Marine veteran Ron Chambers returns to Vietnam armed only with his golf clubs and memories

He's an avid enough golfer to fly nearly 9,000 miles to play golf in a place to which he thought he'd never return.
Julian Wainwright

Ron Chambers is sitting in the rooftop bar of the Caravelle Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, the same hangout where decades ago war reporters congregated to drink Scotch and swap stories. Below him the city is humming. It's a Sunday evening but the streets are clogged with cars and mopeds, all weaving between gleaming office towers and low-rent outdoor markets where street vendors hawk pork-stuffed baguettes, dried squid and cigarettes.

\nA storm has been brewing. Thunder cracks — a startling, rattle-your-teeth crack! Chambers' eyes widen and his head darts back and forth. In an instant the composed, gray-haired, 65-year-old book publisher has again become that 25-year-old Marine lieutenant who led convoys through North Vietnamese fire. As the skies settle, Chambers takes a swig of his Tiger beer. "It used to be a lot worse," he says of his jitters. Like that time a cab backfired near him on a New York City sidewalk. "I did what you do under fire," he says. "I was in my blue suit and tie, and carrying a briefcase, and I dove right into a little doorway off the street. Everyone was looking at me."

\nThis is Chambers' first trip back to Vietnam since he left in December 1968, a year when more than 16,000 American troops died here. His reasons for returning are the same as those of many veterans who have made the pilgrimage — to pay respects to fallen comrades, to make peace with the past. But Chambers has packed something that he wouldn't have needed in 1968: golf clubs. Vietnam, once synonymous with bloodshed, is remaking itself as a golf destination, complete with luxury hotels, A-list course designers, and a marketable name with a whiff of danger: the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail.

\nSeven courses make up the trail, which runs from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City, about 700 miles to the south. All told, Vietnam has 18 courses, up from four just 12 years ago. Another 60 courses are either under construction or in planning, a by-product of the economic boom that began when the United States lifted its trade embargo in 1994.

\n"The hotel market in Vietnam is crazy," says Hal Phillips, who markets vacation spots here. "Every major hotelier is in the country with a project."

\nCall it the New 'Nam.

\nHow today's Vietnamese feel about the influx of American tourists tends to be a generational issue, says Matt Steinglass, a Vietnam-based reporter for the German press agency DPA. "Most people don't have a sense of connection with the war," he explains. "Still, there are powerful and complicated attitudes about the United States, largely formed from what happened in the war. Lots of people have a sense of suspicion about the U.S., but at the same time people were overjoyed when the U.S. restored relations with Vietnam, and that's largely seen as the keystone of the country's economic revival. It's really a love-hate relationship."

\nVeterans of the war tend to have equally mixed feelings about returning to Vietnam, with or without their golf clubs. "I know some guys who are going back," says Gene DiGiacomo, who organizes golf outings around New York City to raise money for veterans' causes. "But I also know a lot of guys who would never go back."

\nEd Dougherty, a former PGA Tour pro and decorated Vietnam veteran, doesn't mind talking about the war, but, he says, "I hope you're not asking me to go back there — because the answer's no."

\nChambers had his own reservations, fearing a return trip might reawaken his demons. Not that his kind eyes and easy humor fit any Hollywood stereotype of a troubled Vietnam vet. He wasn't wracked with guilt from his actions in the war, and he resented those assumptions when he got out of the Marines. "You came back and by 1970 everyone thought you were a Calley," he says, referring to the notorious Army lieutenant responsible for the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians. "Well, my guys didn't do anything like that and I didn't know any other officers who would allow it, either."

\nStill, you don't emerge from firefights and ambushes unscathed. Chambers had his share of nightmares. He didn't exactly find solace on the fairways after the war, but golf has long played an important role in his life. He started playing as a kid in Lebanon, Ind., where his father owned the hardware store. When his dad died young of a heart attack, the local country club offered Chambers a junior membership, and he played all through high school.

\nIn the fall of 1966, after graduating from William and Mary College in Virginia, Chambers signed up for the Marines. "I was young and joining was almost a Hemingway-esque thing," he says. "But one thing was for certain: If I joined the Marines I was going to Vietnam."

