Cycling in Mai Chau, Vietnam

A Pilot Returns, by John Nettleton

[click to enlarge]

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.

"Omigod, 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. I know 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 the first visual confirmation of a new Chinese version of the SAM missile in Vietnam.

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 dined.

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.

Lots 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 take 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 our 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.

Po 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:

Happy trails to you.

John Nettleton