Life in a Small Town

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February 26th 2010
Published: October 1st 2010
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Van Phong 1

The Wait

It is a rare opportunity for any military member to visit Vietnam. For weeks and weeks, the ship was waiting on word for our Voyage Repair location. Voyage Repairs are just opportunities for the ship to get a little more maintenance work done, anywhere from equipment testing to painting. Sitting in Singapore for a long time, we knew there was a big push to get us into Vietnam, but the logistics became almost as difficult as the diplomatic clearance. If you aren't a Sailor or even if you are, you may not know that when government vessels go into a country, they have to get cleared through the respective country's government to just be there. With a warship especially this is huge, but even the supply ships and oilers have to get permission and give some information on their purpose, needs while inport and things like that. Singapore is very strict, they have so many rules and regulations, so getting the clearance request early is important. With a socialist/communist country with a not-so-distant-war, you can imagine the importance to do things right. Recent Navy ship visits were diplomatically complicated, our visit would be no different.

Waiting... and waiting... changes, time and time again. Are we going? Yes. No. Yes. No. It was maddening. I'm a planner, and some of us are supposed to be departing the ship during that timeframe. Not only is this a place where no U.S. ship has visited before, but they were being very wishy-washy on the decision. A few Navy destroyers have visited Da Nang and a few Military Sealift Command ships had gone though Ha Noi, but we were trying to anchor in a new location, causing more logistical barriers.

Until a decision was made, it would have been pointless to communicate with anyone regarding travel, but I did research nonethless. With the complicated port visit, the red tape was going to be obnoxious. It seemed as though only the MILDET (mostly me) was concerned about the travel. "The agent will take care of it." Well, I knew that the agent would be a government worker, thus on his own agenda... here's some foreshadowing. At the last minute, literally enough days to transit there, we were told it was on.


So I mentioned a few Navy ship visits,
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Against our tradition, but there you go.
I'll go into that a little more, especially the most recent newsworthy visit. The USS LASSEN, commanded by a Vietnamese American Commanding Officer, CDR Le. His story is pretty amazing and inspirational, not to mention politically significant.

The locals dubbbed him as a "boat person", a term referring to illegal immigrants who emigrate in great numbers by boats that are oftentimes old and very basic, usually unseaworthy. The term became common following the Vietnam War, with the mass departure of Vietnamese refugees from the now-Communist-controlled Vietnam. Commander Hung Ba Le's first ocean voyage was aboard an overcrowded fishing trawler when he was 5 and his family, with 400 other refugees, fled Vietnam as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army. Le's father, Thong Ba Le, was a commander in the South Vietnamese Navy and helped navigate the boat. "It was crowded, we were running out of water, definitely low on diesel fuel," said Le. "We were rescued I think just in time." They were rescued at sea by the USS Barbour County, taken to a U.S. base in the Philippines, a refugee camp in California and finally to northern Virginia, where they rebuilt their lives.

Thirty-four years
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She was amazing.
later, he made his way back to Vietnam— as the commander of a U.S. Navy destroyer. Commander H.B. Le is the First Vietnamese-American Navy Captain. On 7-11-2009,he arrived at Danang, Vietnam, home of China Beach, where U.S. troops frequently headed for R&R during the war. "I thought that one day I would return but I really didn't expect to be returning as the commander of a Navy warship," Le said. "It's an incredible personal honor." Le grew up in Hue, a city located about 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of Danang where he still has relatives.

What a story, isn't it? Further complicating the matter, was the 7th Fleet flagship on the same visit and the fiasco over flags.

CDR Le's welcome ceremony was delayed over a dispute to raise and display the Vietnamese flag on the USS BLUE RIDGE. Two hours later, their flag was raised on the yardarm, seemingly in accord with the Vietnamese demand and against our naval custom. The U.S. has been trying to work more closely with Vietnam, they have a great culture and many hard workers. Working together in friendship is beneficial to both countries, but Vietnam has a fine
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I'm beginning to lose count of the beautiful photos I get to see.
line to walk with China and a deep suspicion of the U.S.

Having watched China Beach as a kid, one of the best tv shows of all time in my opinion, I only knew vaguely of the country. I was in for a pleasant surprise.


