DANANG, Vietnam – When Richard Parker left Vietnam in 1970, he planned to leave his memories of napalm attacks firmly in the past. Instead, as time marched on, they haunted him.
“We were the bad guys,” Parker, now 65, said of the American war effort in Vietnam. “I had some ghosts I had to face down.”
In 2011, Parker flew from Illinois to Danang, a central Vietnamese city where he had worked for 22 months as a builder in the Navy. First he visited nearby places he still remembered, including a mountain pass where he had seen shooting.
On the same trip, a Vietnamese man who once worked for the Marines introduced Parker to some American veterans who lived in Danang full time. Parker enjoyed meeting them and seeing the country in a new light – so much so that he moved to Danang a few months later.
The presence of American war veterans in today’s Vietnam – and the warm welcome they usually receive – is yet another sign of how much the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship has evolved since the countries normalized relations in 1995.
“They want to see a different Vietnam,” said Nguyen Thi Nga, 34, who often hosts American veterans and other expatriates at her seaside restaurant in Danang. The bamboo-frame structure overlooks Non Nuoc Beach and the adjacent South China Sea. Once known as “China Beach,” Non Nuoc was a tonic for many American military personnel during the war.
“Maybe they’ve realized that the war was too ugly, or they want to correct some of the wrong things that Americans did here,” Nga said.
North Vietnamese forces – supported by fellow communist allies the Soviet Union and China – seized control of Saigon, the U.S.-backed capital of the former South Vietnam, on April 30, 1975, ending a war that killed some 58,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese.
Forty years later, the U.S. is strengthening strategic and economic ties with Vietnam in hopes of counterbalancing China’s rising influence in Asia. Last year the U.S. partially lifted a longstanding embargo on selling Vietnam lethal weapons. Vietnam is also one of 12 nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an American-led free-trade negotiation.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, says it does not keep track of how many American veterans reside in Vietnam or visit it frequently. But Parker said he has met more than a dozen veterans who spend more than half the year in Danang.
Bill Ervin, a former Marine from Colorado who now runs a travel company here with his Vietnamese wife, said he knows about 50 Australian and American veterans who live in the area at least four months per year. Others, he added, visit regularly on short-term tourist visas.
Several veterans said in interviews they returned to Vietnam to confront wartime demons, and to see more of a country that had affected them so profoundly as young men.
“I guess you try to get back in touch with something in yourself,” said Ervin, who moved to Danang in 2007. “You left a large part of yourself here.”
Veterans also spoke of feeling a personal or collective responsibility for damage caused by the U.S. military, both through wartime violence and a chemical legacy that persists today.
Between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. military dumped some 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides on about a quarter of former South Vietnam, destroying a non-contiguous area of forest roughly the size of Massachusetts. The toxic chemical dioxin – an ingredient in Agent Orange – lingers in Vietnam’s soils and watersheds.
Vietnam says dioxin poisoning has directly caused cancers, birth defects and other health problems. The U.S. says the scientific evidence is not conclusive – even as it leads a $43 million dioxin cleanup project at the former U.S. air base in Danang. U.S. Veterans who served in Vietnam are eligible for disability compensation stemming from Agent Orange exposure.
“My friends were dying or becoming ill” from illnesses linked to Agent Orange, said Chuck Palazzo, a software developer from New York City who now lives in Danang. “It finally occurred to me at some point: I see the devastation that occurred to us. What the heck is going on with the Vietnamese?”
Palazzo, a former Marine who served in Danang, returned to Vietnam in 2001 before co-founding the Vietnam chapter of Veterans For Peace, a St. Louis-based nonprofit group. It organizes an annual Vietnam tour for veterans and activists, he said, and normally raises around $50,000 a year for Vietnamese organizations whose work addresses the war’s legacy.
About two or three American veterans a week typically visit the Danang Association for Victims of Agent Orange, a nonprofit support group for people with dioxin-linked disabilities, according to Phan Thanh Tien, the group’s vice chairman. Tien said more than half return regularly.
“The first words they say when they meet with victims are apologies for what they and their government did during the war,” Tien said in a telephone interview.
Another reason veterans settle in Danang, a city of nearly 1 million on Vietnam’s central coast, is the quality of life. Danang’s waterfront is peppered with beachfront resorts and golf courses. The ancient fishing town of Hoi An, a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage site, is nearby.
Most Saturdays, veterans are regulars at a poker game Ervin hosts for friends at his Danang home.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Parker was busy racking up poker chips at Ervin’s table. The host’s pile was dwindling.
“Beers on you today,” Ervin joked.
“Yeah, right,” Parker replied.
After Parker won the game, the men rode their motorcycles to the nearby Danang waterfront. At Loc Chau, the restaurant owned by Nguyen Thi Nga, Erwin and Parker ordered cold beers.
As the sun set over Danang’s modest skyline, they shot the breeze with two veterans from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who visit Vietnam regularly: Suel Jones, president of the Vietnam chapter of Veterans for Peace, and Deryle Perryman, a filmmaker and former music manager who is helping to build a music school in rural central Vietnam.
“I came back to make up for the sins of my youth,” Perryman recalled of his first visit, in 1995. “And I saw a beautiful country full of incredible people.” This trip was his seventeenth.
Parker also spoke with his friend Nguyen Tan Hoa, who first met Americans as a boy who cleaned Marines’ rifles. On Parker’s first trip back to Vietnam in 2011, he stayed at a Non Nuoc Beach guesthouse owned by Hoa, who brought him to Loc Chau restaurant and introduced him to several other American war veterans.
Hoa, who turns 60 in May, still speaks English in a loose, easy drawl – a product, he said, of spending years in close quarters with his American buddies.
“I learned how to be cool,” he said with a laugh, sipping from a can of Coca-Cola.
“This is the coolest man in Vietnam!” Parker said.
Several veterans said they were initially nervous about coming to Vietnam, only to be surprised by the warm reception they have received from Vietnamese of all generations.
Nga, the restaurateur, said the war is long gone and she rarely thinks about it.
“American veterans are just like any other foreigners now,” she said, sitting on a plastic chair in Loc Chau’s open-air dining area. “They come here and contribute to the economy.”