September 2, 2014

Return to Vietnam

With their families, former POWs revisit the darkest places and moments of their lives during an emotional trip to Vietnam

By Alan Fox

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

Tonight, I took a long, peaceful swim in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

I dove off the back of our wooden junk just after sunset, and as the sea turned from green to black, I watched the soft lights from distant boats shimmering on the glassy surface.

We're several miles off the coast, anchored for the night and surrounded on all sides by islands that soar dramatically into the sky. The water is salty so close to the South China Sea, and the temperature is ideal for swimming, a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of this part of the world.

Legend has it that there's a monstrous sea serpent called Tarasque in these waters. Fortunately, I was not swallowed, and even the garden-variety sea snakes kept their distance.

I arrived in Vietnam in a party of 32 Americans -- 11 former prisoners of war, including my uncle, Denver Key, and their families. All the POWs were pilots who spent years in captivity in the service of their country.

I was a child during the Vietnam War, and I can barely remember the day my uncle's plane was shot down near Hanoi. But as the years passed, I can recall wondering where he was and how he was, and whether he was still alive.

I could never have dreamed then that one day I'd be floating in the Gulf of Tonkin beside a boat holding my uncle and his family, and other former POWs and their families, on a pilgrimage to the darkest places and times of their lives. I won't attempt to relate what these POWs went through, or why they wanted to return. Each man has powerful stories, but they are not mine to tell.

Instead, I'll talk about what I've seen for myself, and what you might experience if you visit Vietnam, now an up-and-coming destination for adventurous travelers. This country has thrown open its doors to Western tourists, particularly Americans. I wanted not only to see where my uncle and other POWs were held
during the war, but also to find out if the country's nascent hospitality infrastructure is ready for prime time.

We arrived in Hanoi on a flight from Hong Kong, descending through the clouds and rain of Typhoon Lekima, which was pounding the coast farther south. As we walked off the spanking new Vietnam Airlines jet and gathered in a special holding area to wait for our visas, the mood was upbeat.

Prices are extraordinarily low here, and at 16,080 Vietnamese dong to the U.S. dollar, it takes a bit of math to figure them out. I cashed $300 and felt like a high roller with nearly 5 million dong.

We took buses to our hotel in the Old Town section of Hanoi, where the streets were filled with scooters and a continuous cacophony of beep-beep-beep. With few exceptions, the buildings were old and many were run down, but life spilled out of every doorway.

There are hundreds of narrow, one-room stores lining the streets in this area, selling silk products, art and souvenirs. People sit in tiny plastic chairs or squat in front of their shops, and there are always parked scooters nearby. There is an endless parade of street merchants hawking fruit, hats, loaves of bread and trinkets.

We stayed at the Hong Ngoc Hotel, an old but clean eight-story structure with an attentive staff, wireless Internet and a small restaurant. After dropping off our bags, we went out in the drizzling rain to see the town, quickly discovering that one cannot wait for the flow of scooters to stop before crossing the street, because it never stops. The trick is to step purposefully into the middle of it, try to establish eye contact with anyone who is about to run you down, and hope they manage to avoid you. They will.

There are enough Western tourists in Hanoi now that we did not attract a great deal of attention, despite the fact that the average American is several inches taller than the average Vietnamese.

We visited an open-air market that sells all things edible, or arguably so, including live eels and squid, large earthworms and frogs, cooked poultry of all types (complete with head), and several unidentified treats.

After a decent dinner and a better night's sleep, we set out for the notorious Hoa Lo prison, built by the French when they occupied the country and later pushed into service for the interrogation and incarceration of American POWs. Hoa Lo (loosely translated as "fiery furnace") was the first stop for most downed pilots during the war. It's the best known of all the prison camps, the one that came to be sarcastically called the Hanoi Hilton.

Today Hoa Lo is a museum dedicated to reminding people of the cruelty of the French, but it also contains pictures, artifacts and propaganda from what the Vietnamese call the American War. Due to the prison's central location, some sections of it were demolished to make room for a high-rise building, but much of the original complex is still standing and in good condition.

Every pilot in our group had spent time at Hoa Lo, some arriving with serious injuries from being shot down or captured. I can't imagine what they were feeling when they walked back in, but it was deeply moving for the rest of us.

