 13 months as a radio operator. I was assigned to an advisor group that was a five man team that worked with the local Popular and Regional Force of the South Vietnamese Army. We lived in the same town, went on resupply missions for outposts in our District. We stopped along the way at places that were areas of operations for us in 65-66. One place in particular was a small canal in the rice paddies that we had to walk thru in 1965-1966. Now this area that was once a rice paddy dike with a canal cut through it, is a road with a bridge over it. I have pictures of us going through this canal with water up to our chests, and now how it is with a bridge.

My Loc Canal comparison: 1965 and today.

Before I left for my trip, I scanned in a lot of old photos that I had taken in 1965-1966. I printed out 4 pages with small pictures on each page and made 4 copies of each. When we got to Tam Binh, the interpreter started showing people of the town the sheets of old pictures. Pretty soon we had crowds of people all around us looking over the pictures. They recognized some people in the photos and said that they still lived in the area. Others had moved away long ago.

One that was still in town was a former business man, but they said that he was on his death bed. His family invited us all in to their house to visit him. I showed him a photo of him from 1965 and one of me from 1965 and as he was laying there in bed, he grabbed my hand and squeezed and just wouldn’t let go. The interpreter was speaking for both of us as the man lay dying in his bed. He is 82 years old and was happy to see some one from the past. I finally had to have the interpreter tell them that we had to leave.

The townspeople told us that I was the first American soldier to return to Tam Binh. I left some of those sheets of pictures with the people, as they don’t have any photos of our time there. They were all destroyed after America’s departure.

Another person that was recognized was a man that was taught to operate, as was I, the water treatment plant that our Corp. of Engineers built for the town in 1965. He lived out of town. A young man from Tam Binh rode with us to show us where he lived. We had to walk down a gravel path for about a mile before we got to his house. We asked people along the way where he lived and they kept telling us that it was just down the way a little further. Well, we finally got to his house and I pulled out the pictures of him and I in 1965 and he recognized himself and me. He was a 20 year old and I was 22 years old in 1965 and we meet again after 40 years have passed in 2005. We talked about how long he operated the water treatment plant. He worked it until 1976, then it was replaced by newer equipment. I left some of the photos with him from the past also.

I have a lot of photos that my son and I took. I have sent some photos back with Doug Reese, the man that put my trip together. He is back and forth there numerous times within a year.

Our next stop was Can Tho, where we checked into our 3rd hotel. It was a very nice hotel. We did some sightseeing while we in Can Tho, took a lot of pictures.

We then started making our way back toward Saigon. We went back through Tam Binh and a small town by the name of Ba Ke. Ba Ke used to have a ferry that was pulled across the canal by Vietnamese men with clubs. The clubs had a notch cut in them to grab the steel cables in order to pull the ferry across the canal. Now it has a nice modern bridge.

We stopped for lunch again in My Tho, at a new and different rest stop. A lot of tourist busses were at this one. It was very modern. We continued our journey to Saigon to the same hotel as when we first arrived. That night we met Doug Reese who was very instrumental in arranging our trip. We had dinner with him at a Mediterranean restaurant in Saigon. The next day, our last, we were to see the sights of Saigon with Doug.

Our last day and night in Saigon started out with Dan and I having breakfast. Afterwards Doug met us and we went to a hotel where we met four other Vets who were chopper pilots in 1963. They set up a tour with Doug and one of them had a friend who joined them for the tour. Oh, they also brought their wives along for the trip. Of course they were not very happy about the heat and humidity, and this was in November when it is not bad at all.

We went with them to tour the old Presidential Palace. This is where, when Saigon fell to the NVA, the South Vietnamese Generals surrendered. The Tanks that crashed through the front gates are on display in Hanoi, but there are two replicas on display near the gate they crashed through in 1975.

I find it amazing that with everything that the South Vietnamese people had to endur over the years, they are as friendly as they ever were. Everywhere that we went the kids were the same as they were 40 years ago. Friendly and outgoing, always smiling.

I celebrated two birthdays in Vietnam, the first was my 22nd and the other was my 62nd, and though they were 40 years apart, they are something that I will never forget.

After my return, I made arrangements to visit with my commanding officer from 1966. I took my photo album to show my old C.O. He enjoyed them. I also gave him some that I thought he would enjoy for his collection.

I made my return trip to a place that was death and destruction in the past, sometimes enjoyable, but always the possibility of death. Now it is a beautiful and pleasant country.

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