I’ve been remembering an incident that happened six years ago on a beach in Vietnam.
We were travelling with an English-speaking guide, spending a leisurely three weeks heading south to Ho Chi Minh City, which we discovered the locals still call Saigon despite South Vietnam having disappeared off the map in 1975.
If we were taken to one museum which was little more than a collection of abandoned or wrecked US military equipment, we went to dozens. And so, eventually, we came to Da Nang, about half-way through our odyssey.
At the height of the war in the late 1960s, Da Nang was a vast US military complex and one of the busiest airports in the world. Every day, more than 2,500 aircraft landed and took off. Billions of dollars were poured into the place – it was a more than a military base, it was a symbol of American prestige and power.
We went for an early morning drive along the coast. We passed by on a long straight road what remained of that airbase – crumbling hangers, cracked tarmacs, guard towers leaning at absurd angles, administration buildings vandalised and decrepit, fallen fences and all overgrown by weeds. The locals were passing by on their bicycles on their way to work without so much as a passing glance.
I asked our driver to stop so I could take a better look. I surveyed this decaying symbol of the futility of war then went across the road to stand on the grassy verge that gave way to a narrow beach fringing the gently rippling South China Sea.
I was lost in thought when I heard someone approaching me from behind and I turned to see tall, well-built American man – he was wearing an American Legion (the US RSL) cap. We nodded and he went to the very edge of the water.
Looking at him, I guessed he was somewhere in his well-preserved late 60s and his whole demeanour indicated serious money, power, authority and respectability. No doubt he was a respected figure in his community, I thought, and quietly influential.
He had something in his hand and occasionally would look down at it and then again out to sea apparently lost in thought and memories.
Then I heard a woman’s voice – initially I thought querulous but then realised was more anxious, even distressed. “Honey,” she said, “Are you OK? Please come back honey”.
She was similarly aged but beautifully preserved – a triumph of art over nature – and her impossibly golden hair was like a helmet that could have been worn by one of the Valkyries. She stood by a black Mercedes and, at a respectful distance, their Vietnamese driver was waiting, impeccable in his black suit, white shirt, black tie and chauffer’s cap. His face was a mask – utterly impassive.
The man sighed as he turned and looked back. For a moment the early sun caught his face and I could swear that his eyes were glazed with tears. “Yes, honey,” he said, “It’s OK. It’s all OK now”.
He headed back to his wife. His shoulders were slumped as if some of his life had drained away and he somehow seemed suddenly much older. As he passed me what was in his hand dropped but he didn’t notice or perhaps even care. The car drove away.
I was curious about what he had dropped and retrieved it. To my astonishment it was a faded black and white photograph which seemed to have been taken on that very beach. It showed a group of strapping clean-cut young men in swimming costumes, laughing, happy, confident – the world at their feet – and looking like extras from one of those 1960s beach party movies.
Was he in that photograph? And what of the others? How many had survived?
I didn’t know if he would return to try and find his photograph so I left it partially secured by a rock but still visible. I can still see it in my mind’s eye and I guess it has now crumbled to dust as the once impregnable air base has.
At what appeared to be a frantic pace, the old base is being consumed and replaced by very exclusive up-market resorts. Vietnamese communists could give the Queensland white shoe brigade of the 1980s lessons in fast-track developments.
Do the locals appreciate the irony and get amusement from the fact that American tourists now pay them a fortune to come and see the scene of one of their most catastrophic defeats? I’m sure they do and I hope they preserve a bit of the old base as a curiosity like those fragments of the Berlin Wall.
Percy Bysshe Shelly wrote a poem about a traveller from an antique land who came upon a shattered visage half-buried in the sand and containing these words, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings, look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”
And so it was on that beach at Da Nang and, as Shelley wrote about another crumbling wreck, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Have you ever visited Vietnam? Did you visit any war memorials? Tell us below.