About the author: Lytt Stamps, an international desk editor for the Houston Chronicle, wrote a series of stories from Vietnam marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Stamps served in Vietnam as an Army lieutenant 1969-1970.
Born in Caswell County, North Carolina, Lyttleton Luther Stamps (2 January 1946 - 16 May 1996), graduated from Bartlett Yancey High School in 1964, and the University of North Carolina in 1968. He is the son of William Rufus Stamps (1898-1984) and Myrtle Malloy Hammock (1913-2004).
The above photograph shows Lytt Stamps at his desk at the Daily Tar Heel, student newspaper of the University of North Carolina (where he served as Managing Editor).
Articles in the Series "Back to Nam"
1. "Back to Nam" 23 April 1995
2. "Ho Chi Minh Tomb Sits Among the Empty Graves" 24 April 1995
3. "Return to Camp Enari Brings Memories, Grief" 27 April 1995
4. "Hamlet, Town Transformed by Two Crops" 28 April 1996
5. "Forever Changed/Few reminders of Saigon's Fall Remain Today" 30 April 1995
6. "Remembrance of Two Wars/Celebration in Vietnam Open Only to a Select Few" 1 May 1995
"Back to Nam" by Lytt Stamps
23 April 1995
"Hi, Mom, I got my orders today."
With those words, I told Mom what she and hundreds of thousands of other mothers across the United States had been fearing, the news that their sons and daughters were headed to war in Vietnam, a war that no one seemed to understand.
It was the late 1960s, and the nation was split. Did the United States have a legitimate mission in Vietnam (remember the Domino Theory?) or was the war simply some grandiose plot of the Pentagon and Big Business to find another colony to exploit?
Mom didn't care about the politics; she just didn't want her middle child to die halfway around the world in a land the GIs called Nam.
She had known that she would be getting that dreaded message from me some day, ever since I was classified 1-A two days after completing my last college final exam. And she had worried that I would be draft fodder even before that. Still, she prayed and prayed that I could avoid that assignment to Nam.
Reluctantly, Mom had let me buy a car while I was in college, even though it meant losing my scholarship, which prohibited recipients from bringing cars to college. Later, she told my sister that she wouldn't have been able to live with herself if something had happened to me in Nam and she hadn't let me buy that midnight blue 1966 Mustang.
But when I went to Vietnam, Mom made me sell the car. I always suspected that she didn't want the Mustang around because it would have reminded her of me.
Mom is a simple lady: Her family, her church and her friends make up her life. Today, at 81, she lives in a house in rural Piedmont, N.C., that my father's family has occupied since the Civil War -- she was born a mile away. Just this month, she and friends celebrated a house-warming for my younger brother and his bride of two years after the couple moved into a house just close enough for Mom to be able to see.
She is staunchly Baptist and taught my brothers, sisters and me the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Nowhere in that lesson was there any mention of killing your enemies.
Still, Mom is patriotic -- God bless America -- but I never heard her comment on the politics of Vietnam. I just knew she didn't want me to go, to die.
So it was very carefully that day in 1969 that I told her that I had received military orders to Vietnam.
Fast forward two and a half decades, to this year.
"Hi, Mom, I'm headed to Vietnam."
"Oh. No! You can't go."
It has been 25 years since I was in Vietnam and 20 since the fall of Saigon, but Mom's reaction today is no less smarting than it was in 1969.
She doesn't want me to do anything now that will stir up the memories of that year I spent in Nam. The worries, the fears are still too vivid.
Caught off guard by Mom's reaction, I quickly called brothers and sisters and asked them to do their magic in calming her down.
But Mom was not the only one who reacted negatively when I announced that I was headed back to Nam.
Early this month, I saw my friend Manse Bridwell, who now lives in Dallas and served in the 4th Infantry Division about the same time I was in Vietnam's Central Highlands.
His response when I told him I was headed to Vietnam:
"Oh. No. You can't."
It was like I was hearing Mom all over again.
The pain from those years still lingers -- both for the Moms and those of us who served.
I don't talk much about my experiences in Vietnam, and neither do most of my friends who went. We share an unwritten bond of silence because much of what we saw cannot -- and should not -- be repeated in polite conversation.
I was a base-camp commando -- a propaganda and civic affairs officer -- so I was not exposed to some of the awful scenes that remain etched in many of my colleagues' memories. Still, I heard the horror reports at the daily briefings that I had to attend.
But none of the stories prepared me for a brief encounter I had at Fort Bragg, N.C., shortly after I returned from Nam.
Before going to Vietnam, I had lived off-base at Fort Bragg with three other lieutenants, all of them parachute-trained Green Berets. One got lucky and was assigned to Korea. The second was killed as he led his first patrol in Nam.
The third had been a happy-go-lucky young man who would have been the life of the party at any college fraternity in the nation.
That was before Nam. A year of war did him in. Eyes that once sparkled were now glazed. A face that just 15 months before was without blemish now showed the lines and wrinkles of an old man.
His bouncing step had given way to a drag. The alert, upright stance of a proud young officer now stooped, badly.