\nA month later, right after Christmas, he arrived at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., for Officer Candidate School. "The sergeants were waiting for us," he recalls. "You got off the train and — boom! — you were in the Marines." Five weeks in he hurt his leg. The sergeants called him "Gimpalong," but if he went to the infirmary he would have to repeat OCS from the beginning. No way, he thought. So he managed to limp through his final physical test, a grueling 12-mile forced march in full equipment. When he finished, he checked himself into the infirmary and learned he had a stress fracture. "After that, I was treated differently," Chambers says. "All the sergeants said, 'This guy's OK — he had a broken leg.'"

\nHe married soon after, and in November 1967, after motor transport training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Chambers shipped out to Vietnam on the quietest plane he's ever flown. No one said a word. For the next 13 months he ran motor transports throughout Vietnam and witnessed two of the bloodiest events of the war: the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sahn.

\nIt was a terrible time, but he insists that he emerged a stronger man. "I answered questions about myself in Vietnam," he says. "I survived. I wasn't Audie Murphy, but I didn't run, either. I always had a lot more confidence in myself after that."

\nAfter returning home, Chambers started a successful book-publishing career, and with his now ex-wife, Louise, had two children. He didn't get serious about golf until the kids were grown. Today he's an 8-handicap at Lochmere Golf Club near Raleigh, N.C., and avid enough to fly nearly 9,000 miles to play golf in a place to which he thought he'd never return.

\nChambers' first stop on his trip is the Vietnam Golf and Country Club, a tropical track near a government firing range on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. "This is brutal," he gasps, downing two bottles of water on the 12th hole. He is clearly jet-lagged and suffering on a humid, 90-degree October day. Ho Chi Minh City's busiest course is the first and last one he plays from the tips in Vietnam. "I'm 65 now," he says, laughing, "I'm allowed to play the whites."

\nChambers was never in Ho Chi Minh City during the war, so his visit to the capital is pure tourism, not burdened by the weight of memory. His next stop is not so carefree.

\nIn 1968, the U.S. airbase in Danang, nearly 800 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City, roared with activity. Bombing strike missions and troop transports streamed in and out around the clock. Chambers steps off the flight and scans the property, but struggles to reconcile this relatively quiet modern airport with the buzzing center of the U.S. war effort he remembered.

\n"Danang was huge, dusty and noisy back then," he says. "The harbor was full of supply ships. Now it's almost serene. There isn't any military evidence at all except our old hangars at the airport."

\nDanang was home to China Beach, the R&R spot for American troops made famous by the 1980s TV show. Today, billboards advertise a coming Hilton hotel, and graveyards along the coast are being relocated along with entire villages to make room for golf courses and resorts. If the Nam Hai Hotel and the nearby Montgomerie Links are any indication, Danang isn't targeting the budget traveler. Rooms start at $700.

\nThroughout his trip Chambers never looked nervous or misty-eyed. But standing on the first tee at the luxurious Montgomerie Links course puts him in a reflective mood. "I keep asking myself: Why does anyone fight wars?" Chambers says. "I was here 40 years ago to fight a war. Now I come back to beautiful hotels and golf courses, and everyone is so nice to me."

\nAfter playing nine holes (the second nine won't be ready until later this year), Chambers tours the property to see the holes in progress. Darkness has begun to fall when he discovers a concrete pillbox bunker behind the sixth tee. Snakes are likely slithering inside, but Chambers quickly climbs in and scans the walls for familiar graffiti. His movements sharpen, as if he is back in Marine mode, and his speech quickens as the memories rush back. He explains how American soldiers used these French-built bunkers as command centers from which troops would go out to listening posts and monitor enemy movements.

\n"In a listening post you couldn't say, 'Everything OK?' because the enemy was probably out there," Chambers says. "So you'd just click the radio. 'Click, click.' That meant, 'Are you there?' 'Click, click' back meant 'I'm OK.'"

\nThe Montgomerie Links borders a village where people still live with water buffalo in the rice paddies and you can see an old mama-san with teeth blackened from betel juice. The village will soon be relocated for a residential development, which has led to tension — and even the odd flying rock — between villagers and golfers. The morning after playing the course, Chambers joins a translator (and a security guard) and makes for the village, where a former member of the Viet Cong still lives.

