A picture worth a thousand words

Nha Trang Travel Blog

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Couple of teenagers in a confused world, 1970

I only had a single photo with one of the hooch-maids from my army helicopter base at Dong Ba Thin. I didn't really know her then but always remembered her as being one of the prettiest. She was also taller than the others. Few of those cleaning girls spoke English but her dedication to hard work combined with that graceful Vietnamese demeanor and style automatically commanded high respect from all the GIs. Some of those Viet workers married soldiers and live in the United States now but others remained in the local area. And most all of them kept in contact with each other over all these years.

I scanned the old photo during a visit home, had it printed in Nha Trang, and flashed it more than a dozen times at random fuel- or coffee-stops on motorbike excursions into the surrounding countryside.

Typical propaganda poster on Highway 1 between Nha Trang and Cuu Loi
Who knows, it might just get a 'hit'. It also provided response to former American GIs. Those reactions seemed impassive with minimal curiosity of a bygone era that younger generations had only read about in history books or on the red propaganda posters still dotting the country's highways and city centers. For months I got no results with the old photo but the effort provided a worthwhile 'mission' and never tired.

For better search results I needed the girl's name so posted the picture on the 243rd Assault Support Helicopter Company's  web page - our army unit at Dong Ba Thin - to see if anyone remembered her. Sure enough, a 'hit' finally came several weeks later. One of our pilots, Jon, had kept in contact with another of the hooch-maids, Hoa, who now lives in Virginia.

Catholic church in Cuu Loi
It was she who recognized the girl in the old photo as a close friend of one of her sisters still living in Vietnam. After exchanging several e-mails, I got the name of her sister's village - Cuu Loi - and her phone number.

Cuu Loi was just six miles up Highway 1 from our old compound at Dong Ba Thin and about 15 miles south of Nha Trang. I was already familiar with the village after exploring its low-lying fish farms for an off-road way from Highway 1 to the South China Sea by skirting the northern wetlands of Cam Ranh Bay.

I showered, shaved, put on my best shirt; a blue short-sleeved button-up with a collar, then headed to Cuu Loi and searched for a coffee stand near the Catholic church in the center of town. I needed time to gather my thoughts.

Dong Ba Thin helicopter base,1970
How would the girl respond? I wouldn't expect her to remember me, that was not important. How would she look after more than forty years? Vietnamese tend to hold a youthful appearance, aging gracefully, depending how difficult their lives had been. Would a visit with a former 'enemy' send her back to a camp for further 'Re-education'? Did she even go to Re-education after the war? After all, some of those on-post workers were Viet Cong. More than one had been caught pacing distance between tents and hooches, or between helicopters parked out on the flight line. Their efforts all-too-often resulted in the small base being peppered with rockets and mortars. The Viet Cong did not require 'Re-education'.

I sipped an iced coffee wondering whether to dare make the call but finally decided to do it.

The coffee shop call
It was gut-wrenching, like phoning a high school sweetheart for a first date. I got an operator's recording on both numbers that Hoa had given me. By then, the family running the coffee place had grown edgy and suspicious. They were curious as to why I was there and wondered what I was up to. Foreigners have no reason to visit Cuu Loi. I finally showed them the old photo and explained in broken Vietnamese that the girl and I had worked at Dong Ba Thin in 1970 and that she still lived somewhere in the area. They passed the photo around, smiling and cackling in great excitement. The old man pointed at my image and struck a he-man pose, probably recalling his own youth. I showed the numbers on my phone to the daughter while shrugging my shoulders. She quickly pointed out that they did not include the area's 058 prefix then went a step further by making the call for me on her own phone.
Lieng
  After more excited cackling in Vietnamese she hung up and motioned that my party was on the way. There was no turning back now.

About ten minutes later a motorbike pulled up and it was Hoa's sister Huong. She was expecting me after a 'heads-up' phone call from Hoa that there would be a visitor in town today. I followed her along a couple of side-streets then down a narrow dirt track puddled by a recent rain. We went to the home of Le, one of their brothers. The old blue family house was nicely shaded by guava, mango, and banana trees. Chickens roamed the side-yard around an idle ox-cart.

'Lieng, oi!', they shouted as a bicycle rattled into the yard. The rider looked familiar but was definitely NOT the girl in the old picture. While she studied the shot, I studied her; both of us equally confused.

Uoc and the photo
When she wrote a big 243 on back of the photo I realized that she too had been one of the local workers at Dong Ba Thin.

Le sped off on the motorbike and returned with another woman who was escorting a young grandson. Her name was Uoc. She was big boned and husky for a Vietnamese. As she took a seat on the living room couch next to Lieng, Uoc seemed to have a hard time breathing and I wondered if that was a result of Agent Orange which was heavily sprayed outside our perimeter wire. (To this day nothing grows in that area). Her expression looked worried as though wondering 'Why was I summoned here?' But her eyes lit up and she beamed a smile upon seeing the old picture from Dong Ba Thin. I had to study it again myself for several long moments before my mind confirmed that this lady was in fact the 17-year-old girl in the old photo.

Heading home
The hair on my arms stood up.

We sat around grinning, pointing at each other, gesturing, laughing, and mumbling memories in our own languages. The old photograph spoke for us. It showed a couple of teenagers in a confused and troubled world. Now, a lifetime later, we sat just as bewildered as then. The brief and awkward meeting surly raised more questions than answers. One thing for certain was that "A picture's worth a thousand words" applies to any language.

Uoc and the boy climbed on back of Le's motorbike for their ride home somewhere in the countryside. Lieng put on her cone-shaped hat and blended into the village on her bicycle. Me, I rode my motorbike down Highway 1 to Dong Ba Thin to kick and stroll the sands of Sugarcane Beach and try to begin absorbing what had just happened.  

Lupobianco says:
A beautiful and haunting story.
Posted on: Jan 28, 2015
kchrist454 says:
Great story
Posted on: May 15, 2014
bashmentbabe says:
Excellent pictures
Posted on: May 07, 2013
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Couple of teenagers in a confused …
Couple of teenagers in a confused…
Typical propaganda poster on Highw…
Typical propaganda poster on High…
Catholic church in Cuu Loi
Catholic church in Cuu Loi
Dong Ba Thin helicopter base,1970
Dong Ba Thin helicopter base,1970
The coffee shop call
The coffee shop call
Lieng
Lieng
Uoc and the photo
Uoc and the photo
Heading home
Heading home
Le and Huong
Le and Huong
Uoc and Lieng
Uoc and Lieng
DBT veterans
DBT veterans
Sugarcane Beach at Dong Ba Thin
Sugarcane Beach at Dong Ba Thin
Nha Trang
photo by: rotorhead85