He was alive, but for what sort of life?
But even with the horrors I saw during the war, I wanted to come back to Nam when peace reigned.
When I was in Vietnam before, I met a beautiful people, a people the U.S military never understood. (That was one of the reasons we lost the war.)
I also saw a gorgeous countryside.
So I am going back to meet those people again, to share with them for a brief moment the beauty that is their country, to maybe salve my guilt for being a part of its destruction.
"Back to NAM: Ho Chi Minh Tomb Sits Among the Empty Graves" by Lytt Stamps
Houston Chronicle, Section A, Page 1, 2 Star Edition (Monday 24 April 1995)
Hanoi, Vietnam -- The stone monument reminded me of all the signs throughout the original Thirteen States that proclaim, "George Washington slept here." Only this monument was dedicated to the father of Vietnam. "Ho Chi Minh sat here," it says. The T-shaped monument, rising about 5 feet, with an urn at its base, does not explain why Ho sat at the spot overlooking West Lake, one of many calming bodies of water that dot Vietnam's capital city. But the monument itself has been turned into an altar. The remains of hundreds of burned incense sticks fill the urn, showing the love and admiration that many people here still feel for the leader who founded their country and brought communism to their lives. "Uncle Ho," my government guide called him several times. Ho died in 1969, and since 1975 his body has been displayed in a mausoleum in central Hanoi. Each day, thousands line up to pay their respects and mourn him. Death is no stranger here. According to some estimates, more than 4 million Vietnamese were killed during the war.
My guide and I arrived at the tomb at 7:30 a.m. Already, a platoon of young men and women soldiers stood in formation in front of us. They had come to perform a ceremony marking their progress in military training. The men were dressed in clothes that would not stand out on a Houston street, but the women wore the traditional dress of Vietnam, the "ao dai." The ao dai is a straight-line dress with slits up to the waist on both sides and is worn over trousers. These ao dai were white, and most had splashes of subdued pastels as accents.
As the military students began their ceremony, my guide and I broke through near the front of a single-file line of Vietnamese who were about to enter the tomb. I felt somewhat embarrassed, because I was both a foreigner and a former enemy soldier, but an American in Hanoi had told me that I would be laughed at if I stood at the rear. And a sign on the grounds encouraged Vietnamese to allow their foreign guests to go first. We walked about a block, then made a left turn at a sidewalk lined with red vinyl and six honor guards wearing bleached white uniforms. We entered the tomb, and the men removed their pith helmets and reverently placed them at their sides. A couple of turns, a few steps and a one-floor walk-up later we were in a cool, dimly lit chamber. Ho's embalmed body was resting in a glass sarcophagus guarded by four soldiers braced at attention, eyes straight ahead. The men, women and children all filed by respectfully. Some shed tears in silence.
Near the mausoleum stands a house built for Ho in 1958. But more than one foreigner has wondered how much time he spent there during the Vietnam War. Surely it would have been a target for the waves of U.S. bombers that pounded the city. Ho's death in September 1969 occurred just weeks before I arrived in South Vietnam -- a land the GIs called Nam -- as a second lieutenant.
I was a propaganda officer in the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands, and almost daily called for air drops of pre-printed, standardized leaflets on areas where we suspected North Vietnamese soldiers were gathering. None of the tracts ever mentioned that North Vietnam's leader had died. Instead, they played on the homesickness of the North Vietnamese who had infiltrated into South Vietnam through the Ho Chi Minh Trail -- young men and women far from their families and their religious institutions. The leaflets noted that many Vietnamese believe their souls wander in limbo for eternity if they are not properly buried by their families in their home province.
Today, many pagodas and churches are in Hanoi, each attesting to Vietnam's religious heritage. It was near one of the pagodas that I saw the stone monument that proclaimed that "Ho Chi Minh sat here." The pagoda was filled for a noontime service, and I joined the worshipers, having never been to a Buddhist service. But I noticed I was attracting attention away from the service, so I left. Just outside the pagoda, I saw people burning money in the belief that it would help them contact their dead relatives. I didn't know who they were trying to reach or even if the dead had been casualties of war. My guide reminded me that many graves lie empty in Vietnam's north. Parents had dug them for their sons and daughters who never returned from the war in the south.
"Return to Camp Enari Brings Memories, Grief"
PAPER: HOUSTON CHRONICLE
HEADLINE: Back to NAM
DATE: THU, 27 April 1995
EDITION: 2 STAR
EDITOR'S NOTE - About the author: Lytt Stamps, an international desk editor for the Chronicle, is writing a series of stories from Vietnam marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Stamps served in Vietnam as an Army lieutenant from 1969 until 1970.