Inside the gray walls, there are claustrophobic cells that were used for solitary confinement, just wide enough and long enough for a single man to lie down, and still containing the ankle shackles that must have made sleep nearly impossible. There is no plumbing in the cells, and some are without windows on a hallway so dark you cannot see the wall at the far end.

Off a small courtyard, there is the "knobby walled room," so named by the POWs for the little mounds of cement slapped on the walls in a crude attempt at soundproofing. It was there that much of the interrogation and torture took place, and the room has been left essentially unchanged since the war ended.

One relic remains from when the French ran the country and the prison: a guillotine, and a list of Vietnamese who were beheaded on the spot.

We moved freely through the prison, and at least one of the pilots was able to enter his old cell. We bumped into a group of people traveling with Tauck World Discovery, an escorted tour operator, who were understandably incredulous to find American POWs in-house and willing to share a few minutes of their time.

From Hoa Lo, we went to the Army Museum, a collection of planes, artillery and artifacts from the American War and the French War, including the largest exhibit, a huge pile of rubble created from downed American aircraft. Then it was on to the Air Force Museum, with its Russian MiGs, SA-2 anti-aircraft system and more debris from U.S. planes.

After an emotional day and another night at the Hong Ngoc, we left Hanoi for the three-hour drive to the coast and Halong Bay, where new, luxury hotels are sprouting by the water. We boarded an immaculate wooden ship called Victory, our overnight home, and sailed into the bay.

Halong Bay is a magical place, with more than 2,000 limestone islands jutting abruptly out of emerald-green water, and floating villages inhabited by families of pearl farmers and fishermen. Some of the islands contain vast caves, one of which we explored before our evening meal on board the ship, the best of the trip.
Halong Bay is being developed by the Vietnamese government to attract tourists from around the world. If Hoa Lo is Vietnam's past, then perhaps this ancient waterway is its future.

Tomorrow we'll leave this tourist area for the countryside, en route to remote and mountainous jungle near the Chinese border. We'll be looking for a prison where the sun never rose, one the POWs called Dogpatch.

***

We disembarked our junk this morning in Halong Bay and backtracked toward Hanoi by bus. The road is elevated as it slices through expansive rice paddies, where workers wear the traditional conical hat called non la and use water buffalo to pull carts.

There are designated tourist stops on this highway where arts and crafts are made and sold, including two in which the artisans are uniformed teenagers who diligently sew, weave or paint.

We left the main road and headed north, passing through small towns where many dwellings are wooden shacks but a few prosperous families live in narrow, multistory houses. It is common to find three generations living together in the same house or apartment in Vietnam. Those fortunate enough to own a three-story house would traditionally have grandparents on the ground floor, adult children on the second floor and grandchildren on the top floor.

We traveled for hours into hilly, green countryside. Near dusk, we made a quick pit stop at a roadside store and diner. There was a roof overhead, but the building was open on both sides. Insects buzzed the lights and food, and a young mongrel dog on a chain eyed us nervously.

There were a couple of Western brands in the store -- Coke and Pringles -- and our group snapped up nuts, candy and peanut brittle. We passed on one local delicacy -- bottles that contained some sort of alcoholic drink and a whole cobra, poised as if ready to strike. The drink was supposedly good for the libido, if not for the appetite.

I asked one of our guides about a pile of neatly stacked items on the counter. They were about the size of candy bars, wrapped in deep-green banana leaves.

"Like your Spam," he explained.

"Spam? How does he know what our Spam tastes like?" I wondered to myself.

I bought one anyway, peeled back the banana leaves and bit cautiously into my pencil-shaped Vietnamese Spam. Not bad, but not good either, and not at all like Spam.

"What are you eating?" one of my cousins asked.

"I'm not sure, but he said it was like Spam, so I assume it's pork."

Our guide interceded, "Not pork."

"It's not pork?" I asked.

"No, not pork," said the guide, with an authoritative shake of the head.

"Well, what is it?"

"Not pork."

Then it struck me, the answer to the rhetorical question my cousin had posed earlier as we wandered through one of the small villages en route: "Where are all the old dogs?"

Some people here eat dogs, and cats, and worms, and just about everything else. I guess I'll never know what was inside those banana leaves, and, as the owner of a mischievous beagle, I'm not sure I want to know.

A couple of hours later, we rumbled into Lang Son, a dimly lighted city 20 miles from the Chinese border. We threw our bags in our rooms and crossed the street to the hotel's restaurant, an old structure with whitewashed walls, large sections of which were covered by gray mold.

