A June 1995 Trip To Vietnam

by Neil Mavis


My Dad was a C-123 pilot in 1965-66, and never talked about the war.

Dad is a West Point Graduate (1953), and never gets upset. Once, I found some 8mm movies of him doing airdrops, and I asked him to narrate them. Dad exploded in anger, and said "NO!". I never asked him to talk about the war after that. I was surprised a cargo pilot would have such a reaction. He said his job was to fly guns, ammo and food in, and dead bodies out.

In 1995, I decided to take a trip to Nepal, and a side trip to Vietnam. I was a bit nervous to tell Dad were I was going; I thought it would upset him. Instead, he got out maps, and told me where he flew, and which hills aircraft had crashed into, and he pointed out Khe San, where he flew.

When I left, I told him I would send him postcards from the areas, and tell him what I saw. I have approximately 40 postcards, which were my diary.

The intent of the postcards where to let my Dad live vicariously through my trip through Vietnam.

June, 1995

June was spent in Vietnam. Flew into Hanoi. I became an instant millionaire upon arrival. One US dollar is worth 10,500 Vietnamese Dong, so cashing in a US$100 travelers check gave me over a million Dong! Unfortunately, prices for tourists are incredibly marked up, so the million Dong to a Vietnamese was worth only a few thousand Dong to me.

The Vietnamese were not outwardly bitter towards me being an American. Vietnamese history includes a war for 950 years to kick out the Chinese, 4 years (W.W.II) to kick out the Japanese, 15 years to kick out the French, and 20 years to kick out the Americans. Finally, after 1,000 years, they've kicked everyone out and are at peace. Americans are just the last country they kicked out. Now they want TV's and refrigerators like the rest of the world. They aggressively want to do business with the world. When I asked to rent a bicycle, and buy a map, they would come back gasping for air because they RAN to get the bike & map!

Hanoi is like a miniature Paris. The trees overhang the quiet streets. The traffic is mostly bicycles, and few cars. No stop signs, or traffic lights; everyone somehow merges at the intersections. The best food wasn't in restaurants, but at roadside stands.

The Army Museum has many displays from the war, including wreckage claimed to be a B52 shot down over Hanoi. Upon close inspection, I noticed several piston engines, propellers, and even a Navy Corsair in the so-called B52 rubble. The big wing was from a B52, but B52 don't have propellers or piston engines.

The Air Force museum has propaganda for their War aces. Photos of US F-4's in MIG cross-hairs. One display stated that a single Vietnamese pilot, low on fuel, and with only a single missile left, bravely attacked 38 US F-4's and F105's. On the fourth pass, the Vietnamese pilot shot down the flight leader, and the other US planes fled in terror. I seriously doubt it.

Vietnam had an Astronaut. He rode in a Soviet Soyuz capsule in the 1960's. The actual capsule is on display, and unlocked. I poked my head in, but was afraid to bribe the guard for a sit in the spacecraft. 50,000 Dong (US$5.00) per guard is a months pay to them. Disneyland is over $50.00 to get in. Where in the world can you sit in a real space capsule at any price? My only regret of the trip was I didn't try to bribe the guards, even with 500,000 Dong. They may have let me fly it for that money!

I rode a bicycle by the former French prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton (where US POW's were kept). The 20ft high walls are topped with barbed wire and cement with broken glass. The prison is closed, and nearly all buildings inside the walls are torn down. A 15ft wide section of the wall was knocked down to allow huge cranes and heavy machines inside the prison walls. Maybe a real Hilton hotel is going up.

Halong Bay

Rode a boat for 3 days with the world's worst tour guide. North Vietnam never had a market economy, so they don't know what customer service is. They tell customers what to do. The guide said we were going to the beach, but instead drove us to a cave tour. (We brought sandals & sunscreen lotion, no flashlights) The guide and driver drank large bottles of Chinese beer on the way to the cave. Next, they filled the empty beer bottles with flammable fluid, stuffed in a rag, light the rag, and used the Molitov cocktails to light our walk through the cave, since we didn't have flashlights. We were glad these drunk tour guides didn't trip in the cave! Later, we climbed a steep hill in sandals, in extreme heat, and no water (some beach!). My T shirt didn't have a dry thread. I pity the war veterans who patrolled that steamboat.

