Thursday, November 25, 2010

Visit to General Giap's office

HANOI – In Hanoi, it already is Thanksgiving Day. Hanoi is 14 hours earlier than Roswell, N.M., my hometown.

Today Ken Fritz and I were interviewed on the Voice of Vietnam radio program about our return to this land. Both of us were helicopter pilots during the Vietnam War. Ken was stationed at Chu Lai in central Vietnam; I was stationed at Bien Hoa, not far from Saigon.

This is my third trip back to Vietnam since I left just after the Tet Offensive in February 1968. It is Ken's first trip back since the war.
The Citadel.

After the radio interview, Ken and I had a Thanksgiving lunch of spaghetti, toasted bread and beer at the Red, White & Blue Cafe on Hang Vai Street in the Hoan Kiem District. We had met at the cafe for the radio interview. Owner Thu Lien also works for the Voice of Vietnam radio.

Tomorrow, Dinh Ngoc Truc will pick us up at our hotel at 8:30 a.m. and we'll go the Military Museum on Dien Bien Phu Boulevard to be interviewed on television. The TV producer sat in on our radio interview today and liked our responses. The TV crew also will take footage of Ken, Truc and me looking over displays at the museum.
Map used by Gen. Giap and his staff
in Operation Ho Chi Minh in 1975.

On Wednesday, Truc took us the the Citadel, which was built in the 15th century, then later became a French fortress. During the Vietnam War – called the American War by the Vietnamese – Vietnam's military commander, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, developed his war plans.

A guard unlocked Gen. Giap's wartime office for us. We were allowed full access to his office, the office of his chief of staff, and the meeting room between, where the Politburo met during the war. On the walls were maps of the final campaign – dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Campaign – in which South Vietnam was defeated in 1975.
Ken posed in front of a map, pointing to the site where his helicopter was shot down and he safely led his crew through the jungle one night in 1969 to a Special Forces camp.

Truc pointed to his path from Vung Tau to Saigon as a Viet Cong soldier in 1975.

Jack Swickard standing behind Gen.
Giap's desk inside the Citadel.
I pointed to the site of the former Special Forces camp at Cau Song Be (Chi Linh), where Tom Baca and our helicopter crews staged from the rescue more than 100 South Vietnamese soldiers and 1 U.S. Special Forces NCO in May 1967.

After the visit, Truc returned to his office in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Ken and I rode with him in a taxi. We then spent several hours shopping for gifts.

We later went to a bookstore near our hotel. I bought a book about the Ho Chi Minh Trail and one entitled "Operations in The U.S. Resistance War," by the Ministry of National Defense, Vietnam Institute of Military History.

I wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In search of Chi Linh

HANOI — We returned to Hanoi on Monday night after a 4-day visit to Cambodia and another day in Saigon.

On our return to the Hoang Phu Gia Hotel in Saigon, the two young ladies who manned the front desk broke into big smiles and a warm "Welcome back." The ladies are very efficient, polite and friendly.

One of them told us we should always turn our hotel key in at the front desk when we go out during the day, for safekeeping. "If you lose the key, it will cost $10 to replace it," one of them told me. The other young lady nodded in agreement. I was convinced.

Each time I returned, the key was automatically handed to me.

Another thing I noticed this time in Vietnam is the front desk will hold your passport until you are ready to leave. Then, during checkout, someone will be sent to your room to make sure nothing has been removed. It's an effective way to guard against theft.

A couple of hours after checking back in to the Hoang Phu Gia Hotel, Police Senior Colonel Thanh Hung -- whom I met when he attended the International Law Enforcement Academy in Roswell -- had two of his friends in Saigon pick us up and take us to dinner. One of his friends is a retired Army colonel and national football star; the other is a retired policeman.

Col. Thanh, Nghia and Truc examine a map showing
location of Chi Linh.
They took Ken Fritz, a fellow Vietnam helicopter pilot; Dinh Ngoc Truc, a former member of the Viet Cong; and me to a German beer hall in downtown Saigon. We started with "yellow beer," as the Vietnamese call light lager. Retired Col. Tran Van Thanh asked me if I liked the beer in Hanoi or Saigon the best. I out-clevered myself by replying, "I won't be able to tell until after I've had 5."

