The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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Estimates at the time suggested there were at least 3 million Honda 50cc motorbikes in Saigon when I was there. They were small, reliable, and good in the basically flat city. It was not unusual to see a family of five riding on one together: Daddy driving, two tykes parked on the gas tank, Mama riding side-saddle behind Daddy with an infant in her arms. Accidents were surprisingly few: everyone drove defensively, and it was a great place for me to hone my MC driving skills. There were hundreds of little repair shops all over town where a machine that refused to run could be diagnosed and fixed. There were also numerous shops selling accessories and parts. In the photo below of Dai Lo Le-Loy, the double-row of parked motorcycles in the foreground was typical. There are too many to count. There was no licensing system: some folks put numbers on their bikes just to distinguish them from the literally hundreds of identical ones. I’d have to say, the Japanese did very well during the war in Vietnam!

The building opposite the Rex is the Caravelle Hotel


Friday, Apres-midi, 10 May 1968

Dear everyone~

Got to work uneventfully yesterday, and Long Binh was quiet all day. Many Vietnamese workers affected by curfews unable to get to work, so things were dull at the post. I’m now involved in compiling procurement lists for the projected lab, which is purely make-work, inasmuch as no one knows whether there will BE a new lab or not; but I have to do something to pass the time.

I bought a Honda [Motorcycle] from a fellow at LB who is leaving, and brought it into Saigon on the back of a pick-up last night. The driver dropped me and the bike at the intersection of Bien Hoa Xa Lo and Chi Lang, and I motored into Saigon proper from there. It (the Honda) is really a marvelous invention, just the ticket for getting ’round in a city like this, although in heavy traffic it’s a bit hair-raising at times. I don’t really expect to use it much, except as a passenger behind my Number One Vietnamese friend, who is much more familiar with operating one of these gadgets than I!

Just as I pulled into the alley beside my building, there were several very loud explosions not far away: I have never learned whether they were VC rockets, or whether they were our own, but in any event “an enemy of unknown size and force” had been spotted along the point where Precinct 4 borders Precinct 2 (mine), and helicopter gun-ships were giving them a bad time. This continued sporadically until about 2100hrs, when the enemy “broke contact”, meaning they slipped off their uniforms and became civilians again! The remainder of the night was quiet, except I understand TSN AFB got hit again.

And, I had a group of visitors during the night, for when I got upstairs to my apartment I found Number One friend had custody for the night of six charming children whose mama-san had had to go to My Tho for a couple of days. So we all shared the place: these kids live about a block from the bridge in Cho Lon where there has been heavy fighting with VC, and of course with the curfew on, had no place to go. They were lucky at that: there was a group of about fifty refugees sleeping under a marquee on Le-Loi opposite my building all night.

So, Tino, Mercy, Daravith, Lucia, Rico and Bariyano, all of whom speak Vietnamese, Cambodian, some French and some English, and of course Nguyen and myself had a pleasant evening learning about each other; (I taught them how to count from 1 to 10 in German!). About 2100, when the noise of battle died down somewhat, all six of them stretched out on the floor on a large bath-towel, tossed a sheet over themselves, and weren’t heard from again until 0700 this AM!

At one point during the evening, I brought out my photo album and was showing them my papa-san, brothers, niece, nephews, etc. I sure had to laugh when we got to Jeffrey: one of the kids pointed to him and said, with, I understand, absolute accuracy, “beaucoup kilo”! The oldest of these kids was, as best I can gather, about twelve, and could not have weighed in at more than 50 lbs (but this is not abnormal—people are just small over here!)

Everyone left about 0800 to see if they can get home. I decided to stay here myself—work is so unrewarding that ANY excuse will do. The morning I spent cleaning up the Honda (Model 50CL) and making a few adjustments on it.

Friday again, 2000h

Having nothing else to do, I had planned to sit down and try to evoke the mood of this place again, but I had no more than typed the time and date when I noticed the arrival of several truckloads of police in front of the block across the street. The group of about a hundred was pretty evenly divided between ARVN and Saigon Security Police, and there were a few american advisors on hand. They proceeded to make a thorough and systematic search of the entire block, and in the end took away about two score civilians, mostly women: I assume they were prostitutes, not VC. Apparently this was just a random search, not done because of any intelligence that VC were there, but just as part of routine. I expect sometime they will search this block similarly.

