Revisiting Vietnam: a son's tour of duty

Travel cover Scott MacMillan revisits Vietnam's wartime past, en route to the site of the base his father was stationed at in 1969.

American tanks serve as a memorial to the 1968 Battle of Hue, which levelled the former imperial capital.
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In the mountainous north of Vietnam, the bus from the Laos border to Dien Bien Phu lurches around bends in the road, hurling passengers and cargo from side to side, offering ample time for reflection if nothing in the way of comfort. "Look up Long Binh," my father had written, naming a wartime US military base "near Bien Hoa, the worst place you may ever visit." Whether he'd meant the base itself or the nearby town hardly matters, since it turns out Long Binh now lies within, not near, Bien Hoa, an industrial area on the sprawling outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. Today's Vietnam may be touted as a land of Buddhist cave temples, unspoilt beaches on an emerald sea, and the towering limestone crags of Ha Long Bay - the latter said to have been cast down by dragons from heaven - but for me, "the worst place you may ever visit" sounded more intriguing than all of these. From the northern mountains, Ho Chi Minh City is a 2,000-kilometre journey down the spine of Vietnam. In a different time, back when it was Saigon, my father had lived at nearby Long Binh, the base of US military operations in former South Vietnam, working a desk job at US Army Finance Headquarters. Despite a slew of war tourism sites, it doesn't appear in any of today's guidebooks. But I've made it my goal to find it. This once benighted land has emerged from the shadow of the "American War", as it's called locally, yet Vietnam's blood-soaked 20th century weighs heavily on my journey. Dien Bien Phu makes a suitable starting point. Coming down the mountain road, the valley spreads out before us like the bottom of a wide, flat bowl, hills surrounding the city on all sides. It's tempting to ask what the French were thinking when they set up a massive base here in 1954 in a bid to cut off the supply lines of Ho Chi Minh's insurgents, a move often cited as one of the biggest blunders in modern military history.

The Viet Minh dragged their artillery - French strategists didn't count on them having artillery - to the strategic heights, and from here the independence movement bombarded the enemy into submission. After a harrowing 57-day siege, the French forces surrendered, ending the First Indochina War and setting the stage for the country's partition and the second war that followed. As with all great battlefields, awe comes from witnessing the role played, like a third party to the struggle, by a vast and immutable geography.

Today, Dien Bien Phu is a bustling little city with a museum depicting the French humiliation, along with trenches, dugouts and a massive bomb crater preserved at one of the battle's primary objectives, a hillock codenamed Elaine. But it's not a tourist-friendly place, for even finding a restaurant is a dire proposition. On a quest for something edible one evening, I find a pho or noodle soup shop whose proprietress, oddly enough, greets me in German, seemingly the only resident who speaks a second language. Peering into the glass counter, I blanch at a runny bowl of brains with eyeballs floating in it. Call it cultural immersion therapy for a country markedly different from its south-east Asian neighbours in so many ways: in cuisine, with offal-laden soups favoured over curries and stir-fries; in religion, where a syncretic Mahayana Buddhism dominates rather than the Theravada strain of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand; and even in demeanour, for foreign travellers often complain, perhaps unfairly, that the Vietnamese are the pushiest neighbours on the block. Many tourists seem preoccupied with Vietnam's violent past, but as I learn one hungry afternoon in Dien Bien Phu, the topic is barely on the minds of Vietnam's younger generation. I pay the entrance fee to a small trade fair that seems to be the only place to procure lunch. As I wander the stalls, a female voice calls out in English. It's a woman in her early 20s, part of a marketing team visiting from Hanoi, offering promotional servings of instant soup. Glad to be communicating freely with a Vietnamese person, I ask her to write down the local names of the town's major sights. "There was a famous battle here with the French, wasn't there?" I ask.

