War torn Vietnam : June 1967 to July 1969
I think it was June 5 of 1967 when I finally arrived in Saigon and was met by a big bald American fellow called Robert who said that he had come the day earlier but was told that the flight was cancelled.
He had no trouble recognizing me because I was the only Indian off the plane so soon we were on our way to the IVS house which he said was not too far . At first Saigon looked like a very chaotic city and the streets were clogged with assorted vehicles and many army trucks with big white star painted on their sides . They were all trying to get ahead of each other but not succeeding and creating more traffic mess.
Welcome to wartime Vietnam. Saigon is a sprawling city that also includes Cholon , the China town . One could not ignore the overflowing gutters and garbage piles but what struck out most was the sight of old women and men on the sidewalk sitting with black market PX goods like shaving cream , razors ,cigarettes and a variety of other things. The city was full of GIs and they could be seen often walking with their arms around petite Vietnamese in the shady parts of the city or sipping beer in numerous joints .
The street urchins I was told could knock off crates of soft drinks or beer and other things from the back of US army supply trucks they climbed easily like monkeys .This was then sold on the sidewalks by the old people. I learned that they were very enterprising .
The IVS office was only a short distance from the airport on the Le Van Duyet street and had a large building which was the dormitory, a big common room with few books on a shelf and an old beat up piano and some rattan chairs and sofas . Then there were living quarters upstairs for married people and a barn like administrative office , a kitchen and garages . There were many new and old vehicles in the yard and the mechanics were always busy with some of them . The warehouse at the back was used by some volunteers who kept the day old chicks imported from Singapore in a holding pen and hanging ultraviolet lights over them.They had many animal science projects where the chicks were raised.
At that time there were over 200 volunteers spread out all over south Vietnam but quite a few lived in Saigon in the IVS house dormitory where the senior volunteers had their own rooms but the rest lived in the bunk beds in the huge dorm. Some lived downtown and I would gradually get to know some of them and never all of them.
My arrival was well announced since I was the first Indian to join the team but not the last. Two more Indians would come later. So there were quite a few volunteers to greet me when I arrived who introduced themselves but I promptly forgot their names. There was also a group of Buddhist monks in saffron robes who wanted to talk to me about something but now can not recall what we talked about . It was all a novel experience for me.
There were two fellows called Thomas and John who took me out to their place downtown for dinner and made me use chopsticks which I found very difficult to handle at first but later months I became an expert in using them.
Thomas politely asked me to sit behind him on his scooter astride when he saw that I was sitting like a woman with both legs on one side. In India we did not mind such things or boys holding hands but this was not India . I had a lot to learn but the education had already begun.
Like how to order food in a sidewalk eatery where they offered no menu but the waiter in his dirty clothes came to your table and recited the menu fast. You had to be very alert to pick one because he did not like to repeat to you . Not knowing the language aggravated the problem somewhat unless you went with someone.
Then you had to hold onto your plastic food tray with one hand while eating with the other and keeping the legs free to kick the dogs or cats that fought under your table for scraps. Because they were always short of trays and the waiter took your tray away if he thought that you were finished.
The lottery tickets vendors or the beggars were always bothering people so one had to learn to walk away from them.The joke that I soon heard was popular among the volunteers and it ran like this -One could always tell how long a person had been in Vietnam the way he ordered beer.
A person had recently arrived if the waiter brought him a beer with a fly in it because he would promptly leave the joint. If he had been in the country for over a year, he would ask the waiter to bring him another beer. If he has been here over two years then he would take the fly out and drink the beer but if he has been here for over three years then he would drink the beer with the fly. But those who had been in Vietnam a long time would look for the fly in case the waiter had forgotten about it.
I had arrived at a time when the entire team in Vietnam was undergoing some serious discussions about the whole philosophy of working there and that too during the intense war all around us. Soon a general meeting was called that was attended by all the volunteers and the executive director from Washington, D.C. and I remember a great many issues discussed and votes taken on many resolutions . I abstained from voting because I had just arrived and did not understand fully the issues but I was a keen observer and learned many things right away regarding the working conditions .
Anyway the outcome of this meeting was that the country director of the IVS team in Vietnam resigned along with a few others who then went back to USA to protest against the war and its negative effect on the people. Some saw IVS as tacitly supporting the war by simply being in Vietnam but most did not agree and said that we were doing humanitarian work that needed to be done because of massive suffering of people.
The resigned volunteers would later write a book explaining the problems facing the Vietnamese people to make Americans back home more aware of the sufferings of a valiant people.
I sat through the meetings absorbing everything but saying nothing . Only later I would start developing a strong sense of what was right and wrong and what we as individuals could do about it but at that time in June 1967 I kept mum and just listened.
Soon Lauren who was our administrative officer told me that I was to go to Long Xuyen in the An Giang province in the delta for my two month long language training in Vietnamese. I was to have a classmate who was a Korean fellow. So one day we flew off to Cantho and drove to Long Xuyen from there the same day.
The road to Long Xuyen was clogged with military traffic so we were stranded somewhere waiting for the convoy to move on the muddy and pot holed road when a small kid approached our car and started some small talk. We gave him some peanuts but all of a sudden he ran back, opened the hatch and grabbed the bag of the Korean fellow and disappeared into the thick tall grass that grew by the roadside.
This was a great shock to all of us and we tried desperately to chase the kid but to no avail . Welcome to Vietnam . The Korean chap had all his clothes and a camera stolen in the wink of an eye . I began to realize that not everything was what it seemed to be .I would later learn about the child and adult prostitution, thievery, abuse by adults like beating women and massive refugee problem all over south Vietnam.
Soon we reached Long Xuyen which surely was a pretty and peaceful town by the mighty Mekong river. There were wide streets and beautiful parks by the riverside and a huge catholic church was under construction in the middle of the town although most people were Buddhist in faith.
The IVS house was a two story building where we were given two beds in the kitchen downstairs where we also took our Vietnamese lessons 8 hours a day , 5 days a week from two teachers. One was from the North who spoke Vietnamese slightly differently than the teacher from the south so we were often confused which one was right . We learned a great deal of Vietnamese in two months and often to break the monotony of studies , we would go down the road to have tall glasses of fruit juice . This was very cheap and delicious but another reason was that the juice seller was a very pretty girl with whom we loved to practice our Vietnamese. Of course I was young.
We used to go out also for a bowl of Pho or Hu Tieu which is a delicious mixture of thick noodles and shredded chicken with aromatic herbs .This was my favorite. Our teachers later would invite us to a nice dinner when our lessons came to an end. I loved the food in Vietnam and was very adept by this time in using chopsticks.
Soon some high school students met us and some of them took it upon themselves to clean up our room and put things in order because we were miserable in our house keeping chores. One of them was Miss Lan who would become very friendly with me later and bring me to a picnic by the river banks or often would give me small gifts like a nice handkerchief.
