By HOWARD WHIDDEN
Class of 1962
I had enlisted in the Marines in 1967 and thanks to Mrs. Miranda’s adept teaching at Division Avenue High School, scored very highly on the Army Language Aptitude Test during my first days on Parris Island.
After basic training I was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Washington, DC for a 32-week course in Vietnamese. Eight hours per day, five days a week we intensively learned not only the language, but also the history, culture and customs of the people. The old joke about ‘military intelligence’ being an oxymoron seemed to be true since I went to Camp Pendleton in California where I sat for a year before finally receiving orders for Vietnam with less than a year left in my enlistment.
I arrived in DaNang and was assigned to the 26th Marines guarding Dai La Pass, and participated in four combat operations, almost getting medivacked after contracting jungle rot in both feet. I was then put on TAD to the Army, lived in the old, French-built DaNang Hotel and worked at the interrogation center attached to the POW camp out by Marble Mountain. In January of 1970 I received an ‘early out’ to pick up the spring semester and was happily returned home.
Recently a former student from the class of ’80 who became a software engineer got in touch with me. He said he remembered the slides of Vietnam I had shown in class and as one of his most influential teachers, invited me to return to Vietnam with him as his fully paid guest for two weeks serving as his interpreter. Truly, it turned out to be a trip of a lifetime.
We began our journey in Hanoi, a place I fortunately had not visited during the war. We did the typical tourist sites, such as the 1,000-year old Confucian Temple of Learning, the National Museum and the French-built Opera House, but skipped the museum to Ho Chi Minh and his imposing Mausoleum.
Of particular interest to us was Hoa Lo prison where John McCain and other American flyers had been incarcerated, and we did see one room devoted to them, but most of the prison had been torn down, with the remnants primarily devoted to the Vietnamese nationalists who, fighting against French colonialism were executed there. From Hanoi we tooktwo day trips, one to Ha Long Bay, a truly magnificent ‘World Heritage Site’ where we sailed among hundreds of limestone islands, and another to Chua Huong, an ancient, holy complex of Buddhist temples.
The second leg of our journey was to DaNang, the city in central Vietnam where I had been stationed. Gone, obviously, was the POW camp, but Marble Mountain was still there, as was Monkey Mountain, north of China Beach and directly across the river from the city. So much had changed that I recognized very little of the city proper, but the change was very much for the better. There are now large, modern bridges crossing the river, many tall buildings in the city, and a six-mile long tunnel has been carved through the mountain above Hai Van Pass on the way north to Phu Bai and Hue.
We again took two day trips, one to the old imperial capital in the city of Hue, and another to Hoi An, another World Heritage Site where tailors are everywhere and you can have suits, dresses, shirts, blouses, and even shoes custom made for you in a matter of hours and at extremely reasonable prices.
A little beyond Hoi An is My Son, where we explored the remains of a temple complex created by the Cham people, the original inhabitants of the area who were pushed out by the Vietnamese. Before leaving DaNang we visited Monkey
Mountain to find Chua Linh Ung, a gorgeous temple overlooking China Beach where they have just completed the construction of a 250-foot high, gleaming white statue of the Lord Buddha’s female incarnation.
Final stop, Saigon! Yes, the older generation still calls it Saigon, while the youngsters refer to it by its new name, Ho Chi Minh City. We stayed in the Park Hyatt Saigon, centrally located by another old French Opera House, the former Presidential Palace of South Vietnam and Notre Dame Cathedral. Also nearby were the old US embassy, now our consulate, the magnificent post office designed by Gustave Eiffel, the complex containing the museum, zoo and botanical gardens, and the historic Caravel and Rex Hotels. Saigon is now a city of nine million people with many tall buildings, but the old French influence is still there, with wide boulevards and horrendous traffic, most of it motor bikes.
I would highly recommend visiting Vietnam, where you will find people who are extremely friendly, and an absolutely delicious cuisine influenced by India, China and France. Bottled water is everywhere, and the dollar goes very far. They use an inflated currency (a meal eaten while sitting on a tiny plastic stool at one of their thousands of sidewalk ‘cafes’ will cost you all of 20,000 dong, or $1), but taxis are metered and haggling over the price of tourist items is expected. Western brand name goods, however, are very expensive. The general rule of conversion is to drop four zeros and divide by two, so a pair of Diesel jeans will cost 6,000,000 dong, or $300!
Be adventuresome with the food! Their national dish, pho (pronounced fuh) is eaten anytime of the day, but especially for breakfast and lunch. It is a delicious soup containing rice noodles in a beef, chicken or shrimp stock, with fresh vegetables such as mung beans, basil and cilantro added as you eat.
Thanks for the memories.