"I'm sorry," she says with unfeigned innocence. "I do not understand." "The battle with France in Dien Bien Phu," I say. She shakes her head, confused. "France, the country." "Yes, I understand France, but I do not understand why you are saying France!" She confers with her colleagues for a moment. "Oh!" she says. "You're interested in history!" It was though I'd asked a Londoner about the Houses of York and Lancaster. The problem, however, is not that the wars are too distant, but the opposite. As with a camera placed too close to its subject that produces a blurry image, it's hard for anyone - including me, born a year after US troops' 1973 withdrawal - to view Vietnam's recent history with proper perspective. Once in Hanoi, I seek out the party line at the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution. The country officially remains a socialist republic, but the empty hallways of this dusty Marxist-Leninist relic, whose artefacts include "the tank used to contain ink for printing documents of the Indochina Communist Party in Ha Nam (1931)", couldn't present a starker contrast with the capital's old quarter, where the steam of a thousand soup cauldrons fills the noisy alleyways. Small wonder that young Vietnamese have moved on.

Less wooden but still propagandistic is Hoa Lo Prison, a French-built edifice that held revolutionary dissidents and, later, American pilots shot down during bombing raids on the north. Most of these later captives, including John McCain, whose flight suit is displayed here, say they were tortured at Hoa Lo, a claim still denied by the Vietnamese. Indeed, a section of the prison is dedicated to showing how well the Americans were treated. Yet it's hard to get worked up about the suspected fallacy given the atrocities committed by both sides. Passing the 17th parallel, the former border between north and south, Vietnam Railways' overnight sleeper plunges into the heart of the former conflict zone, the central coastal region. In Hue, the imperial capital under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945, elephant handlers offer rides around the old citadel as the afternoon light casts a photogenic glow on the mosaicked ruins of emperors' palaces. It's hard to imagine, but this city of about 350,000 was nearly levelled by street-to-street fighting and aerial bombardment when US Marines retook it following the north's 1968 Tet Offensive. Here one starts to discover, beyond the deadened rhetoric, echoes of the war's human side. Nguyen Thi Thu, 27, a guide for a day-long tour of the nearby Demilitarized Zone, tells how her grandfather fought and died for the South Vietnamese Army, while her grandmother later joined the Viet Cong. "She taught us that the Americans took her husband away, so she took her revenge," she says. "In my blood I have VC and non-VC, so I stand in the middle and look at both sides." At the site of the Battle of Khe Sanh, an inland outpost south of the DMZ, hawkers peddle American dog tags - metal IDs worn by soldiers around the neck - found on the battlefield. The face of one Private Stephen C Winch peers spookily from his military ID card in a museum display, wearing glasses much like the ones my dad wore at the time. ("If found, drop in nearest US mailbox," the card reads at the bottom, like a bad punchline.) It's unclear how Private Winch's ID ended up here, and there's no Stephen Winch on the list of US fatalities. It's a story that will likely remain among the millions untold. A few hours south, in Danang, I meet Hoa, the charismatic owner of Hoa's Place, a budget guesthouse just steps from the white sands of China Beach, once an official recreation zone for American soldiers, including my father. Hoa recalls frequenting local burger joints with American GIs as a teenager. "We were playing for the same team," says Uncle Hoa, as he's been dubbed by guests. Hoa suggests I not mention to locals in the nearby town that my father had been here - incredibly, the only suggestion of resentment towards American servicemen during my entire tour.

