HO CHI MINH CITY, VIET NAM – Tan Son Nhat Airbase was an important place during the news stories filed from Saigon during the Viet Nam War years.  It’s where many US servicemen and women arrived and departed from during the war.  My husband and I landed at the new Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City for a one week visit to Viet Nam.  Our guide named Ban (Vietnamese for “Ben”) pointed out an old terminal still remaining of the original air base. 

My husband was with the US Navy Seabees Mobile Construction Batallion 71 (MCB71) when he served in Viet Nam in 1967 and with the USS Intrepid CVS 11 in 1969.  Our visit to Viet Nam, beginning with Tan Son Nhat Air Base, started a memory walk into our family’s Viet Nam War history.

Our memories are not exclusively about two Viet Nam deployments. We were also involved in the air lift of refugees out of Saigon beginning on April 30, 1975, when the city fell to the North Vietnamese.  At that time, our family lived in Subic Bay in the Philippines where we helped the International Red Cross to receive the waves of refugees who were evacuated by air from the US Embassy and flown to Subic Bay.  Today, the site where the US helicopter lifted off the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon is now the American Consulate, because the new embassy is located in Hanoi.  We visited the site of the US Consulate while in Ho Chi Minh City, where we saw a line of about 50 people who gather daily to wait for appointments that will, hopefully, help them to immigrate to the US.

My husband commented about his days in Viet Nam during our first night in Ho Chi Minh City, while staying downtown at the comfortable Grand Hotel.  Certainly, the modern Grand Hotel was a lot different than life on a Seabee base in a war zone.  He said it was the first time he has been in Viet Nam and not heard gun fire. 

Nonetheless, the experience of gun fire became real again when our guide drove us to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, about a one hour ride outside of Ho Chi Minh City.  The Cu Chi Tunnel Historic Site was once used the secret operational base of the Liberated Zone occupied by the Viet Cong.  Primitive traps used by the Viet Cong army are displayed during the tunnel system tour.  Particularly difficult to watch were the demonstrations of the “booby traps” used by the Viet Cong to capture American and Vietnamese soldiers, who became snarled in lethal contraptions disguised as jungle foliage.   More startling were the sounds of M16 rifle fire we heard during the one hour walking tour.  The sound effects were intentional and created a sense of uncertainty, because they sounded so close to the exhibit.  For a small fee, visitors to the exhibit were allowed to fire American M16 rifles in a nearby gun quarry.  In fact, the experience of hearing gun fire gave us the feeling of being in a jungle war zone.

Difficult war memories notwithstanding, we made it a point to walk the streets of Ho Chi Minh City to enjoy the French culture and architecture, still evident from the 100 years when the country was part of the French colonial empire in South East Asia. We visited the Saigon Notre Dame Basilica, built by the French in 1880, where we were delighted to find several 60 pound large and familiar ceramic elephants adorning the religious shrines to Saint Joa d’Arc and the Vietnamese Martyrs.  We particularly enjoyed finding the elephants because we just happen to have several just like them in our Topsham home.  They are ceramic relics of the Vietnam War and many veterans sent them home with their personal effects, as souvenirs.