OK, so we've all
said, "I never dreamed that I'd ______"... whatever, but, WOW, I never
dreamed I'd be flying over North Vietnam again. Much less early in 2000
and in a new Vietnam Airlines Boeing jet. As we began our descent into
Hanoi's airport, the solid October undercast reminded me of the last time
I'd been there. That was 1972 when I volunteered for four months in Thailand.
Leaving the comfort of RAF Lakenheath, England, I had wanted to experience
air-to-air combat in my then new fighter, the F4-E. I spent 1968-69 in
Phan Rang (the black & white photo was taken in Phan Rang), Vietnam
flying the F-100 on air-to-ground missions in the south. Now in England,
and having transitioned to the new Phantom, I relished an opportunity
to get back into combat up north.
Missions from Thailand
were much more complex than the ones I remembered out of Phan Rang. Of
course, the air war was heating up a bit in 1972 as peace talks drug along
in Paris. Waves of fighters would take off from Thailand bases and gather
over Laos for refueling from airborne tankers before the difficult ingress
into North Vietnam. Radar from Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin and our
onboard equipment helped tell us when Migs launched and when SAM missiles
had been fired at us.
where am I!?..."
A surreal photo op with the elite and very friendly guard at the Ho Chi
Minh's Museum in Hanoi.
So I was remembering
back to 1972 on this October day in 2000 with the same solid white undercast
that prevented us from seeing missiles or MIGs until the last second.
Somebody called "break" and, instinctively, our flight of F-4's started
a hard gut-wrenching 8G right turn. I looked left just in time to see
a black telephone pole on fire zooming towards the heavens. It seemed
just feet away from the upturned belly of my plane, but who knows.
though, that, had we not turned hard right, I would have been, at the
best, a guest of the Vietnamese in downtown Hanoi, just like John McCain,
who was gaining favor with primary voters during my return to Vietnam.
At the worst, I would have died as did many others during the Vietnam
debacle. Post-mission intelligence said the black missile I saw was
first visual confirmation of a new Chinese version of the SAM missile
Every thought of
war evaporated as we finally descended below the undercast to see a brown
dreary Hanoi winter morning. I have flown over much of Asia during a 26
year flying career, but I expected more progress from Vietnam after nearly
30 years. One doesn't need any help figuring out whether Communism lifts
or sinks peoples. I don't recall seeing anything mechanized during our
approach and landing to Hanoi. Lots of water buffalo and people, but no
tractors or trucks. Being in Hanoi during their New Year celebration,
Tet, was interesting culturally. The people were almost frantically busy
like we are here with Christmas chores, rituals, food and family. I'm
glad I really know what Tet is now, because for years it just meant the
time when the war in South East Asia turned against the US and many people
on both sides were killed in tragic accelerated combat. I declined eating
dog meat (happiness) and drinking snake blood (virility), but chowed down
on all else. Food was plentiful, delicious and very cheap; all except
for The Press Club, one the most elegant gourmet spots in which I have
We flew south to
Hue, the old Imperial capital, and a place sadly and badly bruised by
the bombing and artillery of Tet 1968. Bicycling along the Perfume River
to pagodas and temples far from town brought serenity to another busy,
people-filled day in the city. The green hills and rice paddies on this
misty but warm day appeared as in so many Asian paintings. Each day of
my three week bicycle trip still holds its special memories for me, but
none more so than my return to Phan Rang. I was a young husband and new
father when I left for Phan Rang in 1968. After four years as a navigator,
I had won a place in pilot training (probably for the six months I served
in Thailand flying rescue missions in 1965 in the real early days of the
war--more memories), finished near the top or my class and earned an F-100
slot. Even in 1968 the Super Sabre, or Hun was getting old, but it remained
a pilot's favorite until the end because there just weren't that many
single-seat, single-engined fighters around then. Now I wasn't a student
or trainee any longer, rather a combat fighter pilot.
I matured as a pilot
and as a person during my year alone there, and now I was going back,
and on a bicycle no less. As the tour didn't stop in Phan Rang, I left
early one AM from our hotel north of Cam Ranh Bay with a guide and my
friend, Tony, an Army veteran who served near Phan Rang, also. We pedaled
through the town on a typical warm sunny morning. Phan Rang is on the
coast in a near desert environment with fine weather. We were invited
into homes as, through our guide, I tried to find (unsuccessfully) a squadron
maid I remembered well. How uplifting to ride through the open air markets
surrounded by friendly smiles and greetings.
of new friends in Hanoi!
The Vietnamese have
forgotten about the war (those few that were around then) and they have
special fondness for Americans, ok, mostly for the money, but they really
relish American culture, especially movies, videos, music and fashion.
Vietnam was filled with Vietnamese living overseas who returned for Tet.
More and more, a phenomenen, these folks bring back lots of hard currency
for the financially strapped homefolks. I have this feeling that many
Vietnamese, while loving their county, think, that with the chance, they,
too, could make it big in America. Everyone seems to know that with a
plan, desire, and unending hard work you can build a fine life in the
US. That's what my Vietnamese barber here in the small California town
of Lincoln says too.
During my nearly
one year at Phan Rang, I seldom ever left the confines of the base. I
was serious about my job as a pilot, and missions seemed to always
off at oh-dark-thirty as we used to say. I remember being on alert, briefing,
flying, and debriefing combat missions, or being in the hootch, as
squadron living quarters were called. There we could drink, relax and
socialize. That and the hand-ball court, the jog up the mountain, the
Officer's Club and counting the days until R&R in Hawaii and Australia
were my main activities.
Returning to Phan
Rang I saw some of the things I missed thirty two years previously. The
gloriously beautiful Cham temple rises just outside Phan Rang AB and it
has been there for several hundred years, but I didn't even know about
it in 68. Reading about the Cham kingdom and culture were highpoints for
me on the bicycle tour. Phan Rang AB is now a premier Vietnamese Air Force
Base with Russian Mig 23 fighters in the revetments built when I was there.
From the heights of the Cham temple you can practically look down inside
the air base. I gazed at it for a long time talking with Vietnamese surprised
to see a gringo in bike gear so early in the morning. The rest of the
tour joined us and we were off for another day on the road.
Klong Garai Cham ruins in Phan Rang near where I served
At sixty, I wasn't
still tough enough to ride the mountains up to Dalat in the highlands.
Also, just as advertised, the toll of two weeks eating and drinking like
royalty began to make its mark as I spent more time in the van than on
my bicycle most days. Still this tour was one of the highlights of my
biking career. Since I was guided, wined and dined and looked after in
every regard, my Vietnam experience isn't up there with my solo experience
down the gorgeous west coast from Whistler, BC, Canada to Tijuana, Mexico
, but it is right up there.
If you are looking
for an exotic vacation in a place very friendly to Americans and where
your more than 14,000 dong for one dollar can go a long way, visit Vietnam.
I plan to park myself on the beaches of Nha Trang on the central coast
in the not too distant future. In other places on this website you can
learn more about biking in Vietnam. Should you want to ask me questions
or share Vietnam bike experiences, I am yours at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy trails to you.