Letter From - Winter 2011

Vietnam: ‘Good Memories, Bad War’

By Christopher Davenport | December 1, 2010


My father’s flight, a United 747 from Hong Kong, arrives late at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s midnight, 30 hours since Dad departed the United States and more than 40 years since he first landed at this airfield. Back then Ho Chi Minh City was Saigon, and Tan Son Nhat was essentially a military installation across the street from the headquarters of U.S. Military Assistance Com­mand, Vietnam.

The fluorescent tubes that line the terminal ceiling highlight Dad’s fatigue; the pallid light reflects his waxy complexion. As I escort him into the sweltering night, the layers he wore for the flight—heavy beige corduroy pants, an undershirt, a sweater, and a windbreaker—hang from him shabbily. Onlookers line the welcoming area, a wall of expectant faces. Preoccupied with returning relatives or prodigal sons bearing gifts from abroad, they watch him pass with the same abstract curiosity with which they view other Western arrivals. Dad smiles wanly.

We bypass persistent cab drivers seeking fares and make our way to my Toyota; our driver, Anh Hai, has the engine running. Stocky and bowlegged, with cropped black hair and a thick mustache, Anh Hai offers my father a snappy salute and an eager handshake. Dad reaches for his suitcase, but Anh Hai won’t hear of it and retrieves the bag himself. He has anticipated my father’s arrival for weeks, since hearing that Dad served here during the war. Anh Hai served as a chief loadmaster with the South Viet­­­namese 241st Helicopter Squadron based at Phu Cat airfield, be­tween Nha Trang and Da Nang. He is eager to meet a kindred spirit from his youth.

As Anh Hai eases the RAV4 into traffic, neon lights from restaurants and karaoke bars pro­ject liquid dollops of purple and crimson into the car. Even at midnight, the streets thrum with revving engines and squealing brakes. Surrounded by pedestrians in constant motion, gleaming SUVs, and run-down taxis, we are assaulted by car horns and gasoline vapors. Hundreds of motor­bikes—whose riders’ identities are eerily obscured behind Mickey Mouse helmets and Hello Kitty facemasks—dart and weave through traffic. Their horns bleat feebly, as if they are asphyxiating on their own exhaust.

“Saigon,” Dad muses, “has been swallowed by Ho Chi Minh City.”

Not that he’s surprised. Since I arrived here nine months ago to begin a tour as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, I’ve tried to prepare him for what he would find. Little remains of the Saigon he remembers, the one he knew during the war—where the streets abounded with bicycles and open-air markets, and slow barges drifted along the river. Though relics remain, the labyrinthine streets are now swarming with Hondas and Vespas. Glass-encased, floodlit skyscrapers tower above them.  Clothing shops display fashions by European designers, and electronics shops are crowded with flat-screen TVs and the latest mobile phones. Nightclubs with DJs pump heavy bass into the teeming streets.

Everything conspires to compete with Dad’s memories, so I keep the conversation simple. I point out bits of old Saigon that remain, like the Rex Hotel, where the Army held briefings the press called “the five o’clock follies” or “the jive at five.” I show him the old U.S. Embassy—now the consulate where I work—and the point on its wall breached by the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive, just a few months after Dad’s tour ended. Mostly I leave him to his thoughts. Anh Hai divides his attention between the traffic and my father, protectively monitoring him through the rearview mirror.

We arrive at my apartment, a European-style flat on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, adjacent to Independence Palace, the focal point for the final push on Saigon in 1975. Dad collapses into bed and falls asleep immediately, a skill he developed as a soldier. He wakes early the next morning, and we take a walk in my neighborhood.

We end up in one of the nearby public parks, which, unlike sidewalks, are off-limits to motorbikes. Green and verdant, earthen and musky, the park ap­pears unkempt, but understandably so. Ferns and palmettos grow almost unstoppably in this tropical air. Before dawn, the parks fill with locals following the fluid motions of their tai chi instructor or playing badminton with awkward swats. Joggers plod along the cracked paths, weaving past elderly couples who walk side by side, their thong sandals slapping at calloused heels. Women in flowered pajamas and conical non la hats sell bowls of noodles and pho or skewers of lemongrass chicken or ground prawn, cooked over pushcart braziers.