Warring ghosts maintain a silent peace at China Beach. Just minutes' walk from Hoa's Place stand the limestone peaks of the Marble Mountains, where a numinous presence is felt within a maze of Buddhist cave temples. The Viet Cong used these as sanctuaries during the war; today, local women provide a bundle of incense sticks and assist with the offerings in exchange for a US greenback. Frenzied resort development along this coast will likely soon bring an end to the area's tranquillity. Already on China Beach itself, just outside Hoa's Place, floodlit cranes work well into the night. About 130km south of Danang is My Lai, site of the war's best known atrocity. A US Army company went on a rape and murder spree here in 1968, killing about 500 civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly. There's a monument there today, but you're likely to get a better sense of the gravity of the event at Ho Chi Minh City's War Remnants Museum, where the faces of barefoot My Lai peasants stare out from the wall - mothers and babies huddled in fear, their last moments captured by a US Army photographer who later sold the pictures to the American media. "Guys were about to shoot these people," reads the caption, quoting the photographer. "I yelled, 'Hold it,' and shot my picture. As I walked away, I heard M16s open up. From the corner of my eye I saw bodies falling, but I didn't turn to look." That most US soldiers conducted themselves honourably during the war does little to mitigate the horror. The suffering on all sides is literally incalculable: a conservative estimate by historian Guenter Lewy puts the death toll at 1.3 million, one-third to one-half of whom were probably civilians. Many say the real number could be twice that or more, especially when taking into account auxiliary conflicts in Laos and Cambodia. The War Remnants Museum is a sobering experience, especially for Americans. Formerly the Museum of American War Crimes, Vietnamese authorities have politely renamed it several times, but the content remains the same, and it is deservedly - along with the Cu Chi Tunnels, a restored network of booby-trapped Viet Cong hideouts north-west of the centre - one of Ho Chi Minh City's top attractions. As with Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, there's little mention of the atrocities committed by the winning side, even though many historians claim these were even more numerous and noxious than those of the US and the Saigon governments. (During their brief period in control of Hue, for example, the North Vietnamese Army executed about 3,000 prisoners and civilians thought to be southern sympathisers.) The flaw does little, however, to detract from the overwhelming evidence of American war crimes. It would be a suitably bleak ending for the journey, except for one thing - a bit of unfinished business called Long Binh. Using a combination of old photographs, online maps, and my father's recollection, I discover that a Sanyo warehouse inside an industrial park now stands on the former location of US Army Finance Headquarters, where my father spent late 1969 and most of 1970. Determined to visit the spot as a sort of pilgrimage, I rent a motor scooter - a questionable decision given that Vietnam's roads are still pretty much a war zone - and plunge into the highway traffic. Ninety sweaty and smog-choked minutes later, I find the Sanyo building in a quiet grid of tree-lined streets, where well-manicured corporate gates betray no trace of a military base. The buildings - and the streets themselves - look younger than I. Next door, a modern Nestlé factory gives off a burnt chocolatey smell. Just beyond, however, the industrial zone peters off into a lightly wooded area surrounding a cement factory. It is here that I discover the ruins of Long Binh. By the side of a desolate road, somebody has marked the spot with a mock concrete tank. Further back, amid recent earthworks, row upon row of decaying concrete slabs lie in the dun-coloured ground, probably the foundations of barracks or hootches, basic dwellings for soldiers. Beyond these slabs, hexagonal concrete huts stand like sentries, their rectangular gun holes looking out into the forest. My father recognises these. "You found yourself a couple of genuine bunkers," he e-mails back when I send him the pictures. Every night, soldiers took turns "pulling guard duty" here on the base perimeter. These woods may be haunted, but it's not the worst place I ever visited. My father, of course, had been talking about himself, a young man of 24, married for just over a year, separated from his wife and two newborns - for he'd been ordered to Vietnam when my older twin sisters were just five days old - to fight in a war that he, like many Americans, didn't support. Wars involve tasks that are hideous, heroic and humdrum, and my father's job fell into the third category, supervising a unit dealing with pay irregularities. "Not tough work," as he puts it. Perhaps this story is insignificant in historical terms, for millions more suffered worse fates. But from where I'm standing now, in these woods outside old Saigon, it's the only one I can see clearly. Long Binh was the largest American presence in Vietnam, home to 50,000 US servicemen, many of them draftees. Perhaps, in a bid to draw more American tourists, the Vietnamese will place a monument in these woods to commemorate their erstwhile enemies, the way the Turks have done at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli. More likely they'll clear the area and build another plant or warehouse. Or perhaps the concrete slabs and bunkers will remain as they are, slowly crumbling to dust, much the way yesterday's news fades into distant memory, eventually forgotten. If only the unbearable facts of history itself could be so easily changed.