Some volunteers lived on the other side of the river so once I went there to see what they were doing . I remember seeing a downed helicopter in the middle of the village so it became clear that the Vietcongs were never too far and infact they were everywhere. While crossing the big river I would often take control of the barge that we used to ferry our cars while the amused captain just looked on .
There in the IVS house lived a Mexican American called Juan who spent a lot of time with girls in his room showing them Playboy magazines . He was the modern Casanova to whom the girls were attracted like flies. I complained that he should take some time out and give me driving lessons because in my job ,driving was necessary. So we used to drive at midnight in the deserted streets of Long Xuyen which unlike many towns did not have a curfew. I learned fast and did not hit anybody or anything as a trainee.
I made some friends in Long Xuyen . One of them was a Chinese boy whose parents had a coffee distribution business. He was a very nice boy and often invited me to his house to share a superb Chinese meal . The other fellow I knew had a watch and jewelry store . Then there was Miss Lan.
The Korean fellow was disliked by many . He would often bring prostitutes to the kitchen which was also my room so I had to go out for a walk but mostly he was aloof to me and went out every night to watch movies at the US army compound that was nearby. We never became friends.
Miss Lan used to write to me later but our relationship came to an end the day I left Long Xuyen . I was not ready for anything like that and was now eager to settle down in TayNinh where I would stay for the next two years .
But let me tell you about an incident before we leave Long Xuyen. There was an American volunteer agronomist who worked in the Chau Doc area so one day we decided to pay him a visit because I had heard that he was doing some very good work there. We started on a rainy day in an illegally borrowed scout car and soon got stuck in deep mud somewhere. The villagers came to our rescue and dug us out .I had some reservations about the trip and said so but others wanted to push on .
Soon the car bogged down in deeper mud and this time there was no help although we all got down in the mud upto our knee and tried hard. When this effort failed, we started throwing mud balls at each other and made quite a mess of ourselves in the rain that was pouring hard.
Finally we found some US Seabees nearby and asked their help so they came with their huge caterpillar to winch us out but they too got bogged down and went back to their camp on foot. There they gave us dry clothes to wear and coffee which was very very nice of them.
We finally returned to Long Xuyen by boat and the kid who had borrowed the AID car illegally got himself fired from his job as an interpreter.
On another occasion I did go to Chau Doc to meet with this volunteer who was popularly known as My Ngheo which meant poor American . He always wore black shirt and black pajamas and carried a bag on his shoulder that had some seeds or fertilizer or something to help the farmers.
It was indeed a sad day when I learned that his body was found floating in the river with his hands tied behind .No one knew who killed him but we were sure it was not the Vietcongs who knew him and admired him.
This happened shortly after he exposed the corruption of the relief operation and talked to some US officials who came to the province so you can draw your own conclusion as to who was behind his murder. He was so very young. I missed him sorely.
There was a big sign board down town Long Xuyen that said that the Government of Nguyen Kao Ky was the Government for the poor people but this was a great joke . Nguyen Kao Ky was one of the most corrupt Vietnamese who never gave two hoots about the poor. He would later flee the country with most of his money and live comfortably in the United States but so did the president and many others .
I passed through CanTho a few times but there is nothing remarkable about it . It was a small town full of ugly wires dangling everywhere and terrible traffic . This was something one had to get used to in Vietnam because the army people strung up miles of cables in a very slipshodway everywhere to serve their communication needs thus making an ugly town uglier. This was the time of war and no one paid any attention to aesthetics.
Flying into Can Tho over the mile wide Mekong river, one could not miss the tall radio tower .The IVS had a small office there but I knew nothing about what the volunteers did there .Yes they once brought me to a place known for its steamed Mekong turtle so I had my first turtle but did not like it. I thought there were far better dishes than hard chewy turtle but volunteers were not too particular.
Up until now I was sheltered from the war because the province of An Giang was peaceful in general and very beautiful but now the time had come for me to take up my assignment elsewhere .
Soon my Vietnamese lessons were coming to an end and I was to be sent to the TayNinh province just west of Saigon to work there as an agronomist. I had heard that TayNinh was not a peaceful place like Long Xuyen but that would prove later to be an understatement.
So one day I flew back to Saigon by hitching a ride with the pilot of a spotter plane. I was surprised when he asked me to put on a backpack of parachute although I did not know how to use it but he said that it was just a precaution and most likely will not be needed. I was far from being reassured but he took off in that tiny contraption and went about flying very low over the rice paddies of the delta. When I asked him why he was not going to Saigon, he said he was in no hurry and was looking for Vietcongs.
I was truly shocked . I knew that Vietcongs routinely shot at such low flying spotter planes and wished I never hitched a ride like this . But finally he had a change of heart and flew to Saigon. I did not tell anyone of this misadventure because I was surely to be scolded taking such chances.
Back at the IVS house in Saigon I met with Roger who was being transferred to Saigon and I was to replace him in TayNinh. One day Roger and I flew to TayNinh when we saw a plane in the process of bombing a village . Now I did not need to be told what those round holes were when I was first landing in Saigon although it worried me that the bomb craters were so near the airport . This was my first visual of the ugly side and it did nothing to reassure me . I knew most of Tay Ninh was not a safe place.
I had come a long way from the placid city of Sri Ram Pur and realized that now there was no turning back. Whatever happened , I was to work in TayNinh as best as I could so I put on a brave face and looked forward to landing on the dirt and gravel air strip.
The IVS house was a small house on a quiet street in TayNinh called Yet Ma Luong street . The volunteers got it cheap for some reason. There was an English teacher called William or Bill who had a hook nose and shifty eyes . I had a bad feeling about Bill from the start but I kept this to myself. We used to eat together at the same place everyday . It was cheap and practical as none of us had the time or inclination to do cooking and house keeping.
Bill taught English at the TayNinh high school so I went to his school a few times for one reason or the other and got to know a few students there. One of them was my neighbor called Nguyen Thi Lan but this Lan was a sweet 16 year old pretty girl who was attracted to me from day one and I was to her as well so I can safely say that it was mutual. She used to come to practice her English with me. There were others but they lost interest after a while . Later Lan and I would become very good friends .
My first few days in TayNinh were hectic to say the least . Roger was not very helpful and expected more from me than I could deliver. He showed annoyance when I could not remember the names of various villages or farmers. I do not know why he was so impatient. His inscrutable face did not tell me the reason.
Anyway, I was introduced to the district agricultural chief who was a short fellow also with narrow shifty eyes and smoked a pipe. My first impression was good about him as he invited me to a sumptuous dinner on the occasion of the farewell party for Roger but later he and I would come to loggerheads over trivial matters. I would learn more about this gentleman later.