Needless to say, Thanh, retired Policeman Nguyen Tuan Nghia, Ken and Truc decided to hold me to the 5 beers. Thanh ordered a 2-liter mug, but I passed it around the table so the other 4 helped quaff it.

We also had deep-fried chicken feet, fish, stew, pork, greens, chiles, fresh vegetables, and on and on.

Nghia and Thanh were picking us up the following morning to look for Chi Linh, the name given to Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp about 1968 to avoid confusion with the provincial capital of Song Be. "Cau" means bridge in Vietnamese and the camp was near a bridge on Hwy. 14 that spans the Song Be River.

Nghia and Thanh met us at our hotel at 7 a.m. We drove north from Saigon, stopping at a nice restaurant owned by a football star friend of Thanh's. Though not far from a main highway, the restaurant was on a secluded road. A branch of the Saigon River ran past it.

We brought out maps and my iPad to check out the site of Chi Linh. Nghia called a friend on his cell phone for help.

Tom Baca of Albuquerque, the commander of a second helicopter on the May 14, 1967, rescue of some 100 South Vietnamese soldiers and 1 U.S. Special Forces advisor, had provided me with a computer printout showing the location of Chi Linh. We knew it was about midway between Chon Thanh and Dong Xoai on Hwy. 14, and was located near a large bridge.

Small rubber trees planted at site of Chi Linh.
We drove the route, but there was no village. We stopped at a small restaurant and drank green coconut milk while Truc and Thanh began asking people nearby if they knew of a village named Chi Linh. They were told there was no village by that name in the area, but there was an old military airfield north of the bridge.

We backtracked several kilometers until we passed back over the bridge. Then Nghia began looking for dirt roads going north from the highway. The first took us to a small house, but there was a fork in the road that went north. Thanh and I got out of the vehicle and walked the road; Ken Fritz joined us. Then I walked to the edge of the road, beyond some trees. The land dropped into a large clearing where rubber trees recently had been planted. On the far edge of the clearing were mature rubber trees, just as in May 1967. I was sure this was where the camp stood 43 years ago.

In the meantime, Ken and Thanh had walked back to our Toyota SUV. Nearby, were some young men who had ridden motorbikes to a home under construction. Ken, an avid motorcyclist, struck up a conversation with one of the young Vietnamese men. The man let Ken take his bike for a spin down the dirt road, then up to the highway, with the bike's owner on board.

When they stopped several kilometers down Hwy. 14, the young men had described the former base to Ken and Truc, who had been riding backwards on one of the other bikes to film Ken cruising down the highway.

Ken and Truc told us where to find the former camp. Part of it was where I had walked to the clearing containing young rubber and banana trees; another part was in an open field to the north. We took photos at both locations.
Ken, Col. Thanh, Jack, and Truc with site of Chi Linh
behind them.

Truc and Thanh checked some farmers' houses, but learned they were "newcomers" who knew nothing about the events of May 14, 1967. No one else in the area knew any survivors or family members of the 100 survivors rescued that day from a force of 600-700 North Vietnam and Viet Cong soldiers.

Chi Linh does not exist because it was the name given to a military base that existed for a relatively brief time.

There were no survivors to be found, but for a brief time I stood on the edge of the clearing and almost could see Tom's and my Hueys preparing to take off from the red, dirt runway to make the 5 trips into the landing zone where more than 150 South Vietnamese soldiers and their Special Forces advisors had been ambushed by a battalion of the 273rd NVA Regiment.

With us that day in 1967 were Tom's copilot, Larry Liss; my copilot, Ken Dolan; and Lt. Al Croteau, who had volunteered to fly as my door gunner that day.

Location: Hwy. 14

Visit to Phnom Penh

PHNOM PENH – Some say the capital city of Cambodia will be more congested than Manila, Bangkok and Saigon in a decade.

This prediction is easy to accept at street level.

It's difficult to believe this is the capital whose residents were forced into the countryside by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot 35 years ago. The population now is back with a vengeance.