\nHe walks down a hillside from the course, over wire fences and through a dense thicket of bushes that opens to a small white house with livestock and dogs roaming the yard. This is the home of Phan Van Dung, who greets Chambers clad in purple silk pajamas over a white undershirt. His wife, Nguyen Thi Ym, serves both men tea. Phan, 67, appears unperturbed by the presence of an American veteran in his home. His bearing, attire and home look just as it might have in 1968, or even 1948. This is the Vietnam of Chambers' memory.

\nThe American speaks first, choosing his words carefully so not to off end his host. "I was here 40 years ago as a soldier, as an American Marine," he says. This is the moment he'd been apprehensive about. Phan's country had been torn apart by war and now he was face to face with the old enemy. But nothing in Phan's eyes betrays how he feels about Chambers, Americans or the war. His words, like Chambers', are measured.

\n"The Marines were right up there," Phan says, pointing north. "In Tet in 1968, I fought right here."

\nChambers' eyes widen. "I was here too," he says. "I was at that fight."

\nThe old warriors stare at one another as they share a memory only they can understand. Any unease between them disappears as Phan starts speaking Vietnamese — about the war, about Agent Orange, about how his eyes were never the same after Tet. The translator can barely keep up. Phan shows Chambers his award for service in the Viet Cong, and the two men shake hands.

\nAfter leaving the village, Chambers spends the day revisiting sites around Danang: the Hai Van Pass, the scenic mountain road overlooking Danang's half-moon bay where Chambers had led countless truck convoys; the Marble Mountains, huge limestone and marble outcrops that hold cathedral-sized caves with giant Buddhist statues. But his meeting with Phan lingers.

\n"When I told him where I was at Tet, he smiled," Chambers says. "I felt the same comradeship that Union and Confederate soldiers must have felt when they visited Gettysburg 40 years later and could talk to each other about it. He wasn't personally blaming us."

\nDalat is a perfectly preserved French colonial town in the Central Highlands about 190 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. It survived the war virtually unscathed because both sides used it as a getaway spot. Today it's still a popular honeymoon destination. As Chambers' driver explained, "If my wife is mad at me, I take her to Dalat."

The French built the Dalat Palace Hotel in the 1920s. Its art deco facade dates from the 1940s, but inside is turn-of-the-century Parisian elegance. The hotel's golf course, an old-school layout lined with pines alongside Xuan Huong Lake, is widely considered Vietnam's finest. It is here that Chambers finds closure, not in revisiting an old battlefield. He realizes how far this country has come in 40 years, and that a younger generation has moved on to a better life.

\n"Vietnam is not what I expected," he says. "I didn't know they had made so much progress."

\nIn October 1968 Chambers celebrated his 25th birthday on enemy soil. The menu was canned C-rations, franks and beans. He celebrated his 65th birthday in Dalat, in an ornate dining room under crystal chandeliers, feasting on beef fillet and foie gras at a dinner hosted by a collection of French and American ex-pats. All of them had come to Vietnam for golf, tourism and profit. "In a place where I'd never seen a flushing toilet before, was that ever different," Chambers says after the dinner, which ran deep into the night. "I just had to shake my head and smile."

\nAfter a week in Vietnam, any sense of uneasiness that Chambers might have felt about a return trip has evaporated, replaced with the glow of a warm, sincere welcome and a sense of awe at the surprises brought by the passage of time.

\n"I remember leaving Vietnam back in December of 1968," he says, as he winds his way through the congested streets of Ho Chi Minh City, heading out to the airport for his flight home to North Carolina. "I was on the airplane reading the Stars and Stripes newspaper and there was a story about a group of Marines who were hunting a tiger who had killed a Marine near Danang. The article speculated that the tiger had gotten a taste for human flesh by eating bodies. That was how undeveloped a place Vietnam was then."

\nAround him, countless mopeds carry Vietnamese to jobs at swanky hotels, office buildings, restaurants, construction sites and factories. This has become a thoroughly modern boomtown, and an American soldier's departure doesn't cause a ripple. Forty years is a long time.

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