My job proved not to be very difficult. The volunteers were not really given any guidelines as to what to do but were attached to the agriculture office where they helped in whatever manner they could. I was an agronomist so I involved myself with rice research and extension from the start but I also built pig pens, compost pits and chicken coops for farmers in many parts of the province. There were also vegetable farmers I worked with near Tay Ninh. The work was tiring but interesting.
I was soon given a Scout 4 wheel drive car and gas coupons so I was busy from day one. Soon the need came for me to get a driver’s license so I went to the police station where a captain politely informed me that although in some countries the police department helped in this matter, I was to go to another office nearby for a license.
In this office I found a jovial fellow with curly hair who said that I had to take the written exam first and then he will give me a driving test. The written exam was in the vernacular but a cute girl who was taking the exams with me not only explained the questions but also provided the correct answers . The driving test was simple so I got my first driver’s license. Later I would acquire a pocketful of driver’s licenses from many countries but the first one was exciting.
The working hours were sun up till sundown but the rule was that we had to be back in town by 5 PM and could not drive before 7 or 8 am due to security reasons. I was told that the mine sweepers cleared the roads early in the morning but the Vietcongs were known to be very industrious.
At night one could hear the sounds of bombs dropping from the B-52s somewhere which usually meant somewhere west of Tay Ninh like in Cambodia through which the Ho Chi Minh trail passed. But sometimes the sound was much much nearer meaning parts of the province was being bombed. The incessant traffic of helicopters and army planes told you that the war was all around us but we the young volunteers took everything in stride . We just learned to ignore the sounds.
One day the AID office asked me to return my car to them in exchange for a new one. I was puzzled because there was nothing wrong with my car but they took it away and gave me a new Scout car. Later I found out the real reason. My old car was a bulletproof car which someone badly needed so they gave me a tin can of a car instead . I did not know that my car was bulletproof and often wondered why she was so thirsty .
There was a British fellow in TayNinh called George who was an electronic engineer for the DECCA navigation system that he had set up there. It was the tallest tower in Tay Ninh. George was a great beer drinker who could empty a long neck flask of it in one gulp . He would often invite us but I did not like to drink beer or smoke . George however, was very good company and we would often get together during Christmas or other such things . His other British colleagues were more interested in chasing maids than us but it did not matter.
There was also a contingent of Filipino people working in a civic action group and headed by a general who always flew into Tay Ninh with a swarm of helicopters and openly went around with his 18 year old mistress . He was such a shameless fellow but he always greeted me pleasantly enough.
These Filipinos were always seen scrapping the dirt roads with their bulldozers and not doing a very good job of it either . They built a place near TayNinh city where refugees were settled and some schools were built but the VietCongs blew up most of the buildings one by one and shot several Filipinos . The refugees lived in fear and soon abandoned the site .
But the general made a great show of it and told everyone an Indian volunteer had come to help the poor farmers in this resettlement site with vegetable production and what not and sent me cases of San Miguel beer every now and then. I was also invited to their parties when the Philippines President showed up one day with his pretty wife I gradually distanced myself from them . They were really not helping anyone but themselves and some of them were engaged in buying PX goods to sell in the downtown black market while others were busy impregnating maids . I did not form a good opinion of these people .
But their officers were the nicest people I ever met. They were the real gentlemen and I thought of them highly. There were also a few Filipino doctors .One of them patched me up very nicely when I had a scooter accident .I just fell off my scooter because the dirt road was sprayed with oil by the Americans to keep the dust down.
The Vietnamese just looked but did not come to my aid although I was bleeding so I somehow managed to get up and ride the scooter back to TayNinh . I told no one about this accident and no one could see the big scar on my thigh anyway.
Once I was invited to a meeting presided over by an American diplomat who right away said Hello Anil which sounded so phony .We did not know each other .His smile and behavior was totally false but then I had begun to understand the phoniness in people a great deal who would on such occasions use me as an example of how international people were helping the poor Vietnamese . I often walked out and kept away from such people .
A great deal of rice was grown in the Tay Ninh province in spite of war zones and free bombing areas . Most of the province was covered with rubber plantations that were established by the rubber barons during the French colonial period so rubber was still milked from the trees and processed into raw rubber in primitive factories on the outskirts of the town.
I used to often go and watch the workers milking the trees and bring bucket full of white sap to boil in big vats that made the hard raw rubber. It was a hard job and I wondered how much they paid the workers but judging from their haggard looks and shabby clothes, it was probably not very much.
All over the province one could see the ruins of abandoned villas of French barons .They had all left after the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu .
The Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh was a place of utter tranquility in the middle of the war. I used to go there and enjoy the peace that it offered. The monks who built the temple called themselves Cao Dai. Their faith included the tenets of Buddhism, Confucius teachings and strangely enough the ideas of Victor Hugo although I do not know what Hugo had to teach these gentle monks. The temple was very beautiful with decorated walls and dragons everywhere and inside there was a huge eye looking at you.
They offered you a guest book to sign .There were many dignitaries who visited the temple and signed the guest book .Later this beautiful temple was heavily damaged due to fighting around it.
Near the town there was a big mountain called Nui Ba Den which according to the locals was a hiding place for the VietCongs but on top there was an army post supplied by helicopters but the VietCongs were every where and controlled most of the province . The Americans considered such areas free fire zone and often were seen shooting from helicopters at any thing that moved. Killing water buffaloes for nothing was normal for them although it meant great hardship to the farmers. Often they destroyed beautiful fields of rice by running tanks through them . But the most odious thing they did was to spray a deadly poison 2,4,5-T called agent orange from air to destroy the rubber plantations where they suspected that the VietCongs hid.
Later I would attend a meeting in Woods Holes, Massachusetts on this subject to talk about what the agent orange did to people.
The province was insecure due to all the bombings and land mines but the city of TayNinh was not safe from attack . Once I went to see a movie in the army barracks but came home early because the movie was bad. Minutes later the barracks were hit by mortar fire and several people died. I could have been one of them but it was a close call and not the only one.
The other time I was in my house when the mortars started landing just across the narrow lane inside the police station . The sound was deafening because it was so close .My Vietnamese friend and I cowered in the corner of the kitchen wondering if and when one of them would land on our house and kill us all but we survived. Then the helicopters came and started spraying gunfire .This went on for a long long time but the result was visible only at daybreak . Just outside our house were severely mutilated bodies of Vietcongs laying in pools of blood while swarms of flies covered them.
They looked so young and helpless . So much blood and gore for me to notice every now and then was getting on my nerves.
But the old women just passed by with their vegetable baskets barely looking at the bodies but making comments as if it was not a big deal. But it was a big deal because thousands upon thousands of so young people were dying every day in that war that was draining the lifeblood of this country. Children played with toy machine guns or grenades and the TV showed Gunsmoke , Combat and Wild Wild West that was popular with the army brass.