The doors were open to the humid night air on one side, and as our group began to be seated, something low and dark darted in from outside. It covered 30 feet in a few seconds and paused directly in front of me. I quickly snapped a picture before it was on the move again, this time stopping within inches of the foot of a woman in our party, already seated.

I was the only one in the room who had seen our uninvited guest, and as I approached the lady whose foot was so precariously exposed, I wondered how I could bring the 4-inch-long, turbo-charged spider to her attention without starting a stampede.

The big fellow saw me coming and dashed across the rest of the dining room toward the kitchen, out of sight -- the same direction from which our food emerged a few moments later.

I showed my picture to the rest of the group. "We called them Hanoi racers," my uncle said. "Sometimes they'd crawl into our cells."

Dinner went down, barely, and a few of us ventured by foot toward some distant streetlights while the rest of the group called it a day. We arrived at Lang Son's main street, a broad boulevard with a few shops and a restaurant or two. As we walked down the sidewalk, everyone we met stopped and stared.

Strangers on the street are a rarity here, and Westerners are nonexistent. We could not have been more of a curiosity if we had arrived in a flying saucer. We returned their astonished looks with a smile and a nod and received much bigger smiles and nods in return.

We heard unfamiliar music from one of the dilapidated buildings and stepped inside to find a sizeable dance floor ringed with chairs. Smartly dressed young women and men sat on opposite sides of the room from each other. Every jaw in the place hit the floor simultaneously as the seven green Martians entered.

All eyes were on us as we chose a table in the back, foolishly hoping to blend in, but before we could sit down, the owner or manager arrived to escort us to the main table, front and center. As soon as we were seated, the music started -- American music -- which is all that was played while we were there.

When a song began, the men would rise, cross the room and extend a hand to the ladies. When the song ended, each would return to their seats on opposite sides of the room.

The dancers moved in a circle, each couple passing in front of our table every minute or so with a shy smile in our direction. We smiled back and applauded their excellent dancing at the end of every song, feeling a bit like judges at a competition. Eventually, we thanked the proprietors for their hospitality and came back to the hotel to get some rest before tomorrow's search for Dogpatch.

Vietnam is a poor country, so one has to approach lodging in the countryside with an appreciation for the unexpected. After our comfortable hotel in Hanoi and the relative luxury of our junk at Halong Bay, accommodations in Lang Son seem a bit austere.

The beds are like boards, but with a room to myself, I'm using the thin comforter from one bed as the mattress for the other. The hallways are only partially illuminated, but inside my room, the lighting is stark -- all the better for spotting Hanoi racers under the bed.

The bathroom is a tight little space, with a showerhead coming out of the wall that sprays everything in the room. The temperature of the water can only be adjusted while standing in the stream. The floor is dingy and uneven, and when I arrived, there were puddles left over from the last occupant's shower. Considering the humidity, that could have been awhile back.

After some debate, I switched on the water, which quickly began to rise until the floor and my feet were submerged. I was looking around for a drain when a triangular-shaped bug rocketed out of its hiding place, buzzing my face. I backed into the sink and knocked my toothbrush into the muck.

I finished my shower in record time, as more hopping bugs filled the air. They're in there now, behind the closed door -- I can hear them pinging off the walls.

Tomorrow, we search for the jungle prison, Dogpatch, and if we reach it, we'll be the first Americans to visit since the war ended.

I have learned one thing about traveling off the beaten path in Vietnam -- it's as wild as you want it to be.

***

In the middle of a long, bleak night in 1972, 203 American POWs were removed from their cells in the Hanoi Hilton, shackled and packed into army trucks that set out for an unknown destination. Peeking under their blindfolds, some of the men were able to determine that their direction was northerly. After many hours passed, they began to wonder if they were being taken to China, where they would be totally off the grid and impossible to find.

They did not make it all the way to China, though they came very close. In the mountainous jungle near the border, they were deposited in a cobra-infested compound that came to be called Dogpatch.

Other prison locations were well known, but Dogpatch was built in a remote and forbidding place to ensure that it would never be found by the Americans. Most cells in other prisons were lit 24 hours a day, but there was no electricity at Dogpatch, and the cells were perpetually dark.

