April 2017

Vietnam: Then and Now

Volume 100, Issue 4

Sara W. Bock

In December 2016, members of a Military Historical Tours group listen as Vietnamese guide Nguyen Ngoc Bang Phi explains about the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon. The nearly 25 miles of tunnels provided safe travel for Communist forces. Today they are open for inspection by tourists.
P.L. Thompson

Crushing heat, sopping rain, the triple-tiered jungle, insects of every variety, snakes, wide open rice paddies, dusty roads, long rides in the back of a six-by and a calendar that seemed to creep by so slowly that one year seemed like five. Welcome to Vietnam, Marine.

Remember the huge tin terminal building at the Da Nang airport, where Marines waited for a flight to somewhere in country, or R & R or the “Freedom Bird” flight home? Remember the table in the terminal with a huge stack of free books, and the sign that read, “Take one, leave one?”

If you were a helicopter crewmember who flew out of Ky Ha, near Chu Lai, do you remember the beautiful beaches that no one ever had time to visit? And every Marine who was in Vietnam will always remember the unique sound made by the Huey helicopters.

If you served in Chu Lai, you grew accustomed to the never-ending sound of jet aircraft taking off and landing all day and most of the night. Or maybe you served at Phu Bai during the monsoon season when the heavy rains kept all the helicopters on the ground day after day and you were always wet and then nearly froze at night.

If you served in one of the reconnaissance battalions, perhaps you remember being on radio watch at night, in the rain, atop a jungle mountain, clicking the microphone and hearing, “Unknown station ... unknown station ... the time is zero-three-forty-two.” Everyone clicked the radio more than necessary just to hear a friendly voice in the dark night.

Or perhaps you served with the 2d Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment, south of Hill 55, making sweep after sweep through village after village.

Were you a member of the 5th Marines in Hue City for that bloody fight that lasted the month of February? At the same time, the 26th Marines held Khe Sanh, facing attack after attack, for more than 70 days. Perhaps you were there, instead.

No matter where you served, it was a long, hard year. You can remember that it was extremely hot or frigidly cold, but thankfully, your body can’t recall it again. And perhaps the stories of how hot, cold or wet it was and how miserable you were increase a little with each retelling over the years.

All of this and much more was a tour for every Marine in Vietnam. All Marines remember their time there; it’s hard to forget. But have you ever wondered what Vietnam is like today? Come with us for a trip back—you may be surprised.

Vietnam Today

Traveling in Vietnam is not difficult if you plan ahead. If you want to go back to Vietnam, think of the visit as a military operation, where careful planning provides the best chance for a successful trip. You need a clear idea of where you want to go and how you might get there.

The easiest method of travel to and around Vietnam is with a professional company that knows the area. A touring company can let you enjoy your trip so you don’t have to worry about what can be a logistical nightmare in a country where you do not speak the language, don’t understand the transportation system and have no idea how to find what you want to see.

One organization that creates an excellent tour of Vietnam (and other places of military interest) is Military Historical Tours (MHT) based in Woodbridge, Va. It offers a complete tour package, including transportation while in Vietnam, meals, hotels and local guides who speak English. The company makes every effort to help you visit almost any area where you may have served. The MHT escorts are Marine veterans and Army personnel, many of whom served tours in Vietnam and have made the trip back many times. They, in turn, work with Vietnamese transportation companies, hotels and local guides to coordinate a hassle-free experience. The well-planned tour is one that is educational, fun, and nostalgic for those of us who served in Vietnam.

In December 2016, along with 12 other Americans, I took one of MHT’s trips to Vietnam. The group included seven Vietnam veterans, a heavily decorated group of Marines, soldiers and airmen. Their awards attest to their combat records and include three Distinguished Flying Crosses; Bronze Stars; Purple Hearts; more Air Medals than can be counted; numerous Army, Air Force and Navy Commendation Medals and a lengthy collection of campaign ribbons. Several had more than one tour of duty in country. They made this tour, as one explained, as “a trip down memory lane.” Family members accompanied many of the veterans.

MHT begins their Vietnam tours in Saigon, which served as the capital city of South Vietnam during the war. Many Vietnam veterans have never seen the city, even though all services had military personnel who served there, including the Marines who were at the embassy and those attached to the Military Assistance Command.

Although officially known today as Ho Chi Minh City, almost everyone still refers to it as Saigon. A very experienced Vietnamese tour guide, who often works with MHT, said of the name change, “If a person is speaking to a government official, they will say Ho Chi Minh City. If we are talking among ourselves, we almost always say ‘Saigon.’ When we say Saigon, we mean no disrespect to Ho Chi Minh; Saigon is a short name and it is just easier to say and less formal. I think both names will always be used.”

