Vietnam Personal Accounts


By Ken Zebal
"I'm leaving on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again..."  Peter, Paul & Mary c. 1968

     "Good evening ladies and gentlemen welcome aboard Viet-Nam Airlines Flight 57, our flying time tonight from Hong Kong to Hanoi will be one hour and twenty minutes."

     It had been 27 years since I last boarded an airplane heading for Viet-Nam and then it was as a young Marine Captain heading back to Viet-Nam for a second tour duty, leaving behind a young wife and newly born son in Washington, D.C. A lot of things have occurred over the past quarter of century both in my life and my country's life. I survived that second tour of duty as a tank company commander came home, and decided to stay in the Marines for a career. I raised a family of four children, and witnessed our country go full circle with Viet-Nam from no diplomatic relations to the recent opening of full diplomatic relations, and recently opening the American Embassy in Hanoi.

     When I finished my second tour of duty with the First Marine Division and boarded a Continental Airlines stretch 8 on September 6, 1969 I was overjoyed that I was going home and had survived yet another tour in combat, but as we climbed out on that rainy day so long ago and headed to Okinawa I thought that some day I would like to return to the land below me and visit the people again. Not as a warrior but in peace and in some small way try to help the people who were so devastated by centuries of war. Just prior to leaving for a trip to Hong Kong I decided why not now, so here I was heading back to Viet-Nam but this time not with a lot of Marines but a plane full of Viet-Namese civilians who boarded the plane with me in Hong Kong.

      As I departed Hong Kong aboard a brand-new Aerobus 320 bound for Hanoi, the capitol of Viet-Nam, my first impression was that the French never really left Indo-China as the airplane and the flight crew were all French. The cabin attendants were Viet-Namese, but otherwise the announcements were in both French first and then English. In any event it was a very pleasant, short flight with great service and a chance to chat with a Viet-Namese business man who was seated next to me during the flight. He was quite open about where Viet-Nam was heading and was just returning from a business trip to Japan. During the beverage service my seat partner, Mr. Nhuan, insisted I try the fine Hanoi beer, Halida, which I did and found it quite good. Mr. Nhuan asked me where I was staying in Hanoi and I told him the Dong Do Hotel whereupon he offered to drive me there after our arrival in Hanoi.

     "I'm going downtown, things will be better there, much brighter there, downtown..."

     Upon arrival at Bai Noi International Airport we deplaned, and I found Hanoi's terminal not unlike other terminals throughout China, very old and small but quite well staffed, and I moved through immigration and customs rather quickly. I needed another photo in addition to the one on my visa but it was not a problem, for $2.00 U.S. of course, a quick polaroid photo was taken and I was clear to go. Outside the immigration and baggage area was quite a crowd of taxi drivers all trying to get a fare to take to the city which is about 20 miles away. However, being with Mr. Nhuan we loaded his company van and I met the rest of his family and we were off to Hanoi. The highway into Hanoi from the airport is a modern, 4-lane expressway and almost void of any traffic except an occasional truck or bus and the local bicycle traffic from the farming villages in the area. In about 40 minutes we arrived at the Dong Do Hotel which is also the home of the famous Sunset Pub, a roof top pub frequented by the expatriates on a regular basis. After bidding Mr. Nhuan and his family farewell I checked into the hotel and found it very clean, air-conditioned and while it was vintage it had a certain charm about it that made it quite comfortable during my stay in Hanoi. Before turning in for the night I went up to the Sunset Pub which has a nice barbecue buffet every Sunday night and is kind of happening for the foreigners who reside in Hanoi. I met up with several expats from the US and Europe and chatted a bit with them before calling it a day.

      The next morning I went out for a jog through the city and found Hanoi coming alive very early but the first thing that struck me was the paucity of vehicular traffic, there were thousands of bicycles and cyclos (3-wheel bicycle with a chair up front for a passenger) and hundreds of Honda motor scooters but very few trucks and cars were almost nonexistent. No one paid much attention to me jogging except a few kids who start to jog alongside me and wanted to shine my running shoes.

     I tried politely to convey to them that I normally do not shine my running shoes but they insisted to no avail of course. In addition to the bicycles and Hondas there were hundreds of mostly women carrying their goods to the market on poles as they have been doing throughout Asia for centuries. Hanoi was alive and an interesting observation was that every vehicle that had a horn was using it incessantly, it was almost like their vehicles were programmed at the factory to blow, beep, beep, beep....beep, beep. To the Viet-Namese the horns go unnoticed but to the Westerner it soon becomes annoying as they blow their horns for really no reason it seems.

      After a good Western-style breakfast with a cup of coffee that you could stand the spoon in, I was off to check in at the newly opened U.S. Embassy which was just about a block away from the Dong Do Hotel. So off I went with my camcorder, slide camera and another camera and felt like an amateur Charles Kuralt, "on the road in Hanoi". It was quite an experience to see the Stars and Stripes fluttering in front of the American Embassy after not having flown in Viet-Nam since the U.S. forces left in 1972. The embassy is virtually still in the unpacking stage as I was told an ambassador still has not been appointed and they are getting settled in to handle the variety of tasks required by our State Department in a foreign country. The embassy staff was very courteous and helpful in recommending to me the best way to see Hanoi and told me to call the Green Bamboo Tour Company to arrange for a car and interpreter. In about an hour Mr. Linh, my interpreter, and a fairly new, air-conditioned Camry with driver, picked me up at my hotel and we started our tour of Hanoi. The weather was overcast but very humid, the air-conditioned car made it a pleasure to tour this fascinating, ancient city. The charge for next 6 hours was $35, US of course, and undoubtedly the best way to see Hanoi. Mr. Linh's English was excellent and he knew the city and ensured that I would see everything that he thought was important. I also wanted to see the Military Museum in Hanoi and the Hanoi Hilton to name a few places on my list of sites to see.

      Hanoi is a fascinating city and it dispelled in my mind a lot of previous information that I had heard from people who had visited Viet-Nam about this old, historic city in Indo-China. I found the people very friendly and polite but a bit reserved not bubbling over like you would find farther south in Ho Chi Minh City for example. Everywhere I went in Hanoi I witnessed people working hard and long hours to try to better their standard of living. It did not seem to me that they were waiting around for something to happen but were out and about from before sunrise until well after sunset either working or shopping.

     There is little if any evidence of the last war except for some very large bomb craters near the international airport that the farmers have converted to ponds. What I saw was a young nation trying to get started and while lacking the capital investment other countries were fortunate to receive from Western nations after other wars this country was for all intent and purposes rid of the Russians and wants so desperately to develop into a thriving economic nation in Asia.

      Prior to leaving Hanoi on my last night I called and met with a friend's husband, Tim Larimer, a free-lance journalist, who was now living in Hanoi with his wife who runs the press bureau for the San Jose Mercury News in Hanoi. Like most "expats" it is always pleasant after a day on the road to recover to a good "watering hole" and in Hanoi the Sunset Pub located on the rooftop of the Dong Do Hotel is just that kind of place and a favorite of the foreign community who live and travel through Hanoi. It is always interesting to trade tales and share information and network as you travel and Tim provided me with a lot of good information as well as made the evening quite pleasant as we drank a few Tiger beers and shared our tales.

      The next day it was an early reveille during a terrific rain storm to head out to the airport and south to DaNang, where I had spent my last tour of duty with the Marines. Again, a French-leased and piloted aircraft flew us down the coast with excellent service and coffee that was very palatable. As we started our descent into DaNang I started to pickup some very familiar landmarks having spent a lot of time flying in the left seat of a Marine Huey so many years before out of Marble Mountain Airfield. I saw the DaNang harbor and bay come up on my left side and for a moment was back there flying with Skip Flint heading into Marble after a hop somewhere in I Corps (what the U.S. forces called that region where the Marines operated). I anxiously searched for our old home base where Marine Air Group - 16 (MAG-16) lived and flew to those remote places in the theater in support of Marine and allied operations. Then it appeared and it was deserted and barren, looked like it was straight out of the old movie with Gregory Peck, Twelve O'Clock High, there wasn't an aircraft on the strip, the old hangers were deserted and weeds had taken over just about everywhere there wasn't concrete or asphalt. As it was a short span to look, I searched in vain for the old Officers Club by the sea but couldn't find it, maybe it had been consumed by a storm or the materials for other projects, in any event it wasn't there. Across from MAG-16 the strip was shared by the U.S.Army's Blackcat helicopter units whose Hueys were flown by those brave, magnificent 19 year old warrant officers who never let things like weather or the enemy's ground fire deter them from flying into harm's way to medevac a wounded Marine or soldier or deliver some much needed supplies to a beleaguered unit on the ground. Not that the Marine aviation squadrons didn't do a helluva job in the war but the Army chopper warrants always held a special place in my heart as on so many occasions at the spur of a moment I could call on them to bail us out of a tight situation. I can recall one day during the monsoons when the clouds were so low you could almost touch them and we had an emergency medevac and all Marine aircraft were waiting for it to lift. We went to the Army "Dustoff" (emergency medevac) frequency and requested a "dustoff" and like a miracle 20 minutes later we could hear but not see a helicopter coming to our position and then saw a couple of young Army Warrants driving their Huey right down the road about 20 feet above the ground.  They skidded into our LZ picked up our emergency medevac and were out of the zone again right on the deck. They were fearless and flew their choppers like any 19 year old on Saturday night drove pop's car. Where did we find such men? I wondered where they are today?

      Now we were on final approach into DaNang airport which was during the war probably busier than O'Hare airport, as on one side was Marine Air Group -11 and on the other side the U.S. Air Force 366th Tactical Fighter Wing and several other U.S. Naval and Army aviation units operating from the field. Not to mention the most loved and revered "freedom birds", those contracted DC-8s and jet airliners that brought us "into country" for our tours but were also our ticket to freedom and the "land of the big PX". There were sorties being flown in and out of this airfield around the clock seven days a week and now it look totally deserted except for some ancient MIG-19s and 21s near the old MAG-11 flight line that look like they hadn't been moved or flown in weeks or maybe months. The old U.S. Air Force side was a ghost town with whatever hangers that were left were in shambles. We landed and taxied to the airport terminal which was again straight out of a Bogart movie and very basic but the exit was smooth and effortless. Outside the Da Nang terminal were many taxis anxious to get a fare; there was no problem bartering for the best price.

      On to the Bach Dang Hotel which was located on the DaNang River (at least that's what we Americans called the river in the old days). The hotel was very clean and the room offered a beautiful view of the river at $50 US per night. Two queen size beds and a private bath and balcony. By now the weather was really turning down and it looked like the rains were here to stay for a few days. I then called a local taxi company and arranged for a car and driver to tour the old places in the DaNang to ChuLai region that I had lived and fought in so many years ago. Again, a very nice air-conditioned van arrived with a driver whose English was about as good as my Viet-Namese so I tried Chinese (my second language) and got no response so I knew we were in for a lot of dictionary drills. I showed my driver on the map where I wanted to go and he acknowledged or indicated to me, "piece of cake" I do this routinely just sit back and enjoy the scenery Yank. As we journeyed along the roads I noticed that the roads had really deteriorated since I had last been to Viet-Nam as the Navy SeaBees were no long there to maintain them. Anyone who ever served with the SeaBees knows that they are the greatest, work is something they love and the only time they stop is to eat and for several hours of sleep (and beer call). Their motto: CAN DO, says it all.

      Anyhow it was a rough ride exiting the DaNanag city area and my driver sure loved to blow his horn whether there was any one or thing on the road or not, he was programmed to keep tapping it as he drove. The area looked vaguely familiar but after 26 years it was hard to get the computer on line and I was trying hard to get a geo-location fix as we bounced through the villages outside DaNang. I had noticed the mountains west of DaNang seem to be getting closer and without a compass soon found out we were heading toward Laos and westward not south as I had instructed my driver. He then admitted sheepishly that he didn't know where we were heading and said, "please show me." So I took over as navigator until we got back to the National Highway 1, which if you did not have a map you would think you are still in the sticks. National Highway 1, the coastal highway in Viet-Nam, is for the most part just slightly over one lane in width, poorly maintained with potholes of all sizes all along the way and absent of any form of traffic control or signage. On this highway you will see water buffaloes, kids walking to school, overloaded mini-buses built for 10 passengers carrying 18 people and 4 pigs and 12 chickens and the national buses (not like our Greyhound or Trailways) carrying passengers from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) all the way to Hanoi. I would venture to estimate that the Ho Chi Minh City-Hanoi trip has to take 3 days not so much due to distance as to the conditions of the roads, bridges and rivers you have to ford as you travel the scenic and beautiful coastal country road.