In any country children are the mirror of what is truly happening around them. The kids saw only blood and gore and thought that playing with toy guns and grenade was the thing to do while in peaceful countries they played with each other or fly kites. How I wished that they too would fly the kites instead but the war was raging and in 1967 there were half a million US soldiers . The frequent check points on the road served another purpose. They checked the ID of every Vietnamese and packed off young Vietnamese to boot camps without giving them a chance to inform their folks. Often parents did not know what happened to their sons until a body came back for burial with a note from the government.
There were a few Indians in Tay Ninh who had shops on the main drag. They spoke good Vietnamese and bad English . They were also into black – market and often asked me how things were going. I said that one day the Americans will leave so they should think of their future. Surely the Vietnamese will not tolerate them in the future but they said that the Americans will never abandon them . They were wrong and I was right but they did not know it then and did not believe me in 1967.
As it happened many years later, the Americans did pull out so many Indians and Chinese fled in panic in rickety boats and many drowned. But at that time they were riding high and thought that their good fortune in black market dealings would never end.
The Vietnamese people tried to amuse themselves anyway they could because life was so grim. Once I saw a song and dance drama where the artists were dressed in long flowing gowns and beards. They danced while the musicians played flutes and made a racket with their cymbals but the crowd loved it .I did not understand what was going on but saw that people enjoyed this brief respite from their sad ordeal of daily struggle to survive.
But such respites were rare and the violence was more frequent everywhere as the war was building up throughout the countryside. We could sense the danger and often saw bodies on the road where a recent battle had taken place. Once I was on my way to Saigon when a huge explosion blew up the bridge I was about to cross in the Hau Nghia province . This particular province near Saigon was a hotbed of Vietcong activity . They dug miles of tunnel in Cu Chi but the Americans never knew of it.
I was naturally scared but could not go forward until a temporary bridge was brought in to fit over the gap. All the while the gunfire never ceased. There were many such incidents but yours truly was unhurt. I never knew when my luck would run out but then no one knew. Anything could happen.
This is the time when I moved into a new house with another volunteer while the hook nose William got himself a single house due to his romance with a Vietnamese woman . I was glad he was no longer living with us.
My new housemate was called Douglas who was a very simple minded fellow and showed his coin and stamp collection eagerly to everyone. He did not know much about agriculture and certainly not about tropical agriculture but made up for it with his enthusiasm. I do not know what happened to him after I left TayNinh.
The pipe smoking agriculture chief at that time was getting a bit tired of me because he felt that as volunteers we had a lot of freedom to do things he could not do due to stringent bureaucracy .This was grating to him so he took it out on his subordinates with long harangues . I kept myself busy with rice extension program and had many farmers to look after. Some of them were getting good yields from the new IRRI rice varieties that we had brought .
The IR-8 and BPI 76 varieties were spreading in some parts. Many farmers asked me for seeds so I started a seed multiplication program where a farmer would give me back part of his harvest so that I could give it to someone else . The Ministry of Agriculture in Saigon appreciated my efforts and gave me rice kits to spread new varieties in the province.
I believe it was the month of July in 1968 when our field director asked me to see him in private . I did not know what was coming or what I had done wrong but he smiled and said that I was the unanimous choice of the entire team in Vietnam to be nominated for a prestigious award in the United States and he wanted my consent. I was surprised but gave in. It was just a nomination and at that point did not mean much.
The director also told me to forego my planned vacation in Cambodia that I was about to take and go there with a companion who had assured me of the charms of half French Cambodian girls in Sihanoukville . In fact he had already arrived in Saigon and our plane tickets and visas were ready but I could not go. He never forgave me for it and went alone sulking.
Then one day a cable arrived from Washington, D.C. saying that I had indeed been awarded the International Distinguished Service Award by the Macalester College in St.Paul, Minnesota and I was supposed to receive it in person . All my expenses were covered by this award.
But a great many things had happened before this turn of events so let me go back a few months to the month of January 1968 . I had just received a telegram saying that my friend in Chau Doc whom the farmers called My Ngheo or poor American had been killed . It was so sudden and shocking that I decided to hitch a ride in a helicopter the same day to arrive in Saigon hoping that perhaps they will let me see his body.
The helicopter brought me to Bien Hoa airbase outside Saigon from where I took the communal taxi to Saigon in the evening. People were on the streets in droves because it was the night before the Vietnamese New Year. They were celebrating with firecrackers and baloons. The sidewalks were full of vendors selling all kinds of food and candies and there was an atmosphere of gaiety which was so rare in Vietnam .
I used to wear a black shirt, black pajama and a conical hat that farmers wore so I looked like any Vietnamese and blended into the crowd easily. I also was getting good in the language . The American guards and even the Vietnamese guards were often wary of me and always asked for my can cuoc which means ID . It was always funny to watch their reaction when they knew who I was and used some epithets that I will not print.
The IVS office told me that I could do nothing and was not able to see the body of my friend so I decided to return to Tay Ninh the very next morning because I had invited a few Vietnamese friends over for the New Year’s celebration there . I think at about 5 am Roger brought me and two others to the airport in his jeep and left in a hurry because the guards at the gate started shouting and pointing their machine guns at us.
We did not know what was happening so we got inside the gate with our heavy luggage and the gate was shut tightly .That is when all the hell broke loose and bullets started flying in all directions. There were very loud explosions and we saw people running around firing at anything that moved. Naturally we did not move and stayed on our belly I do not know for how long . This was the start of the infamous Tet Offensive and we were right in the middle of it at the Tan Son Nhut.
In fact the real scale of the offensive by the VietCongs throughout Vietnam was not known until much later but clearly they had entered the perimeter of the Air Base. Now they set about destroying parked planes and helicopters and blew up a whole lot of them . We saw fires breaking out here and there .The downtown had been hit as was evident from the rising column of smoke although at that time we did not know that a real battle was going on at the US Embassy and elsewhere.
Late in the evening we decided to go back to the IVS house because we could not go back to our stations so the three of us ventured out on the empty street with that heavy footlocker and tried to stop a three wheeler taxi but he was not about to and gave us a wide berth. Somehow we managed to stop him and said that we will not hijack him. We paid our fare and then some and reached the IVS house but the place had been evacuated .
There was not a soul to be seen anywhere. We had not eaten the whole day so we looked for some food in the kitchen. We were not lucky .The refrigerator had been cleaned up so we went to bed hungry. Actually we took turns in sleeping because we did not know if someone will come in and shoot us dead in the middle of the night. The Korean outpost outside our office was under attack and the gun fire continued the whole night .
We watched from the roof top the helicopters firing with tracer bullets and there were explosions throughout the night . This was the biggest offensive the VietCongs had mounted so far and it would shake the confidence of the South Vietnamese as well as the American governments .
