1st MIBARS In Vietnam!


Recollections

 The People And The Times


The Country

Photo Credit: MIV

Hi Neighbor!  A resident of the City of DaNang, this young lady appeared friendly and inquisitive but never smiled or spoke


Coping In An Environment of Continuing War

Photo Credit: MIV

In an environment of daily conflict, endemic poverty, widespread lack of education, the absence of male breadwinners -- husbands, adult children, and fathers, deceased or absent due to military service -- and an uncertain life drawn from decades of strife around them, the cheerfulness and coping ability of Vietnamese women and children was a tribute to their resilience and both remarkable and admirable.

Women were categorized as either a "Co," a " Ba," or a "Momma-san."  In English, a Co was a "Miss," a Ba was a "Mrs.," and a Momma-san was an older woman with children, most often a domestic.

As in any stratified society, one might encounter simple peasants in the agricultural countryside, shopkeepers in the towns, schooled workers at military installations, and even a cultivated over class in the cities.

Outwardly, all seemed unconcerned about time, but they wasted little of what they possessed, maximized what they had, bargained shrewdly, and seemed to live for the day while keeping a pragmatic eye out for tomorrow.  

Above:  Two women street vendors await customers at a street side kiosk in Saigon, 1967.  Higher resolution versions of this photograph clearly show some of the merchandise:  M&M's candies; Lucky Strike, Pall Mall and Marlboro cigarettes, and Sir Walter Raleigh and Prince Albert pipe tobacco -- of course, both in the can!  It is probable that these goods reached the sellers through black market channels.  Interestingly, improved GI combat boots that provided additional protection against the Viet Cong's traps using sharpened punji sticks could be purchased on the black market before they were widely available through military channels. 


Going Native

Doe-eyed, polite, appreciative, and generally compliant, Vietnamese women stood in contrast to the teased-hair, demanding, bogeying, materialistic California surfer girl image created by popular culture in 1960's America.

It was said that some servicemen -- generally the shyer ones -- were attracted to the non-competitive and easy-going nature of these women who were raised in a largely patriarchal society.  Some soldiers were rumored to have "gone native," i.e., set up households outside of the military bases for clandestine visits with their Vietnamese "families," and in some cases, mothers and children were said to be passed -- intact -- from soldier to replacement.

While a soldier could marry with the permission of his commanding officer, such permission was generally not given.  The Army seemed cognizant of the risk of hasty marriages to both Americans and Vietnamese in the war zone, and a would-be groom might be advised to return to Vietnam on his own after discharge from the military to pursue a bride. 

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  One of thousands of Vietnamese nationals employed in allied service facilities in 1967. 

For Many Troopers, A First Introduction To A Different Culture

"Inside, we found ourselves in front of a desk occupied by a real American female secretary.  The poor woman looked pale and sickly; her perfume was overpowering; and her nose -- her nose was unquestionably her most prominent feature.  This was the legacy of eighteen months among the golden-skinned, delicate women of rural Vietnam.  The general's secretary was actually not bad looking at all.  I had just been in Hau Nghia too long."

Herrington, Stuart A., Stalking the Vietcong, Presidio Press, 1982

The Land of the Big PX

Unattached women, seeing the wealth and plenty that accompanied the American armed forces, sometimes thought in terms of becoming war brides.  "America," in Vietnamese, was "Hoa Ky," pronounced "waa-key," and the question "You take me Hoa Ky?" was often directed to soldiers by interested Vietnamese women.  Soldiers somewhat sarcastically translated Hoa Ky as "The Land of the Big PX," PX referring to the Post Exchange, the U.S. Army government-run and subsidized retail store that sold commercial consumer goods to military members at substantially discounted prices.  (The U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy had their own equivalent facilities.)  A large PX serving all military personnel in DaNang was located at an area called Freedom Hill, on the other side of DaNang Main Air Base, which was also the site of an outdoor amphitheater for the shows of visiting entertainers.

Photo Credit: MIV

For moving views of the cyclo in operation -- including a race involving numerous cyclos through the streets of post-war Saigon, the now re-named Ho Chi Minh City -- see the American motion picture, Three Seasons.  Non-wartime views of Indochina are presented in French-language films such as The Lover [NOTE: booty alert -- parents be advised!] and Indochine, the latter also incorporating Patrick Doyle's brilliant musical score in its sound track.

Above: A xich lo, known to Americans as a "cyclo" or "pedicab," essentially a three-wheel bicycle with a chair-like seat and a folding shade for protection from the sun and rain at its front, was the most common form of taxicab in DaNang and other urban areas outside of Saigon.  This one is shown carrying its passenger down Le Loi Street.  Prostitutes, who generally used this mode of transportation, were also known as "Cyclo Girls," some whimsically adopting the working name of "Mei Li," apparently after the main character of Thomas Handforth's 1939 book about a young girl who leaves the Chinese countryside for life in the city.


