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Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Road to Baria: part 1: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

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The Road to Baria: part 1

I mentioned earlier that we always travelled by air. That is to say all our official trips were made by air. Whatever journeys I made by road were completely unauthorized and if I had vanished nobody would have been any the wiser. However we had to go to Van Kiep by road when we lived in Vungtau. The French had had a convoy wiped out on this road, but this was unlikely to happen to the US with their air power. The Vietcong did blow up the bridges periodically and once mortared the airfield at Vungtau.

At first we travelled by these three wheeled vehicles. The Vietnamese would put eight or ten people in. We travelled alone. It was not an unpleasant journey. Once though coming off duty all I could find was one loaded with charcoal which took days to clean off my body.


We were then sent some official transport. We should have had a jeep and a three quarter ton truck per station. No stations received any jeeps and it was said our US major lent them all out to his friends for favours (I think the figure was fourteen). We were given US military driving licences without asking us if we could drive. I had to pick the truck up one evening from the airfield. In the dark I couldn't find the lights nor could I find the reverse. I managed to drive it back to the mess. We then used it as transport to go to Van Kiep. I should add here that the camp was called Van Kiep and the town nearby, the provincial capital, was called Baria, the province being called Phuc Thuy.
While the US would only drive this road in an armed two vehicle convoy we usually drove alone. Sometimes there were two of us, often just one. I am trying to remember the distance. I will say about twenty or twenty five miles until someone corrects me. It was the big white star on the side of the vehicle that worried me. Later we bought our own cars which improved things considerably.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Friday, 17 February 2017

The luck (or not) of the Irish: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

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The Irishman

The previous story brings to mind one of our cartographers. He was from Ulster, I forget which religion, I don't think it mattered. He was also an artist. He did have some odd views on the question of independence for an Ulster not linked to either the catholic south or Great Britain though.

Anyway, he told me that when the police raided his house and took away his overnight guest, he was so incensed he went down to the police station to try to get her out. Not succeeding he broke a chair over the chief of police's desk. No consequences.

Earlier he had been stationed in My Tho in the Mekong Delta. One night he took refuge in a bunker during a mortar attack only to be bitten by a snake. He didn't know whether to stay there and risk dying of snake poisoning or get to the first aid post and risk getting cut up by the shrapnel. In any case he had a permanent blackish mark on his foot the size of a dollar.


He was a rotten driver and when he went back to the UK he killed himself in his sports car on the M1 motorway. I often wonder if it is better to get killed honourably in battle or exotically by a snake rather than becoming some banal road accident statistic.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

When the "white mice" came knocking on the door: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

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The White Mice

There was a pounding on the door which woke me up out of a very deep sleep. In fact I wasn't properly awake when this pounding spread to the back door as well. I got up, still half asleep, picked up my revolver which I kept loaded under the bed and went to the front door. I forget the time but it was probably some ungodly hour of the night. I called out something, someone answered. Neither party understood the other. I decided they couldn't be robbers making so much noise and opened the door. They were a rag tag bunch of I don't know what, all armed, but I seem to remember hearing the word police. I kept my revolver bracketed on the one I thought was in charge whilst they searched my house. It occured to my somewhat befuddled mind that I was living in a police state.

The next day I discussed it with my Decca friends. They explained that in theory the police were searching for deserters. They did this regularly and it was a fairly acceptable activity in a country at war. My maid's husband was a draft dodger, (she lived the other side of the pond), which was the same thing. However it was also harassment against foreigners who had more money than they did and therefore more girl friends etc. The object was to arrest said girl friends and to have the foreigners bail them out the next morning thus augmenting their meagre wages.

They couldn't touch us; well not usually. They were under a great disadvantage. All this was to change after 1968, but more on that later. This went on for some time when I decided I had had enough. Anyway my landlord was a police officer and we came to some agreement and the raids stopped. In Vietnam at that time each household had a family book. In this book was listed everybody living in that house, vetted by the police. All overnight visitors had to be vetted too. In Vietnam you could be stopped if you were travelling with a girl in a taxi and she was not your wife. This was on grounds of morality (or rather lack of it) in public transport. It did not apply to private cars. (This was largely limited to Saigon). I'm not sure why private cars were considered less immoral. Houses were private but perhaps this was on security grounds and not moral ones.

 I was entirely ignorant of all this, and anyway we were officially living on our base. Apart from the fact it was entirely alien to my Anglo Saxon sense of liberty. I can't remember any Americans being too happy about it either. In any case we all felt above or outside any laws that existed. That is the way it was. Later when I became a resident not related to the military I did conform. I'm not making any apologies here but I do not think we in general and I myself in particular was always very agreeable people. We did trample on local customs, mostly through ignorance often through arrogance. I do though have this somewhat naïve opinion that police should behave in a civilised manner. The term ‘white mice’ was used to refer to the civil police whose uniform was white and it was said whose courage was questionable.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The maid; that most necessary person in Vietnam: Notes & photos Vietnam 1965 1975

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The maid

We were very well looked after by the Americans but I have always felt that one should try to be a part of whatever community one was living in. It was not easy in Vietnam. There were many barriers. Language for one. I spoke some French which was useful and I was able to improve it a little. The Vietnamese language is tonal, and although I enjoy music my ears are not tuned to the different tones as singers would be. It is a language I have always struggled with. At the beginning I could just learn to function in it, but I always felt it would have been better to start in the cradle. We were not helped by the Vietnamese who tended, not necessarily maliciously, to double up with laughter at our attempts to use it.

