VUNG TAU, Vietnam — Even during wartime I could see Vietnam was a beautiful place. It has everything to make it a first-class tourist destination. The beaches are gorgeous. There are mountains, jungles, vast wetlands, cities in beautiful settings, and a population of industrious, hospitable people.
In one of my first letters home after arriving in Bien Hoa in February 1967, I wrote that once the war ends, Vietnam could become a major tourist destination. And so it has.
During the war, one of the favorite in-country rest-and-relaxation centers was Vung Tau, south of Saigon. I remember flying a Thunderbird Hueys to Vung Tau one afternoon. After we landed, another flight crew flew the Huey back to Bien Hoa. We were taking the other crew’s place for the next three days. When our R&R was over, another Thunderbird crew would meet us with a helicopter to fly home.
Vung Tau, known to the French during colonial days as Cap Saint Jacques, had great beaches and restaurants. Typically, we would check into a hotel, sleep late, then head for one of the nearby beaches after breakfast. At the beach you could swim, sunbathe, and eat pineapples, which were placed on a stick and then skinned in a spiral pattern to remove the eyes.
I enjoyed lunch on the veranda of the Grand Hotel, where we stayed. A waiter in a formal, white jacket brought our food. I ordered prawns, which were so large they looked like small lobsters. Cut into pieces and dipped in butter, they were out of this world.
When I returned to Vietnam in October 2008 for filming of the Windfall Films television documentary, we took a Russian hydrofoil from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau. I suggested we have lunch at the Grand Hotel. However, when we arrived at the hotel, we had fewer than 2 hours before the hydrofoil departed on our return trip to Ho Chi Minh City. In addition, we were crowding the hotel dining room’s lunch hours. Therefore, the kitchen prepared a quick, rice-and-fish lunch for us.
That night in Ho Chi Minh City we found a great seafood restaurant near our hotel. Stuart Dunn, the documentary’s cameraman, and I split an order of prawns in chile sauce, on top of the meal we already had eaten. It’s difficult to find food any better than you can eat in Vietnam.
While on R&R during the Vietnam War, Captain Larry Liss recalled a unique encounter with an enemy soldier at Vung Tau.
“During a ground assignment, I was cut off from my Pathfinder team and broke into a small opening in the jungle,” Larry said. “A North Vietnam Army captain came into the opening at the same time. We looked at each other and took the chance of lowering our rifles. We both backed off into the jungle.
“A month later, I met him on the beach in Vung Tau. We had drinks that night and laughed a lot. We left the bar after curfew and were stopped by a U.S. patrol wanting to know why we were out after curfew. I apologized and said I lost track of time. They asked where I was staying. Then they asked the NVA captain and, before he could answer, I said he was with me. The patrol left because of a fight in the street.”
Larry recalled he and the NVA officer “saluted each other and went our own ways. I learned that the guy on the other side was, in some way, my brother in arms and we had a lot in common.”
Warrant Officer Tom Baca’s memories of R&R were focused out of country.
“I had two R&R’s on my first tour in Vietnam. My first one was to Hawaii in October 1966. I remember getting off of the plane and watching many of the servicemen being greeted by their wives and children. It was very emotional to watch,” Tom remembered.
“Since I did not have a wife or a girlfriend at the time, I got to the Ilikai Hotel as quickly as I could so I could sleep. I arrived in my room, looked out the window and saw a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. That was my favorite pizza, so I went down and had a large pizza and 3 beers.
“Most of my 6 days were spent doing stateside things. I went to the movies, ate steaks, etc.,” Tom said.
“Now, my second R&R was more interesting. I got it in March of 1967. I went to Bangkok. During my first 9 months I had been nearly killed several times. Being raised Catholic, I had always been a good little altar boy. But I was damned if I was going to die a damn virgin. I struggled with what I should do about it and finally decided that I was a mammal as well as an altar boy,” he said.
“I got back to Vietnam with a smile on my face. My penance was 2 Our Fathers and 3 Hail Marys! Military chaplains are great,” Tom said.
As Tom knew on his first R&R, returning home was on the mind of most U.S. servicemen during the war.
When a GI inched toward the end of his 12-month Vietnam tour, you could tell he was focusing on home.
When each of us left for Vietnam, we were given a DEROS — which stood for “Date of Estimated Return from Overseas.” Once a GI was within 3 months of his DEROS, his unofficial status changed to: “Short.” He was never far from his “short-timer’s calendar,” a pornographic drawing divided into 365 squares. Each square was darkened by pencil daily.
