In Chicago we called it the Vietnam war. I was too young to serve and too young to understand why guys my brother’s age, swaddled in bloody bandages, were constantly being slipped into the belly of green helicopters by soldiers with cigarette packs strapped to their helmets. Watching the evening news was like watching an episode of Combat but it wasn’t the 1940’s, it was the 1960’s, and the bombs and blood were real. I didn’t understand why adults liked watching the evening news, especially those reports from Vietnam. I’d walk away and not return until I heard the Cubs or Bears mentioned. Vietnam looked like hell, who’d want to go there?
Since then I’ve learned a little more about the conflict and have become curious about those exploding jungles that lit up the black and white TV screen of my youth. And I wanted to see the hidden tunnels that the Viet Cong escaped into after ambushing the Americans, Australians and other allies of the South Vietnamese. When I graduated from high school I joined the Navy to become a Hospital Corpsman. Our instructors were salty chiefs who had served with the Marines in Vietnam. Between classes they would tell stories about patrolling the Mekong Delta and fighting in the jungle and their sinful escapades in Saigon while on liberty. Their Saigon stories included a lot of drinking and on occasion a naked woman in a basket suspended from the ceiling. Their jokes were lewd at times. But when they lectured on the management of abdominal wounds or the securing of a mangled airway or the application of a tourniquet to a mutilated limb the salty chiefs transformed into serious, well educated professionals blessed and traumatized by too much practical experience.
One stout old chief joked, “Every Marine wearing a purple heart has a Navy corpsman to thank for it.” It was actually more of a good comeback for when a Marine called a corpsman a “Pecker Checker”. The truth is Navy corpsmen patched up thousands of Marines in Vietnam, as well as thousands of civilians. It didn’t take long for the “Pecker Checker” to become “Doc”.
For added protection one chief had his dad send him enhanced bullets. I don’t know if they were hollow points or had more gun powder but something about them made the bullets deadlier than standard issue. Another one worried that the government would misidentify the corpses he prepped each day for transport back to the states. To make sure his fallen comrades made it home to their families he always placed a dog tag in their mouth.
Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam. Forty-six thousand were killed in action or died from their wounds. Nine thousand were declared to have died in accidents. Nine hundred died from illnesses and 382 from self-inflicted wounds. There are other categories but the one I didn’t expect was the 236 deaths the government listed as homicides. America’s partner, the South Vietnamese, lost 250,000 soldiers. The communist North Vietnamese (Viet Cong), lost 1.1 million of their soldiers. But civilians fared far worse, an estimated 2 million died in the villages, mountains and rice paddies.
In Saigon the war is viewed differently than in Chicago and goes by a different name. They call it “The War Against America”. It was disturbing to walk through a museum that had nothing good to say about the American serviceman. I know there were countless acts of courage and kindness performed by American servicemen during Vietnam. There are in every war, on both sides. Of course many of the displays at the ‘War Remnants Museum’ are pure propaganda but some are painfully true. Agent Orange has done lasting damage to both American servicemen and the Vietnamese.
One photo exhibit shared the North Vietnamese perspective of the war. The images show children, parents and grandparents dressed in rags and flip-flops working together to defeat their “American Aggressors”. They pedal, drag and carry weapons and food up steep narrow paths through dense jungle to their countrymen fighting on the front. The Vietnamese fought for decades for their freedom, initially against the French in the 1940’s and 50’s, then the Americans and their allies in the 60’s and 70’s. They were fighting for their families, homes and farms.
“In the War Against America we both lost,” said the tour guide. I heard that phrase often during my visit. There’s a lot of truth to the statement but nevertheless on April 30, 1975 the North Vietnamese Communist Army captured Saigon and brought the Vietnam War to an end. In Chicago it was known as the “Fall of Saigon”. In Vietnam it’s referred to as the “Reunification” and is celebrated with fireworks like America’s July 4th. To symbolize the reunification Saigon was merged with the surrounding province and renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of their revolutionary leader. Today only the central region is referred to as Saigon and its parks are filled with cascading flowers, girl scouts practicing knot tying, old folks sweating on bright yellow exercise equipment, teenagers practicing dance moves, and food venders practicing capitalism.
In Saigon stately buildings with elegant French facades mingle with glassy sky scrapers, produce merchants on bicycles pedal past cell phone stores and college students gather in book shops to sip lattes. There are other sights in Siagon, especially after dark, that the old Navy chiefs would recognize. Bars with friendly girls, streets with pick pockets, and massage parlors with happy endings. Saigon is a hodgepodge of East and West, communism and capitalism. Its vibrant parks and modern conveniences were a refreshing upgrade from Cambodia’s parched earth and daily power outages.
By the time I landed in Vietnam I had been on the road two months and the never-ending SE Asia heat was getting a bit annoying. For someone who’s more introvert than extrovert 8 weeks of changing languages, hunting for a bunk, and constantly introducing yourself to strangers is a challenge. Like earning your sea-legs it takes me a week or two to get into the vagabond-extrovert mindset. When I’m in the groove I can easily talk to anyone and I don’t care where I sleep or what I eat. By the time I claimed my bunk at the Tam hostel in Saigon my vagabond mindset was in full bloom. My travel persona was an old guy who loved meeting people and sleeping in stale rooms filled with snoring strangers. Apparently a part of me is truly like that. But the other part of me was thinking about heading home to the Pacific NW. There the temperature lingers between 40’s and 70’s year round and everything is green and lush. Where I live there’s plenty of places to hang a hammock and read a book or take a long hike through misty groves of cedar and Douglas fir. I live in a college town, not a retirement community, but still it’s referred to as “The city of subdued excitement”. There’s nothing extreme about my town. The people are reasonable, rush hour lasts less than sixty minutes, the air is fresh off the ocean and we’re making a concerted effort to clean our rivers and restore the salmon habitat. From my living room I look west across the sheltered waters of Bellingham Bay and if I turn my head a little north the snow capped Canadian Cascades come into view. Some might say, ‘I can see why you like to leave.’ Others may say, ‘Why would you ever leave?’
The odd thing is every once in a while I have to leave. I have to wander about and test myself physically, mentally and emotionally, despite my age. It doesn’t make me any stronger or tougher it just makes me more appreciative of home. In fact the older I get and the more miles I travel solo the more I miss my wife. Even when my vagabonding mindset is in peak form there are moments I silently whisper, “Sue would love this place. I wish she was here.”
But before I can see Sue I need to see the Mekong Delta and crawl through those Viet Cong tunnels.