We left Lang Son early in the morning in our quest to reach Dogpatch. Even today, it's an arduous journey, with long stretches on rutted gravel or dirt roads that hug mountains and give way to sheer drops into green valleys below. The isolated villages are few and far between, and we drew curious stares in each that we passed through.

We drove by an unmanned bird-flu checkpoint on a dirt road leading to China, traveling on until our road disintegrated into ruts and puddles that made it impassable. We stepped down from the bus and began a two-mile hike to where we were met by jeeps driven by Vietnamese army troops, for the final leg of the journey.

A couple of miles later, we climbed out of the Russian-made vehicles and pushed our way into a dense tangle of trees, plants, vines and thorns on the side of a mountain. The going was rugged and slippery, and in the sweltering humidity, we were quickly wet with sweat.

The first structure I saw was a gray, concrete, rectangular cell that one of our pilots had once inhabited. The cell block had partially collapsed, the wooden door had rotted away, and bamboo screens that had prevented light from entering through the vent holes were gone. Massive vines and tree roots were growing directly out of the concrete, as if the jungle was determined to take back its own.

The undergrowth was so thick that visibility was frequently no more than 30 feet. The group splintered into small units that soon lost sight of each other, but whenever a new structure was found, people on the scene would call out to the rest.

We located many damaged buildings, including some that may have been blown apart during the Chinese invasion in 1979, but only one complete cell block remains standing. More than anything else, it looks like a decaying, unadorned mausoleum.

It was sunny above the jungle canopy, but shady below. We stepped inside the old cell block and felt our way through the rooms and halls and solitary cells in absolute, horrifying blackness, broken only by the occasional flash of a camera. Our pictures could in no way capture what it felt like to be inside those walls.

All of the former POWs I traveled with were in that overnight caravan from Hanoi, 35 years ago, and two lived in this cell block. We could hear their descriptions of who had slept where, but it was almost impossible to imagine the place inhabited.

We emerged from the jungle to find that our guides had located two villagers who claimed to have helped build the prison in the 1960s. Like everyone we have met in the countryside, they were friendly and respectful. We offered them beer, and they stayed with us as we tried to digest what we had just seen.

We also met an old man, pictured on the cover of this issue, as we milled around near our jeeps. He lived with his wife in a small, wooden hut built on stilts, with a livestock pen underneath. When our guide knocked on his door to tell him that there were Americans outside who had been held in the prison during the war, he apologized that he was not properly dressed and asked for a moment to prepare himself. In a short time, he returned wearing a new shirt and a black beret, and invited the group into his home.

Our interpreter said the old man was 88 years old and had served in the military. He was slight of build and moved slowly, and his eyes were tired but kind. During his adult life, the Vietnamese have fought not only a civil war and the Americans but also the French, the Chinese and the Cambodians. It's likely this old man has known more than his share of sorrow and hard times.

He spoke softly for a while, of the prison and other matters, and when it was time to leave, one of the former POWs grasped the old man's hand with both of his, as is the Vietnamese custom, and thanked him for his kindness and hospitality. Incredibly, the old man raised the back of the pilot's hand to his face and kissed it, as some in the room were moved to tears.

As that pilot, Al Carpenter, said later, there were no political ideologies in the room that afternoon, no Ho Chi Minh or LBJ. There were "just two old veterans, connecting for a brief and unexpected moment of mutual respect."

***

It's been decades since the angry skies over Vietnam went silent and these cell block doors were opened to the light. Now, only cobras call Dogpatch home. What man has built here is being consumed by the vegetation, vanishing into the green curtain. In a generation or two, only the jungle will remain.

Today, our pilots became the first Americans to return to Dogpatch since the war ended, and it has been a privilege to be allowed to tag along. The family members leave with a better understanding of the strength it took to survive and the courage it has taken to return.

People travel for many reasons. I can't tell you what these 11 men came looking for, but I sincerely hope they found it.

As for others who might come, I've tried to depict Vietnam exactly as I have seen it. It's not for everyone, but for me at least, it was worth the long journey.

Visiting Vietnam

Vietnam is making an all-out push to attract Western tourists, and leading cruise lines and tour operators are beefing up their offerings to this part of the world.

To learn more about cruises that visit Vietnam, visit Vacations To Go to see a list of sailings that visit the country, or call (800) 338-4962.

For information on escorted tours that travel to this corner of Southeast Asia, visit the tour site of Vacations To Go or call their tour specialists at (800) 680-2858.


The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in May/June 2008. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.


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