|Royal Thai Air Force C-130 Hercules Transport
By Francine Mathews
The Vietnam Air pilot had a voice like smoke and spoke excellent English. He was probably trained by the military and might even have piloted a Soviet-built fighter jet during the war. Which meant we were in experienced hands, although we were flying in an old tin can undoubtedly built by Aeroflot. I tried to sustain these happy thoughts as I gripped my seat with white knuckles. Every time the guy tried to enter his descent for landing at Hue Airport, the entire plane shuddered violently, as though the wings were being torn off. Our pilot immediately ascended to safer air, circled, and tried again.
This went on for nearly an hour. I figured he was burning the last of his fuel so that when we crashed, it’d be more about smoke than fire. I’d left an eighteen-month old baby and a five year-old at home. I began to believe I’d never see them again.
We had flown south from Hanoi that afternoon for the ancient Vietnamese capital of Hue, which sat right in the midsection of the serpentine South East Asian country. After seeing the city and neighboring Hoi An, we intended to hop another plane for Saigon and then eventually head home.
I’d been researching my novel THE SECRET AGENT that autumn, and I’d already spent ten days in Thailand tracking the history of an American legend who disappeared without a trace–Jim Thompson: silk trader, businessman, and probable CIA NOC. He’d walked out of a Malaysian villa one Easter Sunday and was never seen again.
In Hanoi, my husband and I had visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, marveled at the babies tied into bike seats with simple silk scarves, and touched the walls of John McCain’s prison cell in the Hanoi Hilton. We’d eaten glorious French-Vietnamese food at a restaurant called L’Indochine and mourned the scrawny dogs trapped in cages at the open-air markets (yes, they were bound for the pot.) I had fallen utterly in love with Vietnam, which is one of the most transportive of places, a landscape rooted in the nineteenth century, with some of the chicest inhabitants of the twenty-first.
But I hadn’t calculated on a typhoon. Neither, I learned later, had Vietnam. Because in 1999 the country still had no national weather service. I’m repeating that thought because it still seems incredible. Vietnam could not predict its own weather.
And we were shuddering our way right into it.
The entire coastline of the South China Sea was about to be hit by a storm of Katrina-like proportions, bringing the highest flood waters in a century. One hundred thousand people’s homes would be inundated and nearly eight hundred would lose their lives. But for the moment, we were just trying to land.
The pilot came over the cabin speaker and told us we were being diverted to Da Nang, the old DMZ of Vietnam-war era days. It was only ten minutes away, he said, and we’d be bused to Hue once we landed safely there. He didn’t tell us why the diversion was necessary, or that Hue was three hours from Da Nang by bus, over high mountain passes. He didn’t mention that Da Nang was our only option, because it had the sole runway in the country long enough to land a jet of his size in violent wind. I learned all that later. Da Nang was our only option because its runway had been built by the US Army Corps of Engineers thirty-odd years before.
When we arrived in Hue sometime after midnight, our van moved slowly through streets awash in river water. By morning, the ground floor of our five-star hotel was flooded and the entire city’s electricity was out.
|Hue, Vietnam, November 1-6, 1999
Rain cascaded down the banisters of the grand lobby staircase and poured through the ceiling’s acoustic tiles. The hotel generator, on high ground, was completely subsumed. Water seeped through the space between our bedroom door and the exterior balcony, soaking the carpet. We changed to another room overlooking the pool. The Perfume River, one of the beauties of Hue that bisects the city, had engulfed the pool entirely and the deck chairs were floating downstream.
We were completely cut off, an island in a brown sea.
That night, we ate rice boiled in rainwater by the hotel staff, who had nowhere else to go. We would eat the same meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next five days–and be thankful to have it. The sound of relentless rain pelting every surface was one of the few that remained in the drowned city, and it slowly began to drive me mad. Our one diversion was the foreign press corps also staying at the hotel–a group of British, American and European journalists who’d accompanied a Thai government delegation to Vietnam. They’d come for a boondoggle. What they got was endless games of cards by candlelight with a novelist and her husband, and their new friend–an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor from Ohio who’d been surgically correcting kids’ congenital defects on a charitable mission for the past few weeks.
Two days into the typhoon, the refugees began to arrive.
They came by sampan as the rainfall began to abate. Most were foreign tourists who’d put up at hostels or cheaper rentals in town, and discovered too late that one-story structures (as most in Hue then were) meant clinging to the roof in a hurricane. One family of Swedish backpackers–parents and three children under the age of seven–had spent two nights inside a flooded house, with the father holding his three year-old daughter above his head to keep her out of the water. The little girl was traumatized when she arrived at our hotel; she never spoke and ate almost nothing for the remainder of the week.
On day four we realized we had missed our plane home out of Bangkok. And had no way to communicate that fact to our children or their babysitter.
On day five, we got news: The Royal Thai Air Force was flying in to retrieve the entire Thai delegation and their press corps, about a hundred and fifty people all told. They would have room to take a few others along. And there were at least thirty hotel guests who wanted a seat on that plane.
One of the journalists hinted that there might be A List. But no one knew whose names were on it.
My husband, Mark, is a secular Buddhist, and he immediately began to meditate. He did it to calm himself down and to avoid tearing The List out of some poor government official’s hands. Had we been older and wiser we might have tried bribing someone; but in retrospect, we were shockingly young and naive. Our good faith was rewarded: When the Royal Thai transport bus arrived to load for the airport, eight strangers were allowed on–the Swedish family, the ENT doctor, and us.
This is the interior of a C-130 Hercules Transport plane:
Ours was quite a bit older than this one. We filed aboard, strapped ourselves into our seat harnesses, and had a moment to look around. I’d never been on a C-130 before. The din of engines within the uninsulated fuselage was huge. Everywhere I looked, I saw instructions scrawled on the body of the plane in English. And it suddenly dawned on me: This was an American military C-130 that had been handed on to the Thais. Probably after service in Vietnam.
I was being airlifted out of the old war zone in a plane that had once fought there. When Mark was six, his father spent a year commanding an engineering battalion in Vietnam, like the one that had built this runway.
I had just strapped myself into history.
When we reached Da Nang and a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok, my husband and I gazed out for a moment in farewell at the aging transport that had lifted us from the floods. Five Royal Thai airmen in orange jump suits were gathered around the engines. One of them had fetched a wooden painter’s ladder and mounted it with a broom. As we watched, he attempted gamely to start the C-130’s propeller by shoving it with the broom handle.
He shoved. And he shoved.
The propeller refused to move.
Mark and I stared at each other. We had just trusted our lives to this plane. And we had survived. We were suddenly helpless with laughter.
All of Vietnam found its way into THE SECRET AGENT. That’s why I try to see the places where I set my stories. It’s impossible to imagine the things I know I’ll experience.
What have you done, readers, that made life just a bit more authentic?