Dad and I stroll aimlessly, discussing the vagaries of family and of blood—memories, accomplishments, regrets. Not always an easy man to grow up with, my father in his youth was stern, forceful, and intimidating—his Army ca­reer had formed him as a man, a husband, and a father. I often feared him and his unpredictability when I was a child, but time has mellowed my father, and the man walking beside me today is not the man I knew then. As we circle the park, we circle, too, the undefined boundaries of fa­ther and son, and our talks help to bridge our past with our present.

Yet amid the unceasing din of construction and traffic and commerce—the sounds and signs of a city growing at the limits of its capacity and an economy nearly keeping pace—Dad struggles to reconcile the enormous size of Ho Chi Minh City with the intimacy of Saigon, my Vietnam with his. In trying to find the city he knew, he also seeks the man he was. The changes here, like the changes in him, complicate that search.

We begin each day with a walk, and I’m impressed with how quickly he recovers from his jetlag. He soon feels ready for a road trip. He wants to go to Phu Loi, where he served during the war. Anh Hai knows the area and is eager to take us there.

George Davenport  arrived in Vietnam in June 1966 as a first lieutenant with the Army Corps of Engineers. Saigon surprised Dad as much then as Ho Chi Minh City does now. As a teenager, he’d read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and its descriptions of a lonesome tropical outpost: trishaws moved along its boulevards, and bicycles pedaled lazily past elegant French villas, opulent hotels, and European cafés. Greene described a quaint city of exoticism and intimacy, a distant port of call made more alluring by the mystery of the Orient and the redolence of colonial paternalism.

In contrast, my father spent much of his tour in Vietnam 25 miles north of Saigon, in a sprawling compound surrounded by a perimeter of razor wire and flanked by dikes that drained rice paddies used as landing pads for Huey and Chinook helicopters. The village of Phu Loi, a cluster of thatched huts with tin roofs and a few bars catering to GIs, clung to the base; beyond, flat scrubland stretched almost to the horizon, occasionally interspersed with dense stands of trees, vines, and lianas.

Dad assumed command of Company A of the 168th Engineer Battalion, which was composed of 80 GIs and 450 Vietnamese civilians. The Vietnamese were day laborers, carpenters, and masons from nearby villages, tireless workers who were paid weekly in cash. Periodically, my father drove to Saigon to requisition the payroll, a footlocker full of money. The Army had no system of accounting for these funds; Dad simply signed a form that read, “One trunk—Vietnamese piasters,” loaded it into the jeep, and returned to base.

Phu Loi billeted 10,000 soldiers, and Company A built and maintained the base facilities like the airfield, originally constructed of laterite clay by the Japanese during World War II. In 1966, the Army flew Caribou short-field cargo planes off the same runway, so Dad’s engineers mined laterite to maintain the strip.

They also assembled prefabricated warehouses and hangars purchased in Singapore. The kits arrived without instructions for assembly, so the engineers improvised, unpacking the components, laying them in a drained rice paddy, taking measurements, pouring foundations and piecing the structures together like a child’s model.

Although much of the war was a tragic cycle of devastation, my father built and repaired things. He previously had served in West Germany, training in the demolition of bridges, roads, and other infrastructure in order to slow a Soviet invasion that appeared imminent but never came. He spent the Cold War learning to destroy things, and a hot war learning to create them.

Vietnam perplexed him. He lived in a war zone; everyone had to be inside the perimeter by dusk, because after nightfall, combat patrols departed for the countryside. Rarely a night passed in which my father didn’t fall asleep to the distant clatter of small-arms fire, yet Dad’s war wasn’t about fighting. What mattered to him was the work he did, what he built, the structures, roads, and bridges he created. He wouldn’t put it this way, but my father has always had a somewhat Marxian philosophy regarding the things he made. It didn’t matter who nominally “owned” them; he made them, they were a part of him, thus they were his. That’s why he wanted to return to Phu Loi. He wanted to see if the things he built had stayed; if the part of himself that he left here remained.

Anh Hai meets us at dawn, and we head out of town before morning rush hour. Throughout the city, merchants open their shops to sell tires, silk, or pirated dvds. The proprietors stand shirtless, barefoot in sagging trousers, framed by dusty stacks of steel pots or handwoven baskets. They arch their backs, scratch their bellies, and smoke the first of the day’s cigarettes.

Above their shops are airy row houses of three or four bedrooms, housing four or five people to a room. Laundry hangs from slate-shingled roofs and balconies of pastel tile;  mold drapes the cement walls like a knitted shawl to lend a quiet elegance to the city’s decay.