The bus ride back to Hanoi included dual flat tires, and the discovery that the air conditioner did work, when the passengers were not in the bus. For several days, the passengers had complained about the miserable heat, humidity, road dust, and sticky diesel exhaust from passing trucks blowing through the bus. The driver said the AC didn't work, however, we caught him using it at a ferry crossing. We had to get off the bus into the steamy heat during the ferry crossing, and closed the windows to protect our valuables. When we boarded the bus at the end of the ferry ride, we discovered the bus delightfully cool. Apparently, he liked the AC off for more horsepower, and preferred the breeze of open windows & diesel exhaust. A loud crescendo of angry complaints still could not get the AC to remain on.

To Hue And Beyond

Train ride to Hue was 17 hours, and included views of 20ft diameter bomb craters as we neared each bridge on the track. The bigger the bridge, the more frequent the craters. Farmers filled in, by hand, small bomb craters in rice fields years ago, but left the 20ft ones for cows to drink from.

From Hue, rode a hot tour bus unequipped with air conditioning (I verified the AC wasn't installed) to the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone, a 10 mile wide no-mans land to separate North & South Vietnam). The jungle is gone, due to Agent Orange. However, the Australians brought in Eucalyptus trees a few years ago. These trees have a high tolerance for dioxin, and now grow where nothing grew for 20 years.

In 1968, the North Vietnamese used Khe Sahn as a massive diversion for the TET offensive against Saigon. 500 Americans, and 10,000 North Vietnamese died in the 75 day battle. The USA dropped 100,000 tons (yes, tons) of bombs & explosives. The area is littered with unexploded bombs. Local farmers plow the extremely rich brownish-black soil to plant coffee trees, and frequently plow up unexploded bombs. The stupidest thing I have EVER done was to kneel on the ground and have a photo of me with myself less than a foot from a recently plowed-up bomb with a severely corroded fuse. All the locals carry metal detectors. They defuse bombs, then sell the metal to scrap dealers, and the explosives to fishermen for fishing. When a scavenger dies from a bomb explosion, locals attend the funeral, then go scavenging again, the same day. Locals tried to sell us, as souvenirs, dug up mortars, hand grenades, and claymore mines. I tried to buy some Marine GI dogtags, but they asked for an unreasonable price.

My dad was a C-123 cargo airplane pilot during the war. He told me stories about flying into Khe Sahn. He'd carry Vietnamese Army troops, and their live chickens & cows into Khe Sahn. The rear door was left open for ventilation. The monsoon rains would turn the dirt runway to slick goo, and he could use only thrust reverse to steer and brake the C-123. The reversed airflow would suck dirt and chicken feathers into the cockpit, along with the smell. Sometimes he'd fly cows and pigs to remote areas, to feed the troops. Due to poor weather, or enemy fire, he'd fly at a low altitude. They'd attach a parachute to a pallet of pigs, or to a cow. Electric cattle prods helped the cows out the door, and sometimes the parachute didn't have time to open before the cow landed (or bounced). Fresh hamburgers for the troops.

Many tourists who visited the site felt that they didn't see anything more than hills of green Eucalyptus trees, and patches of rich brownish-black soil. They had not read up on the historical events concerning Khe Sahn. I had read up, and I finally understood the significance of the battle when I stood in the middle of the abandoned dirt runway (the metal plates which once covered the runway were, of course, dug up and sold as scrap). I could hold a map, which displayed the placement of Marines, ammo bunkers, headquarters, the enemy, and the mountains named Hill 881 North, and 881 South. Holding the map, I could see the enemy attacking certain places and US Marines calling in airstrikes and artillery by using Hill 881 as a reference. Other tourists boringly saw only Eucalyptus trees. Hamburger Hill was 65KM to the South, but I didn't have time to visit.