The next morning a missionary chap showed up in his VW mini van to see if there were some people stranded and rescued us but we still did not know where the rest of the team went. So a search began downtown and soon we found them all cooped up in a hotel. There we stayed for a few days and some rations were found and shared frugally until the battle started to die down after a week . It was only then that we were allowed to go out again .
Soon the field director asked for a few volunteers to work in Saigon to help with the refugee relief operation .I was glad to help and borrowed the jeep of Roger to do just that . This was a time of great activity . I went every morning to the ministry of social welfare and loaded whatever relief goods they gave me to distribute to various centers . Food, soap, nuoc mam which is a stinky fish sauce, mats, medicines, fuel ,rice etc. I carried them all whole day until exhaustion took over . The only food I got to eat was half cooked rice mixed with a can of sweetened condensed milk but the job was satisfying. I got to know the University of Saigon students who started calling me Anh Phuc which means happy brother .
They were my guides and directed me to where I was supposed to go. I tied a red cross flag on the jeep lest some one mistake us for someone else and shoot at us and I drove like a madman all day long. This went on for a month . One day I was carrying a lot of fleeing refugees .They sat everywhere in the jeep and some even sat on the bonnet making it difficult for me to see the road but I had to carry them to safer place if there was such a place . A woman came running and pleading for help to rescue her wounded husband .I heard the battle raging just down the block but others urged me to leave . I still remember the cry of anguish of that poor woman I could not help but I was responsible for many .
Once I saw a street battle raging in Cholon which is the Chinatown of Saigon and made a quick U turn . There was nothing worse than getting caught in a cross fire . I got be very street savvy and got good at cat and mouse games of avoiding trouble.
The director was happy that I was helping out but Roger cursed me heartily and said that the stink of nuoc mam still lingered no matter how much he washed the jeep. One bottle had by mistake cracked open but it wasn’t really my fault. I missed working with the students but the time had come for me to return to Tay Ninh .
While in Saigon I once met a gentlemen who came from IRRI in the Philippines and stopped by the IVS house where Roger who was now the head of the agriculture team introduced me . We started talking mainly about rice cultivation , research and extension and I pointed out many difficulties as well as some potentials . The IRRI scientist was very impressed and said that I should be sent to the Philippines for further training if such a possibility came along.
Then in April of that year (1968) Roger told me that I will be a part of the team that will go to Los Banos in the Philippines for a three week training program in rice cultivation and extension methods. I was overjoyed. I was getting so tired of the situation in Vietnam that I really needed a break so this was a very welcome news indeed.
When we landed in Manila one morning, we were amazed by the difference. We stayed at the Filipinas hotel near the Rizal park where we sat at night soaking up the beauty of the place. There were lighted fountains that played with music and people strolled hand in hand eating ice cream. Kids played and lovers smooched. The expanse of a huge garden in the middle of the city was totally out of this world . It was so relaxing.
We did some shopping in the Mabini street where I sat with a nude woman on my lap while my companions took photos. The nude woman was a mannequin but looking at the photo no one could tell. We were just being funny and full of pranks after the tense situation back in VietNam. I bought a barong tagalog which is a traditional embroidered shirt made of fine pine apple threads .
Los Banos was a sleepy small town where the University of the Philippines and IRRI are located . While IRRI had modern buildings spread out over a large area and was an international center for research on rice ,the university by comparison looked shabby and like a small rural high school with low old buildings and a dirt road dissecting the campus . But the campus was green and the hills of Makiling looked majestic in the background.
We used to take our lectures at the farm and Home development office and went to IRRI for the practicals . The three weeks of training went by very fast and we learned a lot of things about rice, insects and diseases of rice and how to make dapog where you spread seeds on a banana leaf and plant the seedlings only after 11 days . We also tried our hands on handling a water buffalo that they called carabao.
Some Filipinos invited us to their homes and beautiful young ladies serenaded us with piano recitals and wonderful meals. I was totally charmed. People seemed to be so hospitable that an idea took germs in my mind at this time. I thought that in the future I would like to come back here for graduate studies or do some research at IRRI if someone offered me a scholarship. My fate was being entwined with this beautiful country in a way I was not to know for a long time.
The day before we were to return to Saigon, we went to Pagsanjan where one can go up to the waterfall in shallow boats that the boatsmen expertly guide through the rapids and big rocks. The manager of a resort lodge there invited us to a party at night where we passed the time dancing tinikling holding hands of pretty girls who taught us how to dance in between clashing bamboo poles. It was all so much fun but now Saigon waited so once again we trooped to the airport.
Back in Saigon and finally in TayNinh it was the same routine of working and listening to the sound of B-52s bombing at night.The whole of 1968 would pass like that but in December the team decided to have its annual Christmas party in Dalat and I was urged to join. So we all flew to Dalat which is in the highlands and is a very beautiful place with lakes and hills all around it. It was also very peaceful . The Dalat girls had rudy cheeks and wore their Ao dai so well but I was still immature . The IVS girls were also friendly and often asked me to dance with them during the parties but I generally shied away from them.
The first time someone offered me a glass of wine, my cheeks burned with shame because in India we never drank anything alcoholic . Dancing with girls who were holding you in a rather familiar way was also very embarrassing to me because as I said earlier, we had nothing to do with girls in India . The separation of sexes was rigorous indeed.
But here the American and some VietNamese girls seemed so free. Some even smoked which I had never seen before and wore clothes that no Bengali girl would dare even in a dark room but I was getting used to many things . I was not timid any more but I was still very Indian.
In Dalat we were invited to a party at the Military academy and when some one asked if there were birthday celebrants, I was singled out along with another Japanese American girl. Now the Vietnamese girl who introduced me to the crowd had never heard of Sri Ram Pur so said that I hailed from Alabama thinking that I was an Afro American so Alabama sounded right to her. Infact no one cared .
I was asked to cut a huge cake and was even given a gift wrapped in fancy paper that turned out to be ladies shoes although why anyone would give me ladies shoes was beyond me. Perhaps it was meant for the Japanese girl and got switched somehow. I gave it away to Lauren who was only too happy.
I can not end 1968 without mentioning BalaSubramanium . He was a south Indian who had attended the college in Sri Ram Pur and was the second Indian to be accepted by the IVS Vietnam team. His specialty was animal science . He came almost a year after me because he too took the long road to passport and visa but finally he arrived and came to TayNinh looking for me. I was working that day somewhere along the main highway so he found my car and me .I was very busy that day manhandling a huge water pump that we had to install somewhere so I was very dirty , muddy and in my trademark black outfit .
He was surprised to see me and realized that we volunteers did whatever that was necessary at the moment . May be he learned something .Anyway he worked in Saigon and in the vicinity and set up poultry farms . But early during his stay ,he got mixed up with the Tamil population of Saigon who after enticing him with the language and food that he surely missed, started borrowing money from him. Clearly he was in trouble because they were exploiting him due to his homesickness.
