Monday, February 4, 2013


Entrance to the old citadel outside Nha Trang

He’s way over 70 years old, but there’s still something youthful about him. Through his small set of glasses, you can still see a genuine sparkle in his eyes. Although he’s gaining in years, he hasn’t lost any of his charisma. He can’t hear out of one ear anymore, but he can hear well enough. Like most Vietnamese, he’s small in stature, though stocky. Although retired, he remains active, and does tai chi in the park every morning for execise.

This friendly man’s name is Ho, as in Ho Chi Minh, and he was a Viet Cong soldier for 21 years. Ho fought the French, and Ho fought the Americans. I happen to be the first American that Ho has encountered, since the war ended.

Ho, the former Viet Cong captain
Ho wasn’t just a low level Viet Cong soldier or cadre. By the time his long military service ended, he had risen through the ranks to become an officer. Ho eventually became a captain, commanding 300 men and women around the coastal town of Nha Trang.

For a senior who has been through so much, Ho seems remarkably healthy. He was wounded from an American bomb in early 1973; that’s why he's deaf in one ear. Ho still has shards of shrapnel that remain in his body from that bomb. That explosion ended his long military career. Ho married, but due to the wars his wife rarely saw him over the years. She lived in the city, while Ho slept in a cave. Those were tough years for this tough little man. Ho’s a real survivor.

I happened to meet Ho in a memorial park in the old Dien Khanh Citadel outside of Nha Trang. This centuries old citadel was first built by the royal Nguyen Dynasty. The French later occupied it, and during colonial days it was a base for the French Foreign Legion. Years later, it became a US Special Forces base, a post for the famed Green Berets. During the American war, Ho commanded troops that attacked this citadel several times. Ho admitted that their attacks were mostly small scale, just firefights shooting over the ramparts. They never managed to take the fort from the Americans. These days he works inside this same citadel, and the military base is gone. His present workplace is a community veterans center that he manages.

From the moment I meet him, Ho seems genuinely glad to meet me. He’s seen other American tourists in Nha Trang, but he never had an opportunity to speak to them. None of them come way out here outside town, and it was here on the grounds of the old fortress that he approached me and my translator.

Ho has two daughters, and he asks if I’m married. When I tell him not, he says with a smile, “You should get a Vietnamese wife!”

War memorial in the old citadel
 Ho’s not referring to his own daughters, of course. They’re already married, and have blessed him with grandchildren.

Ho asks me if I know about agent orange, and I tell him I do. Then he says, “I don’t fight anymore, but I still fight for justice for agent orange.” Ho has suffered health problems due to agent orange exposure. That’s not surprising, since he spent most of the American war out in the forests, which were targeted for defoliation. “Your government paid money to its soldiers who had disease from agent orange,” Ho says, “but still they give no money to Vietnam.” That's not entirely true, though I'm not going to argue with him. The US government has given some money to Vietnam to help clean up agent orange sites, but the amount has been woefully inadequate.

With all Ho’s been through, I’d think that he would still despise Americans, yet he doesn’t. I ask him what he thinks of Americans today, and he’s quick to reply, “No hate. No hate.” To him, the war is far in the past.

As I’m leaving, he uses both his hands to shake mine. Then he says to me again with that twinkle in his eye, “You should marry a Vietnamese woman!”

Ho’s said that to me twice during our brief time together. After all he endured from fighting the US, he still would like an American to marry a daughter of Vietnam. 

For such a small man, he seems to have a great capacity for forgiveness. 

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