Toured the Vinh Moc tunnels. Vinh Moc is about 10 km North of the Northern boundary of the DMZ. The residents refused to move, so the US bombed the hamlet, and the residents moved the hamlet underground in a 3 level tunnel complex. Today, human coke machines inhabit the tunnel entrance. When my tour van pulled up, a dozen children with ice cold cokes in each hand, opened the van door, and stuck the cokes to our sweaty necks. They playfully would not let us out of the van until we bought a coke. I then toured the tiny tunnels, where hundreds of people lived. The tunnels exit to a beach 100 yards from the van. At the exit I was greeted by the human coke machines again. The locals no longer live in the tunnels.

In Hue, I met some very interesting Canadians. They were born in Vietnam, but fled in 1973 when Saigon fell. They immigrated to Canada, were educated, and now married. The two sisters, Diem & Tuyen Nguyen, are medical doctors, and the brother, Minh, is a lawyer. They decided to tour their homeland with their spouses, and asked me to join them in a van, to help share costs. Tuyen spoke Vietnamese, and had a contract written for the bus & driver rental. I demanded that the contract state that the air conditioner would be on at all times, in spite of the horsepower loss. The driver didn't like that, and got even by weaving the bus on straight roads, parking in the sun, and honking the horn every 20 seconds during the entire 8 day trip. The narrow, 2 lane roads in 'Nam carry foot traffic on the edges, bicycles, cows, cars, and finally busses and trucks try to fit on whatever space is left in the road. People will walk into traffic without looking, so the drivers must honk the horn all the time. I wore earplugs the entire trip from Hue to Saigon.

Continuing Southward

DaNang is a beautiful seaside town. However, tourists reported DaNang as noisy, and smaller Hoi An as the place to stop for the night. When we stopped at the Hai Van Pass to overlook DaNang, the human coke machines accosted us.

Hoi An is a small fishing village that was not destroyed by the war. It's refreshingly quiet from the noise of larger cities. Nearby are the Marble Mountains & China Beach. The original China Beach has been moved up the road a bit; it's now officially in front of a hotel owned by the government. I didn't get to step foot on China Beach because a huge rainstorm opened up like a waterfall. The Marble Mountains have caves which now hold shrines. The caves were hospitals and weapons storage during the war. DaNang airbase is very close by, and aircraft landing during the war were easy targets from the mountain. The US responded by bombing the mountain, opening up skylights in one of the larger caves.

We tried to visit the May Lai massacre site, however, road construction prevented us from getting within miles of the area.

Scuba dived Nha Trang, a once-beautiful fishing village. Now it's a full blown resort with a kiddy carnival on the beach. The beach is unbearably crowded in the morning because it is unbearably hot in the afternoon. The explosive fishing has devastated the marine ecosystem. Few fish left, and a lot of the coral has been dug up to sell to tourists. The water is the clearest, most beautiful water I've dived in, but the fish quantity is markedly less than Thailand. Sadly, a marine disaster. There are nice temples, and the huge seated Budda atop a mountain top.

Dalat is a mountain retreat, complete with a lake with touristy Swan-style paddle boats. The former South Vietnam Presidential retreat (1954-1975) is open for tours, and visitors can sit on the furniture. The furniture was worn out to threads from hundreds of daily visitors. In the Presidential Gardens, tourists could get photographed with people dressed as monkeys & bunny rabbits.

Saigon and the Delta

Saigon was a real change, compared to the rest of Vietnam. The razor wire topped 15ft high walls are still in place at many homes. The streets are crowded with noisy motorcycles and cars, and yet there are few stop signs or traffic lights. It's magic to me as to how traffic blends together at intersections. I rented a motorcycle, and planned to ride 60km to the ChuChi tunnels. After 12km of Saigon kamikaze traffic, I decided this was the second stupidest thing I have ever done in my life, so I returned the motorcycle and relaxed my frayed traffic nerves with Chinese beer and a video of "Top Gun" at a hi-fi stereo cafe. The North Vietnamese dug tunnels under major areas of Saigon, and moved an entire army underground to Saigon for the TET attack. The tunnels had hospitals and movie theaters.

