A Vietnam Veteran Army Retiree Returns to Vietnam – Again.
By Lou Rothenstein
I had previous trips to Vietnam after the War. One was a working one, the other was a healing return tour with Soldier’s Heart for Vietnam Veterans in 2012. My wife was with me on this tour and as a Nurse, decided she wanted to return to do some medical volunteer service. We did this over a couple of weeks with Vets With A Mission, a nongovernmental organization that has been doing medical care work in Vietnam for 28 years. We then traveled to several world heritage sites and I needed to return to see a bit of Saigon.
After four years in Europe and the Middle East – a great first four years of Army service – I was assigned to a CONUS stateside four-star HQ. Sort of a boring let down. I volunteered for overseas again. Vietnam came into my life shortly after I was assigned to KMAG – Korea Military Assistance Group. Seems like the unit became a bit over strength in certain grades, I was promotable into one of them and MAAG in Vietnam needed a few more warm bodies so I did several TDY trips there in 1961-2. TDY was a way to get around troop level strengths and that apparently worked for the Army.
I initially started as an admin-operations type that was mostly taking people here and there, there usually being the airfield. As a Speedy 5, I then worked (driver-gopher) for a Major who was usually in civilian clothes, was always around the press and had a room at the Caravelle Hotel. Fairly new, it was a pretty nice pad. I shared a small room with another NCO who was TDY from Japan. He was an Intelligence type that spoke several languages. I believe their job was to watch the foreign and U.S. press types as many had offices at the hotel. What was nice was that I got cash to pay for my billeting and breakfast in an air-conditioned facility. Few around then. It was around $5-6 and included laundry. We junior ranks usually had enough left over for liquid refreshments.
MAAG-V 606 TRAN HUNG DAO SAIGON THEN AND NOW.
ONE STAYED AWAY TO AVOID REALLY BAD DETAILS.
Capable of two-finger typewriter operations, I typed several reports on people and conversations. It had some interest but a bit boring. The press was always asking questions of us like we knew what was going on. We reported their questions. I became Interested in going out and looking around where there was some activity in addition to an office, behind the steering wheel of a car and drinking atop the Hotel at Saigon. I was just up there today drinking a local craft ale and remembered that it was one of just a few 10 floor buildings around in 61. The view of the Catholic Cathedral was still there, now tucked between the many high-rise hotels and office buildings that is now Saigon District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City.
Saigon today still has the same old French Colonial look around the downtown area. What has changed is the current high volume of traffic – mopeds, newer model cars, buses and trucks. People still hawk their food and wares on the sidewalks, and the Ao Dai are seen worn by employees at hotels and government businesses. It is hard to tell what city one is in around Asia these days. They have become quite western in appearance. Work has started on urban rail to alleviate the traffic a bit. To the traveler, one must plan drives well as traffic jams are frequent and uncomfortable. Avoid rush hours. I thought of a couple of books about Pham Xuan An. Perhaps one of the best placed agents working against us during the war. This was someone I probably saw at his undercover work several times. The Army gave our press much information about what was going on which he had open access to. Should be read by all MI types.
I eventually got a job escorting (carrying luggage) the newly assigned MAAG officers and senior NCO’s who were relegated to the field, away from the easy life of Saigon. Later, the time was split between MAAG-V and MACV that started up 1962. Sometimes people did not know for sure what unit they were in and we had SF teams TDY in and out, and there was always someone choking up on the bat as to who got an airplane ride to the boondocks rather than a jeep or worn-out sedan. New maps were coming out and getting them out to where they were needed allowed a couple of our gopher corps to see some of the country.
While traveling around the country, an occasional view of a former SF Camp or MAAG/MACV Advisory Team would pop up. Most have been levelled to the ground in rural areas but in towns, they are in use by local police or agencies. The sheer number of Vietnamese government buildings, compounds and activities is quite amazing. Even very small towns have their share. In the areas I served, the U.S. areas were built over but former provincial headquarters I see are now small museums about the war. Outside of one or two in the bigger cities, they are generally worthless historically. One does get an impression of our more effective programs by the sheer amount of coverage they receive on display.