I started to use Vietnamese restaurants. The sea food was beautiful in Vungtau. I would go in to the restaurant and then enter the kitchen and point to certain food items. Unfortunately instead of giving me the lovely dishes served up to the locals they made a hash of it trying to serve up some western concoction. There were perfectly good French restaurants if I had wanted western food. Running out of tomato juice they would mix tomato paste or sauce with water and serve that up. I had to master using chop sticks fairly quickly. The first time I was out to dinner with some people in Saigon was very, very embarrassing. The simplest way to eat local food was to eat in the street at the stalls. It became a very agreeable habit.

There were two local beers. A beer called Larue, in large bottles. Rather weak and tasteless. And 33 or 'ba muoi ba' usually pronounced bummyba. I can't put the proper accents on any Vietnamese words I might use with this computer. It's the only beer I've ever seen ice put into. Very strong, the foulest hangovers but rather necessary to life. The US beer was rarely available out of their bases or clubs. That was rather gassy and weak. Frankly there was no really good beer anywhere. The Australians? That was for later.

Apart from adapting to the heat and humidity one's stomach had to get accustomed to the local bugs. Ten years later I felt the battle had never truly been won. In the provinces though I never really had any trouble but Saigon was another matter. There, there was an acute sanitation problem and I sometimes got very sick, particularly from mussels.

I decided to rent a house. It was in an area full of former refugees from the north. I hired a maid who washed my clothes and cooked for me when I was off duty. She only had two little charcoal stoves to cook with, electricity was intermittent. According to the season the water came off the roof or out of the well or from a public tap some hundreds of yards away; she would send a boy with a bucket to collect it. I showered with an empty coffee tin. My clothes were perfectly pressed. I used two or three shirts a day. We had another maid at the camp at Van Kiep. I probably got off to a bad start the first night as the dogs kept me awake and I fired my revolver in the air two or three times to quieten them. Mind I never had anyone try to break in. Rats were a headache I would have to learn to live with. They utterly revolt me. Much more on them later if I can stomach it.


She was quite the most marvellous maid I have ever had. Utterly devoted, she would also clean my pipes, my shoes, serve me a beer in bed when things were rough and was a superb cook. Going to the market every day to buy fresh food of course helped. I had a small fridge which sometimes worked, but usually the maid bought great chunks of ice from vendors. She lived twenty yards away on the other side of a pond I hoped my sewage didn't enter. I also hoped that was not the source of water for my well. I had a fish swimming around the bottom of the well which gave me hope it was not too poisonous. I drank beer. Her husband was a draft dodger and she would sometimes appear with a black eye. There are certain people one meets in life who leave lasting impressions on one. She was one.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Saigon life, early 1960's: Vietnam notes & photos




Student life in Saigon in the early 1960's. A time of relative peace but increasing civil unrest.This was before the big American build up which added another aspect to society in a town with an ever increasing refugee population, overcrowding, filth and disease. There still remained throughout all these upheavels a grace and elegance amongst a part of the people.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Road from Saigon: part 2: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

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The Road from Saigon: part 2

I am able to retain that great British calm in periods of stress. Outwardly it appears admirable. Inwardly it is what I call one of the shades of fear. I was to get to know all the shades of fear over the coming years. Discipline helps one blanket out reality. One functions normally, one is completely without emotion. When one returns to the real world it leaves no trace. One's mind has been completely protected. It is also rather suicidal unless you are born with the luck of the Irish.

The road just outside Baria had been the scene of a particularly bloody ambush some days before. The hills that lay back a short distance from the road were infested with Viet Cong.

In the camp we had become a little concerned. The Viet Cong were often setting up roadblocks and any foreigner who accidently strayed too far on the wrong day disappeared. Later an Australian division would move in to try to clear the area. Admirable soldiers; they were not there at that time.

There was a worrying crunching sound and the car came to a halt. Silence. We got out. The car was tangled up in a mess of barbed wire. We waited and listened but there was no movement, the area appeared to be deserted. Who had laid the barbed wire, Viet Cong or government soldiers? As the government would have no reason to set up a roadblock in the middle of nowhere it could only have been the Vietcong who then abandoned it when traffic stopped after dark. I felt for the first time in my life in what I can now call a pretty dicey situation. We took some time dis-entangling the taxi. We had four flat tyres. Neither of us knew how much further it was to the next village. We got in and limped along and finally came to Baria. The tyres were in shreds. I doubt if the wheels were any better.

 I gave the driver some more money and took one of the three wheeled taxis from Baria to Vungtau. That stretch of the road at that time was relatively secure in the day, dodgy at night but complete heaven to what I had just been through.

BBCVietnamese.com | Trang chủ | Tin thế giới

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