MEMOIRS OF AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN VIETNAM
Circa 1962 - 1968
by Ann Caddell Crawford
Copyright 1999-2008, Ann Caddell Crawford
As mentioned in Time Magazine, April 12, 1999, Vol 153 No. 14
Thanks for the Memoirs in the Afterword Section.
The Ugly American Gets COMEUPPANCE, added 7 Oct 2004
Who were the First Americans in V ietnam, added 18 Oct 1999
The Roquefort Cheese of Vietnam, added 10 Aug 1999
Daddy's Home, added 26 Jul 1999
The Cercle Sportiff Saigonaise, added 24 Jun 1999
The Search For Howard Johnsons, added 17 May 1999
Correspond with Ann Crawford
The year was 1963. The brand new World Airways Boeing 707 320C jet
aircraft circled the Saigon Airport, known as Tan Son Nhut. As my three kids, all pre-schoolers, and I peered out our window and saw the purely agricultural countryside with Saigon not yet in view, I suddenly felt very nauseous. What in the world had I gotten us into?
It had been a long trip. We flew from Birmingham, Alabama to San
Francisco complete with two big wardrobe-type trunks which held enough shoes and clothing to last us for a two-year tour plus start-up household goods which would be needed on our arrival. A family friend picked us up at San Francisco, carted us to Travis AFB and dropped us at the terminal. When we signed in for our PCS flight to Saigon, the airman took one look at the trunks and said, "Those can't go!"
Flexible - that's what Roy said a military wife had to be. I asked how
long before the flight left. "Two and a half hours...you've got about forty-
five minutes to get rid of that stuff." I saw an airman with big duffle bags
and asked the counter crew, "Would those be alright?" "Yep."
So, all I had to do was take my oldest son (5) and our two toddlers, get
someone to watch the trunks, talk an irate cabbie who had been in the taxi
line for hours into just taking me across the base to the Military Clothing
Sales Store and back. (He was hoping for a long trip to the San Francisco
airport!) He took us (I tipped in advance...there went the fun money!), we
bought the duffle bags, hustled back to the air terminal, got everyone who had any mercy on us to help unpack the trunks and put their contents into the
It was like the Olympics..."You've got five more minutes, that's all,"
said the airman on the counter. Clothes were flying everywhere, but thanks to those helping, we made it! The airman then said, "What are you gonna do with those trunks?" I said I didn't care, give them to anybody who wanted them. About that time, a loadmaster came by and said, "Oh, we can take those now that they are empty."
We boarded a Navy propeller-driven aircraft. The men passengers on the
flight were not nearly as helpful as those in the terminal. It appeared to me
that most of them just wanted to be left alone. No wonder - some were headed to Vietnam, a place that they had never heard of just a few weeks ago, and there I was with three little ones, diaper bags, the works.
We stopped in Hawaii, stayed in the terminal a few hours and then
reboarded for Guam. Two little ones were asleep and belted in; the oldest
needed to go to the bathroom. I asked the man next to us if he would watch
them. He grunted something which I assumed to be yes. Two minutes later, a
crew member was bamming on the door..."Mam, you can't leave those two kids asleep in the seat, you have to take them with you to the head."
On arrival in Guam, we learned that Typhoon Karen had recently roared
through the island the night of the Marine Corps Birthday. A world of damage
had occurred, and we were taken to a temporary hangar. What should have been a stop of a couple of hours turned into over six hours...in a hot steamy hangar, and my baby food and diapers were beginning to fit in only one diaper bag!
Airborne again, thank goodness, the kids were all asleep. I had a fever
and felt lousy. Many, many hours later, we arrived at Clark Air Force Base.
They had planned to send us to the BOQ for the night, but I must have looked
pretty pitiful, for someone at the transportation desk said, "We have a World
Airways aircraft headed in a few minutes to Saigon. We can take you!" Nicer
words were never heard. We boarded - they had hot food, diapers, stewardesses, wash clothes, play items for the kids. Oh sweet relief! The young man at the travel desk said a message would be sent to Roy giving him our arrival time.
We circled Saigon; I felt queasy. We landed, went through customs and
strained our necks to find Roy. He wasn't there! It had been a long trip, and
I didn't know what to expect. They found him at work; naturally, the message
had not arrived. About an hour later he arrived with two jeeps. When he saw
six duffle bags, two trunks, several suitcases, he wiped his brow. "Ann, what in the world are you doing with those Air Force duffle bags...?" (Remember, Roy was Army!) I said, "Wait till you lift those trunks!" "Good thing I brought two jeeps," he said.
Roy took us to our temporary new home in Saigon at 117 Tran Qui Cap. It
had two bedrooms and they were air conditioned!! In fact, I had never been in
a room cooled to 65 degrees before when the temperature outside was near 100 with an equal amount of humidity. We were exhausted. When we woke the next day, Roy was really SUPER NICE to us...flowers were everywhere and he had not one but two household helpers there to assist us with everything. Somehow, he seemed just too solicitous.