      As the rains got heavier things slowed down but the people just put on ponchos and continued to cram the roads traveling to the next town or market. The scenery along the road is just fascinating as you pass all the emerald rice paddies and see the beautiful foliage that is Viet-Nam and see how the people continue to live like they did for the past century with little or no electricity or indoor plumbing. But now it seems more enjoyable for everyone as the guns are silent and no one is dying from friendly or enemy shells, bullets or mines. Peace at last. Viet-Nam has spent thousands of years at war intermixed with a few years of peace, I thought about this and silently prayed that the young boys and girls I saw on the roads and in the towns would never know war. Our boys and girls in America are so fortunate to live in a nation such as ours. Heavens knows their parents and grandparents had been through hell in the past and it would be nice to hope and think these kids would have a real, lasting peace and lead normal lives in this lush, tropical Asian land of charm and beauty.

      As we journeyed south towards the old U.S. base at Chu Lai south of Tam Ky the area started to look very familiar as it was where I spent my first tour of duty as a young tank platoon commander with the 3rd Marine Division in 1965 some 30 years earlier.

      When we crossed the bridge at An Tan I was now in an area that looked the same as it did 3 decades ago, the only difference being it was a lot quieter and there were no Marine convoys and patrols up and down National Highway 1 as then. Upon arrival at the gate to the air base at Chu Lai we stopped to take a photograph as their was a Viet-Nam military sentry on duty and the driver said we could not enter the base. After taking the photograph we made a U-turn and were preparing to return to DaNang when the sentry ran out of his guard box and locked and loaded on our vehicle with his AK-47 shouting at us in Viet-Namese (of course). My driver was alarmed and started to drive away when I told him to stop as I did not want to experience after 2 combat tours of duty AK-47 rounds rattling at us as they have a very distinct sound and I respect the weapon's lethality and accuracy. I instructed my driver to disembark and tell the sentry that I was an American who was just visiting Viet-Nam. My driver left the vehicle and the sentry took him into the guard box for about 20 minutes and then my driver returned and said the sentry wanted my camera, I had a video camera, a slide camera and a paper box camera, so just gave him the paper box camera in case the guard confiscated it. Later 2 young officers walked up to the van looked at me and said nothing and left. Then an older man came up and smiled, this was a good sign, and after about 10 minutes my driver came back with my box camera and was shaking like a leaf, he told me we could go that he had to pay the sentry 100,000 dong = US $10 in order to get my camera back. Needless to say both my driver and I wanted to put as much distance between Chu Lai as we could and wasted no time heading back to DaNang in driving rain storm. This incident put a bit of a damper on my sentimental journey to Viet-Nam and I spent several minutes thanking God for delivering us from that incident. If the sentry wanted to open up on us it would have ruined my whole day. Note: I found out the next day when I had a seasoned driver, Mr. Tuan, that all we had to do was approach the sentry, pay him his little fee and then he would have let us take all the photographs we wanted and probably even let us pose for a picture with him, the sentry was entrepreneurial and didn't want to lose probably his only customer of the day.

      Returning to DaNang I was glad to see the Bach Dang hotel and recovered for a few hours from an exciting afternoon. Like Hanoi there is a favorite "watering hole" in DaNang also it is called "Christie's" and frequented by expats, of course. There weren't many patrons there initially, one German, two Aussies and a Brit but later on in the evening several Americans showed up and had few drinks and dinner which was very good and very inexpensive. The Tiger beers tasted extremely good that evening as I recalled the day's events with the bartender, a Viet-Namese gentleman who used to work as an interpreter at the U.S. air base in DaNang during the war. He shared with me very openly his concern for the economy and hoped that the U.S. would return in force economically to help Viet-Nam get back on its feet after decades of poor economic times.

      He informed me that everyone was glad that the Russians were gone as they really didn't do much for Viet-Nam but were there just to use the country and its people for their gains. This same sentiment was echoed on the following day by another Viet-Namese citizen to me.

     The weather got worse through the night and while the accommodations in the local hotel were great, the sound of the river traffic, i.e, the small junk boat engines, throughout the night stirred memories of previous times in country when I was stationed to the south and we enforced river curfews during the hours of darkness.

     China Beach, recently made popular by a TV show, was one of the sights I revisited the next day and found it totally deserted except for a few foreigners who were in the ocean in the driving rain it was desolate and no longer teeming with the activity and excitement when there would be hundreds of U.S. service personnel enjoying "in country R & R" at its cottages, restaurants and recreation activities. It was cold, rainy and dreary and the old buildings save a new hotel were deserted and not a soul using them even though my driver told me it was now the Viet-Namese Armed Forces R & R Center. Leaving the area it was eerie as it was so totally void of activity.

