South Vietnam 1970

Medic first met  SEAL Vietnam vet Preston Hood III at a William Joiner Center Writers Workshop at UMass Boston in 2000. With his bull neck, broad chest and and ripped biceps he stood out from the softie civilians, but Preston was warm and friendly and a very good poet. Here, he recalls an unforgettable moment in Saigon.

Dusk focuses its aperture at the fountain intersection of Tu Do and Nguyen Hue streets. The dimming evening light whirs with Saigon smog and heat. Motor scooter riders and bicyclists cough up exhaust fumes salted with gas and peppered with oil. My eyes tear and ache as I walk through the black market streets. Night life, full of nuoc cham and a language I don’t understand, stifles in.

Flares seem to suspend in the sky above our heads in the veiled eeriness of time held still as the streets empty and darken at curfew. I’m on a twenty-four hour reprieve from my usual search and destroy missions, as other members of SEAL TEAM 2 drink in nearby bars, or smoke cigarettes while haggling with pimps over the prostitutes inside. I am just one man walking down a street in a country at war. All of us, soldiers or civilians, Vietnamese or Americans, are the targets of the one hundred and twenty-two millimeter rockets that whoosh in silent, and then explode.

As blasts move nearer, my skin-taut head twitches with fear. Twenty meters away and closing, I see my dream car, a two-toned blue-and-white ’55 Chevy Bel Air with its name shining in a gold script as it passes by and continues on. I pause to watch it disappear into the darkness of Saigon. And just when I begin to turn, a rocket blows up so close to me it rips off my shirt as I’m thrown from the street through a doorway.

Dazed, on top of others, my mind races to the fountain intersection where girls in áo dài zip into the darkness on Honda’s, nipa palm yellows in dry heat, while an old woman, squatting, spits betel nut juice into the street.


Top image: Saigon 1970, from the Nguyen Hue-Le Loi intersection looking down Nguyen Hue, now a walking street. photo Carl Nielson

Nuoc cham is a common name for a variety of Vietnamese sweet, sour, salty or spicey dipping sauces.

See more of Preston’s award winning work here.