"What's up?" I asked. "Gosh, I don't know how to tell you this, doll,
...but I'm on orders for several weeks TDY in Hawaii! I leave in just a few
days." His office promised they would look out for us, but we didn't have a
phone. The last word of warning Roy gave me was, "Whatever you do, stay in
town, do not cross any bridges or you will be out in the boondocks, and it
Two nights after Roy left, elements of the Viet Cong threw grenades into the Marine general's home just a few doors down the street! What a welcome. That kind of shook me up but I still had my chores to do, one of which was to register Roy, Jr. at the American Community School near Tan Son Nhut. He and I got in a cyclo (a pedicab where you ride in front and the man pedals a bicycle in the back). The maid told him where we wanted to go. We headed out Cong Ly Street, when all of a sudden I saw a bridge.
"Stop, stop, stop," I yelled, and waved my hands; there was no time to
consult my Vietnamese dictionary. He did stop, and there we stood on one side of the bridge; the poor cyclo driver didn't know what he had done wrong! And, I had no way to explain it to him. After about twenty minutes, a U.S. military sedan came by and stopped.
"What's the matter, lady? Can we help?" I told him Roy's last words to
me before he left for Hawaii and that I had just been in the country a few
days. "Oh," he laughed, "don't worry about this bridge, he probably forgot
about it...but lady, don't cross any other bridges, you hear?" With that, I
thanked them. Roy, Jr. and I sheepishly got back in the cyclo and road about
ten more minutes to the American school. I still had no way to explain my
actions to the cyclo driver. I often wondered what he thought!
Now, this story goes on and on. I will tell you all about my life as a
military wife who found herself and her young children in Vietnam during this historic time.There are many incidents both funny and sad which will be fodder for my memoirs, Vietnam Light.
In short, during the first tour, I became accredited as a correspondent
working part-time for several news agencies such as Copley News Service,
Newsday and the Stars and Stripes. Due to the nature of my being in the
command as a military wife, I chose to write feature stories and illustrate
them with my own photographs. In addition, I researched a book during our
first Vietnam tour which was published in 1966 by the Charles E. Tuttle
Company of Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan.
It had been my intention to write about our unusual life in Vietnam,
but Mr. Tuttle encouraged me to do the book, Customs and Culture of Vietnam. "It is badly needed and will be popular for years," he advised. "A memoir may only sell a few thousand copies," he said. I took his advice, but did not particularly like the idea. I wanted to do something that was FUN!
Thirty-one years later, I have decided to write the memoir that I
wanted to do back then. Over the years, I have published over 100 editions of
helpful travel books for military families. There are deadlines every day. I
figure that the only way I can write this book is to write it on the
internet....one story at a time. This book will continue as long as I have
stories. Presently, it is unedited and written straight from my heart. Keep
coming back to our website at http://www.militaryliving.com. Click on the
Vietnam Connection and follow our lives in Nam under Vietnam Light .
Who is Pulling This Short Tour Anyway?
Roy was gone so much that it became a local joke that Ann and the kids
were pulling the "short" tour in Vietnam. He made many more TDY trips during the first tour to Hawaii; we even got to go with him on one of them.
Ambassador and Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge gave us a ride in the aircraft that was taking them back to the United States. Remember when he left his post there to go back and try to stop Goldwater?
During both tours, it was very easy for me to fly around the country as
a correspondent, and my work was well received back home. I was definitely not the typical wartime correspondent covering "hard" news. I never covered the war in the jungles where many other correspondents were killed. In fact,
during the second tour, when we were in Nha-Trang when it was hit hard during the Tet offensive, my main goal was to get out and back to Bangkok. Having a family definitely made a difference to me. Even so I've always been somewhat of a "chicken."
There were many hardships during our first family tour in Vietnam. After all was said and done, however, that first Vietnam tour became our favorite in 28 years of military service for Roy. Even though Roy's hours were long at work in Vietnam, it was still a great tour. And, we became "an old coup hand" in the process. We experienced three coup d'etats with all that goes with them while we lived there on our first tour.
We left Vietnam at the end of 1964. My book, Customs and Culture of
Vietnam, was published in 1966. The very next year, Roy got orders for
About a week after Roy left for Hawaii, I realized that I was going to
need additional household help. There was much to do.....the lady Roy had
hired before our arrival, "Rene," was there just to do laundry which was done completely by hand. With Roy's uniforms and all of our clothes, this was an all-day job on every work day.
The second person I saw when I first arrived at our new home in Nam
turned out to be "Rene's" daughter "Lien." I soon learned she did not work
for us but was just there to greet us. She was a sweet young girl who loved to play with our small children.
Rene and Lien's names are not common Vietnamese names. Perhaps an
earlier American family had given them these names. We later found that many of the Vietnamese numbered their daughters as in "the first daugther of; the second daughter, etc.
STOP! DON'T DRINK THAT WATER!
One thing we had to do every day was to purify our water and vegetables
before eating them. The children had to be taught not to drink the water out
of the faucet even when brushing their teeth. I was really afraid of the
diseases I had read about which thrived in third world countries, so I
considered this to be one of my first priorities.
My husband's office had given me a packet of information which showed
where some of the U.S. military facilities were located. The kids and I
managed to find the Navy health clinic which was located adjacent to a small Special Services library and across from the American facility, the Capitol Kinh Do movie theater. Like our home, there were no real compounds at the time. American facilities were placed right in Vietnamese neighborhoods.
At the clinic, I asked how to purify the water and to make vegetables
and fruits safe to eat. They gave me a pamphlet which gave instructions for
boiling regular water for about twenty minutes and adding a teaspoon of Clorox bleach to each large pan of water. It then had to be filtered and put in jugs. We always kept a supply of purified water in the refrigerator. Vegetables and fruits were soaked in purified water with a small amount of bleach added. This solution was used to scrub the individual pieces and then they were washed with purified water.