An arrival for a tour in modern Vietnam is a bit of a shock for those of us who were there so long ago. Arriving at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport, a modern, international facility that offers quick and professional service comparable to any major city, it is a far cry from the air facilities used during the Vietnam War.

Saigon, Da Nang, Phu Bai, Hue City and many other cities are fast-paced modern places that look nothing like the Vietnam most veterans will remember. The cities, and much of Vietnam, are so changed that it is very difficult to find areas you might recognize, even when a guide points out where these places once were located.

The first thing you notice in Saigon is the motorbikes that are the primary method of privately owned transportation in Vietnam. According to the Vietnamese government, Saigon has 7.45 million registered motorbikes for a population believed to be more than 8 million people. These motorbikes seem to come from every direction at about the same speed and engage in a very civilized game of “chicken.” The rider who uses the brakes first must permit the other rider to go ahead. It is not unusual to see two, three or four people on a small motorbike, or a motorbike loaded far past what would seem to be a manageable load. A pedestrian learns quickly not to stop in the middle of the street when attempting to cross. You just keep walking, and the bikes will curve around you.

Those who spent some time in Saigon will remember the Caravelle Hotel, best known for its outdoor, rooftop bar. Opened in 1959, it was home to journalists from NBC, CBS and ABC and nearly a battalion of newspaper reporters and photographers during the war years.

The Caravelle is now a large and modern five-star hotel. When the new Caravelle was built several years ago, the original hotel was incorporated into the new structure. For many, the old Caravelle was too full of memories and ghosts to be taken down. The famous outdoor Saigon-Saigon Bar is still there at the top where, during the Vietnam War, TV reporters filmed their news reports with the city in the background.

Today, Saigon is a city of huge hotels, large office buildings, well-paved roads, tree-lined streets, beautiful restaurants and hundreds of motorbike and car dealerships. It has upscale clothing stores, travel companies, airline offices and almost any kind of business found in modern cities today. This is also true for Da Nang, Hue City, Hanoi, and to a lesser degree, smaller cities.

But make no mistake; Vietnam is a Communist country with only one political party. The Vietnamese form of government has changed a great deal in the past 30 years. It is not the “lock step” form of government expected of a hard-line Communist regime. The government permits and encourages private business, and there is very active investment in the Vietnamese stock market. According to a recent report by the World Bank and the United States Department of State, Vietnam is one of the fastest growing countries in the world and boasts a dramatic reduction in poverty in recent years.

Foreign investment has grown at a fast rate, and the United States is now Vietnam’s main trading partner. A recent article in The Washington Post notes that in the past 20 years, trade between the U.S. and Vietnam has grown from $450 million to $45 billion dollars annually.

Former Army helicopter pilot and Vietnam veteran Don Weippert and other members of our tour group were pleasantly surprised by the Vietnam of today. “We all agreed that Vietnam was doing much better than we thought it would. None of us expected it to or really believed it could have moved forward at such a fast pace. It seems to be doing very well.”

Touring Vietnam

My tour began as most MHT tours do—with the Cu Chi tunnel system often used by those fighting against the government of South Vietnam during the war. The tunnels extended for miles underground and included hospitals, workshops, armories, schools and kitchens. Part of the tunnels are now open for public tours. According to Vietnamese guide, Nguyen Ngoc Bang Phi, “The tunnels have been enlarged to make it easier for larger tourists to get in and out of the tunnel. Most American tourists are larger than a Vietnamese.”

The next day, the group visited the Mekong Delta in the southern part of the country. Nicknamed the “River of Nine Dragons” due to the nine long rivers that make up the Mekong, it is the rice bowl of Vietnam. Enough rice is produced there to also allow for exports, making it extremely valuable to the Vietnamese economy. During the war, many American units fought there, including the 9th Marines and the 173rd Airborne. The Navy’s heavily armed Swift Boats tried to keep the rivers clear of the enemy. Now, however, a trip through the area is peaceful, beautiful and fun.

Da Nang was our next stop after a short flight on Vietnam Airlines’ new American-made Boeing aircraft. Almost all Marines who served in Vietnam were familiar with Da Nang which was the site of the Marines’ first landing in Vietnam in 1965 at Red Beach.

Today, Da Nang is crowded with hotels, restaurants and beach cabanas. It is a very popular place for foreign tourists and Vietnamese families to visit. Just south of Red Beach is the recreation center known as China Beach, which also bustles with hotels and apartment buildings dotting the beautiful coastline.

Da Nang, like any successful beach community, has several hundred hotels and apartment buildings along the beaches, and you can’t help but notice new building construction throughout the town. These continue south almost to Marble Mountain.

