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War-time friendship rekindled in Quang Nam

Update: October, 13/2013 - 02:00

Back in the day: Ron Beman and his old friend Phan Thi Kim Hong pictured nearly half a century ago.

by Cong Thanh

Ron Beman, an American war veteran returned to Viet Nam last year to search for a Vietnamese girl in Nui Thanh District in Quang Nam Province. His main "key" was a 47-year-old black and white photo. Beman, who was stationed at the US Chu Lai Air Base between April 1965 and August 1966, kept the portrait as a reminder of an unforgettable moment nearly half century ago.

In a trip to Quang Ngai last year, Beman stopped in Nui Thanh. He walked around with the portrait and asked local people about the girl. He was lucky. An old woman recognised the portrait and arranged a meeting with her in September.

Beman said he met the girl, Phan Thi Kim Hong, in Nui Thanh District, a few kilometres from the air base, while in a support job with the Third Marine Division at Chu Lai. He was impressed with her big smile and friendliness. Hong's family owned a tiny grocery shop in the town.

"I was in Chu Lai for only 16 months," Beman said. "We covered the southern flank of Da Nang. I was with a group called the First FSR. We provided high quality electronic technical help to the division. "We were all college-trained engineers and could fix anything almost as good as the factory that made it," Beman recalled.

"My primary focus was ground-based FM communication used by armoured vehicles, jeeps and other mobile units. I was also tasked with providing front-line assistance during several major operations," he said.

Beman said he met Hong once when his truck was going into town.

"She offered something for sale, and her smile impressed me," he recalled. "That's why I often went to her shop when I went out. We were allowed to go to town once a month, and I spent a lot of time at her shop. I would buy a few beers, cigarettes or towels," he said.

"We could not converse much. I had a few Vietnamese words like xin chao (hello) or cam on (thanks), while she could speak what's knows as "pigeon" English. We spoke more with our eyes. It was pleasant as I was living far from home and lonely," Beman said, saying Hong was his only Vietnamese friend in Chu Lai.

Memento: A black and white portrait of Hong was the key to helping Ron rediscover his old friend.

Hong, now 63, was born into a poor family with five children in Nui Thanh. She and her mother had to sell things in the market, at the station and on the trains to make ends meet.

"I had to sell groceries on the train from Nui Thanh to Tam Ky town. My family did not have a farm, so my mother and I were the bread-winners for our family. I was 15, but my sisters were little," Hong said.

"A friend and I then opened a little shop in the town, near my house. It was near to Chu Lai air base and our customers were American soldiers and local people. I made small amounts to help my mother ease the hardship of life," she said.

Hong said Beman was friendly and handsome.

"He came to my shop every time he went out. I tried to communicate with him with my little English. However, we could understand each other through eyes," she said. "Sometimes Ron [Beman] came with his friends and took picture of us. However, he generally walked to my shop alone, usually at lunch time," she recalled.

Hong said one day she gave him a black-and-white photo with a message on the back: "I give you my picture, so that you can see me when you are away".

After late 1966, she did not see him again. "I thought he had gone home. I married a local man in 1967, but we moved to the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak after the country's reunification in 1975," she said, adding she had five children.

Familiar faces: Ron and Hong meet again in Nui Thanh District, Quang Nam Province after a nearly-half-century-wait. — VNS Photos Cong Thanh

Hong said she had almost forgotten Beman because of daily involvement with her family and children.

"Time slipped by and I did not have free time to remember. We had to wrestle with farming life in the Central Highlands region," she said. "I was so surprised when my niece informed me that a foreigner was looking for me. It did not make sense. I thought my niece was kidding."

A friend of Beman, Quang Le, who is working for a non-government organisation called PeaceTrees Viet Nam, found her house in Dak Lak and set up an appointment. "I recognised Ron and my portrait when Quang Le come to my house and reminded me of 47 years ago. I did not imagine that Beman would keep the picture so well, and that he still remembered me," she said. "We treated each other like old friends. It's not a love affair," Hong said commenting on the reunion.

Beman said Hong offered him a blue crab for lunch in 1966. It reminded him of the meal they had the first time he met her.

He said, "When I went to visit her, she offered me a crab, saying an di (eat). It was the first time I had a blue crab in Viet Nam," Beman said.

At the time, he told her he would soon be leaving Viet Nam. "I asked her for a photo before I went home," he said. "It's unbelievable. I have met my old friend after a 47-year-wait. It's quite a long journey for me."

Beman and Hong returned to her old shop in Nui Thanh District, which is now a camera shop. He is now a member of the board of directors for PeaceTrees Viet Nam, which searches for landmines, bombs and other unexploded ordnances left from the American War throughout Quang Tri Province.

"In addition to my board duties, I am also doing other projects through PeaceTrees in Viet Nam. I funded the construction of a kindergarten in Quang Binh Province and also funded the equipment to build a computer system for information technology and language learning at a high school in Quang Tri Province," he said. "I am also working on providing English teaching to both provinces. I hope to have classes beginning the first part of 2014," he said.

Hong now has 14 grandsons and a daughter, and has retired from farming cashews and coffee. — VNS

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