I was so concerned about our children's health that I boiled the
water twice as long as required. The vegetables and fruits tasted a lot like
the smell of clean laundry washed with a whole cup of bleach. Just getting the food sanitized took a mighty long time each day.
In the first weeks, we bought most of our food at the local markets.
A very trusted, reliable person was needed to do this chore. If there was a
shred of dishonesty in an employee's heart, your family could end up getting
food that had been reduced in price because it had been left out so long in
the steamy, open air markets with no refrigeration. Bacteria were rampant in such food. It was a risk because the employees could take enough money to buy the food but could pocket the difference between what fresh meats and fish cost early in the morning compared with later in the day. I had heard horror stories about this. This made my search for some household help even more important. I needed someone I could trust.
HELLO AMERICAN EMBASSY...I NEED HELP!
I decided to go to the American Embassy and see if they published
some kind of daily or weekly bulletin with unofficial ads in it. This proved
to be a good idea, and I picked one up. In it, I saw an ad for a family
leaving Vietnam who had a household employee who not only cooked but cared for
one child. She was described as honest, clean, and having a very positive
Her employer wanted to place her with an incoming American family.
I later learned that this was a common practice. The ad directed interested
parties to go to the home of the departing official's family to inquire. I was
so grateful knowing that I might find a person experienced with American ways, customs and food.
Excited that I had a prospect, I left the American embassy with two
of the children in my lap in one cyclo and the other riding a second cyclo. We
had obtained written directions in Vietnamese from an Embassy staff member,
something that really helped us find our way around. Some businesses published
directions to their locations on the back of business cards.
The children and I laughed and talked back and forth between the
two cyclos as the drivers pedaled for at least half an hour through the heat
of the noon hour to get to the address.
I was surprised at the stately appearance of the house; ours was a
lot smaller and did not have a grass yard inside its gates. I rang the bell on
the gate of the high-walled compound and waited. The children and I observed
the broken glass and shredded metal pieces which were imbedded in the top of
the walls of the compound. In addition, the wall had three rows of barbed wire
on top of that. No criminal would want to try to scale that wall!
A female Vietnamese came forward and ushered us in. We sat on the
porch while she went to get the lady of the house. About ten minutes later,
the American woman came out on the porch. She was wearing a dressing gown and
did not appear to be happy at all to see us even after I told her why we were
there. She said to me, "Don't you have any manners at all? Don't you know that
you NEVER disturb anyone from noon to three?" She stormed off and told me to
come back at a more appropriate time.
We flagged down two more cyclos outside her house and sheepishly
went back to our little house on Tran Qui Cap. I had just learned my first
cultural lesson in-country.
Lesson Learned: Because of the extreme heat of South Vietnam, people went to work early and most stopped at noon for at least a two-hour "siesta." I suspect this is still true almost forty years later.
Please visit us often to continue this saga about a military family living in
South Vietnam in the 1960's. You'll learn about Vietnamese customs in the
MAKING NEW FRIENDS
Here we were in Saigon without my husband, no family to run to, no telephone,
no television, no grassy yard for the kids. School was not open yet for Roy,
Jr., so we were on our own. We were getting a bit lonesome and homesick.
One morning, I decided I would take the children out to look at our
neighborhood. Rene unlocked the swinging gates and, like birds, we were free
from our "cage." I knew that we had to get a life if we were to survive in
Vietnam as a family. The fact my husband was in Hawaii was no excuse. Military
wives need to grab hold of any situation and make lemonade out of the lemons
they might be handed! A pity party was not in order.
As we walked toward the corner of our street on the right, I felt all eyes
upon us. We were quite an oddity. There we were, a chubby, very young American
women and three little children, all with blue eyes. We could feel eyes upon
us. Small children ran up to us, touching us, perhaps to see why our skin was
so fair. We smiled and talked as we walked around the big block where our home
was located at the time.
While out, I had an idea. We needed an icebreaker! The children and I went
back home and got our Polaroid camera. It was a new type at the time and was a
gift from my mother. My Vietnamese neighbors had never seen such a device
before, that was for sure.
We started walking again, but this time, we stopped and tried to talk with our
neighbors. At our first stop, we chatted and smiled and they conversed with
us in Vietnamese. We made gestures and smiled. I showed them my camera and
made motions that I wanted to take their photo.
Certainly the sight of a foreigner with a camera was nothing new. I had heard
that natives could spot Americans a mile away because they always had one or
more cameras slung over their shoulders.
This was a photo session with a difference! As they smiled for me, I snapped
their photo. And then I opened the back of the camera and pulled the
undeveloped photo out, put the camera down and began to count. The locals
looked curious about what I was doing. Then, when the waiting time was over, I
pulled the film and its cover apart.
You should have seen our neighbors. They saw their own image within a few
minutes and I gave the photo to the father of the family. I may as well have
handed him some gold. He ran around showing the photo to his neighbors, and
soon I had a following of Vietnamese who wanted to see this magic camera. The
father was thrilled that he could keep the photo. The children laughed and
giggled and I took their photo next.
