Skip to main content

This is the fourth in a series of diaries about returning to Viet Nam after the war and meeting with our former enemy.

In Part 1 I wrote about returning in 1989 and meeting two former VC soldiers I had helped to capture and of meeting Cô Thu, a young lady who lived in the area where I had been a member of a combined USMC - Vietnamese militia unit (CAP) in 1968. In the early '90s Thu and I corresponded by mail and in one of her letters she remarked that the war had been "a nightmare for our village."

In Part 2 I attempted to describe some of the events that took place during the five month period, including Tet, while I had been in the area near Thu's home. This was written so that readers will have some understanding of life as it was in Thu's, and in her neighbors', "nightmare".

In 1993 I would travel again to Viet Nam and have dinner with her family at the home of her Uncle Bon in Da Nang. Part 3 describes a portion of that trip and the visit with Thu and Bon.

In this diary we'll visit a different area, one where I served as the platoon leader in a combined unit (Combined Action Platoon) in 1969 - 1970 and attempt to inform readers of what life was like for those of us, both American and Vietnamese, who lived there together. We'll also describe two subsequent post-war visits to that area and hopefully give readers some understanding of the human side of war and what it was like for those who lived with it for much of their lives. The map below shows what the area looked like in 1966.

A larger map of the Hue - Phu Bai area, including the area on the map below, can be found here.

Our unit's AO was in the areas shown on the map as Thon Luong Vien and Thon Ba Lang. The word "Thôn" means "hamlet" or "small village". The large body of water at the top-right is a lagoon which extends many kilometers along the coast line of central Viet Nam. The land shown at the far upper right is a portion of a barrier island that lies across the lagoon from the mainland. Beyond the narrow barrier island is the Gulf of Tonkin. The area shown here lies approximately 15 km due east of Huế. The grid lines on the map are one kilometer apart.

Note how, in 1966 when this map was made, the villages are located along the "road" between the rice growing low land adjacent to the lagoon and the area shown as small brown dots which is a largely barren, sandy area with some scatted areas of thick brush. There were many tombs, which appeared to have been hundreds of years old, scatted throughout this otherwise barren wasteland. In the Ba Lang and Luong Vien areas the villages had been located on a slope between the low land and the sand dunes above, spread out for many kilometers along a green island typically shaded by coconut and areca palms, jackfruit and banana trees, bamboo and other vegetation useful to the rural inhabitants.

When I arrived there in September of 1969 the villages had all been destroyed. The former tree-line vegetation lie splinted and broken, the houses reduced to rubble. It was nearly impossible to walk through it and, as my Viet counterpart told me upon arrival, full of hidden VC bunkers and booby traps. Two days before I arrived a Marine had stepped on a booby-trapped dud artillery round on the perimeter of the area and was killed. There were large, water filled bomb craters scatted about the former tree-line.

The relocated village of Ba Lang was a small cluster of makeshift huts in an open, unshaded area about halfway between the slope and the lagoon. The surrounding land was not being used for growing rice, simply fallow and unproductive. The "road" shown on the map was barely recognizable as a trail. To some these were signs of "progress in the war" and of "liberation from the 'commies'".

Our unit normally had a dozen Marines and a Navy Corpsman and we were teamed with a group of district level Vietnamese militia, about 20 men, with a sergeant, my counterpart - his name was Phu, as the platoon leader. We had no compound or base. We simply lived from our packs, moving to a new location every evening to set up our night harbor (main ambush) site and every morning to another location for our day pos where we could catch a few winks, eat some C-rations, visit with villagers or relax in relative safety. We would run patrols and ambushes out from our harbor sites, day and night. Many, or most, were uneventful. Those that were eventful, except for two incidents, resulted in death or serious injury to us or to the VC.

We did get to know many of the villagers on a personal basis. The young boys would often hang around our day-pos joking, sometimes engaging in horseplay with us. Some would wash our clothes in exchange for money or C-Ration chow. Once, after we began a daily accounting of our grenades, we discovered that they had stolen some grenades from us. With the help of our counterparts we were able to retrieve them. No one knew how many others they had taken prior to that. All of the KIAs and WIAs inflicted on our unit were from booby traps, usually armed with our own grenades or with dud artillery and mortar rounds, which were plentiful throughout our AO.