I came to know about this one day and said that he should forget about the Tamils and save all his stipend because it will one day come in handy for his future education. That is what I was doing so that I could go for the graduate studies somewhere after Vietnam. He listened and from then on started saving. Eventually he would go to the University of Wisconsin for a degree in animal science but I never saw him again once I left Vietnam in 1969.
The third Indian to come to Saigon was a Sikh girl but I never got to know her or anything about her.She would later get married to an American fellow and live somewhere in the United States.
But there was another marriage in the offing .One day Roger said that he and Lauren were getting married. This was very good news. I knew them both and liked them so wished them well and gave Lauren a gold chain that really surprised her . After their marriage they would go to Darjeeling in north Bengal and from there go to Sri Ram Pur to spend a few days with my family . They said they greatly enjoyed Darjeeling and the hospitality of my family. Nirmal said later they at first hesitated to eat with them thinking that Indians were so poor that they ate only once a day. Their ignorance about India was astonishing but they were learning.
I sent 20 dollars to mom every month and the rest was saved. I had local currency called piasters allowance for food and other expenses so I built up a small nest egg in two year’s time. It was not much but something to start with. I had applied for admission to the graduate school at the University in Los Banos for the Fall of 1969 but they never replied. Then a fellow volunteer who had returned to the States said that the California State Polytechnic College in San Luis Obispo was a very good agriculture school where he was enrolled and could send me the application forms if I so desired.
So I applied and waited. Then came the news that in January 1969 I was to go to St.Paul in Minnesota to receive the award .
The year 1969 was full of surprises for me . I did not know what was in store for me but I prepared to leave for the United States one day in January. The flight made a stop over in HongKong on its way to Tokyo. In HongKong the departure was announced but one gentleman was delayed coming onboard. He finally showed up huffing and puffing and sat down next to me. The woman in the window seat was probably his wife the way she smiled at him.
After take off he started talking to me and asked where I was going, what I did etc. to which I replied cryptically because I was not about to start my life story again. But he persisted so I said that I was going to the States but first I had to stop in Tokyo to see a friend and then I would continue to Los Angeles. At this point his interest picked up .
He asked whether I had been to the United States before and what I was going to do in LA. So I said that I was infact going to a place called San Luis Obispo where there is a great college and I had applied for admission there.
Also I told him that I wanted to meet with the admission officer personally to convince him that I spoke very good English so a TOEFL was not necessary for me. At this point he smiled and said something like.. “Young man , you have just passed your TOEFL ” . I was very puzzled so he pulled out a card from his pocket and said that he was Dr. Robert Fisher , the president of the California Polytechnic College in San Luis Obispo
Now imagine my surprise . Here I was reluctantly chatting with the president of Calpoly sitting next to me in a plane flying from Hong Kong to Tokyo and generally speaking I did not talk to people in the plane or bus or train. But he was such a nice gentleman. He was also genuinely impressed that I worked in Vietnam as a volunteer and was to receive an award at the Macalester College which was a very well known institution.
Now he took down my flight number, date and time of arrival in LA and said that he will leave a message for me at the Pan Am desk of the LA airport and will leave me detailed information about how to reach San Luis Obispo, where to stay there etc. I thanked him profusely and got off in Tokyo. This was no coincidence because I really do not believe in coincidences since then.
Just imagine the odds of meeting someone like Dr.Fisher on a plane in Hong Kong and sitting next to him on a big jet that carries 200 people. One in a million ? One in ten million ? Had I been just a seat ahead of him or behind, I would have never met him let alone talk. I do not know but I do know that it was no coincidence. A much higher power was guiding me and my life. The same power that saved me so many times from harm in Vietnam.
Tokyo was very cold and I did not get to meet the friend I was hoping to see so I left for Los Angeles the next day and arrived in LA on a Thursday night. This is very important as I will explain later.
At any rate I checked with the Pan Am desk there but found no message so I thought that Dr.Fisher being a busy man perhaps forgot about it. I then got on a bus to Santa Monica terminal from where I took the bus to San Luis Obispo . There was no problem. My friend came and found a decent hotel room for me and brought me to the campus early morning of Friday.
Now I will explain the significance of arriving on Thursday in LA. This was by chance because I left Tokyo earlier than planned. What I did not know was that the American colleges are open only from Monday to Friday and are closed Saturday and Sunday unlike in India where Saturday is not a holiday. Had I arrived as previously planned, I would have never met anyone at Calpoly because I was to go to St.Paul directly.
I was not at all ready for a second surprise when I got to the campus. The academic vice president and the admission officer were waiting for me on the curb and said hello Anil Welcome . I did not know what to say but finally asked how did they know that I was coming . They replied that Dr. Fisher had called them from Honolulu and told them all about me.
Now the admission officer said that he will be glad to attend to me right away if I could show him my grade sheet from the College . He was impressed. Who had not heard of the Sri Ram Pur University ? I was given an I-20 card right away which facilitates the student visa.
I also liked the campus. It was lovely surrounded by low hills dotted with oaks and other trees . The buildings were modern and the campus was vast. I was very relieved that my future looked bright and I was to return in September to start my classes as a graduate student in the soil science department .
In a way I was glad that I did not go to Los Banos for studies although it would have been cheaper but Calpoly was a very good agricultural college although more expensive. I did not have any scholarship but that did not worry me. I had some savings and for the rest I would have to get a part time job somewhere but that was in the future.
Some friends drove me to Los Angeles so that I could catch the flight to St.Paul. While driving on the highway I noticed that the signboards lit up like electric bulbs. I was told this was because they had reflectors on them. There were also reflectors of various colors embedded on the road that looked really beautiful like runway lights on airstrips . It was a very smart idea . The signs said gas food lodgings every now and then or exit number so and so . Driving was really made easy here with all kinds of signs .
I was thus getting my first hand knowledge of the United States from friends who showed a lot of patience with me. In Los Angeles I met with a few ex volunteers who had served in Vietnam .They warmly welcomed me and one of them took me to the airport . That night Richard Nixon was being inaugurated in Washington, D.C. This man later would bring the war to a close but that was still many years away .
When the plane landed in Minneapolis , I looked out the window and saw heavy snowfall . Everything was white with thick snow. But the biggest surprise was waiting for me at the arrival lounge where my old friend Lawrence was waiting for me. It was Lawrence who had given me the application form so long ago in Sri Ram Pur and now here he was waiting for me. He had obviously found out that I was the recipient of the award and even knew when I was to arrive.
The Macalester people who had come to receive me stood on one side with warm clothes guessing that perhaps I was not well prepared for the cold weather and they were right. No one had bothered to tell me that it was so cold there so I was in my casual clothes. They were also surprised but pleased that I had an old friend like Lawrence here. We then proceeded to the Macalester college where I was put up in a dorm. I promptly went to sleep and must have slept over 12 hours straight because of the time difference and the jet lag .
