It was on another one of my trips to
Saigon that I met her. Normally trips to Saigon were in
and out, but every once in a while I could arrange to be
there for an extra few hours or even a whole day.
Having gotten to know the director of the USO facility
there, I could stay in their more “civilian”
environment, or I could borrow the director’s official
vehicle and cruise the city––a highly questionable
choice at best, but one I made frequently.
Not much for the bar scene, I generally
avoided that district but finally agreed one day to take
my crew to see it. “No partying,” I told them...we’d
just walk through the area and feel for the moment as if
we were on a weekend pass. Each bar looked the same, one
after another. Spotting one that hinted of a bit more
class than the rest, we attempted an entry through a
small group of scantily-clad bargirls standing at the
"Hey, Gee-eye. Wannee suckee? Fuckee?"
Hands reached out for us like survivors of a sunken
ship. A different time and it could have been kids or
beggars on the streets of Milan or Morocco, reaching out
for my father and his G.I. buddies with their cigarettes
and chocolate bars.
Gingerly working my way through the
heavily perfumed, groping bodies, I made it through
unscathed to the interior of the darkened room. Up
front, the bright light over the bar contrasted harshly
the darkness around the cheap tables and plastic chairs.
On a barstool by herself sat a woman dressed in clothes
I could tell even through the darkness were unlike
anything at the front door or out on the streets of
Saigon. An emerald green, satin dress clung tightly to
the curves of her body, reflecting in the light a size
and shape I knew could not be entirely Vietnamese. A
long slit up the side of the dress revealed a nicely
shaped caramel leg all the way to her hip. I could
almost see the fleshy curve of one buttock as she
shifted on the stool. Long black hair flowed
tantalizingly down the open back of her dress,
accentuating an exquisitely-tapered back that beckoned
me to touch it like new moss on the smooth surface of a
well-worn river stone.
The way this one sat indifferent to what
was going on at the front door intrigued me. Although
I’d never been to Paris, she had that look I’d seen on
canvas, captured in pastels by the brush of a painter
sitting on the banks of the Seine. As I moved closer, I
was amazed to see in her well-manicured, delicate hands
a thick, American novel in which she appeared to be
Approaching her from the left side I
could see that not only was the book in English, but it
was a current best-seller––no small undertaking for an
educated American, let alone a Vietnamese bar girl. I
stepped up to the seat next to her and cleared my throat
to get her attention.
"Yes?" she peered up at me over small but
elegant half-rim reading glasses.
"Do you speak English?" I asked
"Why not?" she answered curtly, removing
the glasses in an apparently well-practiced manner. “It
helps with my reading.”
More than slightly taken aback, I stood
dumfounded for a moment. There would be no "suckee-fuckee"
dialog with this one, I could tell right away. “May I
sit here?" I asked.
"Your prerogative," she flatly brushed
off my question as a thin strap of her satin dress
slipped down over her shoulder. Taking in a long, deep
breath as my mind raced to come up with an appropriate
response, I sat down and ordered a beer. This was going
to be most interesting, I could tell.
“So, Gee-eye,” she mimicked the other
girls. “You wannee something from meeee?” She drew it
out in mock tease.
“Just your company, if it’s available,” I
“Could be,” she replied coyly. “But only
if you buy me ‘Saigon Tea.’ They try to pass it off as
‘champagne,’ but it’s really only watered-down tea. If
you sit with me, you’ll have to buy a bottle of it.
Anything else is a different matter.”
“I don’t have time for anything else,” I
said, “but I don’t mind buying a bottle if you’ll talk
“No problem,” she seemed relieved. “What
would you like to talk about?”
“You,” I said. “Seems like you might have
an interesting story.”
For the next two hours she had my
undivided attention as she told me how she had grown up
in Pleiku, high in the central mountains of Vietnam.
Built and populated largely by French colonists who
occupied the country until the mid-1950’s, Pleiku was
one of the more picturesque and cultured cities in
Vietnam. Her mother was part Vietnamese and part
Chinese. Her father was French, and took her back to
France with him just before the North Vietnamese ran
them out. As a refined, half-French, Vietnamese/Chinese
girl, she wouldn’t have survived long under their
Educated at one of the finer private
schools in Paris until he died a few years later, she
managed a two-year stint in an American university
before being forced back by an expired visa to Vietnam
to live with her mother’s relatives. Eventually making
her way to Saigon, she quickly discovered there wasn't
much work for a young and educated Vietnamese woman of
French descent. The French weren't warmly remembered in
those days, and she was much too refined for a menial
position as a clerk or a housekeeper.
