93. Children Shouldn’t Play With Hand Grenades

In bewildering fascination, Saigon, formerly the capital of French Indochina, held me captive for about a week.  The rich blend of people, some in fancy western threads and others staying true to their native attire, were walking about in a fairly normal city scene.  Some were shuttled around in decent cars, if not cyclos, a lot of people on bicycles and troops going about on foot and in military transport.

The smells coming from the food stalls were definitely interesting and I found some delicious too.

While sitting in a local bar on yet another sweltering hot evening and engaged in the usual sipping of ice cold beer, I was startled by what I was certain to be the sound of an explosion.  A little shaken to be sure but more so curious, I walked over to the open doorway and peered out.

The scene outside was that of the city’s people going about their daily routines, intermixed with our G.I.s and some foreign visitors … and children playing around the streets.  I then heard a siren in the distance.

Seeing nothing out of the ordinary I returned to my table, not really sure what to think or how to react.  I say this because most everyone else in the bar seemed relatively calm about the bangs.   

Timing such as it was, these bangs became the discussion at our table.  My friends and I were told by a couple of Marines standing at the bar, to be aware of the children and youthful people here; perhaps an occasional grandparent.  They must’ve sensed my concern.  

There have been occasions wherein children pretending to play ball outside, were actually culprits of no good actions.  They were usually near an establishment where a good number of G.I.s were to be found.  A ‘ball’ would roll inside.  

Now either someone will pick it up and roll it back outside or it was ignored but sometimes, before one could realize it, kaboom!  Not only the visually dense population of American and Allied troops but the average citizen of South Vietnam, all were targets in this damned war.  

And as was the wartime usual, you couldn’t really trust anyone.  Decidedly we were unable to distinguish the difference between North and South Vietnamese citizens; who had the grenade … or worse?

As if on cue, a ball rolled in through the open doorway and right then and there, my heart stopped beating.  I was sure of it because I don’t remember taking another single breath!

After what seemed like forever but only a moment or two later, a youthful lad came in after it and took it back out straight away.  Clearly I’m still here to say, that wasn’t a hand-grenade, or for that matter any other exploding device that evening.

Towards the end of our Việt Nam stopover I wanted to stay back in the city for an overnight.  Though I knew I’d have to rise before the morning sun to get back to the ship via the 5a boat at shore, I will admit I chose to engage a female companion and so retained a hotel room.  

It was after only a few minutes of being in this room when the moment about to be was disturbed (probably for the best), by sudden and loud non-stop banging.  I instantly opened the door to see guns staring me down.  

There were 4 that I could see and two of them were pushing their way into my room; these gunslingers didn’t wait for an invitation to enter.  They briefly looked around.  I definitely wasn’t going to argue or question these 2 Vietnamese (n or s? don’t know) soldiers with -credit to my imagination- itchy trigger-fingers on those cold & scary (what looked like) AK-47s, surely loaded and ready to shoot!

No English was spoken and they left shortly after arrival, taking the girl with them.  The only conclusion I arrived at was the girl must’ve been North Vietnamese, posing as a South Vietnamese family girl.  Or was it the other way around?

Okay I’d finally had enough of my own shenanigans; no more shore time for this boy, I would stay in the ship for our remainder of this Việt Nam stopover.

 

 

 

 

90. Next Stop, Sài Gòn

After pulling up anchor, the Trans Western skirts Vietnamese coastline along the route towards Sài Gòn harbor and as before, we stayed away from the actual shoreline. Remember our cargo was not allowing us a near-to-the-shore ‘parking’ spot.

That first night we all stayed on board, no one left our boat.  However, the next day most of us were more than ready to get off the ship and explore this new frontier.  

Sài Gòn was a city larger than Quy Nhơn.  Streets, buildings, shops and hotels were bigger.  Some of the bars and cafés were of equal stature for the most part, perhaps with a little more flair and variety.

And hard to miss were the tanks and jeeps everywhere; a constant reminder that I was still in the middle of a war zone.  American soldiers strapped with weapons were always visible. 

Occasionally we were stopped and asked for our identification.  We carried ID cards of the Merchant Marines (seaman). Let me tell you it was a bit intimidating being questioned by a guy with a loaded gun somewhat pointing at your persons, even if they are our own soldiers, which they were.

There were people walking around all over the city and some drove from here to there in their cars.  A good percentage of these people were dressed in western-world clothing, my guess is that I was seeing the French influence from when France occupied Vietnam.  

Although the hotels, automobiles and restaurants were modern, I couldn’t help but notice the simple folk who stuck to their culture in everything they did, from the clothing they wore to the way some kept shop and definitely down to the street food preparation.

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88. Cash & Tailors

 

I climbed down a rope leading into the boat which would take us from our ship to the Qui Nhơn Harbor shore.  We didn’t tie up at any dock instead, the boat took us aground into the sand.  The trap/exit door opened up and we’d jump out onto Vietnamese soil.  We walked up the beach and into Qui Nhơn town.   

Being hyped up right from the start, I felt a little scared but it was certainly comforting knowing that I was never alone; we were always in one another’s company …mostly.  And as we walked, carefully at first, thoughts of what the Skipper and some of the Marines had told us, rushed to the forefront of my mind.

Absorbing the street scene crowded with men, women, children, the young and the old, I began to relax;  they were basically just people like me. There was plenty of street cooking which smelled amazing and lots of little shops and bars.  I felt eyes on me.

I’d see them waving in order to attract us into their shops.  Thinking of the families back home, I saw some things which interested me such as handmade trinkets, clothing, jewelry and the like.  

I detoured with a couple of the guys into one of these places, a tailor shop.  The tradesmen were Indians, like myself. Why I found this as a surprise, I do not know.

And perhaps we were obvious as new to the area because almost immediately, we were asked to join them in food and drink.   “Let’s talk, have something to eat and enjoy.”  They actually closed the shop for a couple of hours.

After a shared meal and hearing the stories of where we came from originally, how we found ourselves in this little corner of the world etc., they asked us, “What can we do for you … what would you like to buy?”

From these Indian tailors, I would buy a couple of slacks.  As measurements were being taken I asked,  ‘Aren’t you afraid to be here in this war zone?’  

The shopkeeper reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash from both pockets.  In his fairly decent English he explained, “Of course we’re scared sometimes but this is home.  If we must run suddenly, at least we have our money with us. My wife and kids do same. It’s how we handle.”   I remember thinking to myself just how fascinating living a life this way is.

After a much enjoyed evening in comforting hospitality of the locals, we knew it was getting late.  With the Skipper’s speech still fresh in my mind, it was definitely beach time.

Making my way there I remember looking at the sights along the way and thinking of the fun time ahead tomorrow.  At the shore we were just in time to hear a Marine’s voice blaring through a bullhorn, “Load ‘em up!”

Several of us to include guys from some of the other ships in the harbor, climbed aboard this fairly large boat and off we went.  Each various group would let them know which ship they had to return to. I called off the Trans Western.

Thank goodness for our Marines for in this dark night amongst all the boats anchored offshore, there was no way we ourselves would know which one was ours.  We arrived at our ship and quickly climbed up the rope ladder.

Myself and the other guys headed straight for the mess hall to raid the refrigerator and pantry for a late night snack before turning in.  The chef had tuna salad and fresh breads waiting to be turned into midnight sandwiches.

A full day it was and I was more than ready for some snuggling down in my bed.  That’s the sum of my first day in Vietnam. Not bad at all.

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