In-Country R&R in a Neutral Zone
During the Vietnam War U.S. military typically were sent for rest and relaxation (R&R) to some place away from the conflict like, Hawaii, the Philippines, Thailand or Australia. I met my wife on Oahu about half way through my tour and then we took a short flight to Kauai where we spent a week next to a lagoon full of colorful fish and toured the island by car. That happened in 1971, and it served as our honeymoon. We married during my 3rd year of medical school, and there was no time for a holiday.
For many G.I.s there was an in-country R&R destination which I visited once: Vũng Tàu. (see note regarding Vietnamese pronunciation below)
This peninsula off the South Vietnamese coast has a long and colorful history related to shipping, naval invasion, piracy and, curiously, tourism.
It was originally a swampy area of land, but provided land access for ships. The history is one of being divided and re-divided with oversight given to various provinces in Vietnam. At one point it was declared an autonomous zone. During the early period of communist takeover of Vietnam it was a site for the launching of boats by Vietnamese fleeing the communist regime.
At the time I visited, it was an in-country R&R destination for North and South Vietnamese soldiers, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders. Somehow, no one asked which side you were on. There was no truce; the area was simply treated like a neutral zone, like Switzerland in Europe without mountains.
Toward the end of my tour in Vietnam our base was in a state of draw-down. The number of troops was reduced, supplies were harder to get, and the military activity seemed to be reduced as well. Our helicopter companies were attached to an ARVN division on a branch of the Mekong River. There was a naval detachment on a barge that repaired the boats that patrolled the river.
As a U.S. Army Flight Surgeon I treated the members of the two helicopter companies (about 600 soldiers) and any U.S. soldiers who came in like the advisory (MACV) soldiers embedded with Vietnamese troops. (We actually treated anyone who wandered in, and this sometimes included Vietnamese with connections). This draw-down led to a lot of boredom on the part of everyone. I didn’t have much to do, but my pilot friends had some magical thinking that in the case of an attack I would be able to save them if they were injured. They were reluctant to have me leave the base. Despite that I decided to take a couple of days away in Vũng Tàu.
This aerial view is said to be of Dong Tam,
the little bit of paradise in which I spent a year.
Getting to Vũng Tàu involved catching a ride on some helicopter en route. I checked with the flight line and was told that a Chinook helicopter was going from Can Tho to Vũng Tàu and would be stopping in Dong Tam. The Chinook landed and I got in. Chinooks are big cargo helicopters with rotors on the front and rear. Cargo is loaded from the rear, and there are no windows in the cargo area. I was seated along the side of the cargo space with a few other soldiers catching a ride. The helicopter began its run-up, rose into the air, and almost immediately sat back down.
We walked to the front of the cargo area and looked up into the cabin which sat several feet above the cargo area. “What’s going on?” we asked. It turned out that the helicopter was going to Vũng Tàu to a facility that did major repairs and maintenance. The Chinook controls all operated through hydraulics, and had a quadruple back up system. Three of the systems were out and the fourth went out when we took off. The pilot let us all know that we were on the ground thanks to his expert knowledge and handling of the aircraft. He had auto-rotated down using the little bit of hydraulic pressure left in the system when it failed. That was the good news. The bad news was that he had auto-rotated into our mine field.
That shouldn’t be a problem I thought. We hadn’t set any mines off and just needed to get the map of the mine placement and walk out. It turned out that there was no map. So, we had to be lifted out by another helicopter and the Chinook had to be picked up by a Sky Crane and flown to Vung Tau later.
We caught another ride and went to the coast. Honestly, I don’t remember anything about the town. I do remember that I put on a bathing suit and went to the beach. There was a sea of Vietnamese on the beach and I picked a place, spread out a towel and proceeded to take a dip in the ocean. As I was walking toward the water I looked to the side and saw that every Vietnamese in sight was turned, looking at me with their inscrutable faces. I got about twenty feet from the beach and realized that my legs were on fire; the water was filled with jelly fish. I walked back out and looked again. There was no change in the inscrutable faces.
The following day I caught a ride back. The time away hadn’t been that much fun, but it was different.
I still don’t know how the Vietnamese decided to make the peninsula a “no fight zone”. This sort of thing has happened in the past, but it was usually associated with a holiday and short lived. It happened in WWI on Christmas Eve of 1914.
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Reportedly, it was spontaneous, worked out between the men in the trenches, and their commanders were unhappy about the fact that Germans and British troops had put the war on hold. It seemed an act of pure humanity to most. WWI was a brutal, senseless war that just killed men by the thousands without advancing anyone’s cause. For a few hours there was “peace on earth, good will toward men”.
How did the Christmas Truce happen? According to a letter mailed days after the Christmas Truce it began when a German messenger walked across No Man’s Land and delivered a letter asking for the truce. German and British troops apparently played football (soccer) on No Man’s Land before going back into the trenches.
It is hard to fight people you know, which may be the reason the German and British commanders were irritated by the Christmas Truce.
I don't know how the Vietnamese related to each other during what was essentially a civil war with outside interference. I know that civilians ( I assume they weren't Viet Cong by night) lived in the midst of families and communities divided in allegiance, and just endeavored to survive.
Notes about the Vietnamese alphabet:
Vietnamese is written today using a Latinized alphabet. This phonetic alphabet was created and used in Catholic circles for many years. It is not perfect, but it works better than the previous character writing that it was adopted by Vietnamese schools. Briefly, Vietnamese has fewer consonants (there is no “J” for instance) and more vowels than English. Most importantly, the language is tonal, and there are diacritic marks that indicate the tonal shifts.
Place names as written by Americans were meaningless to Vietnamese because they used a standard keyboard. I wrote Vung Tau as it would be in Vietnamese, but other places like, Can Tho and Dong Tam are incorrect. The “D” in Dong Tam is actually not a “D”; it is a similar letter that looks like a “D” with a mark through the upright portion and is pronounce differently in various parts of Vietnam as “ZH” or “Y”. There are five possible tones in Vietnamese, as I remember, and “Ba” can have four of these with meanings varying from grandmother to rice seedling.