Vietnam was—and will always be—about the beach.
Or, is that me?
That first day in 1970, coming off the air conditioned jetliner from Guam, the Cam Ranh Bay breeze whacked me like a hot wet towel. But it carried a familiar aroma: briny, pungent. The ocean was near. Dune grass surrounding the tarmac waved in the wind. Memories of Riis Park Beach, the Rockaways, pleasant afternoons and evenings left behind only weeks before. Further back: all the summers of my youth.
At Chu Lai, my Vietnam War home-away-from-home, the South China sea had my back. In a guard tower on spooky moonless nights, the sound of softly lapping waves was reassuring comfort. Sandy horseshoe coves viewed from high verdant bluffs, had the power to eclipse the war in the daylight. On smoke breaks, we’d step out the back door of our office hootch and watch local fishermen work the bay in round basket boats. Huey medevac choppers swooping in from the sea to the 91st Evacuation Hospital at dawn, appeared as silent silhouettes against the sunrise. The beach. Always the beach. I was lonely, but not alone.
I’m out for an early morning walk along DaNang’s ultra-modern and immensely popular My Khe beach. Back in the day, this was China Beach, the in-country R&R spot for GIs in Vietnam’s central sector. They’d surf the tiny waves, tack about in a Sunfish, or just soak up rays, drink PBRs and revel in the smell and taste of burgers, hot dogs and french fries from a USO snack bar. If a GI closed his eyes on China Beach, he could easily imagine being in Santa Monica, Cape Cod, Daytona or the Hamptons. Today’s beach walk, however, reveals a teeming seaside tourist town, raucous with high rise luxury hotels, parking lot size seafood restaurants, casinos, karaoke bars and golf resorts favored by busloads of Chinese, Korean and northern Vietnamese tourists.
Vietnam’s “East Sea” coastline—more than 2,000 miles long, the equivalent of the US Atlantic Coast—-has been developed to a fault. And that development has outpaced infrastructure in many places. Untreated urban sewage and industrial waste, and offshore development are contributing to Vietnam’s beaches being among the most polluted in the world in many places. Even the poor air quality, laden with motor vehicle emissions takes a toll on the beaches and marine environment. A few years ago, industrial toxins discharged into the sea from a foreign-owned steel mill, caused a calamity over 125 miles of the northern coastline, killing off commercial fishing and tourism in four provinces for the better part of two years. Smaller inshore and offshore issues continue. And yet, I watch the morning ritual of fishermen dragging their nets, selling their catch right on the tar marked tourist beaches. The Vietnamese rule of thumb is, if the seafood is alive, then it’s safe to eat. Really? Take that FDA!
The next day, we visit the beach at Chu Lai, my old base. I high step through scrub brush, which now overwhelms the bluff that was the 91st Evac Hospital. We wade in the surf where the division’s Combat Center training camp used to be. I squint my eyes and recall walking, driving, patrolling these beaches. A memory returns of the daily courier run to the DaNang airport between Monkey and Marble Mountains. I’d crane my neck beside the door gunner, like a Labrador in an open-windowed Subaru, admiring the pristine virgin coastline speeding below us.
I’ve returned to the beaches of Vietnam. They are not the same. Nor am I.