A woman of fine European lines and
exquisite physical beauty, she stood out far too much
for most Vietnamese women to handle. Turning to the only
other profession that would make decent money added all
the more to her challenges as a woman who made more
money than a general in the Vietnamese Army. Scorn and
contempt from the “common” people of Saigon kept her off
the streets and in the darkened rooms and chambers of
the bars and brothels.
Later the next week I managed to get a
day off and hitched a ride on a shuttle flight to
Saigon. It was early in the morning, but the girls were
already at their posts in the doorway of the bar when I
arrived. Working my way carefully through the throng of
tiny hands with their brightly colored fingernails
reaching for my arms, hair and crotch, I moved toward
the bar while my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside.
Sitting on her barstool with the book now nearly
finished, she turned and looked at me as I approached.
“Hey, Gee-Eye, you wannee something from
meee? “ she mocked the others again.
“Yes,” I smiled back at her as I sat
down. “I wannee you eat chop-chop with me.”
“Chop-chop?” She replied. “You in wrong
country, Gee-Eye. That Chinese.”
“Maybe, but it’s good enough for now.
Would you like some breakfast?”
“Breakfast?? Now I know you’ve got the
wrong country. Vietnamese don’t eat breakfast. Fish
heads and rice are the staple or our diet, and it’s way
too early for that.”
“Not yours, I’ll bet. Can you get away
for a while?”
“Ooooh... You buy very much ‘Saigon Tea’
for that. I go see Mama-san first.”
The principle source of transportation in
Saigon, other than foot or bicycle, was a contraption
called a “cyclo.” A three-wheeled motorcycle with a seat
for two in front of the driver, it was a thrill ride to
be experienced. We climbed out of ours at the Grand
Hotel after a twenty-minute ride that made Thaddeas
Toad’s Wild Adventure pale by comparison. She had
changed into a more traditional Vietnamese dress to
blend in with the local scene, and together we enjoyed a
Western breakfast she hadn’t had in years––with real
champagne and orange juice. Later we strolled in the
more affluent section of Saigon and in the
civilian-operated USO, where we bought American trinkets
to add to her collection of treasured items back in her
room above the bar.
Arriving back at the bar around noon, she
directed the cyclo driver around to the back, where she
unlocked the door and invited me in. Upstairs we entered
a room that could just as easily have been in Paris. The
huge bed was covered with a lace bedspread and satin
pillows––definitely imported. Outside the window the
constant noise of traffic and people milling in the
streets below seemed far away as she unbuttoned the
dress she wore and stepped behind a beautiful French
“Make yourself comfortable,” she called
out from behind the divider as I heard a zipper open and
a rustling of fabric I could tell was expensive. A few
minutes later, she appeared in front of me in a tight
satin dress that clung to her like a second layer of
skin. Her hair was pulled up elegantly with two little
curls dangling down on each side of her face. Kneeling
down in front of me, she unlaced my boots as I gazed
down at her exquisitely shaped body.
Removing my boots and socks, she moved up
my body, undoing the belt and zipper of my flight-suit
pants. A wave of anticipation swept uncontrollably over
my body as I inhaled a scent of jasmine, incense and the
scent of a light but potent French perfume. Pulling my
shirt open and off my shoulders, she began to kiss the
skin beneath my navel. Hesitating, she looked up at me
softly then stood up and pulled me toward the bed.
We’d always been warned about being out
of sight and beyond the protective arm of the military
when in “civilian” sectors of Vietnam, but if this was
to be my time to go I couldn’t have welcomed the event
more. She was totally, completely present with me in
that moment. There was no doubt in my mind she was
thoroughly enjoying herself as she took me confidently
and sublimely into another world where the war didn’t
exist, and the noise in the streets below us diminished
into nothing more than muffled noises.
Stroking and caressing me in ways I’d
never felt before, she held me and loved me like an
ancient temple goddess healing a fallen warrior. With
each passing minute I felt my body energized and my
sense of bliss heighten in ecstasy. She knew what she
was doing, and I knew this was not her ordinary routine.
I doubted even that the “meter” was running on this one.
Even if it was, it would be worth any price.
