Friday, December 3, 2010

Eating VC food

KHE SANH, Vietnam — Our guide, a former member of the Viet Cong during the war between North and South Vietnam, had a unique description for the food we were eating on the go.

“We’ll eat VC food,” Dinh Ngoc Truc announced.

Member of family helps prepare lunch for visitors.
After visiting the site of the ferocious, 1968 battle between U.S. Marines and North Vietnamese forces, we stopped at a simple restaurant in Vietnam’s Highlands. Members of the family who owned the restaurant began helping Truc and our driver cut vegetables, boil water, and pour it over pho, the traditional Vietnamese meat and noodle soup.

Truc pulled torpedo-shaped sandwiches out of a plastic bag and passed them around. We each received a bowl of pho (pronounced “fa”). The only concession Truc made in the VC lunch was Tom, Ken and I each had a can of Ba-Ba-Ba Bia (333 Beer). Truc drank a glass of jasmine tea.

My friends, Tom Krumland and Ken Fritz, had joined Truc and me on a trip from Hanoi and Saigon, following coastal Hwy. 1 and portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our journey began Nov. 5 when we landed at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport.

Tom Krumland tackles a bowl of pho.
Tom, who owns the Toyota, Honda and Hyundai auto dealerships in my hometown of Roswell, N.M., and I had talked about taking an international trip together for years. Ken, a fellow U.S. Army helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, had wanted to return to Vietnam.

The roots of our trip began in January, when my wife, Renee, and I were having breakfast in Hanoi with Truc. Our conversation turned to a road trip from Hanoi to Saigon, covering part of the Ho Chi Trail and visiting the sites of battlefields and former military bases. I thought Tom and Ken would enjoy such an off-the-beaten-path journey.

Truc and I have been working on a book about everyday life — his life — in the Viet Cong. We met in Saigon in October 2008 when Windfall Films of London interviewed Tom Baca of Albuquerque; Larry Liss of Birchrunville, Pa.; Al Croteau of Andover, Mass., and me in Vietnam for a documentary on a mission we flew in May 1967. Truc represented the Ministry of Culture and Information during filming in Vietnam.

Truc had insisted in January I visit the Military Museum in Hanoi for background on the Viet Cong. On New Year’s Eve, Truc, Renee and I had dinner after a day on Ha Long Bay. When the meal began, he cut each of us a piece of cassava root, explaining it was daily fare for VC soldiers traveling the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Ken Fritz prepares to eat VC food.

Now Tom, Ken and I were getting a complete VC meal, with a few extra trimmings.

It was the first of several we would eat as we drove south to Saigon. For these lunches, our driver would pull up to a small restaurant, store or home. The owners always made us feel welcome, usually helping with preparation and always providing hot water. I asked Truc if he had made arrangements with the families before we arrived. No, he told me, people in Vietnam are always hospitable to travelers.

The countryside at ground level today is as beautiful as it had appeared from a helicopter in 1967-68. It was pretty much what I expected.

The warmth and hospitality of the Vietnamese people was far beyond my expectations.