Our Mission:

My first husband, Capt. Jerry Zimmer, was an F4B Phantom jet pilot, whose aircraft was shot down on August 29, 1969, approximately 20 miles South of Da Nang, Vietnam, after six months in country. Neither Jerry nor his navigator, 1st Lt. Al Graf, was able to eject, before the aircraft crashed into the Que Son Mountains. Initially Jerry and Al were classified as Killed in Action/No Body Recovered (KIA/NBR). Years later, both Marines were listed as MIA, along with other service members whose bodies were never recovered.

Jerry has been gone nearly a half century, and hope for recovering his remains had run out a long time ago.  However, in recent years our family became involved with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), now merged with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), and learned that Jerry’s and Al’s remains might, in fact, be recoverable, so we are doing everything possible to support their efforts to make this happen and bring our guys home where they belong.

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Lessons Learned: Traveling Solo in Vietnam and Beyond

Wednesday, July 18, 2012 @ 08:07 AM  posted by Elaine Zimmer Davis

Former Army officer and Vietnam Veteran Doug Reese is shown here in 2009 with Mr. Du, a Viet Cong during the war, who helped us find Jerry’s and Al’s crash site.  Although now living in the USA, Reese continues to be a reminder that contacts in Vietnam are important — especially for travelers like me, who often go solo. (Partially shown in this photo is retired Lt Col Gene Mares, USMC, whose efforts also helped us convince JPAC that we had found Jerry’s site).

Maneuvering the MIA world is not easy and sometimes elevates grief to a whole new level.  And certainly the quest to locate and repatriate Jerry’s remains in Vietnam has been extraordinarily challenging at times.  However, I am a strong believer in trying to balance sobriety with humor and have found that my endless travel glitches – particularly when I go solo — keep the yin and yang in check. 

Undoubtedly, my preparation for traveling solo in Vietnam began nearly two decades ago, as a freelance writer covering the port of Yantai in mainland China for a business publication.  Although China was developing rapidly, especially in the economic zones, the country was vastly different than it is today with no Internet access or mobile phones, bicycles everywhere and few English speakers to be found.  Furthermore, I knew nothing about maritime commerce, shrimp farms, refrigerated containers and the list goes on.   I was truly a fish out of water! 

Despite being lackluster, my article was published; however, had I submitted the real story, it would have been anything but boring.  A quick sample:  Asked to make a toast at a formal dinner, hosted by the Mayor of Yantai and about 12 of his male colleagues, I selected a Spanish toast that unbeknownst to me translated into “Kiss – Kiss” in Mandarin, instead of “cheers.”  When everyone began laughing, and it wasn’t supposed to be funny, I knew something was wrong.  Although two decades have passed since that toast and trip, I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t assume that everything translates the same from one language to another. 

Thanks to my friend, Doug Reese, an Army Vietnam veteran and long-time in-country travel expert who has made incredible contributions to Jerry’s case, I have avoided many of my past mistakes –but not all — while traveling in Vietnam. Although Doug recently moved back to the United States with his Vietnamese wife, Nhung, and their daughter, Samantha,  we stay in close contact.  A master at communication, Doug always manages to track me down through his Skype connection, and my recent trip to Vietnam was no exception. 

While in country, I usually devote all my time to Jerry’s case; however, during this trip, I reserved a few days for leisure travel and asked Doug if he would pull together a boat trip on Halong Bay, which he did.  At the last minute, I decided to cancel Halong and instead spend the time in Hong Kong, where Ron and I had lived for a short time about eight years ago.   Consequently, I began rescheduling my final stay in Vietnam, along with booking flights and accommodations for Hong Kong.  The latter was not too difficult, but I soon learned that winging it in Vietnam is not advisable when traveling solo. 

Still whirling from the incredible experience of my recent trip to Jerry’s crash site, I made a quick visit to Detachment 2 in Hanoi and then departed for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) — unfortunately on a late-night flight.  I was scheduled to leave for Hong Kong the next day at 5 a.m. but needed to check in two hours early, so I decided to stay close to the airport in what I thought might be Saigon’s version of a Motel 6.  Big mistake.  Instead of a folksy place, I found myself looking at a fleebag hotel, praying that the cab driver was at the wrong address, but no such luck.  I sat in disbelief, thinking:  “Oh, my God, I screwed up this time.”  To say that I had booked a quickie hotel would not be an understatement. 

Whenever I travel in Vietnam, I always buy a SIM card for my unlocked mobile phone so that I can stay connected while in country.  I was finally settled into one of the hotel’s least deplorable rooms and was happy when I received a call from Doug, wanting to know how my trip was going.  Poor guy — I blurted out that the hotel in Saigon was bad and that I was going to sleep in my clothes, using one of my shirts to cover the pillow case.  I also told Doug about the pink princess phone that was hanging from an exposed wire on the wall and that a pipe was squirting water incessantly in the bathroom that now was flooded  – not to speak of the rabid dogs barking outside my window and the bad singer who was wailing in the bar next door.  “Elaine, if you had let me make your reservations, you would have been about 5 minutes further from the airport and a lot happier,” said Doug, who has become more like a brother than a friend.  He was absolutely right, considering Vietnam has beautiful hotels in Saigon and elsewhere.  Another lesson learned:  Always get a hotel referral from a trusted source.    

A travel optimist, my confidence was beginning to return during the flight to Hong Kong, after booking a boutique hotel that sounded perfect, even though it was sight unseen — again.  Although more familiar with hotels on the Hong Kong side of the island, I was happy to stay in Kowloon, which some people think is the real Hong Kong anyway.  Arriving at the hotel, I was pleased with my choice and even more so when I saw the room. After a quick shower, I grabbed a bite nearby with the thought of going to bed early, knowing that I would be hurting from a lack of sleep the night before. 

Within an hour, I returned to the hotel and immediately hopped on the elevator.  Thinking I had pressed the correct floor, I jumped off and didn’t notice that I had made a mistake since the floor was a mirror image of mine.  Convinced that I was putting the electronic card in my door, I played around with it before the door opened.  I was a little miffed that it didn’t work immediately but even more so when I realized that I had entered someone else’s room.  To be exact, I was in some guy’s room, because it was obvious that his suitcase was filled with men’s clothing – not a woman’s bag, as in mine, to be found!  I panicked, since the bathroom light was on, and I kept thinking, “Please don’t walk out of the shower with me standing here.”  He wasn’t in the room, and within a nanosecond I wasn’t either.   Lesson learned:  if the electronic card doesn’t work properly, don’t force it.

What I like best about traveling solo is the challenge, and I usually consider that any trip to a foreign country is a success if I stay healthy; arrive home safely; accomplish most of my objectives; learn what not to do the next time around and know that I balanced the yin and yang in the process.

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