We meander north on Highway 13 through  outskirts that are only slightly less densely populated than downtown. Like suburbs anywhere, they lack the character of the city itself. There are few trees except those on the muddy school campuses or the soot-strewn grounds of factories, and the buildings, though newer, appear hastily constructed and lack charm. Everywhere, the streets are swarming with motorbikes unbalanced by cartons of eggs, panes of glass, computer monitors.

The suburbs sprawl for miles in an intricate latticework, but eventually we are free of them and into the countryside. Here rubber trees are perfectly lined up in plantations that drew the French here more than a hundred years ago, and rice paddies are so green that they seem to emit light.

Dad talks steadily from the back seat. He’s friendly, almost giddy, laughing easily at my jokes, even those at his expense. I make a series of Gomer Pyle and Beetle Bailey references about his years in the service. This was the kind of thing that would have elicited a cold stare and icy silence when I was a kid, but now he chuckles. How different he is from the man I knew then.

We arrive at Phu Loi only to find the same growth that has devoured Saigon. The buildings and dwellings are newer than those in the city, but to Dad the area is irreconcilable with the place he knew. We try to get onto the base but have no luck. The Vietnamese Army long ago took over the compound, and it is now off-limits.

Anh Hai drives us around town, gliding over freshly paved roads, and we seek a good vantage point for seeing the remnants of the airfield or the warehouses Dad’s engineers had assembled. But the red clay landscape has become dense with new buildings, and the only contours to the land itself are the ditches and gullies through which the monsoons drain into the Saigon River.

We stop to walk among flowers being sold in preparation for the upcoming Tet holiday and encounter a man and his son selling Vietnamese flags. I help Dad haggle them down to 50,000 dong, a little over $2. We all come away from the transaction feeling that we have gotten the best deal, and we part with a sense of accomplishment tinged with guilt.

Anh Hai keeps trying to enter the base, but it remains shrouded behind the kind of frenetic growth that has transformed this city and this country. That the base today bears any semblance to the place my father knew is something he will have to take on faith. And yet he is unfazed.

Back in the car, he seems pleased that the place has developed on such a grand scale. He tells stories of what it was like when he was here, and Anh Hai relates his own memories. I try to translate Anh Hai’s tales, but my Vietnamese isn’t good enough to follow the intricacies of his re­gional southern dialect, with its guttural vowels and soft, swallowed consonants. Anh Hai realizes this, but he too seems content. He and my father are comfortable in each other’s company, in the presence of this place whose legacy they share.

Through this trip, I begin to better understand how my father views this legacy. When I was young, he rarely spoke about the war, but when he did, it was in a mostly positive light. He described the things he accomplished, the problems he solved, and the people with whom he worked, particularly the Vietnamese, whom he greatly admired.

My father is a man of sophistication and complexity, but he has never taken to heart the convoluted retrospection to which the war has been submitted, the way it has been fragmented and dissected until it is barely identifiable even to those who were here.

He cannot separate the history of that war from his own history, or the person he was then from the place he knew then. In a way, my father and this land have followed similar paths. The Vietnam he knew in 1966 was a tumultuous place, menacing and unpredictable. Dad himself was young and brash, and his temper and bravado were as strong as anyone’s.

But in the years since, both my father and this place have calmed. Age and success have mellowed them and made them more approachable. My father has become one of the most amiable people I know, and this country is among the friendliest places I have ever been. I find great comfort in the company of both.

We return home that afternoon, coated in the fine dust of new construction and tired but strangely elated. As we unload the car, Anh Hai solemnly offers my father a gift: a clay ashtray, molded and fired to re­semble an elephant. It’s a mass-produced, tourist-oriented knickknack, an odd gift for my father, a lifetime nonsmoker. Anh Hai explains that the elephant is the figure used in the emblem of his unit, and he wants Dad to have it as a way to remember him and the legacy they share. It is one of the few times in my life I have seen my father speechless.

A few days later, Anh Hai drives us to Tan Son Nhat for Dad’s return flight to the States. He is now back in his comfortable brick home atop Signal Mountain in Tennessee, a few miles from the hospital in which he was born. In a small study that faces the surrounding woods, beside an antique writing desk, Dad keeps a few mementos of his service during the war in Vietnam. These are the things that keep him in touch with the person he was then and the place he knew then. They are humble re­minders that help him hold onto a past that grows more distant each day.  Among them are a set of captain’s bars, his Corps of Engineers insignia, a Bronze Star awarded for meritorious service, and now a simple ashtray in the shape of an elephant. l

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