DATELINE: PLEIKU, Vietnam
Map: 1. Location of Camp Enari (color)
Photo: 2. Many Montagnard mountain people, like these arriving in Greensboro, N.C., in 1986, moved to the United States from Vietnam (b/w, p. 19)
PHOTOGRAPHER: 1. Houston Chronicle, 2. Houston Chronicle File
WORD COUNT: 2044
PLEIKU, Vietnam -- The children in the village of Ongo must have thought I was the evil giant from "Jack and the Beanstalk." They had been playing during recess from school when our van drove up, but they stopped to see who was arriving, and some of the boys started toward the van. But when I pulled my 6-foot-4 frame out, the children began to back away. My primary objective that day was to return to the site of Camp Enari, which had been headquarters for the 4th Infantry Division for the first half of my year in Vietnam, a country known as Nam in GI shorthand. It would be an emotional stop for me when I thought of all the destruction that had been launched from the base camp.
I also wanted to visit a tea plantation, and to see for myself what had happened to the Montagnards -- "minorities," as my interpreter called them. Historically, the Montagnards were a nomadic people, poverty-stricken and racked by malaria and other diseases. They were known for building bathroom-size huts of thatch on top of stilts, homes that they could easily move from place to place. Like minorities in many other countries, including the United States, mostly they were outcasts. When I was here as a soldier I thought they were treated much the way blacks had been treated in the South in the 1930s and '40s. Much of my work with them was to improve their education, health and sanitation and to teach better farming methods. Similar work is being carried on today. The governments -- then and now -- wanted them settled in one place so they could be better controlled and helped more easily.
When I pulled into Ongo, I didn't realize at first that I was in a Montagnard village. The houses were not on stilts but built on foundations on the ground. Later, I did see one house on stilts. It was built of wood with a red, clay-tile roof -- not easy to pick up and move. Ongo is just north of where Camp Enari stood, about 10 miles southwest of Pleiku. The children at the school looked healthy with big smiles, but half were barefoot. They were curious about me, just a little too scared to get too close.
I remember a visit to a Montagnard village 25 years ago when the children initially were reluctant to come up to me, but got over their fears. Soon each walked by and stroked the hair on my arms. Ongo's children never went that far. Through my interpreter, I made small talk with the two teachers as the children shyly gathered around, watching me with wide eyes. I asked about the young bird perched on a stick that one boy held. He lowered his head but didn't answer.
Not making much progress on talking to the children, I left them for their lessons and walked through the village. The lane was rutty and unpaved, and everything nearby was coated with a layer of red dust -- the red dust that I remember clogging my pores 25 years ago. One day I got a haircut and there was a white line across the back of my neck where the old hair had kept the dust away from my skin.
Villagers have planted coffee around their houses, many built of stucco. Ongo is part of the Ia Bang Commune, and coffee and rubber are two products the commune hopes to grow to help ease its poverty.
Nguyen Trung, head of the commune's People's Committee, said he wants to improve medical care because malaria, dysentery and other diseases still plague the people. The minorities are given free health care, he said, and outside his office compound I saw a 2- by 3-foot sign giving health tips for mothers and their babies. (But I wondered if the mothers could read it.) Trung said transportation is a major problem. "Many of the roads destroyed in the war have not been repaired," he said.
"There is no money."
While Ongo seemed to be faring fairly well, it could be just a showplace for me and other visiting journalists. I later talked with a Canadian businessman who visited two other Montagnard villages. He saw the old-fashioned thatched houses on stilts, and in one village he saw children with swollen stomachs -- a sign of malnutrition and hunger. Still, he said, the children were just like children everywhere. When he handed out candy, they all jumped with joy and wanted a piece.
"Why don't you move here, and I'll find you a beautiful woman," joked Nguyen Thanh Tuu, vice director of the Bau Can tea plantation about five miles south of where Camp Enari was. He had seen how much I liked the serenity of the plantation.
I had wanted to visit a tea plantation because Charlie -- the name we gave the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers -- often hid among the low tea bushes of some of them and waited to ambush U.S. caravans. I don't know if that ever happened at Bau Can. I remember a tea plantation north of Pleiku that was the scene of many an ambush. Every time we got near it, we put on flak jackets and steel pots; fortunately, Charlie was elsewhere whenever I drove by.
Today Bau Can is such a quiet, peaceful place that it is hard to imagine it was often used for ambushes. The rows of tea plants, bright emerald green with buds and new growth of a paler green, are less than waist high. They stretch toward the horizon until they blend into the tan mountain beyond, covering 700 hectares, or a little more than 1,700 acres. About every eight rows of tea stands a windbreak of 30-foot-tall trees. Thousands of pale yellow butterflies fluttered over the tea bushes. In the trees, I saw hundreds of cocoons, waiting to become the next generation of butterflies.
Where 25 years ago there would have been boom, boom, boom from artillery at nearby base camps, today there was near silence, with only the lilting calls of birds to break the quiet. I remembered two lines of a poem by Robert Burns:
"My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
"My heart's in the Highlands a-chasing the deer."
The poet, of course, was referring to the Scottish highlands, but, standing in the Vietnam highlands, I knew exactly what he meant.
Back at the packing house, the day's harvest was being processed. The mild, sweet aroma of tea with a hint of mint permeated the air. It was intoxicating. In the morning, pickers gather the bud and first two leaves from all the suckers growing on the plants. In the afternoon, they bring the pickings to the processing plant, where the buds and leaves are spread on top of a mesh fabric over a screened wire table for drying. Once the tea is dried, workers use 50-year-old, highly polished brass equipment made in England for cutting it.
