Meeting A North Vietnamese Army Colonel.
Me with Colonel Phan Duc Cuong, Formerly of the North Vienamese Army and besieger of the CIA’s secret air base in Laos.
I often complain that I can’t find easy access to North Vietnamese or Viet Cong War Veterans who I can talk to about their own wartime experiences, so I can include them on this site, but short of becoming fluent in Vietnamese and trying to work around the labyrinthine channels of Vietnam’s administrative and political machinery, maybe I just have to accept it.
However, on a recent BACK-related research trip through Vietnam, in the middle of nowhere in the Central Highlands of Kontum Province, my guide drove me up a dirt road, excitedly telling me we were going to eat at a great goat restaurant.
I wasn’t really up for it, but he was so excited I acquiesced with good grace, knowing these things often take on a life of their own, as indeed this one did.
We had only just sat down to order when a guy tapped me on the shoulder. He was in full military uniform and he had medals on his chest and a military helmet on.
Through our guide, Colonel Phan Duc Cuong introduced himself and we got talking. He said he was a 40-year Veteran of the Vietnamese Army, formerly the North Vietnamese Army, who’d fought against the US and the South Vietnamese during the war.
He’d been part of a covert squad that had carried out surveillance on the CIA’s secret air base at Long Tieng in Laos, and who’d then participated in its assault.
Given I know people who were inside the base when it was attacked, I found this a very unusual conversation.
He’d also fought in Xieng Khuong in Laos (the Plain of Jars) and in Buon Ma Thuot in Vietnam and at nearby Charlie Hill and Dak To, where we’d just visited, among other bitterly-fought-over places. He said when they assaulted Charlie Hill his squad of NVA attackers had no food and they had to eat grass to keep themselves alive for days. For them it was win or die. He recalled it was a bitter battle for both sides.
He had certainly seen a lot of action and still had some hardware to prove it.
He had an American bullet still stuck in his hand (he made me feel it, under his skin) and a huge dent in his skull caused by shrapnel from a B-52 attack when he was fighting in Laos. I felt that too.
I really liked him, and respected what this friendly, kindly old guy had been through during the war. Given the mortality rate of North Vietnamese soldiers in battles against US forces backed by planes – and especially B-52s – it was a miracle he’d survived the war at all.
I drank a few glasses of Ginseng rice wine toasts with him, we took some photos, one of which he went into the nearest town to have developed off his phone and returned to give it to me, writing a note in Vietnamese on the back of it. We then had more Ginseng rice wine and I began to feel pissed (‘up’, not ‘off’, for US readers), although he was still going strong.
As I waved him off from the restaurant, he weaved on his motorbike through the deep dry-season ruts on the red dirt road within eyesight of Charlie Hill.
I hoped, given he’d survived that battle and the entire war, that I wouldn’t be responsible for prematurely calling time on his action-packed life with a few too many rice wine toasts. Although he seemed to be doing just fine as he disappeared in a cloud of dust, leaving just us and the goats once more, in the middle of nowhere.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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