I hadn't seen much of the city on the way to USARV HQ because of the confused traffic patterns that distracted me even though I wasn't driving. After my initiation by the MP, I was too focused on the mass of people around me to see it. I felt vulnerable sitting in an open jeep until I had returned a few more times and decided to stop worrying about it.
I had been in-country about two months when I decided to quit smoking one day. I'm not sure why, it was cheap enough; a carton of cigarettes only cost two dollars. The health scare had not yet been realized. I simply quit and my men laughed. I promised them all the beer they could drink if I fell off the wagon, and soon found myself headed back to Saigon with a driver, a jeep, and a trailer. On the way back from the docks with the trailer full of beer, street urchins known as cowboys began climbing on, breaking into cases, and pilfering cans every time we were stopped by the congestion. One intersection was so jammed with trucks and motor scooters that we sat for several minutes while I attempted to hold back throngs of the little thieves. Frustrated, I left the driver to defend our cargo while I walked to the intersection to direct traffic. People obeyed because I was armed, and the intersection was quickly cleared. I was probably in more danger standing in the midst of those throngs, bullying them into obeying my commands, than at any other time during my tour of duty; even when we got lost on the way back.
A stalled convoy blocked the road on the way back to Long Binh and we detoured through Ben Hoa to get around it. We took a wrong turn there and ended up on a rural road bordered by rice paddies on both sides. It was too narrow to turn around, especially with the load of beer in the trailer behind, so we keep on looking for some place with enough room when we came upon an American patrol. They were strung out in double file, one on each side of the road, and I had the driver stop so I could talk to their platoon leader who confirmed that we were going in the opposite direction away from where we needed to go. I thanked him and we continued on ahead of them, leaving them to wonder what kind of an idiot I was. I should have referred him to the MP at the USARV headquarters for a conference.
We found a farmhouse about two miles farther on and were able to turn around in their front yard. Later, when we passed the patrol now going in the opposite direction, I stopped and told the patrol leader that all seemed safe for the next mile or two and wished him a good day. Now, he was certain that I was an idiot. I was.
Once known as the Paris of the Orient, it had decayed after the Japanese replaced the French colonialists during World War II and never recovered its glory. When I arrived, it was crumbling at the edges and a patina of peeling paint covered almost every wall and ceiling. Few bridges had escaped attack, and those that remained open had gaps in the roadway. Sandbagged bunkers stood on both sides of each end, occupied by machine gunners and displaying signs that warned against stopping anywhere on the bridge; violators to be shot.
I only found one functioning traffic light in the whole city and it was largely ignored. There were no one directing traffic either; police officers probably feared exposing themselves in the rush of traffic, just as I had learned. Thus, intersecting traffic wove around each other in scenes resembling a figure eight race course in a demolition derby. Amazingly, I never witnessed even one accident despite the crush of horse drawn, pedal powered, and gas powered bicycles, tricycles, scooters, buses, trucks, autos, and jeeps.
I'm sorry that I only saw the city once at night; that was my last night in Vietnam as I waited at the barracks near Ton Son Nhut Air Force Base for my flight out the next day. I couldn't see much from under my mattress. It was the first night that the North Vietnamese Army rocketed Saigon following the destruction of the Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet Offensive. I had nowhere else to go, so I simply dragged my mattress off my bunk and over me, and went back to sleep.