When Ken Fritz, a fellow Vietnam helicopter pilot; our colleague, Dinh Ngoc Truc, with Vietnam's International Press and Communication Company in Hanoi; and I arrived in Phnom Penh last Saturday, the major downtown streets were blocked for the annual Water Festival, which the royal government estimated would draw 3 million people to the city Saturday-Monday.

The other 9 passengers on the Vietnamese tour bus were heading off on a multi-hour shopping trip after lunch, so Ken, Truc and I had our luggage unloaded so we could strike out for our hotel 6 hours earlier than our fellow passengers.
Street scenes in Phnom Penh during the Water Festival.

We hailed a Cambodian tuk-tuk, which is a 4-passenger trailer pulled behind a motor bike. The three of us squeezed between pieces of luggage and headed toward our hotel. Our combined weight nearly flattened the tuk-tuk's left tire.

When we came to the first police-military checkpoint, our tuk-tuk was halted. Truc flashed press credentials, but we were not allowed to pass in the vehicle. We paid the driver, unloaded our suitcases, and then passed through the checkpoint. Fortunately, our luggage had wheels, because we had to pull our suitcases 2 kilometers to the hotel.

Aside from VIP, military and police vehicles, we had the main boulevard to the waterfront all to ourselves.

Ken Fritz (left) and Dinh Ngoc Truc pulling suitcases
through streets of Phnom Penh to Nagaworld.
When we arrived at Nagaworld, we thought we had arrived in Las Vegas, except the Mekong River runs behind it. The casino hotel is named after the mythical Naga, a cobra with two heads – one in each world. Stone statues, showing 12th century monks holding the Naga in place, are common sights throughout the 60-square-mile Angkor temple city complex of Cambodia.

The bellhops had a Yul Brenner look, ala Anna and the King of Siam film. After we had checked in, a beautiful and well-dressed Cambodian woman took us to our rooms and showed us in detail how to operate the air conditioning and electronics.

We cleaned up from the journey and then headed out the front door of Nagaworld, which opened onto the street lined with beer booths, ice cream stands, skin cream tents, and extremely loud music. We blended into the crowd that crossed a bridge over a canal to Diamond Island. On the island, we stopped for ice cream, then walked over to see the barges that would be lit offshore each night during the festival.

A steady stream of people passed on and off the island over the bridge.

The following day, after we left Phnom Penh to return to Saigon, some 350 people would be crushed to death on the bridge. Cambodian authorities said it was the worst death toll during any event since the Killing Fields under the Pol Pot regime.

Truc left us to meet with a Cambodian friend, so Ken and I decided to try out happy hour in the hotel lounge. The bartender did a decent job with the Tom Collinses and my Singapore sling, plus the ice in the glasses was refreshing. We then searched for an Italian restaurant we had seen advertised in the hotel.

The Royal Chancellory at the Cambodian Royal Palace
and Temple.
Instead, we found a Chinese restaurant, a French restaurant, and a wine room. It turned out the Italian restaurant had been replaced by the French one. However, pasta was available in the buffet restaurant. We did some mixing of foods, starting off with sushi, followed by Vietnamese pho, Eastern European smoked pork, pasta, a salad, and green tea cheesecake. The young Cambodian waitresses were a delight, thanking us when they removed an empty plate or brought more ice to drop in our beers.

Breakfast on Sunday morning was the same sort of mixed international fare. I ate French pastries, Vietnamese dragon fruit, apple juice, cold cuts, and what the Vietnamese refer to as milk coffee.

Before departure, I went down to the lobby to pick up a WiFi signal on my iPad. I saw that during the night, a tall Christmas tree had been set up.

We then boarded our Vietnamese tour bus and drove to the royal palace.

Then, 2 hours after we had finished breakfast at Nagaworld, the bus stopped at a Phnom Penh restaurant specializing in Vietnamese and "Western" food before making the dash back to Saigon. The food looked great, but I couldn't face another mouthful.

It was a great trip, bridging decades.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Visiting Angkor Wat

ANGKOR WAT, Cambodia — No matter what you may have read or heard, nothing really quite prepares you for Angkor Wat.

In reality, Angkor Wat is a single city temple in a 60-square-mile complex of temples built by 25,000 workers over a 37-year period during the 12th century.