I used up all my film that day, but it was my best investment in friendship
with my neighbors that I could have ever made. From then on out, the children
and I were no longer strangers in our neighborhood.
The next day, one of our neighbors came to our gate and offered us papayas as
his way of saying, "Welcome to the neighborhood." They were
delicious....especially with fresh lime squeezed on the smooth, cool meat of
LESSONS LEARNED -
Americans often take photos of others in far away lands. If
possible, get double prints and after the photos are developed, return to the
place you took them. Seek out the persons you photographed and present them
with their very own copies. They'll love you for it.
(NOTE: In Vietnam, we never had a problem taking photographs. There may be,
however, some countries where taking photos of individuals is offensive. Find
out what local customs are prior to taking photos.)
PARANOIA PAYS OFF
After a couple of weeks in Nam, paranoia set in. One thing I learned
right away was how to avoid having a grenade catch you by surprise. Always sit
with your back to the wall where you can see what is coming in the door! Even
now, over thirty-five years later, I am still very uncomfortable if I have to
sit with my back to a door.
When the Viet Cong tossed a grenade in Marine Major General Richard
Weed's home, we learned the sound of a "bomb." The general's home was about a
block or so away as the crow flies from our house. As I recall, not much
damage was done. It may as well have been a warning shot across our bow! After
that, we practiced hitting the floor and getting under whatever we could until
the danger passed. This would be the first of many such sounds we would hear
over the next two years.
In a way living in Saigon reminded me of World War II and the air raids
held in my home town of Birmingham, Alabama. As a child I thought that was so
exciting. I decided that I would make this current situation a game with the
kids. We had our own little drills with different scenarios called "What would
we do if...." When the Navy bus picked up our two eldest children for Sunday
School, they practiced looking for "bombs" under the bus before they got on.
The grenade tossed into the yard of the general's home made me even more
anxious about the children's safety. I was greatly concerned that being the
only "round eyes" on our street might make us a target, too. I was especially
worried because I had no telephone.
Right before Roy left for Hawaii, I had met his Colonel. He told me
that if I needed anything while my husband was gone to get in touch with him personally. A couple of weeks after Roy left and after the grenade was tossed in General Weed's yard, I went to the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) Headquarters in Cholon and told him we really needed a telephone to feel more secure. He took care of it.
The phone opened a whole new world for me and the children. We were
given a MAAG phone list with all kinds of helpful phone numbers. I found the
commissary, the military exchange and other places the children and I could go and fill our days.
When Roy returned from Hawaii, I learned that his immediate boss was
none too happy about the fact I had called on the Colonel! I was worried that
Roy would be upset with me for doing this, but he was not. He said, "Hey, what can he do to me... Send me to Vietnam?"
Paranoia paid off for us. The children were rarely sick. We were never
injured and, in fact, felt free to walk all over the city during the day. I
think that the Good Lord also had his angels looking out for us. By the time
Roy got back from Hawaii, the kids and I had found many fun and educational
things to do.
Their favorite place was the Saigon zoo which was located a few blocks
from the Presidential Palace. We often took a picnic with us and spent the
day among the animals. Our favorite activity was feeding the elephants sugar
As usual, we were sought out by friendly Vietnamese children. We
learned to pantomime a bit to talk with them. We were taught a few words,
too. The first Vietnamese words we learned were at the zoo. They heard the
Vietnamese kids saying "dinky-dao"..."dinky-dao" (pronounced dinky-dow) as
they yelled at the monkeys. Our kids loved those words because when they
repeated what the Vietnamese kids said, their new friends would fall on the
LESSON LEARNED - Dinky-dao means "crazy." Careful how you use this word in Vietnam!
MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE MILITARY
The children and I eagerly awaited Roy's return from Hawaii. As the
weeks dragged by, I had a lot of time to think while he was away. I kept
wondering why I liked Saigon so much. Thinking back to my childhood, a memory
returned, one I had almost forgotten. This place reminded me of our six
During the early forties, my family had a delicatessen on Highland
Avenue in Birmingham. We lived just a couple of blocks away on South 29th
street on a high hill. On a crisp November morning in 1942, word was spreading
quickly in our neighborhood. There were six Army Signal Corps lieutenants
scouring our neighborhood looking for a place to live with a home-like
atmosphere while they served at the new Birmingham Army Air Base out by the
I don't know who convinced our mom and dad to invite them to live at
our house...was it me or my older sister, Frances? Frances was a beautiful
young woman who at age 21 looked a lot like Barbara Stanwick, the movie star
who was in her heyday at that time.
Who convinced our parents is not so important, but the fact that our
family rearranged our large home in order to give these six lieutenants a
place to live while they were stationed in Birmingham was the real story. As I
recall, my mother and father had my two brothers vacate two rooms on the
second floor of our home. Our dad also had a room up there with mom. My sister
and I had rooms on the first floor.
News got around fast, and I, then age seven, had the honor of
answering all the phone calls. Suddenly, my sister, Frances, was the most
popular girlfriend to have in the whole city! A lot of girls came calling. Our
home was an exciting place to be during World War II. What was a city almost
devoid of datable men became the exciting "Magic City."
Enough about the older girls. I must confess I was smitten with these
six lieutenants all gussied up in those beautiful "pinks and greens." To me,
they brought news of other towns in the USA that I had never seen before. I
found a few of our lieutenants had those strange yankee accents. They
introduced me to the Army!