Finally when I woke up, I found that many people were waiting very patiently for me and wanted to talk to me. I was introduced to many students and others . I heard my name being called on campus frequently and wondered who knew me there. It turned out that an Israeli girl had the same name and she was obviously popular there . In the middle east it seems to be a name for girls although pronounced a bit differently.
The award ceremony that night was very exciting. There were four more awardees from various countries but I was the first to be presented . I had to get up and say something. So I started out by saying that I wished a moment of silence in honor of a friend of mine who was killed in Vietnam and who was the first awardee of the
IDSA . He was very popular with the Vietnamese who called him My Ngheo or poor American . He was so dedicated to his work that he could not come to Minnesota to receive his award and was killed during the same month he was supposed to be here.
Afterwards I spoke for some time about what I did in Vietnam and how I felt about the Vietnamese who suffered so much. The war was evil but they were heroic people who fought the French tooth and nail and now the Americans and I hoped that one day soon they will get their freedom and start rebuilding their devastated country bit by bit.
Then Lawrence took me to his home where Jane was there to welcome me. Little Jared had grown up a bit . I also had the opportunity to meet with the parents of Hubert who was working in Hoi An at that time . I assured them that Hubert was doing an excellent job there and was safe. His younger brother was very sweet and his parents were very gracious.
Now the time came for me to fly again and this time it was to Washington, DC where I stayed with the executive director in Arlington in Virginia. He had set up a few meetings for me in Washington so I first went to see the director of the AID. He was a very condescending person and started telling me how great a job I was doing there teaching those ignorant farmers about modern agriculture. I could not disagree more and said that it was I who was learning from them. The Vietnamese farmers were very smart people but he did not like this one bit and stood up . The meeting was over and I was glad. His high rank did not impress me and he should not have talked that way but this was Washington where people tended to talk down to Asians in a very patronizing way which was not pleasant.
My next appointment was worse. The Indian ambassador gave me exactly five minutes to explain what this was all about. He had never heard of the Macalester college or the award and did not seem to give a damn if I as an Indian had been honored. He listened impassively and soon got up. The meeting was over and I was really glad to leave. My companion was disturbed at this reception .He said that he thought my government would receive this news more happily but he did not know about India or its diplomats abroad.
I was reluctant to meet more such people and said so. I recall a radio interview as well but it was the same story. No one really cared. So after a few days in Washington I left for Paris where I wrote a letter on behalf of one volunteer who was suffering in a North Vietnamese prison and gave it to the North Vietnamese embassy there but I am sure they ignored it.
The Canadian volunteer who had been captured during the Tet offensive was still in jail in North Vietnam although he was just like us and totally innocent. He spent more than five years there before he was released. I tried what I could to plead for him but it was of no use. From Paris I went to India to spend some time with my folks in Sri Ram Pur. They were happy to see me and know that I had won some sort of award. Macalester and IDSA did not mean anything to them but I think they were happy to see me. This was the first time I met my sister in law called Sabita.
I do not have much to write about that visit to India except that being home felt good. They asked a few questions but in general did not show a great deal of curiosity about Vietnam or the United States. Mom was happy that I was going to study after my tour of duty in Vietnam . I ate well and mostly rested.
I still had a few months to serve in Vietnam so one day I flew back to Saigon. I was quite getting used to long distance flying by this time and had just made my first round the world trip but there would be many such trips in the future . My foreseeable future looked good so I returned happily to TayNinh . However, my happiness was not to last long because the agriculture chief there was very upset.
He thought that I had given him orders to look after my rice farmers during my absence although it was not true. I had only requested him but his interpretation was different so soon I packed up and left TayNinh for good and settled in a small village called Go dau Ha near the Cambodian border but still in the TayNinh province.
Here I was free to carry on my rice research and extension activities but the problem was where to stay. I slept in the car the first night inside the army compound because they told me that it was not safe outside. Then they fixed me up to stay with the Sea Bees who had a camp there.
The Sea Bee people were soldiers who lived inside a heavily fortified compound surrounded by barbed wire and land mines. They were coarse and vulgar people who drank a great deal of beer and watched 8 mm pornographic movies in the evenings. Their doctor who was an Afro American insisted that he will personally pay for my first sex but I declined.
So instead of moving in with them , I stayed in the warehouse away from their living quarters but there was no peace here either. At the back lived the maids so there was a constant traffic to the maid’s quarters at night. I was in desperate need of my own quarters but a house to rent was difficult.
Then one late night the rockets started landing inside the compound and some landed a few yards from where I was sleeping and narrowly missed the warehouse . I think the parked trucks that took the brunt saved me from shrapnel because the warehouse walls were made of tin.
In panic I ran to the nearest foxhole but the damage was apparent the next morning. A rocket had landed near my car and blown out all the tires and the windshield looked like it had many bullet holes. At that time I became desperate to move out of there because the camp was a target so my luck could run out the next time.
The high school teachers of Go Dau Ha then came to my rescue and found me a room downtown .The land lady was the old Ba who also prepared meals for the teachers at noon and evenings. This was perfect so I moved in and made friends with all the teachers .Most of them were unmarried females but it did not bother me . We took our meals together and developed very friendly relationships. One of them started teaching me French but I could never figure out le table or la table so that did not last.
The old Ba was very protective towards me and scolded the kids to no end when I found my watch missing one day so they pretended to look for it and soon “found “it under the culvert. The Ba could make them pee in their pants. Her son was a retired pilot who said that my camera that I just paid for was not new and I had been conned.
Now this is a story worth repeating . I had saved my piasters over many months so that I could buy a decent camera someday. I was very angry that they had cheated me so I went back to the shop in Saigon and demanded a refund or a new camera. The shop keeper simply ignored me . So I wrote a long letter to the Minister of trade and explained my case and demanded justice . One day two representatives of the Ministry came looking for me at the IVS house in Saigon where I was staying and asked me to go with them to the shop where I had purchased the camera.
This time the shop keeper was very nervous and produced a new camera right away in exchange .The ministry people asked me if I was not satisfied then the matter will be reported back to the Minister and further actions will be taken. They could easily cancel the license of the shop keeper on the grounds of fraud and put him out of business . But I let the matter rest.
My work progressed well and I was very popular with the farmers who often would block the road to stop my car and invite me to share food with them. They always had something or other going on like wedding or funeral so I had to share food with them. Even the soldiers guarding some bridges or places would ask me to stop and drink rice wine with them.
The best food was also the simplest food. During the rainy season the farmers caught plenty of fish in their rice paddies using a bamboo contraption that was like a cage with a hole on top. Then they roasted the fish on fire by the road side and wrapped the fish, some cucumbers and aromatic herbs in a rice paper and dipped it in fish sauce to eat. It was the best food because there was nothing like it .
