It was a sunny, Sunday morning. We were sitting on the rooftop patio at the Hoa Lu Hotel in downtown Saigon (I guess that's Ho Chi Minh City now). The night before had been a busy one; my brother, Skip, had come down from the SF (Special Forces) Camp at Xuan Loc (pronounced "soon lop"...go figure) and we had gone into Saigon together.
When GIs went to Saigon, there were a number of ways they spent the evenings. Some started with dinner. There were a lot of really fine restaurants in town...and some it was best to avoid. My brother's favorite was an Italian place complete with red-and- white-checked tablecloths, Chianti bottles with candles in them and wax melted down the sides. Some were on the tables and some were hanging from the ceiling. Skip liked wine; I never developed much of a taste for it, but the Italian place had a "nice red" to go with our pasta and sauce. The French had taught the Vietnamese how to make great bread, so for me that was the best part of the meal.
I liked to eat (still do, hence the moniker) and I had several favorite spots in Saigon. I guess the one I liked best was a Japanese place on the road to Cholon. It was secluded and gave the impression of being secure. There was a tall privacy fence all around it, indoor and outdoor seating, and the food was absolutely top-drawer. The lighting was subdued, all paper lanterns, and it was always quiet. I enjoyed taking my time eating the beef (I think) in a savory sauce served on rice in a covered dish. There was another little place near Skip's Italian joint that was really clean and served great Chinese food (I think all the Vietnamese ate Chinese...THEY don't even like their OWN food). I guess the place where I ate the most was the little noodle soup stand across the alley from our compound. We were warned that there was a risk of Hepatitis at places like that...but it didn't seem to slow down the flow of eaters inandoutoftheplace...the dinks didn't die of it...sooooo......anyway, back to the story.
On a typical night out, some guys would find a bar they liked and just stay there all evening until close to curfew and then head home. Some preferred to wander from bar to bar (downtown Saigon had hundreds of bars, it seemed) so there was always a crowd on the sidewalks, flowing like a river all night. Some groups would hang around outside, some just looked for clubs with floorshows, and a lot of guys roamed around looking lost. Some just avoided everything...the Viet Cong had targeted bars and restaurants and hotels all over the city at one time or another and the threat of rifle fire or a car bomb or hand grenade was always present...that did put a damper on some folks' activities.
After dinner we decided to roam around awhile and see what was going on. We stopped at a couple of places and then ran into some guys from my unit at the Flowers Bar on Nguyen Wei (not sure of the spelling) and spent most of the rest of the evening there. The bars were full of girls who made their money getting you to stay in the bar and buy them drinks...called "Saigon Tea". They would stay at your table and keep you company as long as you bought them a tea now and then. Some guys got testy about the system; they insisted on buying the girls a "real drink". But the girls were not allowed to accept real drinks and the guys who insisted they did wound up sitting alone.
When the curfew had caught up to us, we holed up in a house with some folks from one of the bars and some other GIs. A card game broke out; some played, some crashed on the floor, some went to bed, and some tried to keep the party alive with whatever they could scrounge up to drink.
When the sun came up and the temperature started rising, the group of revelers started waking up and stirring about. Skip and I were lamenting the fact that there was no "Sambo's" in Saigon to go to for breakfast. We were both starving. I don't know what it was about my metabolism at that age (19), but I ate A LOT and never gained any weight.
One of the guys thought that the Hoa Lu patio was open early on Sundays and they had a barbeque up there. So off we went. A short taxi ride later we clambered up to the outdoor restaurant. The view was beautiful; a little hazy, but you could see all over the city.
I ordered a steak. It was a thick, charcoal-broiled steak of undetermined origin; it could have been a Texas cow or a Long Binh water buffalo, but it was char-broiled and pretty tender and very tasty. First rule of eating in the Orient: if you don't want to know, don't ask...if you like it, eat it; if not, remember what it was called so you don't get it again. In fact, it was so good I ordered another...at less than $2.00 a pop, why not? While I was finishing my second steak, I noticed my brother's cheeseburgers...the cheeseburger plate came with two burgers and fries...it looked so much like a burger from home that I ordered the burger plate, too. They were delicious. The fries were great. So I ordered another burger plate.
By this time the guys thought I was joking. They were getting antsy to move on to some of the bars. I wasn't joking...I ate the burgers and all the fries and ordered some fries to go. We trundled down the stairs to the street. I had eaten two complete steak dinners, with french fries, four good-sized cheeseburgers, and the fries that went with them, and was walking down the sidewalk with my little basket of fries to munch on. We had only been walking a few minutes when Skip started talking about where we would go for dinner that evening.
Skip and I had the unusual experience of being in Vietnam at the same time and we were able to get together on several occasions. It was a good time as far as our relationship sent, but not so much a good time for our parents. He would write home that he was in a safe place and they shouldn't worry about him, that I was the one in harm's way. I would write home that I was okay but that they should worry about Skip. Finally my Dad, the Chief, wrote to both of us and told us to quit being so "comforting". Heeheee.
I lost Skip this year. We weren't as close as we once were, never so close as we were in Vietnam, Republic of. Going through some messages on the phone last night, I heard his voice...and had to write a little something about us.
Seems like a million miles from Pike's Peak to Saigon, and a million years seem to have gone by since we were a couple of young stallions tearing up the far-off city. A lot of things happened in the years between; our relationship faltered and nearly died at one time. The last few years we had re-connected and all the harsh "in-between" lost its importance. We became brothers again, recalling long-gone war stories and comparing the new concerns we had found with our failing bodies. Turns out his was failing faster than he let on. At one point, when he called and MC answered the phone, she didn't recognize his voice...the "disc-jockey" patter and flow was replaced with the weak and shaky voice of an old man. But the last few times we spoke he had regained some of the old quality that made his voice so distinctive. The message I am saving on the phone starts off with his traditional "Hey, Jim, it's Skip"...and it sounds just like him