"A Trip Back to Vietnam: January 6 - 8, 1992"

Ann Kelsey
Army Special Services--Libraries, Cam Ranh Bay, 1969-1970

Ann Kelsey served as a civilian librarian with Army Special Services in Vietnam in 1969-1970. Working out of Cam Ranh Bay, she administered libraries in Nha Trang, Dong Ba Thin, and the 6th Convalescent Center.

She returned to Vietnam for the first time since the war in 1992 and made another trip in October 1994 as a member of a humanitarian group, Project: Hearts and Minds, delivering medical supplies to clinics and hospitals. She co-authored an article on civilian women who served in Vietnam for the November 1993 issue of the _VVA Veteran_ and wrote a brief history of Special Services in Vietnam for the dedication program of the Vietnam Women's Memorial.

She is currently the Associate Director of the County College of Morris Learning Resource Center in Randolph, New Jersey.

The CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange) international faculty development seminar group gathered in Bangkok on Monday, January 6. There were 40 people because the group scheduled to go in June 1991 didn't go and were combined with the January group. The Vietnamese cancelled the June seminar three weeks before the group's departure because of a major party conference in Hanoi. We later learned that we were the largest group of Americans to visit Vietnam since 1975.

There were two Vietnamese Americans in the group, both of whom spoke Vietnamese. There were also several returnees: a former Special Forces officer, who had been in the Central Highlands (Kontum); a psychology professor, who was blinded when a rocket hit his APC in a rubber plantation between Cu Chi and Tay Ninh; one of the Vietnamese Americans who worked for USAID in Saigon in late sixties-early seventies; a former Navy radio-message interceptor in the Gulf of Tonkin, who spoke and understood some Vietnamese; an ex-Air Force reserve pencil pusher at MACV; a gentleman who was US vice-consul in Hanoi in the late forties, and me.

There were some problems with the visas. They might or might not be issued; and if they were, there might be a day or two delay.

Tuesday, January 7:
Departure to airport delayed because visas were still in doubt.

Everyone was getting nervous. People headed for banks and money changers to get more baht in case stay in Thailand was longer than planned. Around 10:30 word came that visas had been granted but would be picked up on arrival in Hanoi. Everyone piled on two buses for ride to airport, no mean feat in Bangkok traffic. Upon arrival at airport, the logistics of getting 40 people checked in, handed boarding passes, parts of tickets, cleared through Thai immigration and security and assembled at the gate began.

Plane landed in Hanoi and the paperwork began--two custom's declaration forms, one entry-exit permit. Vietnamese security personnel were really interested in my camcorder and camera.

After getting through the "entrance formalities," everyone and their luggage were loaded into two Russian buses. There was a significant delay as one of our group, not realizing the implications, was found to have brought in 15 copies of a single book title and a labeled off-the-air VHS copy of television programming from a station in LA's Little Saigon--all of which she declared on her custom's form, and all of which were immediately confiscated.

As we drove out of the airport, I was struck by the huge signs advertising Japanese products, JVC, etc. It was almost dark, cold and dank. No one had enough clothes on to combat the chilly drafts pouring in through the numerous spaces around the windows and doors of the bus. Passed an old church, cathedral really, as we left the airport. Clearly no longer in use; looked as if it might have been bombed or burned.

More electricity in evidence than I would have thought. Most houses and stores used fluorescent rather than incandescent lighting, but power and street lights were certainly in evidence. (I heard, as we were leaving on Saturday, that the streetlights were pulled out of the South and installed in Hanoi in '75.) Houses and shops looked just like they did in the South and also in China, basically open fronts, easy to see in. It was colder here than it had been in years, and people were bundled up. There was no such thing as central heating.

The roads in Hanoi were in relatively good shape, but quality eroded as we left the city. The bus clearly had lost its suspension a long time ago. Not realizing that we would be riding for 3.5+ hours, we were somewhat sloppy about stowing the luggage. As a result, those of us in the back of the bus, in proximity to the bulk of it, spent a lot of time jockeying around to avoid being hit by flying suitcases.

Rivers were crossed on railroad bridges; that is, we drove on the tracks. I have no idea who got the right-of-way, and a situation never occurred that allowed me to find out. Obviously, bombing destroyed the bridges; and it wasn't possible to rebuild both the train and road bridges. So, one has to suffice for both. The bridges were representative of the general state of the country's infrastructure--barely hanging together.

By now, it was pitch black. Couldn't see anything except the lights in the houses and stores that we passed. We were cold, hungry, and bruised; but it sure was exciting. Everybody was in a good humor.

Finally, in Haiphong, the buses halted for a potty break. We walked around a bit in the square. The Vietnamese with us were very nervous. Said this was a bad area. Cop came and told buses to move from square to street. Walked over to where bus had moved. A few beggars approached; but, basically, there seemed to be a lot of curiosity but certainly no hostility or animosity.

Back on the bus; only a 20-30 minute or so ride before we arrived in Do Son at 2200. We came to Do Son, an old French resort on the Gulf of Tonkin, because there were not enough rooms available to accommodate a group of our size for three nights in Hanoi.

Our Vietnamese academic counterparts had arrived but had given up on us and gone to bed. We got our rooms and then got dinner. We hauled our stuff up the stairs to the third floor.

Room was small and cold but very clean. Staff from the Energy Guest House in Hanoi had been at Do Son for four months cleaning, and it showed. Bathroom had no shower stall area--just buckets, but there was hot water for the shower. None for the sink. The toilet was western, I guess because this used to be a French resort; and there was toilet paper.

The facilities were far better than I dreamed they would be. If there was heat, it would be fine.

Dumped stuff and went to dinner. Served us some "Vietnamese vodka," rice wine, which took the chill off. The food was adequate; only thing totally inedible was the chicken. One of the Vietnamese servers sat down and asked me specifically why I wasn't eating it. I said I was full, which I was since I filled up on rice and beer--my basic diet for most of the trip.

After dinner, we headed for bed. Some of us managed to obtain an extra blanket. After the first night, they came up with sleeping bag type blankets, which kept us warmer. I put on long underwear, gloves, nightgown, and robe. I was marginally warm, but it was clear that I was not taking a bath until we left here. I would be frostbitten before I dried off.

Wednesday, January 8:
Seminar sessions (the seminar's topic was "Understanding Vietnam's Historical Perspectives") began in the morning and continued throughout the day. We had assigned seating and there had been a deliberate effort made to mix everyone up so that Americans were not clustered with Americans and Vietnamese with Vietnamese.

There was one Vietnamese woman in the group, and she made an effort to switch her seat so she was next to me. She spoke no English, only Vietnamese and Russian; but was very anxious to interact with the women in the group. Because there was nothing more isolated than a summer resort in the winter, in terms of mixing with counterparts, this was an ideal situation. We essentially lived together for the length of the stay, and this allowed us to get to know each other far better than we were able to get to know the Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).

Doi Moi (renovation) was clearly the central theme of this meeting. The Vietnamese in attendance were the cream of Hanoi's intellectual community and by extension, we assumed, the cream of Vietnam's intellectual community.

There was absolutely no animosity or hostility. Everyone was very friendly and outgoing. Everyone wanted the U.S. to normalize relations, and this became a recurring theme of the seminar. Everyone said that the past was past, and it was time to get on with the future. There were, however, a few fleeting signs of past enmities. An old gentleman who spoke perfect French, asked me if this was my first trip to Vietnam. I replied in French that no, it was my second. My first was in the south in 1969. His eyes flickered, and he changed the subject.

Each paper presented was followed by a question and answer period and a break for interactive exchange. One gentleman gave me a list of some of the books about Vietnam in the University library. I asked him how big the library was. He said only two small rooms, not big at all; and not very many books. I talked to another man who translated English literature into Vietnamese.

It was bone chilling cold. No one cared what they looked like. They simply put on all of the clothing that would fit on their bodies to stay warm.

That evening the hotel staff, imported from Hanoi, saw the opportunity to do a little partying. They played sixties music mixed with Vietnamese pop at full blast and encouraged everyone to dance.

During the lunch breaks and in the morning before the sessions started and in the evening before dinner, several of us tried to walk around Do Son village and the beach. Some people went at night but were told the next day not to do that.

Again, everyone in the village was very friendly. The kids wanted their pictures taken everywhere we went. They weren't particularly interested in seeing the finished product (no one had a Polaroid); they just wanted the camera aimed at them and clicked while they posed.

Everyone was very friendly. I found this amazing. This town, so close to Haiphong sitting on the Gulf of Tonkin, had to have gotten hit hard and often. Several people in the group pointed out ponds that were most likely bomb craters. One would expect a certain amount of residual animosity, at least from the older people; but it really wasn't there.

Since most of our time was to be spent in cities, it was nice to be able to see something of life in a smaller town. Everyone had little truck farms. Lettuce and corn were growing right next to the hotel driveway. The sun didn't come out at all while we were there; so, pictures of the beaches were pretty grey. But this must be a beautiful area in the summer.

Copyright 1992, Ann Kelsey, All Rights Reserved

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