During the rainy season, the pickers harvest 4 tons of raw tea each day. That yields about 1 ton of dried tea. The plants are picked every week during the rainy season and every two weeks during dry weather.
Although most of Bau Can's exported tea goes to Asian markets, some of its black tea makes its way to the United States through an exporter in Ho Chi Minh City. Like any businessman, Tuu, the plantation vice director, hopes that soon he can export more to the United States.
How ironic that Camp Enari, where the proud American 4th Division once held forth, is now part of a commune.
The paved road leading to the base, once filled with military vehicles, is almost empty, save for an occasional motor scooter or bicycle. At some small gullies, part of the roadway is washed away, leaving barely enough space for one vehicle to cross.
At the base itself, nature, with the help of the Vietnamese, has taken over. Gone are the one-story, wooden buildings that housed thousands of troops who passed through. Gone is any sign of the dirt side streets. Gone are the ammo dumps, the mess halls, the fuel dumps and other facilities used by American soldiers. In their place are weeds, a scattering of wild flowers and the beginning of a rubber plantation that the Ia Bang commune hopes will be profitable. Some of the base, however, may never be useful for agriculture, my guide said, because of chemicals dumped by the U.S. Army.
The only hint that we were entering Camp Enari was a 6-inch-high concrete pedestal in the middle of the road that had served as the foundation for the guard shack at the camp's entrance.
I arrived at the camp in late October 1969 as a second lieutenant, six months out of Infantry Officer Candidate School and 19 months out of the University of North Carolina. At Carolina, I took a class with a retired Army major who was an expert in propaganda, and he had helped me get a propaganda assignment at Fort Bragg, N.C., immediately after I finished officers' school. My luck held out at Camp Enari. I was assigned as propaganda and civic affairs officer for the 4th Division's 3rd Brigade. At that time, the 3rd's headquarters was still at a forward camp, north of Pleiku, so I joined the unit there until about three months later when we all moved back to Camp Enari.
It was at the forward camp that I came under my first attack. The standard operating procedure there was to hold a briefing early each morning and each afternoon at 5. Following the afternoon briefing we would adjourn to the colonel's mess for happy hour and dinner. We were just finishing the afternoon briefing one day about a week after I arrived when the cry rang out: "Incoming!" We were under attack. I grabbed my rifle and steel pot and found the nearest bunker. The shelling didn't last long. It was just something to keep us on our toes, and soon the all-clear was passed along.
We had a major as our Air Force liaison officer, and he had long wanted to napalm a nearby ravine. Since he was going Stateside in a week, our commander agreed. Several of us scrambled to the top of a latrine to sit and await the jets. There we watched as the napalm burned everything that was in its path that evening. Then, after the bombing run, we calmly went to happy hour and dinner as if nothing had happened.
Today all that is left of Camp Enari is the road that would have been its main street. After the 4th Division moved to An Khe, the South Vietnamese Army took the camp over, and after the war ended, Vietnamese civilians quickly moved in. They broke the buildings' foundations into pieces about 18 inches by 24 inches. I saw the blocks used as paving stones at houses throughout the area, and even saw what I thought was several on sale in Pleiku.
There are no signs of the side streets that crisscrossed the base, so it was difficult to find where my office and quarters had been. The camp site, however, still has a beautiful view of the tan, soft rolling mountains to the east. When I was at Camp Enari before, I'd try to block out the military buildings and just concentrate on that view.
The longer I stayed at Enari this trip, the quieter I got because I wished I hadn't been a part of the war. My guide must have spotted that and asked how I was feeling. "I am very sad," I replied, looking down at the ground so that she would not see that I was about to cry. My voice nearly broke. "Because of the thousands of lives that were lost in the war. Not just on my side, but on both sides. It was a waste. Such a waste."
When I looked back up, she and the two men with us had moved away, leaving me alone.
They were giving me a moment to spend with my thoughts, my memories, my grief.
"Back to Nam/Hamlet, Town Transformed by Two Crops" by Lytt Stamps
28 April 1995
AN KHE, Vietnam -- They're raising cane here -- sugar cane, that is.
And casaba melons, too.
The two crops are helping to make An Khe the fastest developing town in Gia Lai Province.
The town and a hamlet that has the same name have been transformed since the late 1960s and early '70s when the hamlet depended on the U.S. military base that was here. Then, the base was the area's main source of jobs, primarily as maids, or in selling goods and services to the GIs. I tried to avoid An Khe hamlet, which seemed to me to be a smelly collection of rusty tin shacks that a strong sneeze would have blown over.
Of course, poverty is still great here, but the region's economic development is phenomenal. Housing has vastly improved, a new market has opened, and the town has reported progress in health care.
Maybe one reason I didn't like the hamlet 25 years ago was that I didn't like my job.
