Behind the Lines, Vietnam By Ron Moreau The Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, ushering in what was supposed to be a ceasefire and political settlement in war-ravaged Vietnam. But from day one the so-called peace quickly deteriorated into a “cease-fire war.” The US-backed Saigon government struggled to capture as much territory as possible, particularly in the populous Mekong Delta, the country’s rice bowl. A “war of the flags” broke out: in hamlets with a strong government presence, South Vietnamese flags flew from every bamboo grove and mango tree; in others where the North Vietnamese Army or southern Viet Cong guerrillas were in charge, the VC’s yellow starred flags fluttered bravely. Both sides fought for control of disputed villages. Every correspondent in Saigon wanted the same scoop--to enter a village or two flying the VC flags for a first-hand look at local life under communist forces. Friendly Fire: On my first brief day trip, I was shown around a Delta village by some local elders and a handful of VC guerrillas. We had to dive into bunkers that were a central feature of each thatched hut as artillery shells from Saigon’s forces began raining down. “How does it feel, Mr. American, to be shelled by your own guns,” one guerrilla asked me as I cowered in the stuffy bunker. That foray motivated me to take a longer, and I hoped less dangerous, sojourn into more secure VC territory, somewhere not located on the front lines. I wanted to put a more human face on the “enemy.” I approached VC Senior Col. Vo Dong Giang, who headed the VC delegation that was stationed, indeed imprisoned, at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airbase. Hanoi and the VC as well as Saigon and the US side had military delegations at the airbase that were supposed to deal with cease fire violations. Red Road: The VC were allowed to hold weekly press conferences. French journalist Olivier Todd, a Newsweek International columnist, and I quietly asked Giang for help. No problem, the colonel responded. He took us aside and drew us a map of a road running south out of the capital of the south’s southernmost province, Ca Mau. Travel down that road for 10 miles or so and you’ll run into a National Liberation Front roadblock, he told us. He said he’d send orders to the unit there to guide us around their “liberated” territory. It sounded perfect. There was one problem: Olivier wanted to bring his Parisian girlfriend, Chantal, who was making her first trip to Southeast Asia. I felt she would not be up to the rigors of a rough two week trip with the VC in the midst of the south’s torrid dry season. Neither Olivier nor Chantal could be dissuaded. Wrong Bus: We decided to go by bus, hoping we would be less conspicuous than if we went by rented luxury car from Saigon. But three Westerners, including an young Frenchwoman, riding in a broken down bus attracted even more attention than a private sedan. Once in Ca Mau City we rode on the back of rented motorcycles down Giang’s designated road. When we arrived at the rendezvous point we were stopped at a Saigon military check-post, not a VC picket. The place bristled with 105 mm artillery pieces and M-48 tanks. Saigon’s forces had pushed out the VC days before. We returned to Ca Ma City and rented a motorized sampan on a major canal. We would just troll along the canal in the hope of spotting some VC flags. But after a couple of hours we spied no flags other than Saigon’s. On the verge of giving up, I decided to stop at a Saigon local forces’ outpost at a bend in the canal. A young and friendly Saigon army lieutenant asked what were we doing. I just came out with it. “We want to make contact with the VC,” I said. Easy Deal: “That can be arranged,” was his quick, matter of fact, and surprising reply. He
summoned an elderly local farmer and told him to contact the local VC element, saying that three foreigners wanted to visit. I hoped this local unit had heard the VC’s own radio broadcasts announcing that foreign correspondents were welcome. The farmer returned. The VC had agreed. The old, white-whiskered man asked us to follow him.
We followed the old, white-whiskered man across an open, freshly plowed rice field. We were taking what seemed to be forever. Saigon’s forces could shoot or shell us at any time. So might the VC. Maybe this trip wasn’t such a good idea after all. Finally we reached a peasant hut.
Contact: Inside was a young VC officer wearing black pajamas, a black Australian style bush hat and an officer’s sidearm. With him were a handful of guerrillas with Kalashnikovs. I tried to explain to him what we wanted. He wasn’t very talkative, motioning us to follow him. We walked a mile or so to another village in the gathering dusk. The officer ordered us into a thatched hut. We were not leave, except to use the crude, outdoor WC perched over a fish pond, pending orders from his superiors. Two VC stood guard.
We were prisoners, but well fed on cooked duck and vegetables. Looking outside in the morning, there seemed to be battalions of white domestic ducks everywhere. That afternoon, a thin, intelligent, soft spoken man arrived, wearing black pajamas and a green, floppy hat. His name was Pham Hien. He released us, welcoming us to the liberated zone. He’d been sent by the province’s information (more like propaganda) committee. But he was relatively free of the revolutionary cant and extravagant claims of victory that other VC officials showered on us during the next few days.
