Three Tastes of Nuoc Nam by Douglas Branson

Douglas Branson served in Vietnam in 1966-67 in the Navy as a Lieutenant JG. He was twenty-two years old then, and he has now produced Three Tastes of Nuoc Mam: The Brown Water Navy & Visits to Vietnam (Hellgate Press, 312 pp., $19.95, paper), a memoir about those long-ago experiences and trips he took  to Vietnam in 1995 and 2011—hence the title.

The back cover blurb informs the reader, “this is the story of the ‘Brown Water Navy,’ the garage band flotilla to do the job” of protecting the coast of South Vietnam against Viet Cong ambushes and smuggling.”

Because I served in Vietnam in 1966-67, the same period as the first section of this book, I found that section of the book the most interesting. I had no awareness at that time of a Brown Water Navy and didn’t hear a thing about it until many years later. It seemed like a well-kept secret.

When I saw the movie Apocalypse Now I got a glimpse of Americans on a boat on what was supposed to be a Vietnamese river, but that seemed to be more like Joseph Conrad’s famed literary novel Heart of Darkness than anything I knew about the Vietnam War. Also, Branson refers to the coast as the domain of the BWN, not the rivers.

As I started reading this book, I wondered how soon I’d encounter Swift Boats and if I’d find John Kerry’s name in these pages. Swift Boats are mentioned on the first page of the Preface, and John Kerry comes up in a discrediting mention on the very next page.  I immediately began to wonder if the author had been one of the cabal of Vietnam veterans who shrilly and brilliantly conspired to keep Senator Kerry from becoming president of the United States.

Also in the Preface, the author mentions three things I’ve encountered before in books by Vietnam veterans: that Army Special Forces troops “were notorious for wearing necklaces of Viet Cong ears”; that the troops in the field were required to fight the war with one had tied behind their backs; and that when Vietnam veterans returned home we were vilified as killers and losers. The Preface also goes on to say that the war was “unwinnable” and that the American presence was “unwise or even foolish.”

Near the end of this Preface, Branson informs the reader this book is creative non-fiction, that not all events described happened to him or in the way he recounts. He says the portrayals may represent “amalgrams,” which was a new word to me. Good luck in finding that word in your dictionary. I would have said “composites.”

John Kerry is mentioned again early on in book when Branson writes of his “alleged heroism as a Swift Boat officer in charge.” Kerry seemed to be like a toothache that Branson can’t ignore. Kerry appears again a few pages later when Branson questions his “much ballyhooed heroics,” as Swift Boats were not supposed to be on the rivers where those heroics happened.  Branson makes it clear that he is not a “Swift Boater” in the political sense. He says he keeps his mouth shut around them to avoid being vilified himself.

In fewer than one hundred pages the reader learns about the routine of Branson’s tour in the BWN—99 percent boredom and one percent pure terror: searching sampans, patrolling at night without lights, dealing with sudden large waves which threatened to sink his small boat.

Douglas M. Branson

Suddenly Branson is back home in an airport bar, trying to drink a gin and tonic, when he is run out of the place by a person screaming at him that he’s a baby killer. Refreshingly, the screaming culprit is not the legendary braless hippy girl, but is “a middle age, balding business man, dressed in a pin striped suit.”

A few months later, Branson entered law school and became a target of opportunity.  Everyone else in the school was antiwar, and they wouldn’t leave him alone. He had problems concentrating on his studies.  “I came back a war veteran into a hotbed of feelings and sentiments I could not comprehend,” he writes.

Branson’s chapter “Homecoming” was the one I most identified with, but I would have appreciated more details about his personal life, and some insight into how he coped with law school, and successfully made it through that process and became a successful attorney. Little is given to the reader about that story.

The final two sections of the book deal with the author returning to Vietnam, including to Phan Tiet, where he had been stationed during his tour of duty. His first return is in 1995.  His second is in 2011, and the changes in those sixteen years in the direction of a more modern Vietnam make for interesting reading. The bad smell of open sewers and the manufacture of the stinky fish sauce called nuoc mam are gone. Streets are paved and lighted.

“Vietnam is booming,” Branson says, “developing, attracting visitors, tourists, new businesses and bringing in dollars and Euros.”

This would be a useful book for a veteran to read prior to a trip to Vietnam as Branson does not mince words about anything. He makes it clear that there is no shortage of golf courses and resorts in Vietnam and that they are aimed at the Japanese.  Branson also makes it clear that he prefers Hanoi to Saigon as a place to visit, and he also tells the reader which tourist sites to visit and which to detour around.  He advises skipping most museums and most guided tours.

Read this honest and sometimes amusing book to discover Branson’s detailed reasons for his opinions. I have some trouble with his opinions about Agent Orange, as he seems to state that AO is a short-lived problem that does not pass on to the next generations.  This is my one major problem with Branson’s book. He says that the effects of Agent Orange have “a short half life, not extending into the generation following those born during the war.”  I don’t think so.

—David Willson