Westerners had all their filme developed in Saigon because it was so much cheaper than home. I rode a cyclo-taxi to the Binh Soup Shop, and down the street to the Old USA Embassy. The Binh Soup Shop was the secret HQ of the Viet Cong, and this is where TET attacks against the Saigon and the USA Embassy where planned (the shop is up the street from the Embassy). The USA Embassy was designed to be bomb and mortar proof, so there are no windows and a huge air-conditioning bill to keep the building open. It's been closed since the end of the war because the air conditioning system is rusted out. During the TET attack, the Viet Cong tunneled underneath the Embassy walls and attacked from within the compound. I heard there is talk that the Vietnamese government wants to have the USA government reopen the building as an extension of the USA Hanoi embassy. The USA spent around 165 Billion Dollars on the war (that's $165,000,000,000.00). By comparison, the USA spent only 25 Billion to go to the moon. (That's $25,000,000,000.00). Who else can afford the air conditioning bill of the old Embassy?

Visited the War crimes museum. Some propaganda, but for the most part accurate as it focused on the atrocities of a 20th century war. Displays of people mangled by torture, explosives, burned, and wounded by modern weapons. Old rockets and machine guns, and a room displaying the statistics of the amount of Agent Orange spayed, and where sprayed. Many places were sprayed three times. Deformed babies due to Agent Orange are on display, one with 3 mouths and 2 faces. Outside, there is a French guillotine which was used on Vietnamese political protesters who opposed the French occupation in the 1950's. Captured US equipment included a 175mm Howitzer, a bulldozer for leveling villages, and F-5 and A-37 aircraft. There are also replicas of the infamous tiger prison jail cells, where up to 14 prisoners were kept in 6x8ft cells during the steamy hot summers.

Finally, I took a 2 day/1 night trip to the Mekong Delta with Minh. Another long bus ride on bumpy roads with a lot of honking horns. At least the AC worked on this ride. We rode long boats through the Delta, which seemed to be a maze of vegetation.

Did not see any aircraft wrecks in the entire country, even though the USA lost 3600 airplanes, and 4800 helicopters. War wreckage had been salvaged for metal, which was sold to the Japanese. Since the end of the war, Vietnam has been a top exporter of rice, and metal; steel from bombs & tanks, brass from artillery shells, and aluminum from aircraft. I bought extremely light aluminum souvenir spoons which were possibly made from a shot down B-52, F-4, or a helicopter.

I think Vietnam will go places, if the Communist government will let it. The country is in the middle of the shipping lanes between Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Vietnam has excellent deep water harbors (thanks to the old USA Navy base at Cam Ranh Bay, and the Soviets at Hai Phong Harbor), lots of 747 capable airports (old B-52 air bases), electricity capacity (due to recently dammed up rivers), and a new digital telephone system. The population is 90% literate, and eager to do business so they can buy refrigerators, TV's, motorcycles, and cars. The highways are abysmal, but they were the only infrastructure I saw in poor condition. If the government would take a leadership role in the economy, rather than a constraint and control role, Vietnam could be another Singapore or Hong Kong in 20 years, or less.

The Vietnamese people were all friendly. They hustled for a dollar, but friendly about it. They consider the war in the distant past. I found few old people. I was amazed by the size of the cemeteries, and the quantity I passed on the train ride from Hanoi to Hue. A sizable portion of the population was lost.

Other notes: The Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam is very honest; it tells of police on the take, and what is good, and what is bad. A must-have travel book for any Vietnam traveler.

The best part of my month-long visit to Vietnam: I did not hear anything about the OJ Simpson trial.

Copyright, 1998 by Neil Mavis
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