Advice for Soldiers in Vietnam: ‘The Fish is Good’

“Most American soldiers landing in Vietnam in the 1960s were handed a ninety-three-page booklet called A Pocket Guide to Vietnam. Produced by the Department of Defense, it described how small, well-proportioned, dignified, and restrained Vietnamese people are, how the delicately-boned local women appear in their flowing national dress, how Vietnamese love tea, and don’t like slaps on the back, how they excel at cooking fish. Peasants labor in their paddies and at their traditional crafts, while upper-class men never work with their hands. We are ‘special guests here,’ the guide says, and should be courteous at all times, treat women politely, and make friends with their counterparts in the Vietnamese army. (The Americans must have been relieved to be told they were not subject to Vietnamese law, an arrangement, according to the guide, that ‘has worked out very well.’) At the end of the booklet are a few Vietnamese phrases: married women should be addressed as ba; unmarried ‘girls’ as co; children, girlfriends, or wives as em; male friends and male servants as anh; and servants as chi. Cainay la trai xoai means ‘It’s a mango’; Ong ay la nguoi tot is how to say ‘He’s a good man.’ Soldiers reading this advice could get the mistaken idea that they were going to a tourist destination with a bit of violence on the side. Telephone operators outside the main cities may speak only Vietnamese, and ‘Don’t be too handy with your camera’ among tribespeople. Although ‘The music of Vietnamese will be most strange to your ears until you get used to it,’ the guide advised them, ‘Should you get a chance to go to the theater you may enjoy the cai long, or modern form, more than the hat boi, or classical style.’ Unintentionally, this is good advice. In 1965 I was standing in a South Vietnamese village next to John Paul Vann, a CIA-connected American of long experience in the country (who later was the subject of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam). We were watching a traditional puppet show in which a Vietnamese soldier was knocking about a pale-skinned foreigner. As the audience cheered and laughed, Vann, who would later be killed in a helicopter crash and his body stripped of valuables by South Vietnamese rangers, said, ‘That’s us being smashed.’ …”
[PDF] A Pocket Guide to Vietnam, 1962

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