When you enter the grounds of the complex the first temple city you see is Angkor Wat, across a moat. My first view was softened by a morning mist.

Ken Fritz in front of Angkor Wat.
Our group of Vietnamese tourists, fellow Vietnam helicopter pilot Ken Fritz and I drove past the moat to another walled city temple, named Angkor Thom.

As we departed our small bus, we were greeted with cries of: "Buy your book here, Sir." Women waved books from in front of carts they operated near the passenger drop-off. Ken wandered over to one of the women, examined a book she had for sale and handed her money. I did the same.

We then walked across an ancient stone bridge to a gate that opened into Angkor Thom.

As the day progressed, we drove from one city temple to another, surprised we weren't jaded from the ruins we had visited earlier.

The trip is a short hop from Siem Reap, more than a half day's drive north of Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh.

After touring the temples in the morning and afternoon, we returned to our hotel. Then, at 3 p.m., we boarded the bus to tour Angkor Wat at sunset. With its 5 towers and enormous size, Angkor Wat seems to rise from the ground.

It took almost an hour to walk through the streets, corridors and stair steps of the temple. Then we walked back through the temple to examine its exquisite carvings of celestial dancers.

The grounds were bustling with visitors from throughout Asia, Australia and Western Europe. There were relatively few Americans.

As you enter the area of the temples, you are swarmed by children of all ages offering items for sale. The youngest sell wooden bracelets. As they get older, the children move on to T-shirts, table runners, and then on to carved wood replicas of the faces on the temples.

Many of the children work for mothers who operate open-front shops in the areas where buses stop to let passengers disembark.

The children have a working knowledge of English. "Please, Sir. Buy one of these for $3." After some bartering and bantering, the price begins to drop. However, once you purchase an item, you are marked. Other child vendors swarm around you. "Buy from me, now," is a frequent refrain.

One girl of about 5 told me, "Please buy. I need money to go to school."

The girl followed me for 15 minutes, trying to hawk 5 wooden bracelets for $1. I had to admire her persistence. Eventually, I handed her $1, not sure what to do with the bracelets. As other children moved in with their merchandise and incessant, "Buy from me, too," the young girl moved to the back of the herd and grinned.

Disengaging from a child merchant can be difficult. I thought I had a surefire solution. "My father told me I can't buy this," I told a girl of about 10, nodding toward Ken, who is several years younger than me, with no gray hair like mine. "He's not old enough to be your father," the girl told me. So much for that excuse.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Traveling through Cambodia

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Our wake-up call was 3:30 a.m. Our Vietnamese friend Dinh Ngoc Truc was picking us up at our Saigon hotel -- the Hoang Phu Gia -- at 4:30.

We would have to be ready on time because we had to take a cab to board our bus by 5 a.m., when it would depart for Cambodia.

Ken Fritz, a fellow helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, and I joined Truc in the cab, which got us to the bus well in time for the trip to begin.

Breakfast was planned for Moc Bai, the last Vietnamese city before we crossed the border into Cambodia.

After some 30 minutes we had passed through Trang Bang and Cu Chi, and entered Moc Bai, pulling into what appeared to be a Vietnamese version of a truck stock. We joined the 9 other passengers, our tour guide and driver, entering the large, covered dining area

Our places had been laid out: Small upside-down bowls. There was a rack containing chopsticks, napkins, soup spoons, fish and soy sauces, and toothpicks. A serving bowl on the table overflowed with lettuce, bean sprouts and cilantro. A young girl came by, ladling pho into our now-upturned bowls. In Vietnamese fashion, we added chiles, soy sauce, lettuce, bean sprouts and cilantro to the soup.

Pho — pronounced "fa" — is the national meal of Vietnam.

When breakfast was over, we boarded the bus for the short drive to the border. Our luggage came out of the bus trunk and we all carried and pulled luggage through Vietnamese immigration to the Cambodian side. There, our photographs were taken and we handed over our passports.

Our Vietnamese guide explained we would not have to change money if we were carrying U.S. dollars, as they are the second currency of Cambodia. We found this to be the case. All merchants -- from street vendors to fashionable shops -- can make change for dollars.

