My Nha Trang Vacation!
In June of 1963, our family of five had been living in Saigon for six sweaty months. We were familiar with the city, but had never been anywhere else in Vietnam. Saigon had been mired in turmoil since we arrived, and the day school let out for the summer a Buddhist monk immolated himself in protest, not far from our house. Angry demonstrations were common and the city always teetered on the edge of violence and political insanity. We needed a break.
My father, Doc, decided that our best bet for a little relaxation and some quality beach-time would be a few days in Nha Trang, a small resort town north of Saigon, on the coast.
As every Brat knows, military vacations are not the same as civilian vacations. Being in the military gives a soldier certain advantages, but these advantages are not always so advantageous. A simple plane flight to vacation-land might be on a commercial airliner, but more often than not, it’s on some sort of military standby junket or a US-Government-issue plane (God help you). My family had experienced our fair share of both.
In typical cheapskate fashion, Doc arranged for us to fly to Nha Trang on a bare-bones military transport plane, for free. The plane was old and the seating was primitive: both sides of the interior featured worn wooden benches, designed for the hard-assed soldiers of a much earlier generation, maybe World War I or the Spanish-American War. I think I may even have seen Lindbergh’s initials carved into one of the benches…
The trip got off to a tenuous start when the crew outfitted our whole family with parachutes, which led us boys (me, 13, Lynn, 11, and Lowell, 9) to a lot of wild speculation. We knew that parachutes were exciting and beautiful, but Mother seemed a bit nervous about strapping on the silk. The crew was very nice, calmly explaining that the chances of having to bail out into a snake-filled Vietnamese jungle, teeming with Viet Cong, were very slim (maybe one in twenty), which did nothing to quell Mother’s fears. Maybe if they hadn’t winked at us boys while they explained this…
Fortunately, Mother had a fresh pack of smokes and this was definitely a smoke-all-you-want-we don’t give-a-crap flight. Doc seemed amused, but tried not to look at Mother because of the recrimination in her eyes that suggested she harbored a burning desire to throw him out of the plane without a ‘chute.
While we kids prayed for a flack-attack (so we could bail out like seasoned paratroopers, floating safely to earth near one of the strategic hamlets) Mother lit up and hunkered down. Doc looked on patiently, and I imagined he was counting the money he saved by flying us in like so much contraband.
After a bone-rattling flight of less than an hour and a hair-raising landing that left my stomach in knots, we skidded to a halt at the military airstrip outside the town. We stripped off our parachutes and caught a cab to the slightly decrepit Hotel Nautique, Vietnam’s version of the Bates Motel.
We dumped our bags in our rooms and took a walk around the town. I immediately began scanning the area for a covert place to buy cigarettes, hoping for the rest of the family to be distracted by a display-case of trinkets in a shop or a one-legged beggar fluent in French. But it was not to be. Buying or smoking cigarettes in this situation was impossible, and I resigned myself to a nail-biting vacation from nicotine.
When dinnertime rolled around, Doc hustled us down the street to “Jacques,” a restaurant he claimed was world-famous for it’s lobster. A waiter (who looked more like Uncle Ho than Don Ho) seated us at a table in the nearly empty restaurant and Doc ordered for us all. He ordered just one lobster for all of five of us.
I knew then that my father was a cheapskate of Biblical proportions, the Navy’s own Jack Benny. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him squeeze a 10 piaster note until the water buffalo mooed and gave milk. I figured we’d each get one tiny mouth-watering bite of this fabled lobster and then be force-fed bread and water: typical grim fare for POWs. Some vacation.
While we contemplated the small bowl of butter that had been placed beside our plates, Uncle Ho sashayed out of the kitchen with our lobster and I realized how wrong I was.
We were going to need more butter. Lots more.
He staggered to our table and set the platter down. We stared in awe at the tail of what must have been the biggest lobster in existence, bigger even than the giant lobsters we had once seen in a holding-tank in a mid-town Manhattan restaurant. This antediluvian crustacean was enormous, served bottom-side up on a huge platter. The tail had been split open lengthwise, revealing mounds of succulent white meat.
We grabbed our forks and knives and fell to devouring the beast, slashing off burger-sized chunks of flesh and wolfing it down, rivulets of butter dripping down our chins. But even after an arduous full-scale assault by three hungry boys and two adults, we came nowhere near finishing it.
Score: Doc, one. Me, zero.
