A Beginner’s Guide: Adapting to A Culture
by Steve Carpenter

All of us experienced a first overseas assignment at some point in our lives. For many of the men of Project Delta, it was Viet Nam. In the late sixties, much preparation was given for battlefield and mission, but little time was spent preparing soldiers for the cultural aspects of a tour of duty. Besides the “Ugly American” speech and the one on the “Black Clap”, I don’t recall any. After four months in-country, I had yet to venture into the city of Nha Trang, and had only limited exposure to the hamlets of An Hoa, Dong Ha and Mai Loc, obtained while passing through to and from FOBs. When the Project stood down from an operation in the summer of 1969, my brother, Derick, and I were invited to accompany a seasoned and experienced recon man, who I will refer to only as “Mitch”, into town for a dinner at a nice restaurant.

We three had all stood in formation that morning as SGM Crash Whalen read down the list of ground rules for stand down. They included ambiguous terms such as “off limits” and “curfew” and “unarmed.” With Mitch as our tour guide we were certain that we would soon come to a proper understanding of these terms, as well as learn a few local customs. We were particularly anxious to learn more of the language in order to better communicate with our counterparts.

We departed the Delta compound in the late afternoon and soon approached the check point that marked the transition from military base to civilian domain. A large map was posted with various areas of the city shaded to represent areas that were “off limits.” Mitch walked up to the sign and pointed to a spot in the middle of the “off limits” area and said, “That’s where we’re going. Best damn Korean food in town.” Mitch patiently explained that Delta members on stand down were not required to adhere to the boundaries set forth to protect inferior servicemen from themselves. We were, after all, used to being out past the normal zone of comfort. The sign also noted that the “curfew” imposed on the entire town was for 2200 hours. Mitch explained that since we were on stand down, we didn’t have to get up early like everybody else and were thus exempt from that ambiguous concept.

We proceeded on foot for another half mile and soon came upon a series of pitiful structures of cardboard, tin scraps and wooden pallets. It was hot and humid, so imagine our delight at discovering these structures housed a collection of local taverns. Mitch pointed to one in particular and announced that it was his favorite. As we approached, we noted that all of the eclectic collection of tables and chairs were occupied by young men in clean and starched fatigues. The entire area of the bar could not have exceeded that of a family size tent and was cooled by a four foot diameter fan situated on its pedestal in front of the door. As Derick and I turned away to find another watering hole, Mitch approached the back of the fan and unbuttoned his pants. We watched, amazed, as he urinated into the back of the fan and sprayed the entire inside of the bar. The dozen or so inhabitants of the bar angrily evacuated only to be met by Mitch, now buttoned up and waiting with fists cocked. A couple of the evacuees made disparaging remarks to Mitch, who promptly provided what he called “counseling”, and reminded them that their curfew was up and they needed to take their bloody faces home. The bar reeked of sweat, urine and stale beer. Amazingly, they had a huge refrigerator full of ice cold Bud. We happily washed down the dust from our journey and marveled at Mitch’s ability to obtain prime seating in such a fine establishment on such short notice. For as small a place as it was, they were sure service oriented. There had to be a dozen girls there who all seemed very friendly and willing to please. Imagine my shock when one of them came to the table and asked outright if there was any interest in “boom boom.” Having been raised to respect women in a home immersed in Christian values that stressed divine retribution for such debauchery, I was speechless. My brother, on the other hand, who was raised in the same home, sat through the same church services, and got his ass whooped by the same Daddy, said “How about a blow job?” The young lady scowled, and with an expression of total distaste said “I never do before. Besides it give me headache.” Full of confidence and armed with the knowledge that we could communicate with the local populace, we continued our journey.

Nha Trang is a sizeable city that is sprawled along the coastal plain around its beautiful beaches and seaport. Very few automobiles occupied the narrow streets, the primary mode of transportation being foot traffic. Taxis existed in two basic forms; the bicycle version of a rickshaw that carried up to two people and the modern motorized taxi that was essentially a scooter with opposing seats behind the driver. Mitch flagged down a motorized taxi and explained to us that a Vietnamese could get anywhere in the city for 25 piasters (about a quarter), but that unscrupulous taxi drivers would charge up to 500 piasters for Americans, a price we should never, under any circumstances, pay. As soon as we climbed into the taxi, Mitch gave the driver the address of our destination. The driver immediately balked and began jabbering, shaking his head and waving his fingers in an unmistakable effort to refuse the request. I even thought I heard the phrase “off limits” uttered a few times and marveled at the similarity of our languages. After some discussion, Mitch handed the driver 500 piasters and made some gestures that might have been mistaken as threatening by the uninformed. Again we were amazed at Mitch’s ability to communicate to the driver that the “off limits” concept did not apply to us. The driver kicked the taxi up to top speed of approximately 6 miles per hour and expertly maneuvered through the traffic aided by his trusty horn and some truly invective dialogue directed primarily, I think, at pedestrians. Within half an hour we departed the taxi in front of a walled villa, and were met by another Delta man I shall call “Tiny.”

The restaurant was virtually empty and we were treated like royalty, another advantage to frequenting these “off limits” establishments. They only offered one entree from the menu, and so we all enjoyed several drinks while waiting its arrival. It turned out to be a generous mixture of browned meat, rice and vegetables that was absolutely delicious. I asked what it was, and Tiny replied that it was “Kinda like beef.” After dinner, drinks lasted for a couple of hours, and at 0200 hours, we three slightly tipsy travelers climbed into another taxi for the ride back to the compound.

This driver took one look at us and tried to refuse the fare. Mitch again shoved 500 piaster into his hand, and off we went. The streets were empty, with only a few lights lit here and there. For the first few minutes the whine of the scooter was accompanied only by the barrage of agitated chatter from the driver. Soon we began to hear the unmistakable whine of several two cycle engines rapidly approaching from behind us. Mitch sat upright and said “Cowboys.” Derick and I looked at each other and then at Mitch. Mitch spewed forth a string of expletives that left no doubt he was referring to the Southeast Asian two stroke version of the Hell’s Angels. The driver panicked and began to slow, obviously wanting us to depart his taxi. As he slowed, a dozen dirt bikes with camo clad natives roared along side and began buzzing the taxi, shouting things in a tone of voice that didn’t foster confidence in their motives. Several pulled snub nosed revolvers from their clothes and began firing at us. Mitch reached into his shirt and pulled out his Colt Combat revolver and began returning fire. I realized, at that moment, that Delta people were also apparently eligible for the exemption from the rule against bearing arms in Nha Trang, a piece of information that would have been more useful before we left the compound. Derick and I leaped off the taxi and grabbed what weapons we could. In my case it was a two by four holding up the cardboard roof of a shack on the street. I pulled it out, complete with two or three nails protruding from the business end, and began thumping the little hooligans off their bikes. We rejoined the taxi as the cowboys regrouped and sped toward our own side of town. We soon reached a sign that marked the border of the “off limits” area and discovered that the designation must have held some meaning for the cowboys, as they turned back at precisely that point. Mitch was relentless in insisting that the driver continue at top speed toward the check point. The driver stopped the taxi and ordered us out. Mitch, in a rare display of insensitivity, grew red in the face, patted the beret on his head and shouted, “LAM LOOK DUCK BACK, MOTHERFUCKER!”
Once again I marveled at his communications skills as the driver obviously understood and delivered us directly to the checkpoint. An armed MP greeted us and informed us that we were in violation of “curfew.” Mitch patiently explained to him that we were exempt from that silly rule and we didn’t have to get up early. So just back off. He also made some references to rearranging certain body parts that seemed a little over the top. But what the hell, he was a tour guide, not a doctor.