Braden Farris & Jed Friedman
Our third day in Saigon started with another wonderful breakfast with friends at the Rex Hotel. We set out at 8:30 am local time towards the Mekong delta, which took us about two hours driving south. Along the way we saw the vast agricultural fields of rice, beans, watermelon, and coconut. We also saw ducks along the river and were told of the fish in the Mekong delta which are exported to the U.S. The Mekong River itself mirrors the vastness of the Mississippi River. Fish farms, barges, and a variety of river boats all zoomed along the water just as the scooters do in Saigon itself. After arriving at the Mekong, we boarded an older looking transport boat for a very relaxing 45 minute cruise to a coconut factory, as the breeze blew in our faces and the scenery we encountered was very tranquil and authentic. “Factory” is a very loose term– it was simply a few huts and a couple of machines worked by what seemed to be a family. Despite the limited facilities the coconut candy that we sampled was very good, and what made it even better was knowing that it came from the forest that surrounded us. After sampling several local fruits and drinking green tea, there was a local singing act performed by a local woman and two men, with even a small line dance with members of our own party joining in. Once the laughter died down, we got back on our river cruise and after another 15 minutes we came ashore and boarded Tuk Tuk bikes, which are only found in this small area of Vietnam. The bikes aren’t really bikes at all, but a cross between a small pickup and a four wheeler. After an exhilarating ride, miles deep into the forest, we experienced a very unique lunch of giant shrimp and huge “elephant fish.”
Both of us immediately thought we would not come close to eating it, but after our server showed us how to make a spring roll out of the fish, it soon became the highlight of our meal. Between the great food and the veterans telling their own stories, this lunch was one of the most memorable experiences of the trip yet. After our lunch we boarded the Tuk Tuks again and returned to Saigon for a the Vespa scooter ride where we would truly experience this amazing city from the streets.
After two years of college our veteran Robert “Bob”Smith volunteered for service in the Army during the Vietnam war. Upon completion of basic training and finishing in the top 10% of his warrant officer training school, he was accepted into advanced helicopter flight training. On February 18th, 1969, after 200 hours of advanced training, Bob was deployed to IV Corps in the southern most part of Vietnam at the Vinh Long airbase along the Mekong. Bob flew a Huey gunship with the 175th assault helicopter company. Bob’s mission was to support South Vietnamese (ARVN) troops in their fight against the Viet Cong. His regular sortie consisted of scouting for enemies, then escorting Vietnamese troops in and out of combat, clocking in 100 flight hours a month, culminating in 1,182 total combat flight hours. Throughout the day, Bob sat by us on the river cruise and told us many of his memories that were made around the Mekong delta. However, many of our first experiences in Vietnam were also Bob’s, since he spent most of his time in Vietnam at the Vinh Long base or in the air. The river cruise gave him a new perspective on what was going on below him as he flew helicopters above. Bob said that being in the air gave him a rewarding but impersonal experience since he was carrying non-Americans into battle, so this relieved some of the possible stresses and emotions that could have been amplified during close encounters. On the bus back to Saigon, Bob told us some of his stories with some very memorable quotes. One that stands out is, “I had a pretty good time in Vietnam, there were only a few times I wasn’t sure I would come out of it alive.” This quote stuck with the two of us because Bob said it sincerely and downplayed the life-threatening aspect. The fact is any life threatening situation is stuck in your memory for a long time, and while there were some good times during the war, there were also close calls. Firefights eventually became routine for Bob, so flying into battle didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. But Bob’s time in Vietnam was far from routine as he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.