As the Operations Officer and AOIC, I knew from past experience that getting anchored or pierside in a place unaccustomed to U.S. Navy ships can be a long labor of love. This inevitably was the longest amount of time I have ever spent on the bridge. The welcome party boards, this includes American shipyard planners, embassy attaches and the many government officials required to "inspect" our vessel. Most of the particulars had been taken care of prior to our arrival, or so everyone assured us. "We must inspect your personnel for illnesses." No. Here is our doctor's findings that no one is sick. "We must inspect the entire ship." No. You are not permitted to search any part of this vessel, this has been cleared through your government. It was quite a big deal, no show stoppers until talks of weapons. "We must inspect all of your weapons." NO! This one took many phone calls off the ship and it came down to us almost leaving. Can't we all just get along?

Our second issue was again related to raising the flag to the same height as our Ensign, that was not something we were happy about. It was strange to see a Vietnamese flag flying opposite the good ole red, white and blue. I did as I was told, I don't think it hurts to comply, but it did have some significant political implications.

The Town

To get off the ship, we had to have special passes made to carry with us at all times. I felt a bit like a criminal the way we had to be tracked by time and location, but I was truly excited to check things out. The scenery was incredible looking off the ship, but I wanted to experience some culture. If you know me, you know I live to put myself into a state of culture shock. With an hour long liberty boat, a half hour wait for the bus to sit the additional hour to get to Nha Trang, I decided to give the teeny tiny little town at the dock a try.

When I say town, I think that may be overstating the noun significantly. It is a village, no stores, no gas stations, no commerce of any sort. I walked along the main street, though nothing more than a dirt road and saw children and animals roaming in and out of open doorways. The locals adapted to the intrusion of mariners by setting up tables and makeshift booths to sell anything they thought might bring coins. If you know mariners at all, you can imagine some of the more lucrative sellers, but I'm not going to diminish my story with those topics.

My Love Affair with Pho

Local cuisine seems to be my easy way into making friends wherever I go. Armed with a smile, a small book on Vietnam and a short list of common Vietnamese niceties, I make my way over to a family table with a woman tending a bubbling cauldron. I tell her hello, "Sin jao" and she gestures for me to sit down. We communicate through sign language mostly, but she brings me a beer and coke, points out some items on the table that she wants to cook for me, and the lesson begins. Children begin to gather, they don't know what to make of a woman drinking beer, and I'm getting the lovely woman to show me everything she puts into the pot.

I pull out my book to make sure she isn't feeding me beef, but she understands me and uses chicken. Parts of the chicken I wouldn't normally consider for cooking, but she's obviously an experienced cook. Who am I to change her now? As she puts a bowl of pho in front of me (noodles, broth and chicken), she pushes a baguette towards me and loads of basil and sprouts. There are a smattering of different sauces to add to the mix, but the delectable smells flowing from the bowl require no additives. It was incredible. I fell in love with this woman, her cooking, her family and the knowing smile of hers, she knew I was hooked.

There were a few other evenings where I ventured to the same home, always eating my fill and enjoying a beer and coke. It never cost me more than $3, everything is so cheap there. As my visits increased, I would bring things with me to share. I had chocolates and a few drinks, Boatswain brought gummy worms, a huge hit with the local men.

As I tell everyone, there are basic truths no matter who you meet or where you go. 1. Kindness and smiles go a long way. 2. Appreciating people for their culture and way of life, you see that we're not very different at all. 3. Kids and animals are adorable and a great ice breaker. 😊

Last Port Call
With the sun setting in Vietnam, the Military Detachment gets together to send me and Sarge off. Nice words, a couple of awards and a few photos to reminisce on later. Wonder if I'll actually get out of this place. Being one of the few people to depart a Naval vessel while in Vietnam, I was somewhat skeptical of going through military lines, so I decided on my own trip. First stop, Ho Chi Minh City... fondly recalled as Saigon. Stay tuned.

Additional photos below
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Last FarewellLast Farewell
Last Farewell

I'm going to miss these guys.
The Best Boss, EverThe Best Boss, Ever
The Best Boss, Ever

Thanks for teaching me so much!

I loved the contrast against the fence.
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Not Quite

I do not think-a that means-a what you think-a that means.

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