Many of us had an adopted family who kept a few things for us, a change of  clothing or letter writing gear. My "family" in Ba Lang kept a few items of mine. Occasionally I would catch a brief nap in the cool shade of their humble hut. Thím Thơm (Aunt Thơm) as I had come to call her, was the mother of three boys, the oldest about 12 or 13 years old. Her sons would heat water for me to shave on the cool rainy monsoon season mornings. I shared some C-Rations with her and had a set of cookware sent for her from the US, which pleased her very much. Her husband and children are in the adjacent photo in front of their home in 1969.

In the hamlet of Ba Lang there was a blacksmith, bác thợ rèn everyone called him. He had two daughters, both quite lovely. We used to visit his thatched home and shop to watch him work and keep an eye on the girls who assisted him. The older daughter, the prettier of the two, had only one arm. One day I asked him what had happened that she lost her arm. He briefly lost his composure, reddened and pointed upward to the sky. Máy bay!, he said (airplane), and then regained his composure and returned to his work.

There was a lady in Luong Vien, probably in her early 30's, who was very friendly and pleasant to speak with. We would sometimes chat at the market place, which was located in a grove of pine trees at the edge of the lagoon, or pass on one of the trails in the Luong Vien area. We would often exchange greetings and small talk. In February of 1970 one of our patrols killed two VC soldiers in a bunker. I was preparing a "spot report" we had to call into our CACO Hq and in the meantime curious villagers had been streaming out to see what had happened. I noticed our lady acquaintance bent down on her knees, tears flowing, her arms extended - raising and lowering them, wailing over one of the bodies. Perhaps he was her husband or maybe a brother. I can never forget the way she looked at me. I never saw her again but there are times when we meet in my dreams.

In 1989 upon my first return to the area, I once again walked the trail from the Quang Xuyen Market, just north and off of the "road" on map above, to Ba Lang. The villages were back in their former location along trail. The trail was well worn and wide enough for two bicycles to pass. The trees were already tall enough to shade the houses. Rice was high in the paddies in the fields between the trail and the lagoon. Tranquility had returned. I was amazed at how well the passage of time and the absence of war had healed the land. Curious young children came down to the trail from their homes on the slope. The older folks remained in the background but I could hear them telling the kids. "Người Mỹ, Người Mỹ". (American) they said, and a group of small children, numbers increasing as we walked, followed me on to Ba Lang. My heart was thumping.

In 1993 I would return once again. I found Phu's home near Hoa Da Dong, about 2 or 3 km distant from the southwest corner of the map. He was working in the fields when I arrived and a young neighbor boy was sent to fetch him. Despite 10 years of re-education and a life of relative poverty Phu had changed little in 23 years, deeper facial lines, still no gray. He was as jovial and optimistic as ever. His hearty laughter came easy and often. We rode motorbikes to the home of his son at Huong Thuy on Hwy 1 near the former US military bases at Phu Bai. His daughter-in-law prepared a huge feast, friends and relatives dropped by and we partied well into the night.

The following morning we met at my hotel in Hue and started off down the picturesque riverside Le Loi Street passing by Hai Ba Trung School for girls and Quoc Hoc School for boys. The Quoc Hoc school in Hue was at the heart of the student patriotic movement of central Viet Nam during the French Colonial period. General Vo Nguyen Giap studied there as a teenager. Our route took us to the downriver end of Hue along the south side of the Perfume River. We stopped for a break at a small open air cafe near Xuan O. Phu ordered bottles of the local carbonated spring water and he quickly pried the cap off of his with his teeth.

We stopped for a few hours to partake of another feast at the home of one of Phu's brothers adjacent to the lagoon at Quang Xuyen, just north of Ba Lang and then finally set off for Ba Lang.

