From 1969 to 1970, Mike Close served a year-long tour of duty in Vietnam. Five months ago, he revisited the country for the first time since the war, in a trip that turned out to be as much about change as it was about memories.
When Mike and his wife Chris decided to make the trip together with a friend from Mike’s unit, John Berend, and his wife Marjorie, they turned to Myths and Mountains, with whom the Closes had previously traveled to Peru. “If I’m going to do a trip to an out-of-the-way place, I’m not even going to talk to anyone besides Myths and Mountains,” Mike says. “They really do this out-of-the-way stuff well.”
Mike and John had both served as pilots in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and wanted to revisit the places they had flown in and out of every day. For logistical reasons they decided to do the trip by car, so Myths and Mountains President Toni Neubauer – whom Mike calls “basically a walking encyclopedia of Vietnam” – laid out a clockwise itinerary starting in Saigon. She also booked one of Vietnam’s best guides, Le Van Cuong, to accompany the group.
Unfortunately John and Marjorie had to cancel at the last minute, so Mike and Chris ended up making the trip alone. Early on, it became clear that Vietnam in 2012 was very different from 40 years ago. Dalat, part of the no-fire zone during the war, was “one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever seen,” Mike says. Further north, Buon Ma Thuot saw some of the heaviest American bombing in the country. Now, “it’s a thriving little city. There’s not a sign of the war left.”
The town of Pleiku, site of an American base during the war, had grown beyond recognition. “I lived in Pleiku for seven months and couldn’t even find within a half a mile where I lived, it’s changed so much,” Mike says.
Despite some disappointment at not being able to find some of the places he remembered, Mike was blown away by the welcome he and Chris received from the Vietnamese people. “They’ve learned to cater to tourists, and they were so friendly to Americans,” he says. “We’d go into restaurants where they didn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Vietnamese, and they’d fall over themselves to be helpful. It was a wonderful experience.”
Another positive change was the feeling of security. Mike had no concerns about walking around cities after dark – unlike during the war, when Saigon was “a very scary place.” He even felt safe riding cyclos, three-wheeled bicycle taxis. “When I was there in the war the odds were about 50-50 you’d have your throat cut if you took a cyclo. Not now.”
One experience that did bring back shivers of memory was the drive from Pleiku to Quy Nhon. The road travels through two mountain passes, the Mang Yang and the An Khe, which were among the most dangerous places in the country during the war. “Mang Yang in particular was very hostile. You were likely to be ambushed,” Mike remembers. “It was really kind of funny to be sitting in a van and driving through, looking up at these mountains. That got my blood flowing!”
Although Mike was based in Pleiku for most of his war service, he spent his last six weeks in Quy Nhon. On a day off, he borrowed a sailboat that was available for GI use – even though he had never sailed before. “It was pretty easy until I had to come back,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how to tack, so I didn’t have a chance of getting back to where I started.”
Instead, he landed on a beach a few miles further down the coast. When he heard a rustling in the bushes, he was petrified. Fortunately, what appeared was not soldiers but a French nun. “I had landed at a leper colony,” Mike explains with a laugh. The nun advised him to wait until the winds changed, and then he would be able to get back to the base.
As it turns out, the leper colony still exists, not far from Quy Nhon, so Mike and Chris paid a visit. They were quite impressed with what they found. The beach “almost looked like a resort beach,” houses had been built for the afflicted and their families, and a well-run hospital offered hospice care. “I didn’t think in the 1960s that there were leper colonies,” Mike marvels. “To go back 40 years later and find that it’s still there was quite something.”
Another highlight was visiting the Cu Chi tunnels, an immense underground network beneath Saigon used by Viet Cong guerrillas during the war. “I found it fascinating,” says Mike. “Anyone would be amazed at the determination and raw courage that the Vietnamese had.”
Memories of the war are fading in Vietnam, whose population has more than doubled over the past four decades. The vast majority of the population was not even alive during the war. But there are still people alive who remember, including the Closes’ guide, Le Van Cuong, who was a soldier for the Viet Cong. “He came south in 1972 with a 12-man squad, and three years later when the fighting stopped there were only two of them left alive,” Mike relates. “It was touching to hear the other side’s perspective, and amazing to see the commonality of the soldier’s experience irrespective of side. Humanity exists on both sides, and so does brutality.”
Mike’s return to Vietnam ended up being meaningful on levels beyond his expectations. “In many ways I can truly say that for me the war is over. In other ways, it never will be. There are people I will never see again, that I’ll never hear laugh again. But if there’s going to be closure, that trip will provide the sort of closure there needs to be.”