Don’t Drink The Water

As we all prepared for our first military assignments to teach English in Saigon, no one more than I prepared to hunker down, play it safe, and get home alive.  Yeah, I laugh at all that now too.  Even so, in late 1969 and early 1970 as I came to accept that I was going to South Viet Nam and there wasn’t any real way out of it for me, I latched onto tips others provided on how to make it through my one year tour of duty in the Air Force.

I vowed not to pick up a Zippo lighter on the sidewalk, whatever a Zippo lighter was and looked like (I never smoked).  It would probably be a bomb anyway because a GI would never leave one lying around and a Vietnamese would never let one lay around.  I’d scope out various routes of travel and never develop a pattern of moving from any Point A to any Point B.  Hang around a large group of GIs in public?  Not me; we’d create too much of an easy valuable target for the Viet Cong.  Properly maintain my weapon and keep it in a secured location to ensure it would be ready when necessary and turn into a terrorist tool.  Don’t drink the water; locals had developed immunities we had not.  Oh, and one I came up with myself was to secure the area around and on top of my bed with sandbags, then sleep inside that mini bunker.

Yup, I was gonna make it through that year.  Alive.

Well, stuff happened.  I finally met GIs who owned Zippos, but I never saw one on the street.  I was too lazy riding my bike around town to take anything but the shortest route to get from the Base Exchange (BX) and school to where I lived.  I joined right in with groups of guys hanging out in bars without a thought in the world about how a grenade could be lobbed through a doorway and take out half a shift of teachers.  Or, more likely, a fire could have done the same.  I never did scrounge up any sandbags for my bunker bed.

However, I was always careful not to drink the local “water.”  As many may recall, I certainly did my share of beer drinking while we were together in Saigon in those early years of the 1970s.  Of course, like a few others, I could not usually afford the BX beer because it was too valuable as a commodity on the local market.  That ration card beer had better uses that to be consumed by this bright-eyed naïve kid from Spokane.

Nope, Biere Ba Muoi Ba – Beer 33 – was the drink of circumstance (certainly not choice, at least in the beginning).  That beer was primarily served from tall dark brown glass bottles shaped much like a chardonnay bottle.  I don’t think it was ever served chilled; at least it wasn’t in the places I hung out.  The cost of electricity would have been too much for those places and this beer moved so fast it wouldn’t have had time to get cooled in a refrigerator anyway.  Further, in the places where they had refrigeration they probably did not carry Ba Muoi Ba!

Yet, we didn’t drink warm beer either.  Well, some of us did drink warm beer, but by the time we got to that stage in the evening, we probably didn’t know it was warm anyway and certainly didn’t care.  So, no harm, no foul!  We did drink cold beer and we did it by filling our very thick–walled glasses with warm Ba Muoi Ba poured over a huge chunk or two of ice!  That chunk had no doubt just been calved with a rusted hand ice pick wielded by a pre-teenager in the back room or alley from a 1’ x 1’ x 3’ log of ice held on the filthy floor with the kid’s bare foot or tire-tread sandal.

Yup, I didn’t drink that contaminated water though!

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