I would relish doing any errand as long as I had a reason to talk
with them. A few spent Christmas with us, and I remember their helping my
sister and her friends decorate this huge tree. I thought this had to be the
most beautiful tree I had ever seen. Then, without warning, the whole tree
toppled down the length of our living room. Luckily, we had lots of hands to
get it fixed.
My sister and her friends used to "lip-sync" songs sung by the
Andrews sister. They were so very good that they were asked to do this routine
at the USO and other parties in downtown Birmingham. I really relished
watching them practice, often with our six lieutenants egging them on.
Our lieutenants were very kind to me, and I never forgot it. To me,
those World War II uniforms were the most gorgeous things I had ever seen. It
was fun every day that they lived with us. Deep in the recesses of my mind, I
think I learned that "military life" could be ever so exciting. I think I
fell in love with the military at age seven.
All that fun had to come to an end. It was a sad day in May 1943
when I learned that our second lieutenants were going off to war. Actually,
the way they departed was exciting to a seven year old. With many of their
Birmingham friends waving good-bye, they left on a train to New York, where
they sailed on the Queen Elizabeth, which was a troop ship at that time.
They landed at Greenock, Scotland. Letters came to our home from
them and I relished hearing about our lieutenants and worried over their
safety when I saw those newsreels about the war at the picture show each
Another letter we received said they were living in an old castle
at Aldermaster, England. Later, their group separated and most went to France.
As the war grew longer, I got older. Our lieutenants came home safely, but I
never saw them again. Let's speed up this story a few years to see what an
impact these great guys had on me.
In 1954, I transferred from a college in Birmingham to Alabama
Polytechnic Institute which is now Auburn University. When I went down to
Auburn to check the place out, I was sitting in a student hangout called
Atheys. They were student-friendly and would sell you one-half a cup of coffee
for only a nickel, and you could nurse that cup for quite a long time.
Atheys had large picture windows and booths overlooking a sidewalk
leading to a movie house. I saw quite a few students in their ROTC khaki
uniforms as they had just come back from Fort Gordon, GA, that evening from
summer camp. Along with them, I saw two especially handsome young men. One was
in a uniform. The other guy I recognized as a customer of my family's new
restaurant in Birmingham.
My husband, Roy, was that young man dressed in the Army summer
uniform. Today, 44 years later, he tells anyone who will listen, "There Ann
was ...standing on the table banging on the window...I didn't know who she was
and neither did my friend...but due to that insistent pounding on the window,
we went in the restaurant." My side of the story is quite different.
Roy's friend, Don, finally figured out who I was and they came in
and sat down in the booth by the window with me. We talked for a couple of
hours and later, they walked me back to the women's dorm where I was staying.
My heart was pounding. Roy had no way of knowing the history of my
World War II memories with our second lieutenants. This man was sunk----he just didn't know it yet.
Just twelve months later, in 1955, we married and headed to
Heidelberg, Germany for our first tour. Those handsome pinks and greens were
still the uniform of the day. Fate even laughed at us a bit, because like our
six lieutenants, Roy was a Signal Corps officer!
Now, seven years later, here I was in Vietnam with my three pre-
school children. In thinking about the days of my youth, I now knew why I
loved being in Vietnam. All these troops reminded me of our six lieutenants!
No one can foresee when they take time to be kind to a child how
that kindness could affect the child's life for years afterward. I knew that
like my mom and dad, I wanted our home in Saigon to be a home away from home
for some of those who found themselves in this far-off country without family.
GRENADES WITH OUR CORN FLAKES
Thank God for the military commissary and exchange. They always
followed our military family to the end of the earth, even to Vietnam! I often hear people complain about their special military stores...but not me. Would any chain based on a strictly profit motive serve my family around the world? Would they subject their employees to the risk in Vietnam? Well, our exchange and commissary service never forgot us.
The children and I were excited about going to visit the commissary
and exchange after a few weeks in Vietnam. We got their phone numbers in our new phone book, called and found out they were located on Phan Dinh Phung Street, just a mile or so from our house.
We had begun to use the local taxi service for trips where the four
of us would be going together. It was easier than trying to keep two cyclos
together in Saigon traffic. I also got a bit paranoid with visions of a cyclo
driver being a Viet Cong and running off with two of my children!
Learning more words in Vietnamese became essential to get us where
we wanted to go, especially words like "straight," "left" or "right." Hand
motions worked as well. The Vietnamese language is very tonal and if you say a
word the wrong way, the results could be funny or even disastrous.
I began to look for taxi drivers who understood French, as I had
studied that language in high school. Since the French had been in Vietnam for
years, my high school French became a real asset. Many Vietnamese among the
working class spoke pigeon French. That's exactly what I spoke as well! The
laboring class Vietnamese and I murdered the language together.
When we went to the Navy-run commissary and exchange for the first time, the kids were ecstatic. At last, they had a touch of home. They wanted to buy everything in the store! The commissary was not large but it did have such things as cereal, peanut butter and jelly, milk, a sampling of frozen meats and veggies, and other household essentials. We were so grateful for this opportunity to shop American style.
