Tran Hung Dao Trip Why Go Back? Logo
"Tran Hung Dao Trip"  to Vietnam  for Tet 2004
January 15, 2004, to February 2, 2004
Carl W. Cole and Patti Mears
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Why Go Back?

A friend and former shipmate asked about the trip,  the planning,  and my reason for returning.  He also observed that must have been an emotional rollercoaster.  What follows is my reply:

The trip was many things but,  as much as anything,  it was a simple  "going home".  I did two tours there but the first was living in Saigon.  I just wanted to go back to look for places I remembered,  to see if the smell of fish sauce was indeed the essential character of the place as I remembered it to be,  etc.  After we'd walked around the city for a few days, I told Patti my memory had been a little bit off target;  the essential aroma was actually a blend of incense and fish sauce  (and a few traces that I didn't think I wanted to identify).

The second tour was actual combat duty on the cruiser up north but was the kind of detached combat characteristic of artillery.  My GQ was several decks below in Main Comm so I never even saw the coast,  much less any of the NVN  (except for one group of POWs we took aboard after blowing their WBLCs out of the water).  I said that I wanted to go stand with  "a quiet mind and an open heart"  on the coast at some place that I knew we took counter battery and look out from the perspective of the defenders.  Said I didn't know what I expected to find in that place or in my heart but that I wanted to go see what both contained.

Laying the wreaths was just a matter of opportunity.  If one of us was going to be that close to the actual places that we'd lost shipmates,  it seemed like the right thing to do.  Wreaths actually in the Gulf of Tonkin just felt right.  As the Aussies say:  "Lest we forget."

It was,  as you say,  "an emotional roller coaster"  but a good one.  Even the restless night in Hue  - just before laying the wreaths -  when I wrote the poem.  I do deeply believe that it was just a matter of chance that we came home and they didn't.  I particularly recall a rearming at sea when a pallet full of 8-inch projectiles on a high line slammed into the main deck just a few feet away after the ship took an unexpected roll.  The T2 explosion several years later was caused by a systemic manufacturing problem with faulty fuses in 8-inch projectiles.  I suspect that if that pallet had contained a faulty fuse,  someone else might have been laying a wreath for me instead of the other way around.  Even more deeply, I believe  - as the poem says -  that is more than sufficient reason to cherish even the bad things in our lives.  Looking all that stuff clearly  "in the face"  is indeed emotional but it's good stuff -  it's life fully experienced.

Beyond all that,  it was just great fun and adventure.  Patti was a little apprehensive,  both about going to a third world country where they might not care for Americans and about whether I'd conjure up old demons and have emotional issues that I couldn't deal with.  On the last concern,  I reassured her that the only risk was that I'd have to confront what a no-good drunk young sailor I was in those days  ("Most of my money,  I spent on beer and women  -  the rest I just wasted.")  and that I was pretty sure I'd already dealt with all that.  For the first concern,  the Vietnamese are,  by and large,  a cheerful, cooperative people and,  even in the north,  are pretty positive about Americans.  We were a great curiosity that invoked attention,  beaming smiles,  and  "Hello"  or whatever bits of English they knew.

I don't think they're as positive about Russians  (after a generation lost to the misery of failed Soviet-style communism)  or the French  (after brutal, uncaring colonialism).  In Hanoi,  I took the Director of the Vietnam Stamp Company to lunch.  As we drove through the old quarter to the restaurant,  our guide was talking about the beautiful old French architecture that they'd preserved.  I observed that the French appeared to have done three good things in Vietnam:  they left a tradition of making wonderful bread,  they left beautiful architecture, and they left.  The enthusiasm of their laughter was telling,  I think.

Planning was many emails back and forth with a travel agent in Saigon,  questions and answers with shipmates on the Newport News' mailing list,  hours on the Internet researching places and events,  and even a trip to the National Archives near D.C. to copy some of the ship's deck logs.

Before we even left,  I developed a great rapport by email with our travel agent in Saigon,  who now calls herself  "my little sister".  In the north  - starting with a long evening sitting and talking in a roadside cafe in Hoi An -  we got pretty close to our guide and now consider Thuy  (and her wonderful Uncle Hieu)  to be a friend that we understand,  identify with,  and respect.

Patti and I travel well;  our officially-cheerful description of our usual travel mode is  "on the ragged edge of lost".  For much of the trip we had a private English-speaking guide,  a driver,  and a car,  but,  when we were on our own,  we lived up to the plan and managed to get hopelessly  - but cheerfully -  lost in Saigon and Hanoi both!  After we got home,  I overheard Patti tell a friend on the phone that she'd actually like to go back if the plane ride wasn't so miserably long.



Carl W. Cole
James Island SC
(The Center of the Universe)
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Copyright 2004 - 2006 Carl W. Cole
www.carlwcole.com

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