      The best part of the day was that I had a great driver and he was very conversant in English and gave me a lot of insight into what was taking place in Viet-Nam and how he longed for a great economic adventure soon with the U.S. Mr. Tuan told me that the Viet-Namese people really missed the Americans and hoped we would return soon to do business and help their economy flourish like we have in other countries of Asia. Passing the Marble Mountain airfield and Naval Support Activity (NSA) field hospital across the road from the airfield I saw nothing that resembled the past but just a lot of run down, deserted buildings and huts. It was like we had never been there and just some skeletons were left that were a witness to our presence in the past.

     Prior to heading back to Hanoi we toured the area around the old U.S. airbase at DaNang and while there was a lot of activity in the city it was evident that the economy was still very local and in need of energizing by some external force. Everything was old, run down and antiquated it was like going through a museum and seeing all the old relics of another era displayed before you. Everyone was moving and going some where but it appeared they didn't know where or why they were in action.

     Touring the old airbase on the old U.S. Air Force side it was definitely straight out of "12 O'Clock High."   All the beautiful facilities and buildings that were the U.S. Air Force's base for the 366th Tactical Fight Wing were either falling down or windowless or just sitting there rotting away in the rain. Looking across the field to the Marine side where Marine Air Group-11 (MAG-11) once lived in much more "austere" dwellings it was deserted and also in need of repair save as I mentioned earlier for a few old hangars that housed some MIG-19 & 21 aircraft it was lifeless.

      Leaving DaNang I bid farewell and took a picture with my driver, Mr. Tuan, and promised him that if and when I return to Viet-Nam again he certainly would be my first choice to be my driver again. The aircraft that flew me back to Hanoi was not a sleek Aerobus but an ancient Aeroflot passenger jet that was equipped very spartanly and other than that its engines were turning quite well you couldn't say much more about its passenger comforts.

     Arriving in Hanoi it was a sunny Autumn day and I felt like I had just won the lottery when I was informed by a pretty flight attendant at Hanoi International that my flight from Hanoi to Hong Kong would be on Cathay Pacific Airlines, undoubtedly one of the premiere carriers in the world in my book. After take off and when we reached cruise altitude the attendant asked me to choose a beverage from the cocktail list provided to me in coach class, I selected the Australian champagne and flying out of Viet-Nam over the land below while sipping the champagne I thought in my mind the war was finally over for me as I reflected on my two tours in Viet-Nam so many years ago. What a change, my last exit was in a stretch DC-8, Continental Airlines, loaded with a bunch of Marines heading for Okinawa and now here I sat in regal comfort on a champagne flight.

      While strains of the old song so popular during the war "we gotta get out of this place if it's the last thing we ever do" ran through my mind I recalled the words of Michael Herr in "Dispatches" that he penned so poignantly as he ends his book recalling a picture of a North Viet-Namese soldier sitting in the same spot where the press center was on the DaNang River during the war: "He looked so unbelievably peaceful, I knew that somewhere that night and every night there'd be people sitting together over there talking about the bad old days of jubilee and that one of them would remember and say, Yes, never mind, there were some nice ones, too. And no moves left for me at all but to write down some few last words and make the dispersion, Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we've all been there".

      And so ironically at 12 O'Clock High on November 15, 1995 aboard a Cathay Pacific passenger jet the Viet-Nam war officially ended for me as we winged our way "feet wet" (flying over water) to Hong Kong.

EPILOGUE: General Douglas MacArthur said, "Never try to rekindle the fires of the past for all you will find is ashes." And while I find it hard not to agree with him most of the time, I will this time disagree that my going back to Viet-Nam not so much to rekindle the fires of the past but to see how the country was doing after so many years of the US absence. I think and feel in my heart that Viet-Nam like the Phoenix will arise out of her ashes and soar into the skies again in the future. The people are industrious, dedicated and above all willing to pay whatever price necessary in order to succeed and I firmly believe that because of all of these Viet-Namese traits the world will see the emergence of a new Viet-Nam in the 21st century that will allow it to also be a true wonder and power not only in Asia but the also the world.

Ken Zitz is a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel who served two tours of duty in Viet-Nam with the Marines as a tank platoon and tank company commander. He has lived and traveled extensively in Asia for 12 years and has a Masters in Chinese from Georgetown University. He is currently a Research Associate for Colorado State University working as the Integrated Training Manager in support of the US Army’s 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.