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From the A Shau to Hanoi: It Will Be Different
By Dennis Kroll
Reprinted from The Veteran, Fall 1987 issue.
After being back in the world for 17 years, my only recollections of the Vietnamese people were the ones that haunted my dreams, the people I had learned to wipe out of my dreams as I had learned to do in combat. After 17 years, my recollections of Vietnam had not changed. Vietnam was a land of misty mountains and steep valleys. I had been a squad leader with the 101st Airborne in 1970, working with the highlands of I Corps west of Hue and Phu Bai, skirting the A Shau Valley (when possible) and on either side of the Laotian border. The only cities I had seen then were Cam Rahn Bay where I came in country, and Hue which I saw from the back of a truck.
Waiting to return to Vietnam was both exciting and unsettling. The chance to visit in Vietnam in peace, to experience the people and their culture for the first time was exciting. The uncertainty was in part due to my imagination. Although I knew it would be different from my first trip there, the nights before I left were full of thoughts. One night while staring at the ceiling, I tried to remember the correct sequence for calling in artillery. There were many times I didn't think I could make the trip, but I'm glad I did.
As we made our descent into Hanoi International Airport, the details of the land below became clearer. Hamlets populate meandering rivers, rice paddies stretched for miles, and bomb craters still scarred the lush green surface below. My mouth was dry, my heart was pounding, and the now-familiar mantra echoed—IT WILL BE DIFFERENT.
As we hit the runway I expected to see a stronger military presence. Instead, as we touched down, a young boy rode his bicycle up a dirt path and onto and down the runway. We saw several planes along the strip as we taxied to a stop. The boy on his bicycle went by and onto another path leading to a road.
It's about a 45-minute drive from the airport into Hanoi. Along the way we saw a lot of rebuilding going on. There was a pallet of bricks near most houses. Along the roads were new trees, donated by the Australians according to Mr. Quang, our guide who had met us at the airport. The bridge that spanned the Red River was a joint Swedish/Vietnamese project.
Hanoi was a pleasant surprise for me. I say that because we had spent a couple of days in Bangkok getting visas before going to Hanoi. In Bangkok the streets were dirty, canals were open sewers, and I saw children digging through piles of garbage looking for food. My first thought was: "This is it—this is what it's going to be like in 'Nam just the same as I saw it 17 years ago from the back of a truck."
Hanoi is a beautiful city. The parks, ponds, rivers, and lakes reminded me of Madison, Wisconsin where I live. Flowering trees lined the streets. Ancient trollies carried their passengers. French and Vietnamese architecture intertwined.
We stayed at the government guest house in Hanoi. This was not an attempt to keep us from exploring: we were free to come and go and, when our day's itinerary was done, we did. We spent many nights walking in the streets of Hanoi and never had reason to feel threatened or uneasy—remarkable when we remembered what we had been doing the last time we were in Vietnam. Few US cities of Hanoi's size have streets where a traveller could feel or be safe, a fact that Vietnamese had a hard time understanding.
Hanoi's serenity is not a product of a strong police or military presence. We were there for both the anniversary of the liberation of Saigon and May Day. Rather than a strong military show, we saw a Vietnamese rock band entertaining spectators from the steps of a National Bank on both nights. The few uniformed soldiers we saw seemed to be just home on leave, enjoying the show along with everyone else.
The people we met at various meetings or on the street were genuinely sincere in their warmth and respect for us and our organization. At times I felt like we were folk heroes to them: it seemed everyone had heard about the soldiers who fought the war and then went home and fought for peace. In the War Museum in Hanoi there is a glass case that contains two old VVAW buttons. I wouldn't be surprised if the next group of veterans to visit the museum will find a VVAW t-shirt proudly displayed.
The trade embargo against Vietnam has impeded their progress of rebuilding after so many years of conflict. Spare parts for machinery are a constant problem. Lack of medicine adds unnecessary suffering to the lives of the sick. The Vietnamese however, continue to use the same determination, resourcefulness and pride to overcome these problems that they did years ago to drive out occupying forces.
For the immature foreign policy of the United States toward Vietnam, there is no pride or honor.
Dennis Kroll was a leader in the Madison VVAW chapter.
Dennis Kroll, Ed Damato, and Tom Wetzler in Hanoi, 1987.