When people outside of Vietnam hear the name of this country, they often automatically think of war, politics, and lives lost. Little attention is given to the people who live there and the rich history of the country itself.
Poultry specialist Robert C. Hargreaves got a firsthand look at the real Vietnam from 1965 to 1967 as an agricultural volunteer with the International Voluntary Services, which was the predecessor to the Peace Corps. He returned to the country several times.
The closest expression that the Vietnamese had for poultry specialist was “chicken engineer,” so everywhere he went, Hargreaves was introduced as “Mr. Bob, the chicken engineer.” The phrase sounds just as funny in Vietnamese as it does in English, and as a result, he was not easily forgotten.
Throughout the countryside, he developed chicken projects and other agricultural endeavors. Selling eggs was big business, and it brought in an important source of income for the Vietnamese people; his help sometimes meant the difference between starvation and survival.
In Mr. Bob, the Chicken Engineer, Hargreaves reveals close details of that period in Vietnam that are not often heard about in the Western world—beggars in the streets, soldiers giving away their paychecks to help children, the everyday kindness of peasants, and growing anti-American sentiments as the war dragged on.
In September I arrived in Phan Rang, a small province capitol of 15,000 on the central coast. Phan Rang's one claim to fame was its' nuoc mam, a fish sauce used by the Vietnamese as a condiment on nearly everything they ate.
There was only one telephone in town at the post office and it was usually out of order. The only entertainment was a movie theater that showed Chinese movies with French, English or Vietnamese subtitles. You never knew in advance which it would be. The trains had stopped running several years earlier because of Viet Cong activity. The small airport opened in the morning four times a week for the arrival of the 10 passenger Air America shuttle flight that flew from Saigon to Da Nang and back - one day in one direction and one day back twice a week. As soon as the plane left the resident flock of goats would wander back across the runway.
When I first arrived in Phan Rang the only other American in town was Larry Laverentz, the USAID (US Agency for International Development) representative. This gradually expanded to a small American community consisting of three USAID officials, one USIS (US Information Service) official, several American doctors and nurses who rotated in and out on a monthly basis to volunteer at the local hospital, myself and three other IVS volunteers. A navy SEAL, known to the rest of us as "the spook", kept to himself and was seldom seen. A military advisor (MACV) compound of 100 American soldiers was just outside of Phan Rang, and they showed American movies once a week. I could also eat there whenever I got tired of rice and nuoc mam.
The USAID office had a radio transmitter for regular communication with Nha Trang and the rest of the world. Nearly all my own communication with the outside world was through the shuttle flight. I averaged about one trip a month to Saigon for supplies and I usually brought back four or five hundred baby chicks in the back of the plane as well. My Vietnamese friends kept telling me "Don't go to Saigon! It's dangerous!" True enough, but how else was I going to get the vaccines and antibiotics I was using? Most of the fighting in Viet Nam took place around Saigon and in the north around the DMZ. The shuttle flight arrived in Saigon just after dark and the sky was always lit up with fireworks - curving red trajectories of tracer bullets, searchlights waving back and forth, repeated bursts of flares. In comparison Phan Rang was just a quiet backwater.
This all changed with the American buildup and the arrival of combat troops. In a short time there were more Americans than Vietnamese in Phan Rang! At least it seemed that way. The first I knew of it was the sudden appearance of a long chain link fence around the airport and much of the surrounding countryside in preparation for a new airbase for B52s and 7,000 airmen. It was also to be the headquarters for the 101st Airborne Division. Thirty miles to the north a huge new naval base was planned for Cam Ranh Bay.
The Vietnamese were quick to dream up plans to cash in on the new American presence. Dozens of crude booths were built in front of the entrance to the new airbase as soon as the fence appeared, selling
souveniers, beer and soda. Vietnamese questioned every American they could find about the possibility of employment. And a small delegation of Vietnamese villagers appeared at my door asking for assistance in obtaining a contract with the airbase for garbage to feed their pigs. While others were dreaming of sales and jobs, these people were dreaming of garbage. Mountains of beautiful, edible garbage.