When the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division officially went home in the Spring of 1970, I had not been in the country long enough to leave. The troops who returned had been in Nam -- the term we used when referring to Vietnam -- for nine months or more and were ready to go home anyway. Some had not even been with the brigade until the week they were to go home. I had been in Vietnam six months, so I stayed behind and was re-assigned to division headquarters as a Kit Carson Scout program officer.
Under the program, I hired former Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers to work as scouts and guides for 4th Division units. The scouts knew the tactics of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, so they could alert our forces to potential ambush sites or to areas that had been booby-trapped.
The people I hired had switched sides under a campaign encouraging the enemy to defect. After defecting, they could be drafted into the South Vietnamese Army. So, many were willing to take their chances with an American unit rather than with the South Vietnamese where they would have been treated like scum.
When I hired them, the Kit Carson Scouts could not speak English and knew nothing about American culture. I had two weeks to teach them our language plus anything else I could throw in that would ease their lives in a culture they didn't know or understand.
Even Berlitz doesn't try that.
Imagine my telling some sergeant, "I have someone to help you, but he is a former enemy and he doesn't speak English."
The sergeant's reaction would not be to invite me over for a beer to say thanks.
With that sort of negative outlook from many GIs toward the scouts, I became their friend, big brother, priest, boss, confidant and paymaster. I was the only one they could turn to when they had problems. With more than 100 scouts to care for, it was nearly more than I could handle.
Still, some of the scouts were outstanding and saved a number of lives.
I will never forget a hand-written letter the division commander received:
"Thank you for writing me about my son Tim's death and for your condolences.
"Tim worked with a Kit Carson Scout named Ngo, whom he nicknamed Joe. They had become close friends, and Joe saved Tim's life several times.
"On the day Tim was killed he was walking point, but Joe was away at a relative's funeral.
"I am certain that if Joe had been there, he would have spotted the booby trap Tim stepped on and Tim would be alive today."
That simple letter helped me carry on. There was at least one mom who appreciated what the Kit Carson Scouts and I were trying to do: Save lives.
Maybe I would have liked An Khe more if the community had the marketplace then that it has today.
It's a mini-Traders Village with a roof, and would fill up less that half of a football field. Tables for the traders are squeezed together, with aisles just wide enough to let two Vietnamese through.
There among the tables of farming tools and nonprescription medicines and watering cans and sundries of all types, I spotted a T-shirt with "Houston" in two-inch-high letters emblazoned across the front. I stopped to study it, and the seller thought I might buy.
My interpreter explained to her that I noticed the shirt because I was from Houston, and the seller replied, "Yes, we know of Houston."
By that time, six or eight others had gathered around me, all amazed by my overweight, 6-foot-4 frame. To say I am big by Vietnamese standards is an understatement.
So I had an entourage following me the rest of the time I was in the market. Even though I don't speak the language, we joked and clowned around. Like the universal language of music, there must be a universal language of shoppers: Everyone was trying to find what they thought would be the perfect souvenir for me to carry home.
From the T-shirt stall I moved on to the tobacco shop. No pre-rolled cigarettes or cigars here, just the dried leaves used to roll your own.
Some of the leaves were 10 to 12 inches long -- like the tobacco we grow on my family's farm in North Carolina. Others were the shorter, stronger-flavored leaves that looked like Burley, the type of tobacco grown in the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. The tobacco, I was told, was locally grown.
I leaned over to sniff the dried leaf. Sure enough, for a brief moment I was back in Carolina in the fall when our crop was ready for market.
We strolled through the grocery section, stacked high with leafy vegetables and herbs that scented the air. Then the butcher section, where two or three pieces of beef lay open on a butcher block. I saw live chickens in cages, thin, scruffy little birds, and I understood why the chicken I had for dinner the night before had been so tough and meatless.
Just down the street from the market, I saw a shop with three women's formal gowns in the window, one pink, one blue and one pastel green. They were not the Vietnamese ao dai, but Western-style dresses, with big puffy sleeves, small waists and full skirts.
"They are wedding gowns," my interpreter explained. "They are for rent."
Then, in a note that would please any dad whose daughter is getting married in the United States this summer, she added, "They rent for about $10 a day."
Maybe another reason I don't have fond memories of An Khe is that it is where I came closest to dying in Vietnam -- and not from enemy fire.
It was the day before I was to leave for Cam Ranh Bay to catch the Big Freedom Bird back to the States.
Junior officers lived two to a room. Ours was barely big enough for two metal-frame cots, two wooden trunks, a small desk/table and a refrigerator I had bought from someone who went home months before. The refrigerator was apartment sized, big enough for two cases of beer and a case of soda. Plus it had a freezer that could hold two ice trays.
Outside our room was a sidewalk, a waist-high row of sandbags, a 24-inch-wide drainage ditch, another row of sandbags, another sidewalk and then a row of rooms that mirrored ours. Hardly 10 feet between the buildings.
The company commander, a captain, had lived across from me and one door down until two days earlier.
I was sleeping peacefully about 5:30 that morning when suddenly a giant, loud boom woke me. Thinking it was incoming rockets from Charlie, I grabbed my steel pot and rifle and headed for the door.
