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Sunday, 16 July 2017

More from Van Kiep: part 1: Vietnam, notes & photos 1965 1975


More from Van Kiep: part 1

The build up of US forces was slowly catching up with us. I mentioned earlier that we had received a 3/4 ton but not our jeep. We also received our own GI. I'm not quite sure what he was there for. The only time he wore a uniform was when his major showed up to pay him. He lived somewhere in Vung Tau and more or less kept the same hours as we did.

Speaking of the major. A new one, not the one we first had who had kept a discreet distance. This one showed up one day unannounced and walked in to the op's room to find our station chief, John, relaxed in his chair, feet up on the desk, a cold beer in his hand. In other words what was understood to be a normal state of readiness. The major was evidently none too pleased. John though had a grade of GS13 which outranked the major. Another source for friction. There had been a station chief on Green Slave in the Bahamas who kept the fridge locked throughout the day and only unlocked it at six o'clock in the evening. Not that I was there at the time, so there was no mutiny. There was of course the station chief of Green Slave in Phan Thiet, who was found passed out amongst a pile of empty beer cans on the op's room floor. He was fired and later died of cirrhosis in Thailand. In Van Kiep we kept a sensible level.

 I cannot remember the station ever being off the air. Duty always came first. We had all been in the services but were no longer mad. In the Bahamas we used to paint the diesel house floor when there were inspections. But that was for the US navy.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The war: Vietnam photos & notes 1965 1975

The War

I have talked little about the war. I had the BBC World Service, The US Armed Forces Radio. I had The Stars and Stripes and various English language local newspapers. These latter were most amusing but I will deal with them later. I can't say I was ill informed. The war jogged on slowly and I was really only concerned with my little corner of Vietnam.

My own personal relationships were far more important to me than the fate of the country. That might seem selfish but I certainly had never gone to Vietnam with any missionary zeal to save the people from communism. I certainly didn't like communism. At times I feared it. But then I've never liked nor believed in politicians or generals. I have never voted in my life. Partly because I've never lived in a country where I've been allowed to vote, but mostly an utter contempt for those I would have to vote for. The US military I was associated with were of the old beer drinking long service types who had a job to do and got on with it.

The people of the country had lived with war so long it was a part of their life. However with programs to clear large areas of the countryside of its population and the creation of shanty towns. With the disparity in living conditions between most of the people and a minority of well-off Vietnamese. With the poorest staying in the army until they were killed or invalided out. With the sons of the rich going off to study abroad and not returning. With the corruption of the régime. With the money available to the US military and foreigners. With all this and more there was a growing discontentment.

There was also a certain contempt I felt on the part of certain of the military for the value of life. The use of the so called body count! The free fire zones! The use of agent orange! The use of napalm! The massive use of B52's! I certainly was no pacifist. I would not have been there if I were. One did wonder though over a period of time who exactly the enemy was and what was the friendly régime one was defending. It seemed one was supporting a very corrupt dictatorship in the name of what?

Monday, 3 July 2017

Relations with the Vietnamese/ Vietnam photos & notes 1965 1975


Relations with the Vietnamese

In our work with Decca we had little or nothing to do officially or unofficially with the Vietnamese. If we had limited ourselves uniquely to doing our job and living mostly on base we could have spent a year or eighteen months making a lot of money and then gone home knowing little or nothing of the country. I do know of a few cases like that but they were fairly exceptional. I would say the Americans were far wilder than the British. I was with the Americans and we were under yearly contracts. The British under the London office worked for Decca and one imagines had a future with the company.

As we were mostly, if not all, bachelors the majority had local girlfriends, many got married. It is either one of the pitfalls or pleasures of sending single men to exotic corners of the world.
Also it was very difficult to live in Vietnam if one did not have a maid to take care of one's day to day needs. Then one needed someone to take care of the maid etc. I always believed Vietnam to be one country in a state of civil war. This was in contradiction to the official US view. They had always been one people throughout history and eventually would be so again.

There was a distinct difference in character though between the North and the South. In the South they were much more easy going, in fact had an easier life, the war apart. They were very quick to anger and the fury of their women was something to be avoided. This anger though would last an hour or a day, no grudge would be held, and everything would then return to a state of loving normality. Generally they were absolutely faithful.

The North Vietnamese had a much harder life and had never accepted French domination. They were generally very slow to anger. It was said that they would wait ten or twenty years if necessary before exacting their revenge. Easier to get on with, more practical, but one was never certain of what they actually thought.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Road to Long Hai part 2: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

Scenes from everyday life in the fishing village of Long Hai

A lonely armoured car guarding the road between Long Hai and Baria.

The Road to Long Hai part 2

I moved into this rather old fashioned French hotel in Long Hai. I was the only guest. I was also the only occidental in the whole village. As I have mentioned there were a few Chinese who came down for weekends and that was all. Perhaps the security situation would change later but at that time the utter peace, if that is the word, was most appealing.

The hotel had no windows. They had all been blown out when the B52's bombed the nearby hills. The first time I had felt the tremors caused by their bombing I wondered whether the country didn't suffer from earthquakes. Around the headland at the end of the village there was meant to be a very beautiful rocky area, but as it was said deserters and renegades were holed up there I never went.

It was a very strange feeling being the only outsider in this small community. They must have been under a constant threat from the nearby Viet Cong. I rather hoped the hotel owners had some arrangement whereby their guests were not taken away. PB used to join me for weekends and they were some of the most pleasant we ever had.

Once though I was teaching her how to drive on a deserted airstrip outside the village when a pair of Grumman Mohawks decided to practice dive-bombing on us. I did not really think they would do more than practice but it rather upset the driving lesson and I was a little irritated they were not polite enough to give a wiggle of their wings on leaving.

Long Hai was a fishing village and when I went to Van Kiep early in the morning I would follow behind a lorry in the hope that if the road were mined it would set them off.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

The Road to Long Hai: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

The Road to Long Hai: part 1

It was about two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. I was coming off duty at Van Kiep having had our usual Sunday lunch of barbecued T-bone steak and beer. It was always a relaxed time. The replacement arrived about 10 o'clock in the morning and if there was any maintenance to be done that required two people it was carried out between 10 and 12.

Suddenly there was a flap, a really big one and when the military get in a flap it’s hard to know what's going on. I walked out the gates down to the road and saw what looked like activity to my left. This was the road to Long Hai which was about 10 miles away and was a fishing village. It also had a few hotels that had known better times under the French but were now empty except for a few Chinese from Cholon on the weekends. Between Baria and it there was nothing. Mangrove swamps leading to the sea on one side forming a large bay with Vung Tau on the opposing end. On the other side of the road was uncultivated ground that led to a range of hills controlled by the Viet Cong.

As this was not my business I continued on my way to Vung Tau. I saw aircraft arriving at the scene, but ambushes in broad daylight this close to a US airbase (Vung Tau) were short, sharp and deadly.

When I returned to Van Kiep later I was able to piece together what had happened. A force of Regional Soldiers, about two hundred strong with three American advisers had been moving down the road to Baria from Long Hai where they were stationed when they had been ambushed. There had also been some confusion over a message from them asking if the road were clear or not. It was over in a few minutes. The US advisers were killed and the South Vietnamese force either killed, taken prisoner or scattered. This force was not replaced in Long Hai whose defence was left in the hands of some Popular Defence Force personnel. These were a sort of part time home guard.
Having tired of Vung Tau it was to Long Hai that I decided to move.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Interlude in Hong Kong: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975


Interlude in Hong Kong

I decided I needed to see a specialist about my haemorrhoids. I arranged for some leave and went to Hong Kong. There it was decided an operation was necessary so a week later I would check into a private clinic on Hong Kong Island.

I had arrived in Hong Kong wearing a light tropical suit to find the weather bitterly cold, it was in February, and everybody wearing dark clothes. I took advantage of my stay to have a few suits made up. The hotel I had checked into was I think very respectable but I somewhat naively wondered what all those rather lovely Chinese ladies were doing sitting round the hotel lounge.

I spent a somewhat energetic and rather wild week. The colony at that time was confronted with the Cultural Revolution in China and was very lively and full of energy. I went to Macao on one of those boats that zoomed along on some kind of skis. Boarding the boat there were two Portuguese peasant women in front of me who had a most horrendous odour. I don't know how someone could consciously live with it. I can still remember it after forty years. The Portuguese colony seemed to have known better times. The hotel room was cold and the casinos rather dull. The food in Hong Kong though was delicious. The only sour note was that when changing my military scrip for some US dollars at Tan Son Nhut at the US military exchange somebody had given me a counterfeit $20 bill which led to my being interviewed by the police. I didn't give a damn but they seemed to take it seriously.

I won't go into the various other delights of Hong Kong in this article.
I naturally had a private room in the clinic which had a wonderful view over Hong Kong harbour, the sisters were hard bitten catholic missionaries, but the nurses were very sweet Chinese. Everything went well so I won't go into that either. I must say though if one has no life threatening problem it is very nice to be spoilt. Probably very expensive but I was covered by my blue cross and blue shield etc. Also for those who suffer from income tax and social security deductions from their pay cheques we had none of that and the per diem was reasonable. Mind you there never was an excess of volunteers for Vietnam. I remember telephoning home to the Bahamas. It was impossible to telephone internationally from Vietnam; difficult to telephone internally. They also had two systems, one US military and one Vietnamese.

I sent a telegram to my bank asking them to send a case of champaign to my sister for her birthday; those really were the days.

Friday, 2 June 2017

A wedding reception at the Cirque Hippique, Saugon 1969: Vietnam photos and notes 1965 1975

At this period there was a curfew at 10 PM so all social activities had to end early. The Cirque Hippique served Vietnamese food whilst the Cirque served French food.

This was life in Saigon which was very different from the countryside and indeed for a large part of the population of Saigon.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Road to Dalat: part 4: Vietnam, notes & photos 1965 1975

The Road to Dalat: part 4

The following morning I filled the car up with petrol, lit my pipe and we began the return trip. It was a lovely day, the air fresh and pleasant but not another car on the road. We descended what I would call the alpine part of the journey, past that imposing mountain now on our right, to the small airfield. We then continued across the area of what must have been a high plateau of plantations. I took some photos of PB, I still have them. At one point we stopped so she could buy some meat, buffalo(?) off a montagnard woman we came across, but we only had notes and the montagnard would only accept coins. Descending through the lovely green forests PB slept beside me. I was brutally awoken myself when the car hit a pothole, struggled to regain control of it and then continued wide awake. I dread to think what would have been the result of even a minor accident.

The drive was eventless and we passed again through rolling hills of tall grassland. As we approached the rubber plantations we stopped for a coca cola at some village. I have always found it the most refreshing of drinks on such occasions and gives one the force to continue. Then, surprise, a column of South Vietnamese armour approached from the south. The first vehicles we had seen in two days. I don't know what the US advisors made of me quietly sitting at a table with PB. Actually they gave a most friendly smile. Perhaps not for me.

Driving on we were stopped two or three times in the rubber plantations by Regional Force soldiers who wanted to be recompensed for guarding the road for us! I always kept a carton or two of cigarettes for that and usually two or three packets would suffice.

Reaching the Baria Saigon road PB wanted to go to Saigon, so I had to drive there and then back to Van Kiep. I think I must have driven a good eighteen hours during those two days. I could hardly move a muscle when I got back.

Three days after our trip the Viet Cong attacked the road in six places and held control of it for five days.

Sometime later two Decca employees driving in a jeep from Phan Rang on the coast up to Dalat went missing. In 1971, the British Vice-Consul, a certain Adrian, one of those very rare but most likeable of people was around at my house in Saigon and he told me that he had been interviewing a Viet Cong defector who said they had been stopped at a road block, taken prisoner and died in captivity. One was British and one American. On the other hand in the same period fourteen unarmed US civilian personnel in a US truck under I think Korean army escort were all killed on the same road when their convoy was ambushed. One had to use one's judgement whether to be armed or not, and if possible what means to travel by. One should also pray not to have been born under an unlucky star.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Road to Dalat: part 3: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

The Road to Dalat: part 3

We now looked out on the most beautiful green I had ever seen. Below us there was wave after wave of all the shades imaginable, forest or jungle, I can't remember, but it was utterly lovely. Whatever shade of fear we were suffering from also disappeared. I think we had just put it away and pretended to ourselves it wasn't there. In any case we were committed now and it was too late to turn back. At one point I saw the backs of soldiers looking into the forest, and the sound of bursts of machine gun fire, and then nothing. Next we reached a high plateau with gently rolling hills covered with tea or coffee plantations. I should know which, but this is written after a forty year interval and although some of my memories are crystal clear as though they happened yesterday others are blends of colours and some only grey.

To digress. The old plantations had been owned by the French. I was to get to know a Vietnamese woman whose family owned one. I remember being given large bags of coffee grains freshly roasted, black and small, glistening with butter. The coffee in Vietnam was the Robusta variety. Very strong. It was usually drunk out of small glasses with lots of sugar but no milk. I used to drink far too much and my nerves suffered accordingly. The tea was drunk from large glasses, without sugar or milk, thank God. Outside Saigon at least it was usually free and accompanied whatever one was eating. On the rare occasions I stopped somewhere just to have a glass it was always given, so I usually bought a small cake or something. Anyway the water was usually of dubious quality and tea was safer.

We arrived at the civil airfield serving Dalat. Very small. No sign of any activity or any planes. I was to get used to, indeed to take part, in this Vietnamese habit, of going to an airfield for a flight and sit down and wait hopefully, looking up into the sky for hours for the sight of a plane. When no plane appeared that day they would go away and come back the next. The patience of the East. From here the road climbed steeply and the scenery changed again. One could have been in the Alps. The forest was now evergreen and there was a magnificent mountain off to our left. Unknown to us this was quite the most dangerous part of the journey and that mountain was full of tunnels infested with the Vietcong.

We arrived in Dalat. We had not seen a single motorised vehicle the whole journey, save for that lone catholic priest. I will deal with this town later when I was to get to know it much better. For us it was just a question of finding a hotel, a quick walk around, food and bed. The town maintained a rather French air. With my beard I easily fitted in. It was the one place in Vietnam where I was never exploited. There was no United States presence at all. In all my visits there I never saw more than one or two Americans. I do not want to criticise Americans in these articles. The problem was, the fighting aside, there was often an unfortunate relationship between the two peoples, both seeing the other's faults and never the qualities.

There was a curfew at eight o'clock. It was a town that had seen its heyday years before. Now it had the South Vietnamese military and police academies. It had the Couvent des Oiseaux. It was known for its vegetables which were sent by road to Saigon. Its girls had a lovely healthy glow to their cheeks. All of this for later. We spent a rather restless night. There were continual bursts of small arms fire throughout the night. Will I ever tell of any happy ones. There were many, but evidently not at the end of our excursions. We had to return the next day. I only ever had two days off unless arranged otherwise and as all my trips were unauthorised I preferred not to talk about them.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

The Road to Dalat: part 2


The Road to Dalat: part 2

I switched the number plates of my car and then we continued through an area of rubber plantations. By the time we reached rolling grass covered hills it had begun to enter my somewhat sluggish mind that there was no traffic on the road. I also knew by now what no traffic meant. I hid my identity papers and threw away my X numbered plates.

The few villages that there were seemed lacking in activity. Once we passed a lonely catholic priest on a motor scooter.

The road climbed steadily and we talked a little. PB was from Hanoi. They had also had a house in the country and been relatively well off. Her father, a nationalist, had been taken away by the Viet Minh one night and never seen again. The family moved south after Vietnam was divided. There was an uncle, a colonel, who had been a province chief. I think all province chiefs were military, possibly with one exception to try to prove the country was not exactly a military dictatorship or something. He had been on the wrong side in one of the numerous coup d'états. There was another tragedy in her life, but it is not for me to talk about here. Every Vietnamese had his own share of tragedies linked to the war. Her English was excellent and she had this delightful habit of mixing her adverbs and adjectives up.

We decided I needed another identity. I suggested being a French catholic priest. I was often mistaken for one in the province where I worked. PB pointed out that her presence didn't lend credence to that. I suggested being a press reporter. We rejected that, but later I was to join an obscure press agency, get the necessary papers, and use that cover in my off duty time. I would also work as a freelance. We settled on my being a teacher. I was to become one at some future date. Once when we were driving in the delta, I think near My Tho, and had stopped to buy some pineapple from a young boy by the road he had remarked that I was English. He had a brother studying in England. I worked with, was paid by and had a lot of friends who were Americans, but alone in the countryside they were the last people I wanted to be associated with. The road started to climb again and still no traffic.

Phu Bao on the road to Dalat 1967

BBCVietnamese.com | Trang chủ | Tin thế giới

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