Gooks, Dinks, Slopes, and Round Eyes

While the pejorative term "gook" has had wide play in the media in recent years as an American slang term for the indigenous Vietnamese people,  it was not often heard in "B" Detachment's environment.  This may have been due to politeness, because MIBARS worked closely with personnel of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam's (ARVN) I Corps Tactical Zone general staff.  Or, it may have been that "B" Detachment personnel were not exposed to the life or death situations sometimes reported by infantry units in the countryside where a lack of performance and/or motivation was said to be characteristic of the ARVN and could engender dismissive attitudes.  In fact, persons old enough may recall that the term "gook" was used during the Pacific fighting of World War II as a descriptor for enemy combatants from the Far East.  "B" Detachment personnel encountered few, if any, enemy combatants during 1966-1967; therefore, slang terms for Viet Cong insurgents or North Vietnamese Army soldiers were not often needed.  

More commonly heard terms used to describe Vietnamese persons in general were "dink" -- derived perhaps from the slight and perhaps "dinky" stature of most Vietnamese, or "slope" -- which referred to the almond-shaped eyes of the indigenous populace.  The standing joke was that the longer a soldier was in Vietnam the rounder the eyes of the Vietnamese women got.  However, neither of these two terms appeared particularly offensive and, in fact, the Vietnamese -- and many Americans, in differentiating between peoples -- regularly referred to Westerners as "round eyes." 

Photo Credit: MIV

Above: Saigon, in 1967, before the shooting started with the Tet Offensive.  Here it appears that a dinky woman is enjoying a stroll and holding hands along a main thoroughfare with a man who has round eyes, perhaps a French ex-patriot, judging from his mode of dress.


Grocery Shopping In 1967 Vietnam

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  A market place in DaNang with customers clustered around the merchandise.  Note the empty cyclo in the foreground, as the driver waits for a shopper or another fare.

Language . . . Or The Lack Thereof

While some language guides were provided by the military, no formal language training was required for service in Vietnam.  For most soldiers, communicating with Vietnamese nationals involved a small vocabulary of words supplemented with various universal hand and body gestures.  Many residents of DaNang who were engaged in commerce -- regardless of age or education -- learned enough English for begging or bartering.

Some signals were conflicting, however:  the American gesture of waving "goodbye" with the arm and hand meant "come here" in Vietnam, resulting in some hilarious situations where departing indigenous individuals felt that they were beckoned to return repeatedly.

The French word "beaucoup" -- meaning "much" -- was in wide use and correctly pronounced as "boo-koo."  Local currency -- the "dong" -- was often referred to by its French term -- "piastre" -- or pi (pee) for short.

Vietnamese nationals employed in the service clubs and mess facilities may have asked if one wanted "wickie," the local pronunciation for whiskey. 

Below:  A farm in the countryside near DaNang in the summer of 1967, with its neat house, outbuildings and straight rows of crops -- some sharing the land with gravesites.  In its outlying areas, Vietnam from the air was a ruggedly beautiful country, lush and green.  In the absence of military action, it presented an image of calmness and tranquility.  During the monsoon season, dramatic layers of cumulonimbus clouds towered over the landscape, seeming to rise 50,000 feet into the sky and requiring pilots to fly in troughs between magnificent cloud masses in order to remain under visual flight rules (VFR) and avoid thunderstorms.  Closer to the ground, the soil, humidity, and agricultural and sanitary practices presented a far different and grittier view of the country.

Photo Credit: MIV

People or things described as "Number One" were the absolute best, while the term "Number Ten" described the absolute worst.  Refuse to buy from a street vendor and, as you walked or drove away, you would sometimes be followed by a very loud and personalized "You Number Ten" or "You Cheap Charlie," "Charlie," of course, being the predominant American term for the Viet Cong and assumed to be the ultimate insult when applied to an American.  "Saa-lem" was the pronunciation for Salem mentholated cigarettes which, for some incomprehensible reason, were wildly popular among the Vietnamese and constituted valued trading material.  "Xin Loi," pronounced "sin loy," translated as "Sorry about that," was an insincere apology for an act or omission that caused another person harm, which was popularized in American culture by the bumbling main character of the television show, "Get Smart."  Persons said to be crazy were termed "dinky dau," and if an action was desired to be done quickly, it was to be done "most rickey-tick."  And, of course, a whimsical term for lovemaking  -- "boom-boom" --  was very much in use during joking, light banter, and in certain forms of commerce.  


. . . And Then There Was A Small Place In Quang Ngai Province

Photo Credit: Gene Zwarycz, "B" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation Section, 1968-1970

The Hamlet Called My Lai

". . . March 16, 1968 [was] the day U.S. Infantrymen from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Light Infantry Brigade of the 23d Americal Division killed some five hundred Vietnamese civilians in My Lai-4, a sub-hamlet of Son My village in Quang Ngai Province."

Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, Viking Penguin, 2003

Left:  My Lai-2, a sister hamlet to My Lai-4, from the back seat of a U.S. Army 0-1 Bird Dog reconnaissance aircraft piloted by a Forward Air Controller.


Faces Through A Wall Page

Out and About In Vietnam I

Out and About In Vietnam II


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