From my childhood days, I have always wanted to document
everything with photos, notebooks and clippings. Yes, I was definitely a pack
rat. I had my small camera with me at all times. This visit to the commissary was no exception. As the children and I walked around the store, we saw some soldiers shopping, perhaps for their units. There was something really different about a couple of them, however. No where in America had we gone shopping with other people carrying hand grenades on their belts. I made a mental note to make future trips to the commissary by myself whenever possible. My feeling was that Roy, Jr. Jack and Kathy would be safer at home behind the walls than going shopping with me!
THE SEARCH FOR HOWARD JOHNSONS
Time was passing slowly for me and the children. Roy was expected to be back
from Honolulu in another week. I decided to take the children to the Navy
Library where we had gotten to know a very nice librarian, Ruth Rapperport.
She took a special interest in the kids.
While at the library one afternoon, I met a GI. He asked me, "Have you and
the kids tried Howard Johnsons yet?" I told him no, but we surely would like
to. I asked him how I would find this Howard Johnsons. "Oh, he said, there is
one on almost every street."
The kids and I were excited that we might find a touch of home. I could
almost taste those fried clam strips. No matter where we went, I saw no sign
of any Howard Johnsons.
One day the kids stayed home with our Vietnamese lady and I went to a meeting of the American women living in Saigon. I decided to ask an old-timer if she could help me find Howard Johnsons! She laughed and laughed. What's so funny, I wondered.
When she quit laughing, she told me that Howard Johnsons were those rolling
soup kitchens that passed our house every day! Leave it to our Americans to
have a name for the rolling soup kitchens which reflected back home America.
To this day, I don't know why they called them Howard Johnsons! They
certainly did not have an orange roof.
Our youngest child, Kathy, became Howard Johnson's best customer on
our street. When one was coming, they clacked wood sticks together to make a
certain sound depending on the type of soup they were offering that day. She
would hear it, grab a soup bowl, ask for a few piastres and run to the gate
and stick her bowl through the fence. They served a soup which was called
PHO. Whenever we go to a Vietnamese restaurant in Washington these days, I
recall our time in Vietnam and the wonderful Pho. Thank goodness for Howard
The Cercle Sportiff Saigonaise
The weeks went by slowly. The kids and I were running out of things we could
do in this land that was new to us but fraught with uncertainty. I began to
really miss getting in my own car and heading for the hinterlands.
Another wife I met at a ladies social function at the Ambassador's home
suggested that the children and I come as her guests to the Cercle Sportiff
Saigonaise the following day. She said we could let the children swim while
we talked and have a bite of lunch at a table adjacent to the swimming pool.
When I got home and told the kids, they were ecstatic.
I had heard a lot about the Cercle Sportiff. You had to be sponsored by
another member and have at least two recommendations from other active
members. There were rules! One must wear only white on the tennis courts. One
must be somewhat cultured and polite. Children must come out of the pool
immediately to make a potty run when the lifeguard blew his whistle, etc.
There were other written and unwritten rules to abide by.
In fact, when requested by a member, they would invite a potential member to
come to the club for a couple of weeks and observe and be observed. After
that time, the potential member would come before a board accompanied by
their sponsors and endorsers and meet with the president and other officers
that governed the facility. You were asked to answer their questions about
your background, talk about yourself and your family, and how you had enjoyed
your trial period at the club. The board would then ask you to leave the room
while they took a vote. If you were selected for membership, they would
invite you back to receive their congratulations.
This procedure was very serious as top officials of the Vietnamese government
as well as ambassadors and state department personnel from numerous countries
spent some of their leisure time at the Cercle Sportiff. On any given day,
you would see a covey of security guards and drivers waiting outside the club.
The club offered not only swimming and tennis, but there was also a gym,
racquet and handball courts, croquette and more. Card games such as bridge
and canasta were going on every day. In addition, there was a garden where
the "amahs" could take care of babies and small children and amuse them while
their parents enjoyed a quiet respite at lunch.
The children and I went with our new friend and her two children to the club
the next day. We tried to be on our best behavior. Now that I had found this
wonderful place, I surely did not want to spoil our chances at membership!
Saigon was so humid and hot that being able to go to the club for a cooling
swim was almost a necessity for those with children. When Roy came home from
Hawaii, he got the necessary sponsor and endorsers and applied for
Later, after we became members ourselves, I decided to go and take an
exercise class which was offered during the early morning hours. The
instructor was a hard -nosed Frenchman named Monsieur Vantan. He was a tall,
fairly large man who, in his youth, may have turned a lady's head as he
walked by. He was still rather striking even though he was in his early
Mr. Vantan spoke only French in his classes. Since I had taken French in high
school, I could understand at least one out of every three words he barked at
us like a drill sergeant taming his troops. I thought that he was going to
kill me for sure. Not a drop of sympathy was evident as he put us through our
routine. The one I recall most vividly was Mr.Vantan shouting out "une, deux,
trois, quatre," etc to about forty of us women of various nationalities as we
were bumping our fannies on the gym floor in a move that would propel us
across the room. Our arms were crossed and we were only allowed to use our
backsides to take us to our goal.
It was this day that I met two special ladies who would become my best
friends among the Americans in Saigon. One was Jane Mickey and the other
Marie Siwick. Both of their husband's worked for what we called "the
company." Naive as we were, we felt like we were always being spied on by
South Vietnamese government agents, so "the company" was our way of having a code name for the CIA.