Together we walked some of the same trails we had traced decades earlier. The land and the people were at peace but for me the rush was still there, along with a very complex mix of deep emotions which I don't have the words to describe. Phu walked beside me and laughed each time I snapped a photo of some villager working in the fields, a water buffalo or children herding a flock of ducks. Memories came flooding back, some pleasant, others not so much. It was like coming home after a long absence.

Phu led me to a humble thatched house with a dirt floor and gestured for me to go inside. In the semi-darkness a frail elderly lady was leaning back on a plank bed fanning herself with a palm frond. Before my eyes had adjusted to the lack of light she rose up and looked at me. "Con ơi, con ơi" (my child, my child) she cried out. It was my "aunt" Thim Thơm. She told me she was very poor and near death. I was at a loss for words. I gave her some money - US Dollars - I don't think she knew what they were. She was crying and I could not understand much of what she was saying. Finally Phu motioned for me to come along with him.

We met more villagers. Phu told me about so and so, about the village blacksmith who had died several years prior, the sick father of one of the two former VC we had captured in 1969 but I barely heard him. We returned again to his brother's waterside home at Quang Xuyen, dined again, had more tea and drank more rượu (rice whiskey). Following some wild motorbike rides through the villages we prepared for another feast at a friend's house near Huong Thuy and National Highway 1. I could not begin to keep up with their eating and drinking.

Phu was beginning to feel the effects of all the rượu and beer he had consumed as he explained to his friends and laughed about how he and I had visited Ba Lang earlier in the day. He told them how comical it was to see  anyone taking photos of water buffaloes and ducks, old ladies and little kids. He told them about Phan thi Thom, "Aunt Thom", and my relationship with her family in 1969 and 1970, and our meeting that afternoon. Then he told them that she and her family all supported "the revolution".

I was surprised but hardly shocked. Somehow it just didn't seem to matter any more.

With his 10 years in re-education Phu easily qualified for immigration to the US under the Orderly Departure Program. I initiated the paperwork in the US and months later he and his family arrived and settled in Roanoke, the city nearest my home with a significant population of Viet refugees. We nearly passed one another en route as I would soon be heading back to Viet Nam to live. I'll write about that in the final installment, Part 5.

Originally posted to truong son traveler on Sun Oct 21, 2007 at 05:57 AM PDT.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Dare I post a tip jar (23+ / 0-)

    In previous diaries they did not initially show up so I tried again and ended up with two. Embarrassing.

    We'll try again - for understanding, for peace and for reconciliation.

    White House Officials - "Well, unfortunately, we can't talk about oil."

    by truong son traveler on Sun Oct 21, 2007 at 06:15:50 AM PDT

  •  very compelling diary... (10+ / 0-)

    like the earlier intallments. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into your personal history. In 20 or 30 years, a new generation of soldiers may be writing similar memoirs about coming face-to-face again with their war in Iraq.

  •  Thanks for this, Tom!!! (6+ / 0-)

    Another terrific diary and one that, as you know, speaks to my heart.

    You are such an excellent writer, I wish I had the talent

    Good luck, see you on the other the saying went

    James the ex lrrp

    When guns are outlawed only conservatives will have guns

    by exlrrp on Sun Oct 21, 2007 at 07:17:39 AM PDT

    •  Left my heart in Vietnam (9+ / 0-)

      My soul too.
      I had to go back to get it.
      Thanks again

      When guns are outlawed only conservatives will have guns

      by exlrrp on Sun Oct 21, 2007 at 07:20:08 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Well, I thought your recent VN diary (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JaciCee, jimstaro, kidneystones, eastmt

      was pretty good. Keep trying. I'm very slow. It takes me a week or more to put most diaries together. Sometime by then the news is old. In these types of diaries that's not a problem though.

      Be sure to let me know if you get back this way again.

