Decades after Vietnam War, community of US veterans now calls Da Nang home
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 10, 2015
DA NANG, Vietnam — The flags of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam flew from the tiki hut roof beam of Hoa’s Place, a cozy gathering spot settled between a broad, sandy beach and the Marble Mountains.
The lunch crowd of Westerners and their Vietnamese friends chowed down on pepperoni pizza and drank all the beer and soda they wanted, for about $8 a person.
Several of the men drinking at Mr. Hoa’s served here, on the same ground where they were sitting, during the Vietnam War. They lost friends to mortars, to booby traps while patrolling the bush, or under fire while convoying up Highway 1.
Decades later, Da Nang is their home. Most came for a quick visit, encouraged by friends to make peace with their past.
They stayed for reasons that reflect their diverse personalities and backgrounds. Some want to make amends — for the unexploded bombs that still kill curious children and for the aftereffects of Agent Orange. Others simply enjoy a better life here than they did back home.
David Clark, who arrived in Vietnam as a 19-year-old Marine in 1969, didn’t know if he’d ever return. But when another veteran picked up the airfare in 2007, he relented. At first, the sense memories struck hard.
“The heat hit me, the smell hit me,” Clark said. “I saw the little [straw] hats and I froze. And I was ready to turn around and go back. But then my buddy, he kept walking.”
After a few days, he almost told his friend that he wasn’t going back to the States.
He returned home and a few years later, he decided to move to Vietnam for good. He has lived in Da Nang for three years and no longer takes any blood pressure medication, which he attributes to his Vietnamese wife’s healthy cooking.
“When I’m in the U.S., the Vietnam War haunts me every day and every night,” Clark said. “When I was here in 2007, I got to go around [Marble] Mountain, and I looked around, and I realized the American war for me was over 38 years ago. There’s peace here now.”
There is also broad acceptance, and even respect, for people like Clark. He remembers being asked how many children he had killed at the Oakland, Calif., airport bar, when he first returned from Vietnam.
Upon returning to Vietnam, Clark received a far warmer reception. He talked and ate with former Viet Cong, now men and women in their 60s and beyond. Clark and other veterans accept that some Vietnamese hold a grudge, but they rarely ever meet people who do.
The United States has a 78 percent favorability rating among Vietnamese, third-highest among 39 nations, according to a June Pew Global Attitudes poll.
The idea that Vietnam wouldn’t pursue friendship with the U.S. is viewed oddly by some Vietnamese. Economically and politically, given Vietnam’s historic tensions with China, it just makes sense, they say.
Government policy is one aspect of reconciliation, but veteran Richard Parker said he was taken aback at the welcome he received upon returning.
“They won’t ask you if you were a veteran,” Parker said. “They ask you if you were here before 1975.”
Parker, a former Navy Seabee and self-described “loudmouth troublemaker” during his war days, popped a sedative before returning the first time, while on a Southeast Asia tour.
He wasn’t sure if he was ready. But when he sat up on the Hai Van pass, where he was once shot at in convoys, he says he felt exhilarated. Like Clark, Parker says the war dreams have gone away.
“The day you leave, that reel of images is what stays with you,” Parker said. “Now the film has started again.”
Today’s Vietnam is not for everybody, Clark said. It’s often beautiful and very affordable, but despite rapid economic growth in the cities, crushing poverty remains in some villages. It isn’t as clean as the West, Parker said. People can be hardheaded, though they can also be very warm and giving. Western food exists, but it costs a lot more by Vietnamese standards.
“I’m lucky I like noodles,” Parker said.
While veterans who live here now often came back for personal reasons, several were compelled to do something more for others after they arrived.
Chas Lehmann arrived in Vietnam in 1965, aboard a troopship with the 1st Marine Division, 1st Battalion.
One of his worst moments came while he and two others guarded a Seabee base. Lehmann had planned to sleep on top of a gun nest, but one of the other guys was bigger, so Lehmann slept in the pit. Around 2 a.m., a mortar struck and killed the Marine up top.
Other than that, “I don’t have a lot of memories,” Lehmann said. “The whole experience was numbing.”
Lehmann acknowledges that he might not want to remember – many people do that with their war memories, he said.
Some veterans retain a lot of unresolved conflict, Lehmann said.
However, Lehmann said he put his old life behind him when he became a born-again Christian. He spends his Saturday nights teaching English at the House of Smiles, an orphanage in Da Nang. Mostly, he focuses on charity work in the poorer mountain areas, where Lehmann said he helped build a well for a village that used to get its drinking water from mountain streams.
Larry Vetter used to patrol some of those same mountains. “Captain Larry,” as some call him at Hoa’s, served as a Recon company commander on his second tour. Before that, he helped build the roads to China Beach as an engineer.
He first returned in 2008, when he met Hoa and his family.
He immediately felt a connection with Hoa, who as a 9-year-old helped Marines deliver medicine to sick Vietnamese. Ask anyone at his place, and they’ll tell you that Hoa, whom the veterans “promoted” to corporal, is as much a Marine as anyone who fought in the war.
Vetter also met people associated with the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange. Vetter recalls being told during the war that the stuff dropped on him and others was merely bug spray, though he didn’t believe it.
He now works to gain support for those crippled by the herbicide. Other veterans work on remediation and awareness campaigns about unexploded Vietnam War-era ordnance, which still injures and kills.
In 2012, a couple of years after his wife died, Vetter came back to Da Nang to live, partially because of friendly people like Hoa.
“But maybe the most important reasons for my decision was that I felt that I could really contribute to help a few people here,” Vetter said. “And I could, in my own little way, be a representative of the U.S. to bring our two people closer.”
David Clark, a Marine sergeant during the Vietnam War, gets on his motorcycle at a beach in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Sept. 26, 2015. Clark says living in the city has eased his painful memories.
ERIK SLAVIN/STARS AND STRIPES