I've lost track of Marie, but Jane Mickey has continued to be my friend until
this day. She recently retired from United Airlines, and we both live in
nearby towns in the Washington, DC area. Both Marie and Jane had children
with them living in Saigon. We, and our children, had many fun times together
that I will tell you about in subsequent installments of Vietnam Light.
Over thirty years later while attending a DMZ to Delta dance in Washington on
a Veteran's Day Weekend, many of us sat around telling stories about the
past. A male nurse who served in Saigon told this one.
"A military officer went before the Board of the Cercle Sportiff after
spending two weeks taking part in every activity that he could. The Board did
not welcome him wholeheartedly and asked a few questions and then politely
asked him to await their decision.
When he was called back in before the group, they very hesitantly told him
that they were very disappointed but they could not offer him membership in
the Cercle Sportiff.
Why? he asked. "I did everything by the book. I only wore white shorts, a
white shirt and white socks plus white tennis shoes on the tennis court; I
swam and played all the games you offer in this club." "I ate lunch at the
club every day, minded my manners and was polite to everyone." "I even
learned to eat an artichoke correctly," he exclaimed! "
"If you insist, VE vill tell you," said the Cercle Sportiff's spokesman. "It
was reported, sir, that YOU urinated in the swimming pool."
"What?" he asked...."Why I think a lot of people do that....!!"
At this point, the spokesman said, "BUT MONSIEUR, OFF OF ZIE DIVING BOARD???"
Remember, guys, that was just a joke!
The children and I were thrilled that Roy was coming back to Vietnam.
Being on our own had worn thin for all of us. The children could not
understand why they came all the way to Vietnam only to have their dad leave.
While Roy was gone, we had learned so much about this country of
South Vietnam. We were no longer "newbies" and if we had been pulling a
regular short tour, we would only have ten months left in country.
The appointed day finally came, but Roy did not arrive. We knew he
had left Honolulu but little else. Turns out the the aircraft, on which he
was a passenger, ran into a mechanical problem. The repair part had to come
from the United States. Nevertheless, within just a few more days, he was
home. We were all happy campers again. Daddy was home!!
The next morning, he was back to work at HQ MAAG, the Military
Assistance Advisory Group in Vietnam. His office was located in Cholon, the
Chinese area of Saigon. The work days were long, but we often saw him during
the lunchtime siesta, and we were as happy as could be.
One of his first days back, Roy bought a 50 cc motor bike to get him
back and forth to the MAAG compound. My husband was a big guy, over six feet
tall, and he worked with a Staff Sergeant named John Neary on the military
Sgt. Neary was a rather small, fiery guy from New York. He probably
weighed no more than 125 pounds. It became a rather common scene to see Sgt.
Neary on the back of Roy's scooter, both dressed in the Army short uniform,
working their way through Saigon traffic. He hitched a ride many an evening
after work to his home on Rue Pasteur in downtown Saigon where he lived with
his wife, Dottie, and their five children. Sgt. Neary and Roy were probably
the lowest ranking military personnel in country having their family with
them on a command-sponsored tour of duty. The Vietnamese got quite a kick out
of seeing the big American "Dai-Uy" (Captain in Vietnamese) and the Trung Si
(Staff Sgt.) riding together on the shiny new motor bike.
I remember that Sgt Neary did not have "government quarters" but
paid for his own place with his housing allowance while Roy forfeited his
quarters' allowance for our home. Sgt. John Neary had to pay for his own
utilities in the apartment as they were separately metered.
He was having a hard time making ends meet, mainly because of his
electric bill being even more expensive than his rent. Roy looked over the
bill and said something had to be wrong.
I can't recall how Sgt. Neary was able to find the problem.
Perhaps an Army engineer helped him by checking how the electricity was wired
for his apartment. They learned, however, that the elevator that everyone
used 24 hours a day in this high-rise building was wired to the Neary's
apartment! I've never seen a more angry New Yorker!
MORAL OF THE STORY - If you live in a third-world country, things may not
always be as they seem. Even, if you live in the United States, if your
electricity bill seems too high, get the power company to check your lines.
The Roquefort Cheese of Vietnam
The children and I woke up one morning to an awful smell. We had
smelled many strange things in Vietnam, but this was a smell with
a vengeance. Surely, something had died and the oppressive heat
was now taking its toll.
Our house at the time had a very small courtyard. I wandered out of
the house to hear a lot of chattering in front of our gate. Obviously,
the people were happy as they were gathering in large numbers. What
could it be? I soon learned that a specialty fruit was in season.
The Vietnamese adored it. This was our introduction to Durian, known
as the King of fruit! The smell of the Durian is so terrible that
some places in Asia ban its sale in places where tourists might gather.
Still, it is a gourmet item which is more costly than many other fruits
One piece of the fruit was about as big as a football, but it had
thorns. Once opened, however, a very pale yellow flesh was revealed. The
natives loved it. I heard that some even considered it to be an aphrodisiac.
The fruit is grown on tall trees in many Southeast Asian countries. The
fruit has to be cultivated very carefully.
Even though I tried to not be an ugly American and to be a part of the
life of the Vietnamese people in my neighborhood, I could never bring myself
to try the sweet, creamy meat of the Durian. In fact, we almost had to leave
home to eat our evening meal that first day we experienced Durian being sold
in front of our house. We were happy, indeed, when Durian once again went
out of season.