So it is now 2130 hours, and quiet again, except that every half hour or so our jets are bombing an area about a mile and a half from here, which makes a hell of a racket just when everything gets nice and quiet. The area is in precinct 4, across the Saigon Canal from Precinct 2, the principal downtown section where I live.

Except for these loud blasts, and occasional bursts of mini-gun fire, about all that is to be heard is the too-loud sound-track of the cinema atop the Rex BOQ, and the quiet swish of tires on moist pavement as a security vehicle cruises by: it rained hard for an hour this afternoon about 5, creating the temporary flooding that lasts such a remarkably short time, and rained again about 7:30, very hard, but for only about 5 minutes! A brief electrical display accompanied that rapidly passing storm.

On the street itself, one sees an occasional wandering child: there are countless homeless and parent-less children who somehow manage to  survive (the mild climate is a blessing!) from hand to mouth, who sleep in the doorways at night and do goodness knows what during the day. Many beg, but many also earn a sort of existence shining shoes and doing odd jobs that come along, such as washing motorbikes and cars, repairing flat tires, selling coke-bottles full of gas to hapless passers by who didn’t make it to the gas-station, and so forth. There are, too, a few wandering cats and dogs, and the sharp-eyed will detect an occasional large rat poking around here and there.

This is the closest thing to the eve of the Paris talks, and there’s been a lot of speculation to the effect that a major push on the palace, or on the American Embassy, may be attempted. The latter is much more heavily guarded now, you may be sure, than it was when the VC succeeded in gaining temporary entrance to it during Tet! The palace is similarly guarded, though of course both buildings are vulnerable to rockets and mortars, assuming the VC can manage to launch any without being detected in the process: there are numerous spotter planes quietly circling about overhead, usually without marker lights: these are either very small piper-cub-like gadgets that can fly slowly and quietly, or ti ti helicopters that can do likewise. They can spot the flash of a rocket launch even in an area well lit with flares, and direct a strike at the spot within minutes. Flares light the entire city perimeter at night, assisting this surveillance work, and casting, an eery glow over everything from this vantage point.

Close to 2200 now, no more paper, and bedtime. I’ll add to this later and mail it Sunday, I expect.

Except that like almost ALL the others in Vietnam mine was red, this is the closest photo I could find of a Honda 50CL like the one I bought there.

this is the closest photo I could find of a Honda 50CL like the one I bought


Sunday, 12 May 1968

Dear everyone~

Things are quieting down somewhat, though whether the current offensive is over or just awaiting reinforcements no one knows. The only really annoying thing about this situation is being right in the middle of it and knowing so little about what is going on! The single most worthless institution over here that I’ve found is the Armed Forces Vietnam Network—AFVN: two nights ago, I had just turned the volume up to hear above the din of a nearly battle that “quiet has returned to Saigon”.

I mentioned a while back C A [redacted], the gent I got to know on the trip over and with whom I was billeted through the Tet carryings-on. He’s stationed at Qui Nhon, and I repeat below a couple of excerpts from his latest letter to me, dated 29 April:

“An Khe is like Dodge City. A chap named [redacted], youngish, got drunk in a civilian club at An Khe and had a fight with the Asst Installation Manager, who beat him up. He went to the Manager’s quarters, and the manager beat him up some more. Next day, he was in the Area office with one arm in a cast, a black eye, and various abrasions and contusions. After the fight, he went and got a shot-gun to take after the Asst Manager, who in turn got his M-16. Fortunately, there was no further action.

“Civilians in the Qui Nhon area are being armed. That includes TCNs as well as U S civilians. Everyone gets either a .45 automatic or an M-14. Most are taking the M-14, for one of two reasons: 1, they already have a pistol or 2, they couldn’t hit a building or those inside it with a pistol. Jim [Redacted] and I shudder at the possible consequences. Qui Nhon is like Tombstone, Arizona, last century. Some of the military are worried, too: what if a Korean killed a Philipino, or vice versa, in a Qui Nhon bar, with an issued weapon?

“I don’t know if I wrote you what happened here on 30 Jan. On 29 Jan, the night before our three U S civilians employees of PA&E were killed on the main street in downtown Qui Nhon on their way to work, the following entry was made in the (PA&E) duty officer’s log book:

‘9:00 PM – City of Qui Nhon blacked out under Martial Law. Police say heavy VC infiltration and possible insurrection.’