After dinner we went back to the hotel and fell into bed sated, swatting at the flies and mosquitos that hummed in through the holes in the screens. Did you know that if you pull a sheet over your entire body, mosquitos can pierce your skin right through the sheet? No? Neither did I.
The next afternoon, Doc arranged for a boat trip, a “Three hour tour”, to a small island offshore where we could swim and relax. Our boat was about 30 feet long, with inboard engines and a small platform on the back where we could practice diving. We dropped anchor near the island and we boys wasted no time jumping into the warm, sparkling shark-and-barracuda-infested water. It wasn’t deep; the bottom was only about 10 feet away and the island was an easy swim if we wanted to try it. We soon discovered that the water was also full of small invisible jellyfish. We couldn’t see them so avoidance was impossible. With every stroke we felt tiny little lumps of clear jelly rub against our limbs and bodies, each touch delivering a small jolt of pain.
But we had fun anyway, cruising through the water with the snorkels and fins, chasing after schools of colorful small fish and diving off the platform. Mother and Doc downed cocktails and talked with the Skipper, a heavyset gruff-looking Frenchman who drank too much and joked about the sharks he said were everywhere (har har har). This put Mother completely at ease (ha ha ha). Fortunately, we never saw a shark, but a few sinister-looking barracuda cruised by, ignoring us as we frolicked carelessly in the water, getting zapped over and over by the jellyfish.
But the thought of a shark approaching our small (3) group didn’t faze me one bit. I wasn’t a particularly fast swimmer, but I figured I could swim faster than Lowell, and maybe Lynn, and that was all that was required. Although Lynn and I would surely mourn Lowell’s demise at the hands (fins? teeth?) of a Tiger Shark, we wouldn’t for a second hesitate to clamber aboard the boat without him. Sorry, Lowell. “Survival of the fittest” and all that…
Our shark-less fun went on for a few hours without a cloud or a drop of sunscreen in sight. As far as I knew, there was no such thing as “sunscreen,” anyway.
The Skipper finally pulled up the anchor (while he was still sober enough to do so), we climbed aboard, and the boat puttered back to the village. We were tired, and water-logged, but happy. And it was at the entrance to my hotel room, that I discovered the awful truth when I brushed against the door.
“Ow! I think I’ve got a sunburn,” I said.
My mother looked at me, then at my legs.
The expression on her face told me everything I needed to know.
I hurried to the bathroom mirror and took a gander at my face and shoulders. It takes a while to redden up thoroughly after hours in the sun, but I had done it in record time, a testament to my complete lack of melanin and good sense. I was as red as our well-boiled feast of the previous night.
My legs stung like hell and I realized that taking off my shorts would be impossible. Mother slathered the burns she could reach with Noxzema, a greasy white salve, the presence of which does nothing except inform onlookers that they are, at the very least, better off than you.
Score: Doc, two. Me, zero.
All night I wallowed in my bed, an instrument of torture that with every move I made popped the scores of large blisters that had sprung up all over my body. My face was burned, my shoulders were burned, my arms were burned, my back was on fire…
Doc and Mother had spent the afternoon sitting beneath the umbrella on deck, so they didn’t get toasted at all (at least not in the “sunburn” sense of the word). Lynn escaped the worst of it and was an attractive light pink (WTF?). Lowell, who had apparently won the DNA lottery (My great-grandmother was Cherokee; Lowell got it all), showed not a trace of anything resembling sunburn. He was as brown as an old pair of shoes.
For the next two days, I rode around Nha Trang like a stiff, afraid to move lest I break a blister and leak fluid all over myself and the cyclo seat. We visited pagodas and temples, markets and restaurants, and I suffered in silence, enjoying it all through the pain.
Our return flight was just like the flight to Nha Trang, including parachutes, chain-smoking, and another hair-raising landing. It took a week to recover from my sunburn, and even today I can see a few scars on my legs from the blisters that popped during my visit to the beautiful coastal town of Nha Trang. The scars are souvenirs that I never have to worry about losing.
My Nha Trang sunburn was just one of many I acquired as a youth, and the benign skin cancers that I now suffer are a tribute to my time in the sun as a Military Brat and surfer. But, as my wife likes to remind me, the cancers that result from too much sun are easier to deal with than the ones that result from too little.
But what does she know? She’s as dark as my youngest brother, and browns to a lovely, healthy brown in the sun. The word “Sunscreen” is not in her vocabulary, nor is the phrase, “Red as a lobster,” or “That hurts like hell!”
But there’s an upside to my pain: my dermatologist’s children have beautiful teeth.