Americans flying in this piece of sky 40 years ago would be dodging surface-to-air missiles and the "Bandits" arising from the Mig fighter bases that were down below - known to our pilots by the code names Crab and Lobster. Flying down from Hanoi today, we trust Air Vietnam's shiny new AirBus 321 to pass us safely and in comfort. Breakfast is served. We pop out in drizzle about 1200 feet above the rice paddies, on final approach to Phu Bai airport, the old home of the 220th Recon Airplane Company … call-sign "Catkiller."
The airport is way bigger now, and the modern runway covers much of where our compound stood - trees cover the rest - but the old control tower is still there, almost lost behind a big new terminal befitting its status as the regional airport for the ancient Imperial Capital city of Hue.
You can travel easily and cheaply here. Flight Hanoi/Phu Bai - $53. Airport Mini-bus to Hue - $2. Hotel overlooking the old Citadel - $24. Having a big rat run across Jean's sandals while dining at the floating restaurant on the Perfume River - priceless! Jean sits still for almost anything, but it was a very big rat!
We do the sites. The huge red flag again waves over the main gate to the Citadel. It cost 150 US Marines to pull it down after the North took Hue during the Tet Offensive. The cost to the Imperial vintage buildings was high too, and evidence of battle is easy to see. But some of the old imperial glory has been restored. The Forbidden City is now open even to non-eunuchs, thank goodness, as the vasectomy would be inconvenient to verify at the ticket booth.
The little airstrip the Catkillers used inside the old walls is gone. All aircraft there were lost on the first morning of the Tet attack. But the Duy Than Hotel is still going strong - and Missy Kim, Bargirl number 4, sends her best to old friends in America - you know who you are. She may be a little long in the tooth now, but that tooth is the gold one, and it still has some sparkle.
It is raining and Jean opts for the dripping doorway of a noodle shop for a bowl of the national dish - pho - pronounced "fur". It is great stuff, goes well with good local beer, and table manners allow it all to be slurped. A little different pho recipe here than up in the north. Hue has pride in its regional cuisine left over from the Imperial Court - where 50 chefs made 50 dishes each day for the Emperor - and no repeats for a year. But I will repeat pho a lot.
We plot our assault on the DMZ assisted by a modern cell phone net, and a girl who works at our hotel. She is from a village just north of the Ben Hai River in an area of the DMZ some Catkillers knew too well. She is excited that I know where she lives. The population of Vietnam is young, too young to remember the war - they react to it as I might have if greeting an old Luftwaffe pilot 40 years after WWII - curiosity not animosity - even though both my parents lived in London thru the Blitz.
They young Viets have a buoyant optimism and good humor - better off than their parents and confident that life will be even better for their children. They are a pleasure to be with. But tomorrow we will be with the old generation - as we arrange to hire a 63 year old ex-officer from the losing side, doing guide work out of the town of Dong Ha. That's our destination for tomorrow - and another old home of this old Catkiller.
- Soaring Stew