In a frantic, others were doing the same thing. Then we saw it: A badly mangled, dead dog outside the company commander's former room.
Someone had planted a hand grenade between the sandbags and sidewalk so that it would go off when door was opened, hoping that it got the commander. Only, the dog hit the trip line first.
That dog deserved a medal. If he had not hit the wire, a half hour later at least a half dozen of us officers would have been outside shaving and brushing our teeth beside the sandbags. We would all have been casualties when the booby trap went off, with most of us being dead.
Fortunately the sandbags were there the day the dog hit the trip wire. Most of the shrapnel from the grenade landed in them.
The stack of sandbags provided more than protection for us. We used them as a counter to shave from, as a back fence to gossip across, and occasionally as a perch to watch enemy attacks from.
In May 1, 1970, President Nixon ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia. That night, to let us know he was still around, Charlie fired a couple of rockets into the camp.
Charlie's rockets were not very accurate, so if you got hit by one, your time was definitely up.
A couple nights later, at exactly the same time, 1 a.m., more rockets were fired at us.
The third time, two days later, we were ready. About 12:45, we sat on the sandbags, wearing steel pots and drinking our beers as we waited for an attack.
Sure enough, in came two or three rounds, just at 1 a.m. as we expected. We got to see them land and then watched as our helicopter pilots scrambled to get their birds in the air just in case more rockets were coming. Some of the attack copters headed off toward where the rockets came from, but I never heard if they got anything.
That went on every other night. At 12:45, we'd gather on the sandbags with beers in hand, the rockets would land far from us, our helicopters would scramble.
I don't know how long this went on because I had to go to Saigon and the Mekong Delta on a Kit Carson Scout recruiting trip a few days later, and the 1 a.m. fireworks show had ended when I returned a week later.
Before I could tour An Khe on this visit, I had to make a ceremonial call on Phan Ngoc Tuan, chairman of the People's Committee of An Khe.
I felt like I was at an international summit.
With me were my interpreter and guide, both from the Foreign Relations Office based in Pleiku, and an official from the People's Committee of Gia Lai Province which An Khe is a part of. (A town here is the equivalent of a county in the United States, and a province is the same as a state.)
Across the long, narrow table sat three officials from An Khe.
Tea was poured into the demitasses Vietnamese use, and we talked about the changes I had seen.
Tuan said the changes in An Khe began about 1980, eight or nine years before he became committee chairman. He is proud of what has happened so far, but is not about to stop.
Tuan hopes to use casaba melons and sugar cane as a base to build a better future for the township of 18,000. When I asked how many tons of sugar the town could produce and whether it was for domestic or export use, he grinned.
"Neither," he said. "It's for the cane."
The cane, he explained, will be used for basket making.
As we talked, everyone but Tuan and me was busy taking notes as if what we said would solve a sticky diplomatic question.
Tuan said the medical situation in An Khe has improved so that malaria and diarrhea are no longer problems. Both were major worries 25 years ago, I remembered.
He wants to continue to upgrade medical facilities, to construct a new sports stadium, repair roads and build new ones.
The road work is certainly needed. We drove down one lane a block off the main street that was so rutted I was amazed we got through. It was definitely a place for a four-wheel drive vehicle, which we did not have.
Beside the street, however, I saw a pond that shows some of the ingenuity An Khe has put to work. In the water, fish are growing. On the surface floats a mass of water hyacinth -- "beo sen" in Vietnamese -- that the people are using for food.
Two crops from the same space.
"Back to NAM/Forever Changed/Few reminders of Saigon's Fll Remain Today" by Lytt Stamps
Houston Chronicle, Section A, Page 1, 2 Star Edition (Sunday, April 30, 1995)
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam -- Today may be Vietnam's Fourth of July, but drive a few blocks away from Reunification Hall and you see little to remind you that 20 years ago on this day Saigon fell to the communists. Of course, a parade and speeches are planned on the plaza in front of Reunification Hall, a modern building completed in 1966 and known as Independence Hall or the Presidential Palace before the end of the war. Red banners with political slogans written in yellow letters hang across the wide, tree-lined boulevards on either side of the plaza, and broad red streamers with a single yellow star catch the breeze as they cascade down the trees and power poles. A reviewing stand has been constructed, but it probably has fewer than a thousand seats. The decorations, however, are limited to a small, eight or 10 block area around the plaza. A few signs near tourist hotels proclaim the anniversary, but elsewhere in the city, life goes on normally, with markets crammed with goods and shoppers hunting the best bargains.
Maybe it's because people here seldom show emotion in public, or maybe it's that they want to forget the war. It ended, officially, on April 30, 1975, with the surrender of the U.S.-backed leaders of South Vietnam to soldiers of the Hanoi government, hours after U.S. helicopters evacuated thousands of people from the roof of the U.S. Embassy. After all, Vietnam has been fighting outsiders since 200 years before Christ. Over the centuries, they fought Chinese invaders repeatedly, and in more recent years, first the French and then the Americans, whose GIs called the country Nam.