During the war, Marines visited Marble Mountain and often commissioned a desk plaque with their name cut into the marble, or bought a statue of some kind. Now the Marble Mountain area is full of stores selling figurines and statues of every size and description.

The tour group did not stay in Da Nang for long, but continued south past Marble Mountain and settled for two nights in Hoi An. Hoi An was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Visiting Hoi An is a step back in time to the 15th century when this coastal village was the major trading port for Vietnam. Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, Arab and many other merchants used the ports of Hoi An to distribute and trade their goods.

Walking the narrow streets in Hoi An gives tourists the opportunity to see the city’s historic district of homes, small shops, markets, bridges and temples. After visiting Hoi An, the tour returned to Da Nang, to the place once known as “Dog Patch.” Like other areas around the country, Dog Patch has improved significantly since the war years. The road through Dog Patch led from Da Nang to the Marine headquarters on Freedom Hill. Dog Patch served cold beer, but more importantly, you could buy stolen military equipment there.

The tour bus quickly moved north and began the climb up to the top of Hai Van Pass. One member of our group, Omer Hadsall, was in one of the first Marine convoys to cross the Pass in 1966 with “Echo” Company, 2d Bn, 9th Marines. Hadsall said, “That was not a pleasant trip because enemy action was expected. No shots were fired, but we were very glad to reach Phu Bai on the other side of that pass. A firefight on that steep, winding road would have been terrible.” He continued with a big smile, “Crossing the pass in a new air-conditioned bus was much better than riding in the back of a six-by.”

The ancient imperial capital of Hue was the next stop. Hue was the scene of a monthlong battle during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Two of us had been there almost 50 years ago. Retired Air Force Colonel Bill Pelham had stayed there for a few days some time before the battle. I had been in Hue for most of the battle during Tet, reporting for Leatherneck.

Vietnamese guide Tran Quoc Cong pointed out where the Military Assistance Command (MACV) Compound was once located. For 20 or so minutes, Col Pelham and I looked at the area from high atop the hotel which was just across the street. We could not recognize anything.

Most of Hue City was badly damaged or destroyed in the Tet Offensive. One group of buildings that was repaired and could be easily identified was the university, which had been the scene of intense fighting during the battle. Today, however, it is a beautiful hotel. The university was moved to a different part of the city some years ago, but the original buildings still remain.

Another area that was easy to recognize was the famous Dong Ba Gate that leads into the Citadel and the Imperial Palace. Much of the gate had been destroyed and while it is still easy to see battle damage, the gate has been repaired. Thousands of people each day pass on their motorbikes through its narrow opening.

A visit to the throne room of the emperors of Vietnam and the beautiful buildings of the imperial court was an important part of the tour. After leaving Hue City, the tour continued to Camp Eagle, an American Army base a few miles east of the city. Two members of our tour group, retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Steve Sampson and Don Weippert, had been stationed there as helicopter pilots during the war. The bus drove slowly by the site of the camp. “There is nothing here ... nothing at all. This is hard to believe. You can’t even tell where this huge camp was,” Sampson said. “Nothing now but empty land with grass and old dirt roads,” Weippert added.

A flight north from the Phu Bai airport took the tour group to Hanoi, now the capital of Vietnam. The only Americans who were in Hanoi during the war years were prisoners of war, so this leg of the tour was eagerly anticipated.

Vietnam still traces its independence to the end of French rule, and many of the buildings in Hanoi show a European influence that may be traced back to the colonial era. French influence can also be seen in many of the restaurants across the city and by the many shops that sell French bread and pastries.

The most visited site in Hanoi is the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. A long line leads visitors into the mausoleum to view the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh in its glass case.

There is much more to see in Hanoi, including a stone marker near the lake where Arizona Senator John McCain’s parachute landed after his airplane was shot down. The marker is interesting because it has a noticeable mistake—it says, “USAF.” McCain, a proud graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the son and grandson of Navy officers, served in the Navy for more than 20 years.

MHT’s December trip added to the memories of Vietnam for each of us returning veterans. These new memories contain no suffering, no wounds and no rush of adrenalin, but instead detail a country that has successfully moved past its war years and continues to grow as it looks toward a bright future.

Author’s bio: P.L Thompson was one of the last active-duty Marines who did a tour with

. Two years later, he moved to the Voice of America, the government’s international broadcast facility in Washington, D.C., as a writer/producer/director. He retired from VOA after 21 years.

P.L. Thompson was one of the last active-duty Marines to do a tour with Leatherneck. He made four trips to Vietnam for the magazine to cover stories, and spent almost a month in Hue City during the Tet Offensive.