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Return to SE Asia; Part 4

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I didn’t return to Vietnam after 51 years so I could re-live the war. However, it appears that the welcoming tours in the city formerly known as Saigon are fated to remind me.

Besides the War Remnants Museum and the former South Vietnamese Palace, frozen in place at the time it fell to the north in 1975, the United States Consulate, formerly our embassy, looks locked down and unwelcome, not at all helping disperse the ugly images of the past.

There are many scenes that come to mind here, not the least of which was the terrible days when the last helicopters left with the last Americans, abandoning many South Vietnamese citizens who had helped us.

More prominent in my memory however, are the attacks that took place around midnight on 31 January 1968, during the Tet Offensive.

It was shortly after midnight that Viet Cong sappers began an assault on our Saigon embassy by blowing a hole in its exterior wall. Close to 20 VC made it inside the compound and a battle ensued between the few Marines guarding it and the invaders. Marine guards were killed in the first wave. The VC managed to get inside the embassy building and held it until U.S. reinforcements arrived and took back the embassy after an all-night fight, killing all of the invaders in the process.

My Navy ship was south of the embassy, first in Vung Tau, then headed up the Tien Giang River (one of the branches of the Mekong) to river forces base near My Tho, a large provincial city about 35 miles downstream from Saigon.

The whole town appeared to be in flames. We could see artillery rounds exploding inside the city and hear and see tracers from small arms fire.

Battles raged on both sides of the river. It was a hellish scene filled with smoke and fire and punctuated by explosions. There was no easy way to tell who was friend or foe, and no safe place to be. The supplies we were carrying to that base were needed, but a battle was raging.

Base command ordered us to anchor in the middle of the river under black-out conditions and man our guns. Had we been attacked directly, we could have defended ourselves.

Overhead, helicopters swarmed like angry hornets, spitting out machine-gun rounds toward the jungle so fast that there was no space between the tracers, giving the impression that they were using ray guns from which glowing red-hot beams burned anything and anyone they touched below.

Red, green and brilliant white flares lit the sky and tracer bullets crisscrossed through the air around us and in the jungle on both sides of us.

Our ship was incredibly lucky. Not a single crew member was wounded that night.

Surprise attacks like that were repeated all over South Vietnam. Our troops and ARVN forces in many outposts and in Saigon and cities like Hue, took the worst of it.

That was then.

Now, I don’t recognize anything from 1968. The Mekong Delta, like Saigon, has been made over into a bustling area based on rice growing and agriculture in general. Rivers are packed with barges and boats hauling goods to market, while trucks, cars and scooters jam the roads. Peace appears to have brought prosperity.

I was hoping to try fishing, but the fish are gone. Prosperity and the building boom in the cities led to a high demand for sand and gravel, which is now being heavily mined by dredging the rivers, ruining the habitat for fish.

There are environmental costs to this rapidly developing economy. But for now at least, the Vietnamese are concentrating on making a decent living.

That’s far better than when I was here before when they struggled just to stay alive.