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Christmas on the Mekong
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by John Krauskopf (Iran 1965–67)

I HADN’T PLANNED to go to Viet Nam. I was only trying to meet up with my former collegePrinter friendly version roommate in Thailand. This was in December of 1969 and Tom — my college roommate and an RPCV from Tanzania — was now working as a civilian employee for USAID doing rural development work in Viet Nam. At the same time I was in Tehran, working as a Peace Corps Trainer.
     When I arrived several days late for our rendezvous in Bangkok, I was handed a note at the hotel saying Tom had flown back to Viet Nam that morning, unable to wait any longer. But Tom did say we could still get together if I just flew into Saigon. He told me to pick up a seven-day tourist visa at Ton Son Nhut Airport and give him a call when I arrived. He would then drive the 60 miles or so from My Tho, where he lived, and meet me at the Saigon airport. We could spend Christmas together, he suggested, on the banks of the Mekong River.
     The absurdity of these propositions was so appealing I went immediately to the Pan Am office and had my ticket rerouted, leaving myself a day to tour Bangkok.
     I then contacted Lee St. Laurence, a friend from my Peace Corps Iran days, who was working on a UN-backed development project in South East Asia. Lee made a call to the Peace Corps country office and arranged an invitation for me to a reception for some Bangkok area Volunteers that night. The guest of honor was a Peace Corps Advisory Board member, Neil Armstrong, who talked about his recent trip to the Moon, but nothing that he told us over dinner was as strange as my trip down the Rabbit Hole of Vietnam.

ARRIVING IN SAIGON at Tan Son Nhut airport revealed my first surprise. The civilian airport was only a tiny corner of a mammoth U.S. army air base. By the end of 1969, the U.S. had begun to withdraw forces and push for a “Viet Namization” of the war effort, but our military still had close to 500,000 troops in the country, and our troops still were doing much of the fighting.
     But the battle line in Viet Nam was often more chronological than geographic. The Delta area, for example, was controlled by the GVN (South Vietnamese Government) with backing from the American Army during the day. At night, the same area belonged to the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese guerillas backed by the Communist Government in North Viet Nam).
     When Tom met me at the airport, it was after 5 pm, and he hesitated to drive across the Delta at twilight, so we stayed overnight in Saigon and went down to My Tho early the next day.
     The morning drive on a modern two-lane road in Tom’s Ford sedan crossed countryside that was lush and green, all carefully cultivated and highly productive. The orderliness of the rice paddies suggested a peaceful country, and it was only when we neared one of the many streams or canals that laced the Delta could I see that this was really a nation at war.
     At all of the waterways, the lanes were divided and crossed separate bridges 50 yards apart. The bridges themselves were steel-truss chosen by military engineers for portability and ease of construction. The split arrangement made it more difficult for VC saboteurs who had been in the habit of floating explosives down the waterways at night to knock out the bridges and close the highway.
     Reaching the outskirts of My Tho, however, we crossed a multilane bridge across a major canal, and I thought the wide bridge was symbolic of the GVN dominance of the area until Tom remarked that all of the military supplies for VC operations in the Delta moved down this canal in sampans.
     Why, I asked, if we had all this strategic intelligence and the overwhelming military strength, didn’t we stop the boat supply traffic?
     We have done that, Tom said, but every time the United States army sank the Viet Cong sampans, the VC blew up another bridge. The Army engineers had gotten tired of replacing the bridges so what had developed was a gentleman’s agreement: we didn’t sink their sampans and they didn’t blow up our bridges.
     We drove across the last bridge into the supposedly secure city of My Tho and stopped at Tom’s house for lunch.

WHEN TOM WENT to work, I walked to the local outdoor market crowded with fish vendors, produce sellers and handcraft dealers. I noticed a number of artisans who had big inventories of hammered metal vases and trays. Looking closely at one vase, I saw that it had been crafted out of a 155mm howitzer shell casing, an esthetic example of the “swords to ploughshares” idea.

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