They often would stop me and urge me to share their food. They hung hammock for me between the coconut trees and let me sleep and brought coconut water to drink later. I loved these farmers and their hospitality.
They also protected me. One day I heard gun fire just behind the farmer’s house while I was discussing about something . It sounded like AK 47 which the Vietcongs carried . So my farmers asked me to leave right away.
It took some time to turn the car around on that narrow road but finally I left. The next day the farmers told me that the Vietcongs came after I left and asked many questions . They knew who I was and what I was doing but left a warning. I was not be seen with Americans .
At another time I drove past a point where minutes later an army truck was ambushed and many killed so I knew later that the VietCongs were hiding there and saw me coming but let me pass.
Many volunteers were not so lucky. During the Tet offensive three volunteers were captured by the VietCongs and two of them were handed over to the North Vietnamese army who then put them in a prison in Hanoi. I had tried in vain to plead in Paris. The girl was released and was even given a comb as a gift that the Vietcongs made out of shell casings.
One volunteer in Hoi An hid inside a closet the whole night when the VietCongs came knocking and another was shot at who was slightly hurt. The killing of my friend in Chau Doc was mentioned earlier but I do not think it was the handiwork of the Vietcongs who were blamed for all atrocities .They had attacked the national voluntary service compound in Phan Rang where a few months earlier I had taken advanced Vietnamese lessons. Many were wounded and a few died but the worst fighting was in Hue .
The random violence was a routine thing so one never knew what was going to happen or when. Like one time I was with Roger waiting for an appointment with the AID officer in Saigon when I started walking back and forth to kill time. As I walked away from the gate, a grenade was tossed by a chap who was on a motorbike. The huge explosion hurt many including a well dressed lady who happened to be there at that time. My luck was being sorely tried so I wondered when will it run out ?
There is no use writing everything about Vietnam . There were some good times and some bad . There was nothing else to do except to work like a donkey and return home exhausted every day. There were no distractions like movies , books or TV. Everything was shut down in the evening so we had to stay home and listen to the gunfire or bombings by B-52s in nearby Cambodia or elsewhere . The border was about 8 miles away.
Finally the time came for me to say goodbye to all my farmers and friends in Go Dau Ha . In July of 1969 I was given the assignment by Roger to visit the volunteers who worked in the agricultural team and write about their work so that it could be included in the annual report. I welcomed this job heartily and first went to Ba Xuyen to set up the language training program for the new arrivals there.
This also gave me the opportunity to visit Hubert . I was eager to see him and tell him about my visit to his parents in Minnesota . I had told them that there was nothing to worry about Hubert which made them very happy.
But the fact was that there was plenty to worry about Hubert. He lived in a village where he worked as an animal husbandry specialist and was so devoted to his work that he made his own house look like a pigsty. He had a big wooden bed on which he piled up all his belongings and somehow managed to sleep on it too. I never looked under his bed but assumed it was worse. By comparison my room in Go Dau Ha looked like Ritz hotel.
He ate poorly and looked like a scarecrow. Clearly here was a case that needed some help but not from me. Most volunteers were lousy housekeepers but there was no one equal to Hubert. I arrived one evening when he took me to a hole in the wall eatery in his village . The only menu was a bowl of soup with an egg floating in it which looked green and tasted truly awful but he ate it and said I was spoiled . I went to bed hungry that night . He then took me to his farmers who were mostly Cambodians .
They offered me a plate of rat meat that I refused to eat so they asked Hubert why ? I looked like a Cambodian to them so they thought I was pretending.
The Chinese volunteers who had arrived in Ba Xuyen were a mixed lot. They were very fun loving and fond of drinking a terrible wine called U cha pi. The girl was worse. She could out drink anyone who dared and walked around in a slit skirt causing traffic problems in that one horse town. I had to convince her that a more modest Ao Dai would look good on her. When Lauren came one day to see how things were going, they got her to drink U Cha Pi a lot making her very tipsy.
But Ba Xuyen was not very peaceful like Long Xuyen . One night a grenade was tossed into a crowd causing many many casualties. I carried the wounded in my car but the Chinese volunteers had fooled around with the gears of the 4 wheel drive so the car could not run well. I cursed them heartily and somehow brought some of the bleeding people to a hospital at a crawling speed.
When we arrived at the hospital, I shouted for the stretchers but they were chained together with a padlock and the keys could not be found easily. This was sad .I had never been to a hospital where the stretchers were padlocked .
My last assignment of writing the agricultural report took me to Long Xuyen, Ba Xuyen, Nha Trang, Ban Me Thuot, Dalat and many other
places in south Vietnam where I visited the volunteers and took photos of their activity. I saw Sabrina in Dalat where she was doing work on entomology . She lived in a big house and kept fresh flowers in vases. I wish she had seen how others lived .
In Ban Me Thuot I saw the first time how the mountain people lived in their long bamboo houses. They made beautiful baskets and other products to sell but the Vietnamese looked down upon them because they were dark skinned and tribal . There were many tribes living in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos mostly in the hills and mountains.
My tour was nearing the end in Vietnam . It was sad because after all I loved Vietnam and the people . I spoke the language relatively well and came to admire the resilience of these brave people who had known nothing but war for the last 30 or 40 years . Millions perished and millions more were wounded . Millions were refugees in their own country and the whole social fabric was in tatters. There were beggars, prostitutes and street children everywhere . No one knew how long their suffering would last .
The government corruption was widespread and the soldiers often refused to fight a useless war because they did not believe in it anymore while the North Vietnamese and their VietCong allies fought relentlessly . Some 60000 GIs would lose their lives there and untold number would lose their limbs as well . But the US was bent on continuing in spite of massive protests back home and around the world .
I was an eye witness to this great tragedy as many others were but there was nothing any one of us could do so we kept on working .
There were a few volunteers like My Ngheo and Hubert who gave us all an example of what true dedication to work really was .I felt insignificant compared to them but I loved Vietnam nonetheless and tried to do my share.
The day before I left Saigon, John and his girlfriend Suzy took me out to dinner. I knew Suzanne well who was a very beautiful girl and often thought what would have happened if one day she and I came to know each other better. I would again meet her in the future but that is another story that I will tell later.
The Vietnam chapter was closing and I started to look forward to the graduate school in California . I came to know many Americans and other nationalities while in Vietnam . Some were good and we became friends but others not so good. Some were there for wrong reasons but very few had the courage to resign and return home to press for the end of war. Only a handful did in 1967.
The field director asked me if I could go to Los Banos in the Philippines and help with the training program for the incoming volunteers before going to the United States. This was also a very welcome assignment so I agreed.
The last scene was at the Tan Son Nhut airport where all the Asian volunteers and a few Americans gathered to see me off. Someone took a photo of us all . We all wore ties and smiled into the camera one last time together before scattering into the big wide world for good. Soon I was airborne.
Note : My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links as well as my biography: