Tour of Duty Free
Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
74Trip End Oct 22, 2004
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Where I stayed
The war was being run by a bunch of 4-star clowns who were going to end up giving the circus away. A couple of cut-throat mercenaries were called in to help the cause . . .
Tracer fire lit up the sky as we circled in heavy traffic above Saigon. Our fellow dogs of war sat sullen in their economy seats waiting for the green light and a ten thousand foot descent onto the melted tarmac of Ton Nat Son air base. Beads of sweat stung our squinting eyes as we stole glances at one another, an old major here, a young cadet there and academy kids barely able to walk let alone hold an AK-47
After a few calculations it soon became clear . . . the average age was n-n-n-n-nineteen.
Paratroopers daubed peace signs on their helmets and took last looks at snaps of their sweethearts theyíd left back in the Mid-West. Weíd trained for months and our tour of duty had finally arrived. The fasten seat belt sign was lit, barely visible through a fog of Marlborough reds.
We slipped through the night sky dodging bullets as if they were raindrops. The campfires of the VC villages were now coming into view as guerillas ran for cover underground.
The landing gear slammed against the sticky ground and jolted 200 men, women and children into life. With the fasten seat belt sign still on, organised chaos ensued as troops tore open the overhead lockers in search of their bullet-proof jackets, ammo and duty-free cigarettes.
Through the air base we sped on bended knee, watching each others backs for salesmen or those really annoying porters who make a grab for your bag in search of a tip
Outside there were a couple of hundred names on a couple of hundred placards being held by armour-vehicle driving civilians, each with the sole responsibility of transferring the GIs to their respective bases in one piece. It wouldnít be easy as motorbikes and scooters held the roads as prisoners-of-war, not budging an inch for any personnel carriers.
After letting off a few rounds of warning fire to clear the route we arrived at what would be our base camp for the next 3 nights, The Continental Hotel in the shopping district of Saigon. But the only shopping weíd be doing was for the dog-tags of guerrillas.
The Continental, built at the turn of the century is one of the cityís most historic lodgings, and was the setting for much of the action in Graham Greeneís famous novel, The Quiet American, probably the most contradictory title you could get. Our room was large and airy, with TV, video and minibar with not a bunk-bed in sight. The army was looking after us well.
It was 21:00 hours, and exhausted, we crashed out onto the huge bed hoping to get some shuteye, but it was hard, every time we drift off we think weíre going to wake up back in the jungle.
We downed a bottle of duty-free whisky and flicked the play switch on the video
As we endured the movie, we looked around the room, and each time weíd look, the walls moved in a little tighter. The mind games were working. It was turning out to be the best film weíd seen this year. It was clear we were only just clinging to our sanity.
09:00 hours. 98 degrees. Saigon, Vietnam. Our first tour of duty around the battleground in temperatures and polution weíve never before experienced in all our years serving the stars and stripes.
As we stepped out under a heavy sky it hit us:
You smell that? Smog son. Nothing else in the world smells like that
Our first mission was to cross the road, a steady stream of motorbikes did their best to cut us down on our first day but after twelve minutes the mission proved a success.
Our second mission involved a reconnaissance of interesting local stores, but after scouring the undergrowth our mission ended in failure. There are no nice shops in Saigon.
Mission three would take us to The Reunification Palace, Saigonís foremost building of historical significance. Sixties styling externally and throughout gave it an out of place feel in this old city leaving it looking more like a multi-story car park in Little Crutch, Oklahoma than the leaderís residency. The story of this palace is a complicated one, too complicated for a couple of cotton-picking GIs like ourselves, but in a nutshell it involved a chilly morning in April 1975, Viet Cong tanks crashing through gates, a head of state who had the job just 43 hours before being turfed out and the unfurling of VC flags on a fourth floor balcony. Gripping stuff.
We would have to stay incognito as we toured with a guide and a group of tourists, what tourists were doing here at the height of conflict was anyones guess. This was made all the worse by a young girl from the good ole U S of A asking pointless questions throughout. I was tempted to muffle her as our cover was going to be blown but we slipped out the back way before we were noticed.
The streets blended into each other as we struggled with our bearings. GI Sophís compass was on the blink and there were no familiar landmarks to guide us. A local street vendor caught our eye, definitely an undercover guerilla so we frisked him. He was clean, except for a stash of fake, photocopied Lonely Planet guides. After a bout of bartering we handed over a wad of Dong for a book on Vietnam. He was happy with his Dong, we were happy with the Dong exchange. Everything was Ding Dong.
Our missions were complete for the day, a job well done. At this rate those ëPurple Heartsí were halfway to being pinned on our chests.
As we marched back to camp we stopped off at a small canteen just off the main drag of Dong Khoi, called Dong Du and ordered some spring rolls and beer which we paid for with Dong currency. I felt a tinge of regret at being at war with this proud country. Any country that uses the word Dong as liberally as this one is A-OK with me.
Back at base we lit a campfire in the room and watched another video. The strains of a violin engulfed the room as Once Upon A Time In America began playing. I wiped a tear from my fellow GIs cheek as the significance of the title hit home. We were once upon a time in America and now we found ourselves drafted and sent over to these godforsaken killing fields. But safe to say, when the end credits started to roll, Waterworld was no longer our favourite film of the year.
It was market day in Saigon, as it was every other day, so off we marched in a side-by-side formation, watching each otherís sides.
Ben Thanh market needed searching for suspected VC hideouts and cheap tat. After a fifteen minute slog over mined pavements and booby trapped roads, we arrived. This was the biggest market in the capital and had the biggest pile of junk on sale under one roof in South-East Asia. I would say the world but back home when I was an itty-bitty kiddie, my Ma took us on a trip to the little ole U of K to visit Woolwich covered-in market, and that place certainly takes top honours.
The cheap tat was well and truly found and left unbought, whereas the tip-off on the hideouts proved false. With US Intelligence letting us down again, I would be requesting an independent enquiry on our return (if thereís not one happening already??).
Shunning the cyclo drivers the chance to give us a lift, onward we marched. We were heading in a south/south-easterly direction to a demilitarised zone called ëThe Backpacker Areaí. I had to see these wimpy backpackers in the flesh, so I could swap packs with them. Letís see how theyíd like 200 kilos on their spineless backs. Hell no.
The orders from high command were to stock up on fake DVDs and CDs. Strange I know, but true.
We ransacked the joint leaving no disc unturned, finally skedaddling with ten CDs and seven DVDs. The bill came to 270,000 Dong, about 15 bucks.
With old war wounds playing up, we grabbed a massage back at The Continental. All began well with a few kneads here and the odd chop there. Out of the corner of my eye I saw she was barefoot, a surefire sign she was VC masquerading as a masseuse.
My inclination would prove founded as she hopped onto the table and began pummeling my naturally curved spine into an unnaturally straight one. This was cool, calculated Vietnamese torture I hadnít experienced before. The whole process lasted an hour and as I crawled out, a broken man, I was met by a broken lady, GI Soph. We had walked blindly into this booby-trap and as we recovered in the jacuzzi we made a vow to never visit a masseuse in this country again.
It had so far been a baptism of fire, and tomorrow weíd be back in the transporter plane for a 90 minute flight north to Nha Trang, so we changed into civvies and headed for the swankiest diner in town for a slap-up dinner.
This is the end.
This is the end.
My only friend, the end.
Of our elaborate plans, the end.
Of everything that stands, the end.
On that upbeat note, see you in Nha Trang.
GI Joe & Miss Saigon