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Sunday, 22 August 2010

Vietnam memories: the story part 34,35,36: Innocence Lost & the Road to Long Hai


Innocense lost

The story of D probably began in Saigon in 1949. The major part of it took place in the town of Vung Tau. The last chapter but one was played out in the highlands of Pleiku. The final chapter is unknown. Perhaps it happened when the curtain fell on the Vietnam saga on Ist May 1975.
Perhaps the story had already ended some years before.

Somerset Maughan or Evelyn Waugh, those English writers of short stories, of the tragedy of life, of the passion and destruction of the East could have written it. Even the cynicism of a Guy de Maupassant would not have been lost. Not Chekhov though, he was for later, for another unfinished story.

Tragedy is a part of life in the East. Of course it happens in the West, but not in the same manner. In occidental society we make life clinically clean. Children are seldom present at funerals, at the slightest shock they are sent to the psychiatrist. In the East all are confronted with life and death and both live side by side.

There were many who had no choice, but D's situation was not desperate. It was perhaps boringly normal and it was more her own character that wanted too much too soon. Which wanted to live life to the full. Not I think, at least not at the begining, from a fear of ever present death, but more as a spring flower wishes to enjoy the sun to its full. But like this flower, to perish all too soon.

Photos still exist. Perhaps they should be sealed and sent into cyberspace to be opened in a century. Photos of beauty and happiness. None containing the despair that was surely to arrive.
D's was the tragedy of many in Vietnam, a by-product of the war, perhaps any war. Not listed amongst the killed as that young girl on the Road to Saigon. D's final fate is unknown, but she was most certainly a victim.


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 villlage. 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 defense 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.


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.

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