First in a series from the ruins and rivers of Southeast Asia
As luck would have it, I didn’t get to Da Nang, Vietnam, in 1968. I arrived 45 years later. In neither case did I have a say about the matter.
In 1968, Vietnam was the last place I wanted to land.
After four years of college at Miami University, I went to work in the summer of 1967 at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland as a newspaper reporter. Nine months later I was drafted -- these were the days before a national lottery called civilians to battle based on a number associated with their birthdays. On April 4, 1968, after my last night shift as a reporter on the city police beat, I left my newspaper job and joined the Army for what turned out to be two years of active duty.
Active was a bit of a misnomer. I spent most of my time at a cushy desk job, but people were dying all around me.
My draft notice had arrived in the mail in January 1968, just days before the Viet Cong’s famed TET Offensive, which was a surprise, a deadly battle against South Vietnam and US troops. My basic combat training at Fort Knox, Ky., began the day that Martin Luther King was killed and ended as Robert Kennedy, whom I had hoped would be president and end the war, was slain in California.
Somehow, in that year of violent deaths, I was lucky enough never even to be shot at.
I spent 22 months in Washington, D.C., on an assignment to write for newspapers and magazines about opportunities at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and its preparatory school at Fort Belvoir, Va. I hoped that something I wrote would persuade a young person in the Army to apply to the prep school and get out of the jungles of Vietnam for a classroom that might lead to a degree from West Point and a career as an officer -- after the Vietnam War was over.
Busiest airport in the world
During the month of May 1968, while I was in basic training with a company of men from Ohio and Arkansas, learning the horizontal butt stroke in simulated combat against dummies made of rubber tires, the air base at Da Nang, Vietnam -- the heart of troop movement to and from the United States -- reached an average of more than 2,500 aircraft take-offs and landings daily, more than any other airport in the world.
Forty-five years later, in February 2013, I paid no attention to my ticket on Singapore Airlines from Singapore to Siem Reap, Cambodia. This was a long-planned trip that would include a river cruise through Cambodia and into Vietnam to Saigon, nowhere near the old military base at Da Nang. My airplane ticket indicated we would have one stop on the way to Siem Reap, but it didn't state where we would land.
Two hours after leaving Singapore, however, I recognized where we were landing from old television news footage. As we swooped down, we passed a long, sweeping stretch of sand that once was known as China Beach, a rest and relaxation place at Da Nang for troops during the war.
Take a rope and hang me
As we touched down for my first landing at Da Nang, I sang to myself a favorite ditty that was filched and re-framed from a Roger Miller song (“Dang Me,” 1964) and sung by disc jockey Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) in the movie, “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
Da Nang me, Da Nang me, might as well take a rope and hang me.
They’ll shoot me from the highest tree.
Woman, would you weep for me?
No need to weep for anyone at Da Nang in 2013. The city is now a center for tourism, awash with resorts and restaurants, though I had no time to check them out. Less than an hour later, my plane took off for Siem Reap, the closest city to the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column appears monthly in U.S. newspapers and on other Internet sites. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.