On March 29, 1973, the last American combat troops left South Vietnam. I grew up with death counts, from the war, as the lead story on the national news. Each weekday evening, I watched Walter Cronkite report on the war. I was a junior, in high school, when the combat troops came home. That same year, the United States moved away from drafting military personnel and adopted an All Volunteer Force (AVF) policy. During my senior year, at age seventeen, I had my mom sign me into the U.S. Air Force. When the fall of Saigon happened, April 30, 1975, I was in basic training, at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas.
The landing in Hanoi was difficult for me. I kept thinking 58,220, the number of fatal U.S. military casualties. I couldn’t shake it. I never served in Vietnam, but I worked with people who did. I remembered one co-worker refused to ride in a car. No one talked about it, but we knew it was war related. At work, we were given forty-five minutes for lunch. Each day, this guy rode his bike home, watched fifteen minutes of “I Dream of Jeannie” reruns, then rode his bike back to work. I was told that this process was the only thing keeping the man sane. I thought of him too, as my flight was landing. And, I wondered if I was making a huge mistake.
First off, my visa application for Vietnam kept getting rejected. My flight from Luang Prabang, in Laos, to Hanoi, was already purchased. The visa application process that should have taken three to five working days never happened. I booked an extra night in Laos and then flew back to Thailand, the following day. I stayed in Bangkok, waiting out the five days needed for the visa. After another rejection, I flew to Phuket and gave the process another five days. When that failed, I flew to Cambodia and I spent five days touring Angkor Wat. Finally, my visa was approved. After landing, I couldn’t find my driver, at the airport in Hanoi. I emailed the hotel and considered taking a cab. Then, like magic, he appeared. He was very kind and happy to see me. Maybe I would be OK, in Vietnam, after all.
As soon as I arrived to my hotel, I was adopted by a senior member of the front desk staff. He called me grandma my entire stay.
I moved on from Hanoi to Halong, where I was adopted by a member of the dining room staff. The hotel was fairly empty and didn’t offer full dining options. After asking for dessert, two days in a row, a brownie was sent to my table, my third evening. The next day, a cup of tea and cookies were delivered to me poolside. On my final night, the staff sent over a special dessert plate.
Up north, the hotel staff, in Sapa, took things to a new level. They couldn’t have been kinder. The housekeeping staff asked for a photo shoot. I took photos with each staff member and then group shots. When the dining room staff got word of this, three of them stopped me, as I was checking out of the hotel. We took photos and exchanged social media account information.
Then, it was time to face Da Nang. I booked a hotel walking distance from My Khe Beach. During the war, American and Australian troops nicknamed the 20 miles of sand “China Beach.” In the U.S., there was a 80s tv series, set at an evacuation hospital/USO center, during the war, with same name. I walked over, from my hotel, and purchased a cold Coke. I sat in the lounge chair that was included with the price of the soda. I didn’t want a tour or a tour guide. I didn’t want to swim or sail in the water. I walked down and simply allowed my feet to get wet. That’s all I needed to really feel there. After all the news coverage I saw, growing up, about the war, the deaths counts (on both sides), after joining the military, right out of high school, I was in Da Nang, at China Beach. When the war ended, April 30, 1975, I was in basic training, at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas. A mere fifteen days, meant that my enlistment would forever be recorded as Vietnam Era.
After two days, I relocated to nearby Hoi An and did nothing. Da Nang wore me out. I kept thinking about every time I’ve had to say, “No, I didn’t serve in Vietnam.” Much like having to say, “No, I didn’t fly a plane, in the Air Force.” A mere fifteen days has given me an “official” status for something I didn’t do. I never wear anything that says Vietnam Veteran. I wasn’t there. I was simply in Air Force basic training, before the paperwork ending the war was signed. I sat poolside in Hoi An and just watched boats going up and down the Tru Bond River. When I checked out of the hotel, two staff members raced out to say goodbye. The woman was all hugs. Her husband tried to shake my hand, but totally leaned in, when I went to hug him. I got into the car and headed back to Da Nang.
There could only be one way to leave Da Nang, the place that I’ve heard about all of my life. I booked a seventeen hour sleeper train and hopped up onto the top bunk of my four person sleeping berth. And, before you ask, no, the bed linen was not changed between passengers. I was the only person going from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh. Each time someone in my berth exited the train, the attendant came in and refolded the bedding. Luckily, I packed a silk Cocoon sleeping liner that I got from REI. At some point, during the trip, I followed my upper bunk mate and handed over money for tea. Tea turned out to be the dinner service. I had been warned via YouTube that the food on the train wasn’t safe. As a three time RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) I ate what I was served. You have no idea what I ate in Kenya, Armenia, and Ethiopia. Heck, I don’t even know what I ate.
Dinner was served out of a plastic bucket and who knows when it was prepared or how. In the words of the late Anthony Bourdain, “I think food, culture, people and landscape are all absolutely inseparable.” I had all four, during that seventeen hour journey. Including, fourteen hours of not using the restroom, because I couldn’t figure out how to get up and down the small metal foot pedal needed for the top bunk. Plus, I have no upper body strength and could not simply pull myself up and back onto the bed. Finally, I arrived to my final destination, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). I can still remember watching Saigon fall and the final group of South Vietnamese being airlifted, by a Huey Helicopter, from the roof of the Pittman Building.
I’m now in South Vietnam, where a million Vietnamese, considered to be collaborators, were sent to re-education camps. It’s thought that many of them perished. And, in 1975, as I was beginning my service, in the Air Force, approximately 120,000 refugees fled South Vietnam. Between 1975 and 1995, another 800,000, nicknamed “boat people” left the country. When my enlistment was over, in 1980, I used the G. I. Bill, to attend college, in Long Beach, California. For a short time, during my senior year, I lived in Garden Grove. Today, Garden Grove has the second largest population of Vietnamese Americans. Only San Jose, California has a larger population. In 1988, an offramp sign was placed on the Garden Grove Freeway (State Route 22) designating exits leading to Little Saigon.
In many ways, I’ve been chasing Vietnam, since I was a kid. To finally travel here and be treated with such kindness was an unexpected gift. XOXO— GGT