A War Remembered / "Body bags, condos and casinos -- the new Gold Coast of Vietnam"

This is part of a series of articles by Westporter Robert Stokes based on his recent return to Vietnam for the first time since he covered the war from 1966 to l968 as a freelance journalist and later as a staff correspondent for Newsweek Magazine.

CHINA BEACH, Vietnam -- The last time I saw this pristine stretch of beaches along the South China Sea -- known to the Vietnamese as the My Khe, My An, and Non Nuoc beaches -- it was filled with GIs in bathing suits, on surf boards and drinking cold beer, taking a brief R&R (rest and recreation) from the war.

Today, nothing remains of the former R&R facilities, but China Beach is ground zero for one of Vietnam's most ambitious tourism development projects that includes several four- and five-star resort hotels and the recently opened Crowne International Club Casino and hotel resort. The European-style, 24-hour casino focuses on foreign tourists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Only those with foreign visas are allowed to play. The government says two flights a week from Guangzhou, China, will bring in the gamblers.

Elsewhere in the Danang area, Vietnam's nouveaux rich are splurging on 2--3 bedroom, beach-front condominiums that are selling for $200,000 to $400,000 (U.S.) each. Mr. Hung, our tour guide, informed us that the Danang area is also building two- and three-bedroom beach-front villas for a $600,000 USD price tag and 80 percent have already been sold pre-construction.

Mr. Hung, a fountain of information, also claims that Nguyen Cao Ky, the former vice president of South Vietnam under President Nguyen Van Thieu, is a major stockholder in the Crowne International casino. Whether this is true or not is beside the point. Ky only returned to his former country in 2006, after fleeing days before the fall in April 1975 and starting a business in Orange County, Calif. Ky's return is symbolic of other overseas Vietnamese who fled the country by 1975, but are now returning in increasing numbers to take advantage of the new free market enterprise system introduced in l986 under "doi moi" (economic reforms), and that set the stage for political liberalization.

The economic reforms have helped Vietnam to boast Asia's fastest growing economy with an annual growth rate of more than seven percent. In 1993, the World Bank declared 58 percent of the population to be living in poverty. By 2008, that figure was less than 16 percent. I can believe that statistic simply by noting the increase in the number of people who own motorized scooters nowadays compared to the war years when more than half the population in Saigon still rode bicycles.

Despite the tourism mecca that Vietnam has become -- the industry has grown at almost 20 percent annually since 2000 -- I still have trouble accepting the latest bumper sticker produced by Hanoi's tourism marketing office: "Vietnam -- A Country, Not a war."

While I acknowledge the natural beauty of Vietnam and the friendly nature of its people, most of my reference points are filtered through my wartime experiences. Some examples:

"¢ When Mr. Hung took us to visit the ruins of the Cham civilization that existed in the village of My Son between the 4th and 13th centuries, my attention was diverted by the B-52 bomb craters still visible in the jungle beside the famous Cham towers. I also took issue with the implication in tourism guides that the U.S. bombed the ancient ruins indiscriminately. I pointed out to Mr. Hung that the Viet Cong used the Cham ruins as sanctuaries during the war, thereby giving us the tactical argument for bombing there.

"¢ During our visit to the Cham towers, we walked down a narrow trail to exit the ruins that brought back vivid memories of following Marines on patrols single file down jungle paths, waiting for an ambush or firefight to explode.

"¢ The visit to Hue, the ancient imperial capitol, and the Citadel containing the Forbidden City -- a three square mile complex of palaces, parks and residences built at the start of the l9th century by Emperor Gia Long -- was also full of connections to the war. For me, Hue will always be related to memories of covering the assault by Marines to take back the city, street by street, house by house, and the olive drab body bags that were piled up on the west side of the Perfume River waiting for transfer to Graves Registration.

Taking back Hue from the NVA during the Tet Offensive was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war for U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. It lasted 25 days and cost the U.S. Marines and soldiers 216 killed and 1609 wounded. ARVN casualties were 421 killed, 2,123 wounded, and 31 missing. More than 5,800 civilians lost their lives during the battle, including 2,800 South Vietnamese government officials, local civil servants, teachers, policemen and religious figures -- anyone considered hostile to communist control -- who were rounded up and systematically slaughtered by the NVA troops during the first 24 hours of the siege.

I offer these statistics as a reminder to anyone who believes that the U.S. was guilty of excessive destruction of the city and the Citadel. Yes, our guns and bombs wreaked terrible damage on the city and its populace. But we were confronted with a committed enemy that fought to the last man rather than surrender. We had no choice but defend ourselves and take the fight to them.

And so as we toured the Forbidden City and the massive stone walls of the Citadel, with our guide pointing out the bullet holes in the walls and brass urns, it was difficult to view the place without remembering the wounded and the dying and the sacrifices by all sides that were made during those 25 days in February 1968.

I finally had had enough of Hue and memories and was glad when Mr. Hung led us back to the car. As I looked once more at the Citadel, my last glimpse was of the red Vietnamese communist flag with the yellow star flying from the flagpole.

It bothered me and then I remembered why.

The last time I was in Hue some 42 years ago, the same red flag with the yellow star was flying over the Citadel. We had not yet driven out the last NVA hardcore troops and captured their flag. That would happen a week later on Feb. 24 when members of the 2d Battalion , 3d Regiment, lst ARVN Division raised the South Vietnamese flag over the Palace of Perfect Peace.

By then I was already down south covering another battle. I always regretted not seeing the South Vietnamese flag flying once again over the Citadel. And now the regret has come full circle.

Robert Stokes, a Westport resident, covered the war in Vietnam for nearly two years in l967 and l968, first as a freelance journalist, and then as permanent staff for Newsweek magazine He later joined Life magazine, where he served as an associate editor and covered the Attica State Prison riot in 1971. In 1980, Dell published Stokes' first novel, Walking Wounded, which was based on his war experiences.