In the thirteen months I spent in Vietnam I had the opportunity to eat
only one real Vietnamese meal, and even that one was half-American. It all came
about because of a hard spot, and a foul-up in orders. A hard spot was slang for a
one-night base set up in enemy territory. We'd leave the comfort of our regular fire
base for an extended patrol lasting several days. While on the move, we built
temporary bunkers for protection at night if the area was considered dangerous enough, or
just set up night AP's (ambush patrols) and spent the night watching and waiting for
Charlie. These were hard spots because of the extra work and the extra risk
On this particular mission we were told to bring along a box of C's for lunch. We
loaded up on ammo and Claymore mines, put the food in our
pockets, and formed up to leave the wire. Soon we were on the march. We walked
most of the morning and afternoon, searching the occasional hootches
we came across, and looking for signs of enemy activity. As dinner time approached
we learned this was supposed to be a silent mission - Charlie wasn't supposed to know we
were out in the field in force. So no choppers would bring dinner to us. That
was hard news to take. Marching through the long, hot Vietnamese afternoon had taken
its toll and we needed food to keep going. We discovered that the other units had
known how long we were going to be out and carried enough food for two days. But
they didn't bring any to share with us.
That night was miserable. On too little food, we marched for several more hours
after dark, and finally set up our ambush for the night. The rice paddies were full
of water, and so we stopped at the first dry spot we found. It was a ten-foot high
dirt wall, tapered steeply on both sides. The banks were tilted at about a 45-degree
angle. While the men drawing first guard duty found positions from which to fire,
the rest of us tried to find places to sleep.
There's an old Army joke that after a while you get so tired you can sleep standing on
your feet. This night was to prove how true it could be. I lay down on the
steep bank, flat on my back, and closed my eyes. Slowly, I started to slide down the
wall toward the water. I climbed back up and tried sleeping on my side. I dug
my boot-heels into the hard-packed soil. But soon I was sliding down again. I
tried and tried to find a position where I could lie on the dry bank without slipping into
the paddy below, but to no avail. Finally, dead tired, I gave up and moved to the
bottom of the mound. In water up to my hips I dropped into a fitful sleep, waking
regularly to see if I was still above water.
When dawn finally came, one of the other units shared their C's
with us. It wasn't nearly enough, but it was better than nothing. For several
hours we trudged across wet, muddy rice-fields, full of young green shoots sprouting from
the water (We trampled the rice rather than risk walking up on the dry dikes where there
might be booby-traps!). And then our luck turned. As we rounded a thick patch
of bamboo hedgerows we heard the sound of armored personnel carriers
headed our way. A ride! Hallelujah!
We climbed aboard gratefully. This was an ARVN mechanized unit, with South
Vietnamese soldiers driving the "tracks". For an hour we rode in bumpy
comfort, and then pulled aside to park in the shade of a tall bamboo hedgerow.
Finally it was lunch time. The Vietnamese soldiers on our "track" brought
out a large black kettle and covered the bottom with water. Into the kettle went
large plastic bags of American-made instant rice. Next, a smaller pot was filled
with a mackerel and anchovy sauce and placed in the middle of the rice. While we sat
watching nearby, the meal simmered slowly over an open fire, the aroma drifting over to us
and driving us mad with hunger. If it was any consolation, at least our allies
weren't going hungry.
Soon the rice was fluffy and white. The men filled small bowls heaping full and
poured the hot fish sauce over the top. As they started eating, they noticed we were
just sitting there staring at them, without any food of our own. Generously, they
offered us theirs, and we gratefully accepted. It was delicious! Maybe when
you're starving anything tastes delicious. But at the time I thought it was a great
combination. I even went back for seconds.
When the meal was finished the pot was empty, except for three or four little
vegetables at the bottom. One of the Vietnamese soldiers looked down at them, then
smiled and offered them to us. After the generosity they had shown, it seemed only
right to accept this friendly offer - probably the best part of the meal. I decided
to do my part for Vietnamese-American relations. I bowed slightly, smiled, and took
one of the vegetables. I chewed on it for a few moments. No special taste.
Puzzled, I swallowed the thing and smiled another thank you. A moment later I
wasn't smiling. Hot Pepper! Woweee! That innocuous-looking little morsel
set my mouth on fire. Four-alarm, at least! Now all of the Vietnamese were
smiling and laughing. Got one over on the Gringo. I reached for a canteen and downed the full quart. I reached for a second,
trying to flush the fire from my flaming mouth. Nothing helped. Time alone
brought relief. Now even my buddies were laughing! Or perhaps they started it
in the first place. I was really building bridges, all right! After that, my
guess is the ARVN unit went out of their way to befriend American units, just so they
could offer them lunch, and a special after dinner treat. At least food was no longer
uppermost on my mind.