Connect to share and comment

Ex-North Vietnamese Army officer messes with reporter's head

I'm fairly sure that through much of the day a retired colonel, Nguyen Huu Nguyen. spent taking me around the old strategic hamlets in Duc Hoa Commune (near My Hanh) and the tunnels at Cu Chi, he was messing with my head.

The first hint I had of this came the previous day, when I interviewed him in Ho Chi Minh City and he noted pointedly that one issue for the Americans in Afghanistan was that while U.S. forces were very powerful in combined operations with armor and air support, when deprived of that support, "they fight worse than soldiers from other countries. They advance slowly, they're scared of every stone."

He then told a long story I didn't quite understand about stringy banana husks and land mines; I think the point was that the Viet Cong had at some point used stringy banana husks to pull the triggers of hand-operated mines, and that after that all the VC had to do to keep the Americans from moving along a road was scatter some stringy banana husks on it.

Anyway, the thing that really got me, on a slow-acting fuse, were the John Paul Vann references. In the car on the way out to Duc Hoa, Nguyen noted that the American officer he had the greatest respect for was John Paul Vann. I'd read Neil Sheehan's great "A Bright Shining Lie" and asked Nguyen what he admired about Vann, and he said Vann had understood things about Vietnam which no other American officer ever did.

Some minutes later we arrived at the Vietnamese Army base in Duc Hoa, where we met the commander, Lt. Col. Ho Truong Tham, who treated us to tea and explained that the U.S. military advisers for what had then been Hau Nghia Province used to live on the base during the war. He pointed out the building, and I asked to be shown around, which he and Nguyen graciously did.

John Paul Vann's house in Duc Hoa/Bau Trai

News assistant Pham Trung Bac, Lt. Col. Ho Truong Tham (facing), and the building where Col. John Paul Vann lived as a USAID officer in Hau Nghia Province in 1965

It was three weeks later, rereading a section on pacification in "A Bright Shining Lie", that I realized that John Paul Vann had been the head USAID officer in Hau Nghia Province in 1965, that the U.S. advisers' compound had been in a village then called "Bau Trai" which matched the coordinates of the army base we'd visited, and that, in short, Nguyen had probably mentioned Vann because he wanted to see whether I'd be able to figure out that the place we were about to visit had been Vann's apartment.

So we called Nguyen to check. "Yes," Nguyen said, sounding as though he was grinning over the phone, "they called it Bau Trai back then. It was just a tiny village at the time."