Perhaps the attitude now was best summarized by my interpreter in Pleiku, a 25-year-old woman born the year I served here: "The people, they don't know about the (American) war. They don't care about it," she said. "They are too busy trying to make a living."
An American expatriate here asked me how the Saigon of 25 years ago -- when I was a soldier -- differs from the Ho Chi Minh City of today. After the war, the Hanoi government renamed the city in memory of North Vietnam's late revolutionary leader. The most obvious difference is that there are no sandbags stacked up outside hotels or other public places. And all the military jeeps and trucks are gone from the streets. When I was here before, the sandbags always kept me wary, a constant reminder that the city -- even though outwardly showing the hustle of urban life -- was under wartime conditions. I tried to avoid any place where crowds gathered because Charlie -- our name for the Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers -- could drive by and toss a hand grenade into the crowd. That never happened when I was around, but the war stories were so abundant that I was always on guard.
I just wasn't comfortable here, and that unease carried over when I got back to the States. I avoided crowds in the States, and when a car would backfire I would jump and immediately look for a safe place. Today, the city feels amazingly safe. I can walk the streets at night with my only worry being how to fend off aggressive street vendors selling cigarettes, newspapers, T-shirts, food, kitchenware or just a good time at some bar. Sure you have to be on the alert for pickpockets, but name a city where that's not the case.
The streets at night have the atmosphere, the excitement, the merriment, the smell of an old-fashioned country fair. You can choose from the international edition of USA Today or the International Herald Tribune or the English language Vietnam News, published by the government's Vietnam News Agency. There are Dunhill and Jet and even some American brands of cigarettes. (I purchased a pack of Dunhill Menthols for the equivalent of $1.60 the other night, less than the going price in the United States for domestic brands. I purchased Saigon, a Vietnamese brand, for 80 cents.)
T-shirts are stacked on tables, and the sellers assured me they had my size. At another table, model helicopters, made from soft drink cans, are for sale. In the shops that line the street, you can find lacquer ware or jewelry or fake "Rolex" watches or any of a thousand other items you might want to carry home as a souvenir.
The military vehicles that were so prevalent 25 years ago may be gone, but the ever-popular motor scooters remain. Scooters were common 25 years ago, and their number has increased with the growth of the city. They keep people and commerce moving here. It's not uncommon to see a scooter with two people aboard, one driving and the other holding a framed 2-foot-by-4-foot picture or two 1-foot-by-4-foot mirrors. Or the scooter could be piled high with produce headed to a market, making me wonder how the driver keeps it all balanced. Thank goodness for the thousands and thousands of scooters. If even half the scooters were cars, the city would be in permanent gridlock. In addition to the scooters, automobiles, bicycles and cyclos all crowd the streets.
A cyclo is a version of a pedicab, a modified tricycle with two wheels in front and a single, bicycle-sized wheel in back. Passengers ride in a seat up front, and the driver pedals from his seat in back. By U.S. standards, cyclos are cheap. I rode from the zoo to my hotel, a distance of less than a mile, for about 15 cents.
Saigon was known for its heat and humidity, and the end of the war and the new name have not changed that. In the summer in North Carolina when I was growing up, we had what we called "two shirt days" -- a businessman would need to change his shirt at least once during the day because he had sweated through the one he put on that morning. In Ho Chi Minh City this time of year, these are "three shirt days." I barely walk out the hotel front door and I am drenched. Sweat is always pouring off my forehead. I wondered how the Vietnamese always seemed to look so dry. Then I saw it: Many discreetly carry a face towel for mopping their foreheads.
With a population of 4 million, both the people and commerce of Ho Chi Minh City seem to be always on the move.
Just across the street from my hotel, Saigon Tourist, the government tourist agency that owns the hotel I am staying in and about 60 others around town, is in a joint venture with foreigners to build yet another hotel. Five cranes stand on site, and steel and concrete beams are being turned into the foundation for the new project. The construction noises echo through my room, drowning out the horns from the passing cars and motor scooters. The constant stream of traffic and the construction give the city a dynamic feel, of a city on the grow.
Ho Chi Minh City certainly has its poverty, with beggars each telling you his or her sad tale of woe, hoping to pull on your heart strings and get a handout. The beggars are a constant who were here 25 years ago and will still be here 25 years from now.
Dealing with the currency has been a problem. The exchange rate is just over 10,000 dong to the dollar, and the largest bill in circulation is for 50,000 dong, about $5. So you are always burdened with a big hunk of currency. I'm still shocked when I see a dinner tab for 101,000 dong, until I realize that's just over $10.
Even though Vietnam and the United States do not officially recognize each other diplomatically, the dollar is mighty popular here. Just imagine the pile of Vietnamese dong you would need to pay a $300 hotel bill -- that's about 3 million dong, or 60 of the 50,000-dong notes. So hotels and other businesses that cater to tourists welcome dollars, if for nothing else just so they don't have to deal with so many pieces of paper money.