The Insect Market in Cambodia.
As we pulled away in the bus, Ken noted the apparent prosperity of Bavet, the Cambodian town at the border. Driving through town, we saw it was full of casinos and luxury hotels. Among them were the Las Vegas Sun and the Winn.

One of the first things that struck me about Cambodia was the sparsity of the population. Our guide explained the country has a population of 14 million, small for the land surface the Southeast Asian country covers.

I also noticed all official signs along the streets and highways give information in Cambodian and English.

We passed through the Cambodian countryside, bright with the deep green color of trees, the gold of maturing rice, and the blue of the sky.

About noon, our bus pulled to a stop in front of an elaborately decorated restaurant at Kampong Cham, a town on the Mekong River. The young waitresses brought out plates of chicken, fish, leafy vegetables with pork, soup, planting them on a glass lazy susan in the center of the table. All of the bus passengers sat around the table, reaching for items with their chopsticks.

Dinh Ngoc Truc at Angkor Thom near
Siem Reap.
Several of the other passengers speak English. There is a Vietnamese couple on holiday from their home in the United Kingdom. One woman told me she left Vietnam aboard a U.S. helicopter in the 1970s and then moved to France. A tall gentleman was studying in France during the Vietnam War, but now lives in Australia.

Ken, Truc and I have gotten to know the other passengers better at each of the three meals we have eaten together each day. Some include us in their photos at tourist spots.

Our destination the first day was Siem Reap, only a few kilometers from Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. The name means "the city which is a temple." It was built in the 12th century to honor the Hindu god Vishnu.

After checking in at the Angkorland Hotel and cleaning up, the passengers boarded the bus and headed for dinner together at a traditional Cambodian restaurant. It was good food, but I suspect the restaurant geared its menu to Vietnamese taste. All of our fellow passengers seemed to know each dish, which looked a lot like the others we had been eating on the trip.

Ken, Truc and I then wandered the riverfront in Siem Reap. Bright lights cast their reflection on the river.

We wandered into an outdoor restaurant and bar, where Ken and I had several excellent gins and tonic. Truc joined us with an orange drink before leaving to meet a Cambodian friend.

Our night out ended with a $3 ride back to the hotel in a tuk-tuk, a cab-like trailer mounted on the back of a motorbike.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Tunnels of Cu Chi

CU CHI, Vietnam -- The guides are dressed in Viet Cong uniforms. The buildings are dugouts with thatched roofs. There are various booby traps on display, with demonstrators eager to show how easy they can maim.

Your guide takes you to tunnel openings and invites you to look inside. Later, he says, you will have an opportunity to crawl through a tunnel yourself.

On a nearby firing range, you can fire a round from an AK-47 assault rifle. Among items for sale in the gift shop are models made from rifle shells. Or a Coca-Cola.

A park guide in Viet Cong uniform shows how tunnels
were hidden.
You can see how Ho Chi Minh sandals are made from rubber tires, how to open a non-detonated bomb to repackage its explosives into land mines, and how to sharpen bamboo into punji stakes to penetrate the feet of an enemy soldier.

Welcome to the Tunnels of Cu Chi Park, one of the top tourist attractions near Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

The guide explains local residents and Viet Minh soldiers began digging the tunnels in 1948, when Vietnam was a French colony. The digging continued after the French left and the United States became involved in the Vietnam War.

By the time the North Vietnam Army had conquered the southern half of the country in 1975, there were 250 kilometers of tunnels.

The U.S. military built a major base camp on top of the tunnels without realizing it. I know this from personal experience.

Present-day guide in Viet
Cong uniform.
In 1967 and 1968, I flew helicopter missions in and out of the 25th Infantry Division's base camp at Cu Chi. It was large -- and seemingly safe, though there were occasional stories about helicopter crew members being shot while flying in the traffic pattern.

Now I was getting a firsthand look at how these shots were taken from inside the base camp's perimeter.

I asked the guide in VC uniform how far we were standing from the old base camp? "About 1 kilometer," he told me. We visited a bit before he asked, "Are you a veteran?" I replied I was.

I know he was a re-enactor, but it did cause me to hesitate slightly before answering.

