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Vietnam 2008 -- Thu Duc

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For the first part of my 1968-69 Vietnam tour, I was stationed at the 543rd Transportation Company at what was then the village of Thu Duc (see 543rd-TC Hill), halfway between Saigon and Long Binh. There was a lot of open country around us in those days, on both sides of Thu Duc, but especially between Thu Duc and Long Binh -- mostly rice paddies, with typical thatch-roof huts dotting the landscape.

No more. Now the village of Thu Duc is a busy suburb of the urban sprawl that is Saigon, and the entire road is lined with those one-story hole-in-the-wall shops, repair services, cafés, etc, all jammed up against each other. As with so much else in the greater Saigon metropolitan area, hardly any of it is recognizable at first look. It wasn't until we got down into the town itself that things started looking familiar. But not a whole lot.

The Catholic church is still there, looking bright in its new coat of paint, and the Central Market building is still there, and the streets downtown are laid out in that pattern familiar to me from 1968. But that's about it. The laundry isn't there any more, nor is the dusty dirt road leading to it. The little café across the street from the laundry isn't there, either. Nor is any of that more-or-less jungle behind the laundry, where the monastery had been. (See Day Off from the War)

In fact, it was only through the aid of Minh's uncle, who still lives in Thu Duc, that we were able to find the location of all of that stuff so familiar to me from 40 years ago.

But Minh grew up in Thu Duc and has a lot of relatives still there. His sister and brother-in-law own an open-air coffee shop in town, which is very near one of the Thu Duc municipal water towers. The water tower, in fact, that is visible in several of my 1968 photographs. And it was this water tower, combined with the Thu Duc water treatment facility up the road, that allowed me to triangulate, 25 yards or so, the former location of the 543rd Transportation Company HQ hooch.

It turned out that I made several trips into Thu Duc from Saigon. The first day we arrived in Saigon I called up my friend Phong Vu (see ) and he cruised over on his scooter. The next thing I knew we were zipping through the insane Saigon traffic (not for the faint-hearted, especially on the back of a scooter) and up the highway to Thu Duc. He couldn't wait to show me the changes. We ended up waiting out a sudden downpour rainstorm at his uncle's place, one of those hole-in-the-wall shops that front every single urban street or road in Vietnam, where the uncle eked out an existence renting computer time for local teenagers to play online games or work on their Facebook profiles.

And that was where I had my first -- but not last -- experience with warm beer over ice. In a country where refrigeration is a fairly new convenience, not everyone has a fridge, and many of those who do have them have to make do with small ones. After you've stuffed all your perishables in there, a lot of the time there isn't room for luxuries. Like beer. (I know, I think beer is a necessity, not a luxury, but others don't necessarily share that belief…) So instead they put a chunk of ice in a mug and pour the beer over it. Okay, it's not for the connoisseur, but when you are dehydrated on the inside from the heat and drenched on the outside from the rainstorm, it's good enough.

Speaking of beer, when Minh and I went for a walk in Thu Duc and decided we were thirsty, we stopped into an open-front shop that appeared to be a café/restaurant of some kind. Turned out it was another coffee shop that didn't serve beer, but the guy running the place, rather than lose customers, sent his boy as a runner to get us some beer from another shop up the street. Try that in the US.

As always, it was extremely interesting to get off the "beaten path" and go somewhere where they are not used to seeing "round-eyes". After you get used to being stared at, you kind of get into the whole "stranger in a strange land" trip. Any time I caught someone staring at me, I always acknowledged them with a friendly smile and a "Hello!" Many more times often than not, that started up a conversation, and with Minh there to translate, I was able to connect with the locals in a way that would have been impossible without him.