You could tell immediately when a GI was nearing the end of his tour. When he passed an officer, he would salute shout out the greeting: “Short, Sir!”
The focus on “short” drove some of the senior NCO’s crazy. Many thought it was detrimental to morale.
I remember being in the 118th Assault Helicopter Company orderly room one morning when the company first sergeant dropped by to visit with Major Bill Bradner, the executive officer.
“Sir, look what I found on one of the men,” the first sergeant said, handing a partially completed short-timer’s calendar to the X.O.
Bradner looked at the calendar, then opened his desk drawer, pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to the sergeant. “It looks like mine,” said Bradner, who had been coloring each passing day.
The sergeant visibly deflated in front of us.
Bill Bradner was a very practical officer and military commander who always maintained his sense of humor.
Officers’ clubs seemed to have standardized rules. For instance, over the bar in each club you usually would see a sign stating: “Officers will not be served if wearing T-shirts”
Outside the Thunderbird Lounge was another standard sort of sign: “Officers are forbidden to carry firearms in the club”
One afternoon Bill and I returned to the villa and decided to drop into the club before changing out of the uniforms in which we had been flying. We were carrying our Army issue .38-caliber revolvers.
|Major Bill Bradner with a beer in the|
Bill stopped, looked at the sign banning firearms in the club. Then he reached into a pocket and pulled out a black, grease pencil. With swipe of the pencil, Bill crossed out “carry” and substituted “fire.” Now the sign read: “Officers are forbidden to fire firearms in the club”
We entered the club armed, but in compliance with the sign. The sign about T-shirts also had its downside in the Thunderbird Lounge.
One of the younger warrant officer pilots became irritated when a young woman PX clerk developed a crush on him. The woman was a “third-country national,” a citizen of another Asian country who worked for a U.S. contractor.
She would show up at the officers’ club each evening after dinner with a friend and try to strike up a conversation with the pilot. If he went somewhere else in the club, the young woman would follow him and continue the conversation.
One evening the pilot showed up pantless. The woman PX clerk, looking only at his face, failed to notice the pilot was nude below the waist — until he drew it to her attention.
She gasped and left the club, never to return.
However, the pilot continued showing up in the club each night without trousers. No one said anything to him, thinking he soon would pass through the phase.
I remember having a drink with Bill Bradner at the bar one evening when the pilot sat next to him. Bill saw the pilot was wearing a T-shirt.
“Looks like drinks are on you,” Bill told the man.
“Why, Sir?” the younger man asked.
Bill pointed to the sign that stated T-shirts were not allowed. The pilot pulled off his T-shirt and dropped it to the floor.
Bill later told me, “I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d known it was the only thing he was wearing.”
Several weeks later, one of the older chief warrant officers had a heart-to-heart talk with the young pilot, who by then had progressed to showing up at the club each evening buck-naked.
The bar in the Thunderbird Lounge was operated very efficiently by two Vietnamese employees: Duc, the bartender, and Miss Mai, who helped out as barmaid.
You could never stump Duc on a drink. He knew how to mix any concoction from any country.
Duc, who commuted daily between Bien Hoa and his home in Saigon each day, also was the go-to guy if you needed film developed. You’d give your film canister to Duc while having a drink at the bar, and he would have prints ready for you within 2 days.
Most of the pilots regarded Duc more as a friend than an employee. His friendship apparently was not lost on the Viet Cong. During the Tet Offensive in early 1968, Duc spent his nights in Thunderbird Lounge. On the first night of the Tet Offensive, Duc learned a squad of Viet Cong was waiting for him to return home. He found out just in time to avoid the squad.
Miss Mai was always delightful to be around. When I think of cheerful people I have known, her smile and laughter come to mind, more than 40 years later.
One evening I asked her about a large glass jar full of pickled eggs on a shelf behind the bar. “Here, try one,” Miss Mai said, reaching for the jar. My lifelong dislike for eggs served me well. “No, thanks, Miss Mai, I don’t like eggs.”
She told me I would like these. That aroused my suspicions.
I had lived in the Philippine Islands as a child, so I knew about baluts, partially developed ducklings inside a fertilized egg. I thought the Vietnamese might have a version.
“Balut” did not register with Miss Mai. I described the delicacy. She smiled, but would not acknowledge this was what the glass jar contained. This convinced me they were akin to baluts.
After that, whenever I sat at the bar, Miss Mai would ask if I wanted an egg from the jar. I toyed with the idea a couple of times, but I never had downed enough drinks to succumb.