My friend Tom Krumland from Roswell joined me on the tunnel tour at Cu Chi. He later told me he understands why some former GIs would have a difficult time returning to Vietnam.

There are powerful reminders of the war fought more than 40 years ago. Cu Chi was a powerful one to me.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Visiting Saigon

HO CHI MINH CITY -- What to call Vietnam's former southern capital is a question.

After military forces from then-North Vietnam conquered the Republic of Vietnam in 1975, Saigon's name was changed officially to Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of the north's revolutionary leader.

Thirty-five years later many vestiges of Saigon remain. The airport locator remains SGN. You hear "Saigon" in conversation. The residents are known as "Saigonese."

Yet, street addresses are given as Ho Chi Minh City or are abbreviated as HCM City.

So, what is the proper reference? The distinction is in whether you are making a verbal or written reference. If you say it, "Saigon" is appropriate; if you write it, it's "Ho Chi Minh City."

Many parts of Saigon would be familiar to American GIs who served in Vietnam during the war. Some have been remodeled.

The Opera House, which housed the National Assembly when Saigon was capital of South Vietnam, has been refurbished. The nearby Caravelle Hotel, too, has gone through a major renovation. The Continental Palace Hotel, where many journalists stayed while covering the Vietnam War, has a remodeled look. The open veranda of the first-floor restaurant has been enclosed and now houses a fine, French restaurant.

The throngs of motorcycles and motorbikes remain, except there are even more now. During rush hour, the stream of motorbikes seems never-ending. The 2-wheelers own the far right side of the curb lane, while 4-wheeled traffic owns the rest of the lane, plus what can be squeezed from the oncoming lane.

When confronted with a red light at an intersection, the 2-wheelers keep moving until traffic given the green light is within a half-meter of their taillights. Two-wheelers turning right seem to be free of all constraints. You soon learn the most dangerous place to be crossing a street is at an intersection.

Four-wheel vehicles making a turn must nudge their way through the 2-wheel traffic.

The key to driving in urban areas of Vietnam was summed up by a Vietnamese friend as, "You have to keep moving." Another rule seems to be: Always look straight ahead and never look back.

Restaurants are abundant and many are excellent. Each time I return to Vietnam I find a new dish I like. This trip is no different. Two favorites this trip are fish cooked with red chiles in a clay pot and a shrimp paste spread on a piece of wood and roasted.

At lunch on Tuesday, we shared a table with a man and 2 women from Pleiku, in the Highlands, on a visit to Saigon. They added to the enjoyment of the meal.

After lunch, we boarded our van and headed north to Cu Chi, site of the Viet Cong's 250-kilometer tunnel complex.

Location:HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Visit to Khe Sanh Museum

KHE SANH, Vietnam – Remote and out of the way, the Marine base at Khe Sanh is now a museum, with several bunkers and two U.S.-made helicopters scattered around the grounds.

A lone vendor walks the grounds, offering North Vietnam Army badges and U.S. military dog tags for sale to the few visitors who find their way to the site of the ferocious, months' long battle between American Marines and NVA soldiers in 1968.

Nguyen Viet Minh, the museum's director, heard Ken Fritz and me speaking about our experiences as U.S. Army helicopter pilots during the Vietnam War.

Ken, former president of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, and Tom Krumland, my auto dealer friend from Roswell, N.M., had joined me on a road trip from Hanoi to Saigon, now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City.

Ken Fritz, former president of the Vietnam Helicopter
Pilots Association, at Khe Sanh Museum in Vietnam.
Mr. Minh slipped gently into our conversation, asking Ken questions about his flights to Khe Sanh, all made after the siege in 1968. It was obvious Minh had a scholar's knowledge of U.S. and NVA (officially the Vietnam Peoples Army) forces deployed in the area.

Minh showed us around his museum. Stopping at one display, he told us how Vietnamese and Americans have different versions about the length of the battle. He said the museum should present both versions, so people have a better understanding.

Though there are many photos showing U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh and there are American military items and weapons on display, Minh said he would like to have more detailed, written materials giving the U.S. version of the siege.

We exchanged email addresses.

Outside the museum are two U.S.-built helicopters with Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) markings. The museum has attempted to display the choppers accurately, but has had to mix some components. For instance, the UH-1H model Huey has one H-model rotor blade and one wider, C-model blade.