That was 29 Jan, the night before the men were killed. Nothing at all was broadcast over AF Radio, QN. Next morning, our civilians had no way of knowing anything was amiss. There was gun-fire in downtown QN, but they had been hearing giant firecrackers for a week and thought it was just more celebration of Tet. The three were on their way to work and followed the same route they’d taken for more than a year. They were completely unaware anything was wrong: there is no warning system here for people not on a military base.”

The situation described above is little different in Saigon. For myself, I always look out on the street before going abroad to see if other americans are moving about, and then go directly to the Rex for b’fast, in the course of which all sorts of gossip, most of it unreliable, can be heard. Any serious hazards are usually posted on the daily bulletin board in the lobby. As for the radio, as a warning device it is useless, and except for one or two “entertainment” programs, it is equally useless: I like Joe Allison’s Country music program at 5 AM, and Sunday nites they have tapes of the Mormon Tabernacle Program. Otherwise, I listen mostly to Tokyo and Malaysia.

My “family” did not return Friday night, but Number One friend showed up Saturday and explained that all was well: mama-san had gotten back from My Tho (the highway was temporarily blocked); she sent word she was grateful for my hospitality to her children, who, as I said before, were a lot of fun and who showed their own appreciation before leaving by cleaning the apartment thoroughly AND doing up some laundry for me!

The name situation here is confusing. Just about everybody’s family name is Nguyen—it is as common as Smith in the US, Yi in Korea, or Yung in China. There is usually a Van or Thi next, which is meaningless except the Van is for men and the Thi is for women, and then the given or first name i. e., Tai or Hung or the like. However, in addressing another person, where we generally use the family name except in cases of familiarity, the Vietnamese do it the other way around, using the given name virtually all the time. Hence Ong ( = mister, pronounced approximately “aum”) Tai, or Ong Hung (the correct pronunciation for Hung is not renderable in english, but is approximately “howng”). For people of importance, “Thuong” is used in place of Ong, and it means approximately “Sir”, but still is coupled with the given name.

The universal greeting is “Chao” (Chow), coupled with any one of a large number of definitives, such as Ong (cf. above), Co (young woman), Ba (older or married woman), Em (children), Anh (brother) and so forth and so on. Learning all of them gets to be a problem at times, and to use the wrong one is quite embarrassing to the person addressed. Boys are ti ti (i.e., small or young) until they are 16 (the definitive is Cao, pronounced Gow), and are men thereafter (Ong again!). Girls are ti ti until they are 18 or married, whichever transpires first, and thereafter are addressed as Ba: it is not easy to tell if a girl less than 18 is married or not, so one can easily use the wrong form of address, to which the girls are particularly sensitive! (It is very desirable to be in a position to be addressed as Ba, for some reason).

My friend, Ong Hung, is outside polishing up the Honda: later we will go to the PX on it, since the military buses have not resumed their routes. I think we will both go to the Rex cook-out for steaks tonight, and then all too soon the brief Sunday respite will be over and another dull week will commence. Although hired as a chemist, I haven’t run a single test of any kind yet! Cest la Vie. . .

Love to all~

After three and a half months in Vietnam, I had accomplished absolutely nothing I could point to and say, “I did that”!

I was not alone! I recall a chap at LB who was supposed to be in charge of creating water points for the Army. It seems that somewhere up-country someone at a  U S base had found a well: they asked PA&E to secure and install a pump so water from the well could be used. To determine what size of pump was required, we had to know at a minimum how deep the well was, and where the water-level was. In its simplest form, this means tying a stone to a length of rope and dropping it down until it stopped. Pulling the rope back up would reveal the depth, and the amount of wet rope would reveal the water level. Since our man had no means of getting up-country, he sent requests through “channels” to have the measurements made. He had a file a few inches thick of the various orders working their way up the chain of command and back again, yet no one had actually issued the order to measure the well! Meanwhile the brass were bitching about not having any water…

Now, 40 years later, I wonder if things in Iraq are as fucked-up as they were in Vietnam. I’m quite sure the answer is yes.

More letters to come!



Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Posted in Saigon 1968,VietNam

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