For an hour or more we moved together and
slid against each other and intertwined our arms and
legs with each other, and felt each other in a vaster
space of union and bliss. She was no longer Vietnamese
or I an American, but rather we were one in spirit and
heart as two human beings––a man and a woman connected
through time, space and vastly different cultures to
feel a common sense of purpose and joy in each other’s
Lying together for a while afterward, we
felt at peace and together with nothing else to do but
bask in each other’s warmth. Finally she sat up and
looked at the clock on the far wall.
“I have to go,” she said. I started to
protest. “I really do. I have to work on occasion.” I
looked at her quizzically. “These people can be very
difficult at times,” she added ruefully.
“When can I see you again?” I implored.
“Most anytime. But we can’t always do
this. For a price, yes––but in a different room, under
different circumstances. This happens to be my room, and
it’s normally off-limits to ‘customers’. ”
With that, she dressed quickly in another
outfit and moved toward the door.
“Just go out the way we came in,” she
said as she opened it. “And leave your money in your
pocket. This one was for us.” With that, she quietly
closed the door behind her and disappeared.
We spent several days together in the
succeeding weeks, which turned into a regular thing for
us over the months. She was the "Mama-san's" right-hand
woman. The old Mama-san was no lightweight in the
business, and was grooming her to take over at some
point. The two of them worked well together, and after a
few trips I was welcomed in the back rooms that were
hers and the Mama-san's private quarters.
My military base was isolated and
dangerous to reach by jeep or truck, but by helicopter,
to which I had unlimited access as a pilot, it was a
short, half-hour flight over jungle-covered hills and
rivers. I found myself often needing to go to Saigon to
"transport personnel," or do "maintenance flights" in
between combat missions. Pulling maintenance duty or
flying single-ship supply runs instead of rallying with
the boys to fly off into gunfire and hollow “victories”
enabled me to spend increasing time in Saigon, much to
my crew’s delight.
We still saw our share of action,
however. When not called out on combat missions there
were always distress calls to answer, which more than a
few times had us in the thick of someone else’s battle.
On maintenance test flights we could count the red
tracers streaking toward us in the blackness of night,
and occasionally felt the thud of a round hitting the
fuselage somewhere. Counting bullet holes in the rotor
blades after some flights was a most disconcerting
Once on an outing with her I mentioned
that it would be a unique experience for some of the men
back at my base to be able to enjoy the company of her
“associates.” Before long, she had it all worked
out––how many, who and under what circumstances. Calling
in a few favors from a few trusted friends, I helped her
create a night that could rival the best episode that
ever came out of “MASH 4077.”
Landing a helicopter at the U.S. Army
Hospital in Saigon just after the 10:00 curfew, I had
arranged with the night ambulance crew to take me to the
bar where she lived upstairs. A couple of captured North
Vietnamese AK-47 rifles made a perfect trade for
“services” from the crew. Backing up carefully to the
rear door of the building, we were delighted to watch
ten of the sexiest, most scantily-clad women we’d ever
seen rush from the door to the back of the ambulance.
Back at the landing pad, they backed the ambulance as
close as possible to the helicopter, where my
space-helmeted, armor-plated crew strapped the ladies
into their seats as delicately as if they were
The night proved highly entertaining as
half-naked women appeared in doorways then disappeared
into others all night long. As the Officer-In-Charge
that night, I was hard pressed to keep unwelcome eyes
from seeing what could have turned into the most
controversial courts-martial of the decade if any of the
women were discovered. That proved especially true in
the wee hours just before dawn of the next morning when
the commanding officer and the operations officer both
stood talking with me while two of the women bare-footed
their way across the open walkway behind them, clad only
in panties and bras.
My time in Vietnam drew to a close all
too quickly. She knew it was coming, and made herself
more and more scarce in the last months I was there.
Finally she just wasn’t there anymore. She had “urgent
family matters” to attend to back in Pleiku, according
to a note she left for me. I was up for release from
military service back in the states, but before I could
even begin the hopelessly complex process of getting an
“in-country” discharge, my time was up. A formal request
from the Director of the USO offering me a civilian job
fell into the hands of a “Major Burns”-type commanding
officer, who couldn’t tolerate me or anything he saw as
“unconventional.” The request was denied before I even
learned of it.
The “freedom bird,” as we called the
World Airways DC-8’s that brought American troops into
and out of Vietnam, banked sharply to the east, high
over the central mountains of Vietnam as my eyes
strained to distinguish French-style architecture of a
city far below that I thought might be Pleiku. I
wondered if she was really down there, and what it would
have been like had I stayed.
The seat I was in this time was
definitely not “my prerogative.”