Like Roquefort cheese, perhaps Durian has to be eaten for a while
before you learn to enjoy it. I know I was over 25 when I first came around
to liking that very special cheese. I am a bit ashamed to say that I never
gave Durian a chance to grow on me. I was very young back in those days; I
think I should give Durian another chance. If I am ever able to go back to
Vietnam, perhaps I'll at least try Durian ice-cream. Some troopers told me
they really liked it. :-)
To learn more about Durian, visit two web sites provided by Destination Vietnam.
Thank heavens we don't have odors along with the text. While there, take a
look at other fruits which are prevalent in Vietnam.
- Fruit Trees in Vietnam by Steven Bailey
- Fruit Trees of Vietnam, Vietnamese Cuisine
AFTERTHOUGHT - While Durian was not something I wanted to learn to like, the
Vietnamese had many wonderful fruits that are seldom seen in the United
States. We loved eating the papayas which grew in our own yard, the mangoes
and, most especially, the mangosteins which had a delightful sweet-sour
taste. These, too, were more expensive than many of the other fruits.
WHO WERE THE FIRST AMERICANS IN VIETNAM?
Every day was a new experience. It was exciting to me to live in Vietnam and
have my husband and my children right with me. There were very few American
military in Vietnam who had their family with them. As a result, I felt a
little bit like a pioneer. By studying a bit of history, however, I learned
that there were other Americans who made trips to Vietnam a couple of hundred
years before I ever got there.
The first American to venture to Vietnam, or at least the first one I could
find anything about, was John White of Marblehead, Massachusetts. He arrived
in Vietnam in 1819 on a ship named The Franklin. White had hoped to set up
trade deals with the Vietnamese but was delayed by what he called "the
countless idiosyncrasies of the Vietnamese." He was repulsed by the people's
habits, which he considered to be barbarian. Despite his lack of
understanding of the Vietnamese, he did leave a legacy, a book entitled, History
of a Voyage to the China Sea.
THE FIRST AMERICAN DIPLOMAT IN VIETNAM
President Andrew Jackson chose Edmund Roberts, a navigator from New England
for the first official mission to Vietnam. Roberts had experience in
traveling in the far east and made this official trip in March 1832.
Despite a few technical errors, the visit went well and the Emperor Minh Mang
wrote, "If their country wishes to establish commercial relations, we do not
see any objections to it provided they respect our laws." This paved the way
for more formal negotiations four years later.
When Roberts returned on the next visit, all did not go well. Upon the
American's request for an audience, the emperor said to the Vice-president of
the Ministry of Finance, Dao Tri Phu, "Considering their courteous and
peaceable attitude, would it not be advisable to accede to their request?"
Dao Tri Phu suggested that they should entertain the visitors for a while and
try to learn their real intentions.
There was a dissenter, however. The Vice-president of the cabinet, Hoang
Quynh, warned, "Their country is cunning and crafty, and we should not comply
with their requests. If we commit ourselves without due consideration, we
shall have much trouble in the future. Our ancestors used to close off the
frontiers and refuse contact with the West; it was a good policy."
Nevertheless, the emperor declared, "They have come from many leagues beyond
the seas, thus proving their admiration for our virtue and the prestige of
our court. How can we reject them? If we do, we would display a lack of
Unfortunately for both sides, when the high ranking mission went to see the
Americans aboard ship, they were told that there was illness on board ship
and they could not be received. Later, the Americans left suddenly without
advising the court. Dao Tri Phu, the Vice-president of the Ministry of
Finance, reported back to the emperor stating, "These fugitives have proved
how uncivil they are."
The Emperor Minh Mang, wrote in his report, "They came to us without our
rejecting them; they left without our sending them; we have conducted
ourselves in accordance with Chinese courtesy. We do not need to take offense
when we are dealing with foreign barbarians."
We got off to a bad start. It was definitely unfortunate that the Vietnamese
were not acquainted with the reason for the sudden departure of the
Americans. Roberts, the first diplomat to be sent to Vietnam, had been taken
acutely ill and was deteriorating rapidly. His assistant, a US Navy surgeon,
made a hasty departure to find additional medical help for Roberts. It was in
vain as Roberts died in Macao on June 12th, 1836.
Despite the fact that both the Vietnamese and the Americans had good
intentions, a misunderstanding caused the second mission from the United
States to Vietnam to end in a sad manner for both countries.
Perhaps it was an omen of things to come.
THE UGLY AMERICAN GETS COMEUPPANCE
The new American Lieutenant in Cholon, South Vietnam was not a very friendly type and a bit arrogant. The first week he had the local laundry woman wash and iron his fatigues, they were not up to his expectations. "Too little starch he yelled!"The modest Vietnamese laundry lady was very apologetic and gave him a discount.
Later, he had to get his military rank placed on a strip above the shirt pocket on the uniform in English and Vietnamese. When the battle fatigues came back, they were starched stiff as a board. He did not like that either
However, that was not the end of the saga. The next time he took his uniforms to a new laundry and they came back with NO starch whatsoever. It seems that the first laundry lady got even with the arrogant Lieutenant. Instead of his name on the name tags, the previous laundry lady had inscribed in Vietnamese DO NOT STARCH!
NOTE FROM ANN - Have you been out of Vietnam so long that you can now laugh about some things? Please share your funny stories with us. Send them to email@example.com.
Copyright © 1999-2007 Ann Caddell Crawford. All rights reserved.