The War Remnants Museum in Saigon is the largest around. It shows U.S. markings painted over ARVN and VNAF equipment. It depicts former U.S. Navy anti-war demonstrator and Senator John Kerry in a heroic manner and former U.S. Navy Seal Bob Kerrey, an effective anti-VC Cadre operator as a war criminal.
Few Vietnamese remember the war. What they have comes from their parents and the government. Vietnam has a young population that knows they do not have much power to change things. In addition to the Re-Education Camps, the government restricted the children of their former adversaries to have any jobs connected with the government. However, the grandchildren might be able to work for government industries but unless they are a member of organizations such as the Young Communists, they will never be in positions such as the police. So, children of GVN personnel work for private and overseas companies or are self-employed or work at labor. It is sad to see resources wasted like this over the years.
The English language newspapers daily have the same type of articles. There are always visits to Southeast Asian countries to improve commercial relations and there is some government official visiting somewhere promising aid or investments in economically troubled areas. The third area is that of government corruption. It is a way of life over here. If one rises to some position of authority, it is expected that part of costs provided to the government will go to these trusted officials. Officials such as customs and immigration have become much more professional, no open palms noted this trip. They have learned from other countries.
The Koreans have returned. They were our allies during the war and later brought good quality transport and commerce with them. Now they are a major tourist group. From these and language training, they are displacing the Russians rapidly. A Korean on vacation can make the four-and-a-half-hour flight from Korea, stay at a resort for five days, play two rounds of golf cheaper than a round might cost them in Seoul.
The watchful eyes of the party are still omnipresent. I recall my first trip here early 90’s when paranoia abounded as they feared that USSF was training the old and wounded Montagnards in North Carolina to return and cause them problems. In 2012, it was economic fears that non-governmental organizations (NGO) would somehow drain their collection boxes. This time it was over watch on who could get medical treatment from the NGO. In addition, the college interpreters were interrogated as to their experiences.
Whether in China, Russia, East Germany, or Vietnam, officials seem to continually invent threats, probably to justify their security positions. By the way, they are quite easy to spot. When there is a problem around, an NGO is a good scapegoat. One of the medical treatment sites might have been changed for one apparent reason but might be tied in with a visit during the period of a high-ranking party official in the area.
If any reader is a Vietnam Veteran, they should consider re-visiting Vietnam. It provides some closure on what might have been a traumatic time, as well as some decent traveling and tours at a reasonable cost. Air travel is relatively cheap in country and there are recurring U.S. to Vietnam flights at special rates.
I am not a travel expert but might be able to offer a few more suggestions. Like every Vietnam Veteran I know or have worked with, the war was different for everyone. Even the same unit or location experienced different battles a few months apart.
Pham Xuan An –
“Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent” by Larry Berman, 2007. This book is sold in many Vietnamese book stores in English.
”The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game” by Thomas A. Bass, 2009.
As I sat at a rooftop table at Saigon Saigon a couple of nights ago, I tried to bring up memories of those later well-known reporters and photographers who stayed at the Caravelle in the 1960’s. I tried to picture the spy with a cigarillo in his mouth, but they were popular smokes at the time. I recalled a few names but mostly remembered those reporters who visited we military guys in the field. Some were intelligent and reported facts but many did not report all of what actually happened. A couple would not listen to our warnings and have never been seen since. In retrospect, it seems that some of those actions I knew about and participated in never made it into the archives. Perhaps what was reported sold newspapers or TV time, but I feel deep down that what was reported, or the way it was reported was more influential on the outcome than the actual battles, deaths, and goals.
CONUS – Continental United States
TDY trips – Temporary Duty Yonder
NCO – non-commissioned officer
MAAG – Military Assistance Advisory Group
MAAG-V – Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam
MACV – Military Assistance Command, Vietnam
ARVN – Army of the Republic of Vietnam
VNAF – Vietnamese Air Force
GVN – Government of Vietnam