The Guide: Pham Hien was an old school revolutionary from the early 1950s, a non-communist who believed in the cause of expelling the French and now the American “occupiers” from Vietnam. He spoke fluent French and
English, and could quote Steinbeck and Shakespeare. He quickly became a friend.
We were marched through a prepared tour over the next several days: meetings with guerrilla units, with “patriotic” school teachers, bonzes [monks] and local officials, and tours of villages. The saddest and stiffest encounters were those with local “patriotic” leaders and elders. They were clearly cowed and frightened by their communist party bosses.
In one such session a monk, the head of the women’s and the farmers’ union, did little but nod knowingly as a tough-looking party cadre explained how the Vietnamese are peace-loving people, fighting only for their freedom, and how Saigon was violating the ceasefire every day. That was the main message officials wanted us to take away.
Fear Factor: It was also clear that the VC controlled large swaths of the province. But at the same time, the villagers were also still fearful. Government and VC forces skirmished daily. The peasants risked being arrested by Saigon’s soldiers when they ventured on foot, by motorbike or sampan into Saigon-controlled territory. Some complained of missing relatives who had gone to the district or provincial market but never returned.
On more than one occasion Saigon’s artillery shells whistled in, sending us into village bunkers. Pham Hien and our escort once sprinted us toward a tree line after receiving a report that Saigon troops might be poised to attack. Most such reports came from village children, who served as designated lookouts. They were also the VC’s preferred method of secret communications: hand- or type-written notes carried by kids.
Chantal fell ill with a fever and an intestinal disorder. The VC reacted almost in a panic. Within hours they had dispatched a female guerrilla nurse and a Sino-Vietnamese doctor to look after her. They arrived with antibiotics and even IV drips to rehydrate her.
On the Move: With the constant danger of shelling, our party had to stay on the move. Chantal became too weak to walk. The guerrillas carried her on their shoulders in a hammock strung from a long bamboo pole. When possible, they moved her by sampan, though in the dry season most of the small canals were nothing but mud. The guerrillas just rolled up their pants and pushed her sampan through the ooze. The rest of us walked along the canal dike, warned by our guides to be mindful of mines placed along one or another side the canal.
After several days, Chantal began to the mend. We needed to get back and file. Pham Hien arranged for two local women in a motorized sampan to take us on a major canal that flowed to the province capital. We began our journey at night. To light the way, the women carried oil lamps that had been made from American M-79 grenade rounds.
Soon after dawn we reached the first Saigon army outpost on the canal. The soldiers ordered us to dock at their small, barbed-wired enclosed mud fort. Some were excited: they thought we were American POWs whom the VC had released, and they were hoping for a hefty reward for “rescuing” us. Crestfallen, they ordered our party of journalists into a jeep and drove us to provincial headquarters.
The Colonel: The province chief, a rotund Saigon army colonel, was furious. His first words were: “I could have you shot.” Yes, he did have the guns. He yelled and stomped. He searched Olivier and me for our film but found nothing. The several rolls we had taken were hidden in Chantal’s bra, which a village woman had fashioned. We thought it unlikely that Saigon’s soldiers would search a foreign woman.
At the beginning of our trip, the US embassy had been informed and had urged Saigon’s forces not to harm us. So the province chief’s hands now were tied. He had to let us go. Soon a US helicopter dispatched by the US consul general in the Delta arrived and flew us to Can Tho, the regional capital.
Once back in Saigon, we feared our visas would be revoked. But there were no sanctions. Indeed, Chantal, who was still feeling weak, checked into Saigon’s French military hospital. Much to her surprise she quickly received a bouquet of red roses sent by the top adviser to the South Vietnamese president.
Shrinking Story: Excited by my scoop—a whole week with the VC--I quickly filed my lengthy report, which was similar to this dispatch, to Newsweek’s editors. They were unimpressed. Vietnam was no longer front page news as a result of the Paris agreement and the US’s disengagement from the conflict. The story was edited down to about two pages. It made little impact, though it clearly showed that the government’s claim to control 99% of the population was untrue.
Just over one year later [managing editor] Maynard Parker, after having received a CIA briefing in Saigon, decided to close the Saigon bureau and transfer me to Hong Kong, thinking that the ceasefire war would simply sputter on forever, ending in a stalemate. Meanwhile, ruthless and determined, Hanoi’s army was infiltrating more troops and supplies into the south and preparing for its big push, which resulted in its total victory in 1975.
Ron Moreau worked for Newsweek as a correspondent in Saigon from 1972-1974 and Hong Kong from 1974-1976, as bureau chief in Buenos Aires from 1976-1978 and Cairo from 1978-1981, as Paris correspondent from 1981-1983, as bureau chief in Miami from 1983-1987, and in Bangkok from 1987 to 2001. He was on contract as South Asia correspondent from 2001 to 2012 and now corresponds for Newsweek from Houston