Minh told us he has plans to restore the runway at Khe Sanh.

We drove to the battle site, sometimes over now-paved portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the mountainous areas of central Vietnam, from the imperial city of Hue, a site of ferocious fighting during the Tet Offensive of 1968 and between French and Viet Minh soldiers in 1947.

On the way to Khe Sanh, we visited the 17th Parallel -- also known as the DMZ -- that divided North and South Vietnam during the war. Today a monument and a museum mark the former frontier.

I left Khe Sanh, wondering how many American GIs who had served there would return. I had no doubt their stories would be carefully recorded by Mr. Minh for his museum.

Meals in Vietnam

HANOI, Vietnam — Meals can be wonderful experiences in Vietnam.
Some of my most interesting conversations have been over dinner with Vietnamese friends.

Police Senior Colonels Nguyen Thanh Hung and Nguyen Duy Thu introduced me to multi-course meals that can last for hours. I met Colonels Hung and Thu when they attended the International Law Enforcement Academy-Roswell, a senior management program operated by New Mexico Tech for the U.S. State Department.

My company, The Triton Group, had been on contract with New Mexico Tech to provide community relations for the program. The first class of senior police from Vietnam was attending ILEA-Roswell when I traveled to Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) for filming of a documentary about a helicopter mission I had flown in May 1967.

Colonel Thu gave me his business card — known in Vietnam as a "name card" -- so I could call his office if I needed assistance. That was in October 2008.

A little more than a year later, in late December 2009, my wife Renee and I were in Hanoi.

After the New Year's holiday, I got in touch with Colonel Thu by presenting his card at police training headquarters near our hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Captain Nguyen Tuan Anh, who serves as Vietnam Police coordinator with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, helped Thu and me communicate.
Thu said he would like to take us to dinner the following night.

We were waiting at our hotel when Thu, Hung and Anh arrived. A short drive later we were ushered into the stylish Opera Open Restaurant behind the Hanoi Opera House. Joining us was Captain Tran Thi Huyen, a woman ILEA-Roswell graduate.

The food and the company were invigorating. After dinner, we took group photos, then drove to a Highlands Coffee garden beside the Opera House.
The next day, Hung and Anh took us to a village outside Hanoi where pottery has been made for 1,000 years. Then it was back to the Old Quarter for a multi-course seafood dinner.

Later that evening — on the way to the airport — Hung took us to a large buffet restaurant where we spent several hours over dinner. We slept well on the overnight flight to Tokyo.

Before departing on this current trip to Vietnam, Hung's brother-in-law Viet Le, Anh, and I had communicated by email.

My friends Tom Krumland and Ken Fritz, and I arrived in Hanoi about 10 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 5.

After a day spent relaxing from our trip, Hung and Anh picked me up at my hotel Saturday night. We went to the same seafood restaurant in the Old Quarter and spent several hours visiting over dinner. Before returning to the hotel, Hung told me he would like to take Tom, Ken, our guide Dinh Ngoc Truc, and me to dinner the following night.

When we arrived at the restaurant, near the U.S. Embassy, Hung and Anh were waiting for us. It turned out Hung was a personal hero of Truc, who later told me how years before Hung had thwarted the kidnapping of a young Japanese girl.

We then were joined by Viet Le and other ILEA-Roswell graduates. The meal and the conversation lasted for a couple of hours.

When I returned to the hotel, I jotted down all we had eaten.

It included a salad made of bean sprouts and pork strips with light chile, honey-coated chicken, salad of pork strips and tomatoes, large box fish, soup of rice and boiled oysters and spinach, yellow beer, Vietnamese tea, chunks of barbecued pork and fish, fried shrimp, sour green tomatoes, watermelon, tomatoes with dry chile sauce, and a large grapefruit.

Tom will fly back to the United States from Saigon on Nov. 16. Ken and I will drive on to Cambodia, then return to Saigon and fly back to Hanoi.

Hung mentioned over our last dinner he would get other ILEA-Roswell graduates in Hanoi together for a party on our return. I know we have a great time in store.

Location:HANOI, Vietnam