"Remembrance of Two Wars/Back to NAM/Celebration in Vietnam Open Only to a Select Few" by Lytt Stamps
Houston Chronicle, Section A, Page 1, 2 Star Edition (Monday, May 1, 1995)
Ho chi Minh City, Vietnam -- Vietnam celebrated the anniversary of the end of the American War on Sunday, but like thousands of Vietnamese an American wasn't allowed to get close to the celebration. I didn't have the proper credentials. The war ended April 30, 1975, when North Vietnam's forces captured the Presidential Palace in what was then Saigon. The palace is now called Reunification Hall and is said to be kept the same way it looked on the day Saigon fell. After the war, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the man who died in 1969 after leading the communists through much of their struggle against the French and the Americans. Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the end of the war, and the official ceremonies were held on a plaza just north of Reunification Hall.
For the select few, there were speeches, a parade with floats and performances by dance troupes, athletes and drum and bugle corps. But many Vietnamese and tourists were kept a block away because we didn't have a pass into the official parade area. We could look over the temporary barricades but could see little except the back of the heads of those allowed close to the action. We could not hear the speeches because they were drowned out by the noise of the motor scooters on the street behind us. I wondered if the openness that I had seen the past two weeks was an illusion, not what happens when an American journalist is not around.
Vietnamese must carry an identity card at all times. When I was touring around Pleiku, my guide always had several official-looking pieces of paper that he showed to the people we were visiting. Without those papers, what would I have gotten to see? I wondered if the average Nguyen is left out of other things I had been allowed to see and do. The answer is probably yes, if for no other reason than he can't afford it. Still, we had a good time outside the official celebration.
There were vendors selling chewing gum (American brands), other vendors with soft drinks, still others with yogurt, which seemed popular with younger children. Like much of the area around the tourist hotels in the central city, there was a carnival atmosphere. My guide and I walked a block north to try to find a way inside the barricades but were unsuccessful. However, we did see some of the floats waiting for the parade to begin. The block we saw was lined with minorities from other Asian countries who now live in Ho Chi Minh City. I saw five homemade floats, the most beautiful covered in a pastel blue with pink water lilies on top. It looked like an Oriental water-color painting. My guide said it was entered by a Buddhist pagoda. The floats were small, constructed to fit around a car or a van. With each float was a platoon of about 50 people who would walk behind it. For the Asian floats, many of the walkers were dressed in the costumes of their native countries.
The parade route was short, so soon after the parade began many of the first military units were walking back to their trucks down the street where we were standing. When they came by, all the Vietnamese stopped and got out of the way, as if they feared the military. Several unarmed units passed where we were, then came a couple of platoons with shiny bayonets fixed on the ends of their rifles. It was the same type of show you can see at a military parade in the United States; except these units, having finished the parade, were nowhere near being in step. They were just walking along.
Then came a group of women, outfitted in black with white-and-green plaid scarves around their necks and wearing sneakers. "It's the women from Cu Chi," my interpreter said, but I couldn't tell whether she was joking. The day before, we had visited the infamous Cu Chi tunnels about 70 kilometers northwest of central Ho Chi Minh City. In the area, the local Vietcong (guerrillas) -- both men and women -- built a massive network of tunnels beginning in the late 1940s that they used to harass and perplex first the French and then American troops. The Vietcong would crawl out of a tunnel, fire a few rounds at the U.S. troops and then disappear down the tunnel again. The Americans never knew where the shots came from. The Vietnamese today claim that one tunnel network even ran under an American base camp.
I saw one tunnel entrance that was smaller than a place mat. The guide who was showing us the tunnels easily crawled into and out of the tunnel through the entrance, but there was no way I could have made it because it was so small. (I did notice that the entrance is now lined with concrete, so I wondered what else had been modified for tourists.) When the guide put a cover over the entrance, it almost disappeared into the surrounding earth.
Another aspect of the tunnel network that caught my attention was the kitchen. It was underground with a chimney that lead to ground level about 25 meters from the kitchen itself. The top of the chimney was built to look like the surrounding landscape, with tiny, dime-sized outlets for smoke spaced about 18 inches apart. In the morning, when the cooking was being done, the smoke would disperse so that it looked like dust or fog caught in the sunlight.
At Sunday's parade, my interpreter and I kept looking for a way inside the barricades and finally found the spot where the parade units left the area for the open streets. There, we got to see a number of units march by, first the small float and then the workers from that department. We saw railway workers, then construction workers, then teachers. There was a unit from the postal service and another from an amusement park. The list goes on and on.
Later Sunday evening the floats, decked out in small Christmas lights but without the accompanying walkers, did parade through downtown Ho Chi Minh City where the people got a brief look at them. That still did not change the fact they were kept away from the formal morning ceremonies.
My interpreter and I walked to the plaza in front of Reunification Hall and talked after the parade ended. "The parade was very beautiful," she said. "Everyone seems happy on this day. But it was different 20 years ago." She was not an official interpreter from a government agency, so she could tell me about her family. Many of her relatives fled to the United States at the end of the war, and she would like to come also. Her father, who had been a town official in the Mekong Delta and worked for the U.S. Army, is now a college professor. But the family does not like the communists. "Today, the parade was beautiful," she repeated, "not like 20 years ago at the end of the war."