Returning to Nha Trang
I’ve never been to Nha Trang before, but in many ways, our arrival here felt like an important return. On Dec. 18, 1967 my father, who was in the US Air Force, was sent to Nha Trang where he worked for exactly one year refueling planes and driving fuel trucks.
Those of you familiar with the war might recognize that his arrival date was shortly before the notorious Tet Offensive, a dramatic shift in the war which strictly limited non-essential movements around the country. This meant my father pretty much spent the entire year in the area between Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay Air Base – which is probably a good thing.
My dad isn’t one to really talk that much about the war, so my impressions of his time here are relatively few. The most distinct images come from a few photographs, which I often saw as a child in our family photo albums. These images show a 19-year-old version of my dad standing on a distant tropical beach, a huge white Buddha, and a couple of shots of downtown Nha Trang.
After 41 years I am now seeing these places for myself. The beautiful beach is far longer than I had imagined. And in 2010, this well manicured stretch of sand is backed by a remarkable public park full of beautiful green spaces and impressive stone sculptures by Vietnamese artists. The once very third-world town preserved in the memories of thousands of American soldiers is now a city full of high-rise hotels, trendy art galleries, amazing restaurants, and tour groups. How strange, and how fantastic.
Being here feels far more meaningful than I expected. It’s strange to walk along an exotic tropical beach in a distant land and realize your father walked along the same beach as a teenager. It’s bizarre to sit in an open-air cafe sipping beer and feasting on fine food – and then suddenly you think to yourself, my father was in a war here.
Somehow our visit to Nha Trang highlights all the experiences locked in the minds of friends and family, the historical experiences stored in our heads but never conveyed to anyone. As I sat on the beach looking out at the sea, an old Vietnamese man walked by and I wondered what he had lived through. What experiences, both positive and negative, had he kept to himself?
But not all memories are kept in our heads. While scanning Youtube, I discovered dozens of home movies which Vietnam vets had uploaded with visuals from the time that my father was here. I’m embedding one below which shows scenes from the area between Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay filmed between 1966 and 1967.