      White House Officials - "Well, unfortunately, we can't talk about oil."

      by truong son traveler on Sun Oct 21, 2007 at 07:22:28 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You betcha!! (4+ / 0-)

        I probly wouldn't go to Thailand normally, but I would to see a friend. I'd love to tour the Nam with you. Might even bring my wife again if you insisted on bringing yours (the last friend I toured the Nam with is also named Tom)

        Thats why your diaries are better, I usually just sit down and knock em out. But I'm going for more of a political effect on most of my diaries than you are (thanks for the rec on the last one, by the way)

        I'm a lrrp on a mission--to take down George Bush. I'm still working on it.  And just like on lrrp missions--it aint over till its over....and someone's lying on the ground not moving

        When guns are outlawed only conservatives will have guns

        by exlrrp on Sun Oct 21, 2007 at 07:33:24 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'd like to see the Central Highlands (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          jimstaro, eastmt

          You could show me around. I could show you the old I Corps area but now it's nothing like it used to be.

          I'd be up for a trip over there again. Haven't been back since mid 2002. It's just a bit over a one hour flight from here. Lots of interesting stuff in Laos and Cambodia also.

          White House Officials - "Well, unfortunately, we can't talk about oil."

          by truong son traveler on Sun Oct 21, 2007 at 07:45:12 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Incredible journey you are taking us on. (5+ / 0-)

    I would like to know more about the Orderly Departure Program.

    Not the church. Not the state. Women will decide their fate.

    by JaciCee on Sun Oct 21, 2007 at 07:42:40 AM PDT

    •  Orderly Departure (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JaciCee, Simplify, cfk, jimstaro, eastmt

      I will have to do some research JaciCee. The program ended in September of 1994. My former counterpart Phu barely made it on time. I don't remember what the qualifications were, thinking a minimum of 3 years in re-education but don't quote me on that. I would guess there were other conditions that would qualify one for ODP. It was basically an agreement between the US and Viet Nam before the normalization of relations and I believe the the UN also had a hand in it.

      Will get back to you on that.

      White House Officials - "Well, unfortunately, we can't talk about oil."

      by truong son traveler on Sun Oct 21, 2007 at 07:56:33 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hi Again TST (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    truong son traveler

    Sorry I'm late, the son of my old friend was married over the weekend and I had to officiate - you know Chinese Weddings are so troublesome!

    Your story was great as usual, but I'm wondering, have you kept contact with Phu since you left the USA? What & how is he doing?

    Your story & map brought back memories of my first trip to VN. When I take a bus from Hanoi to Hue, and while visiting the area I happened upon a Buddhist Funeral procession on a road between rice paddies, they were headed for the coast area. It was late afternoon and I stopped to pay respects as they passed,then realized it was so beautifl there I just stood to watch them until they faded from view.

    Another is, I didn't know Vo Nguyen Giap was from Hue City. I always assumed he was from Hanoi but it makes sense because he's such a straight-forward & plain spoken person, it makes sense he's from the provincial area.

    I'm evry surprisd you live in Thailand but haven't been tovVN for 5 years. Why not? It's so close. Saigon and Hanoi are changing so fast, you better go back soon and catch-up.

    Wishing you well, and waiting for Part 5.

    "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results" - Albert Einstein

    by koNko on Mon Oct 22, 2007 at 08:24:39 AM PDT

    •  koNko, thanks again for reading (0+ / 0-)

      Unfortunately, no I've not kept in contact with Phu. We did exchange a few letters but I've lost track of him. I think he has moved from Roanoke. I had heard from someone else that members of his family were involved in a fatal auto accident. Several family members had been working at a Holiday Inn Motel in the Roanoke area at low paying jobs but with all of them working together and pooling their money they were getting along and adjusting okay.

      General Giap is not from Hue but he attended school there. I believe, but can't say with 100% certainty, that he is from Quang Binh Province, two provinces north of Thua Thien (Hue).

      Yes, five years is a long time and time passes so quickly. It's not because I haven't wanted to go back but circumstances and family obligations here make it very difficult to get away. I have friends passing through here frequently and they keep me updated on many of the changes, especially around the Da Nang and Hue areas.

      Part 5 should be ready next week.

      Your comments are appreciated. Thanks again koNko.

      White House Officials - "Well, unfortunately, we can't talk about oil."

      by truong son traveler on Tue Oct 23, 2007 at 05:33:21 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site