Forty years later, Vietnam veterans search for lost loves

Published April 29, 2015

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — The girls walk up and down the bar-lined street in Ho Chi Minh City, enticing male tourists to come in, come in, sit down, have a drink.

Next door to the Caphe Da Lat 244 one recent night, a Vietnam veteran named Jim Reischl watches this scene unfold impassively, taking a drink out of a sweaty beer. Hard to believe it now, but more than four decades ago, a night just like this one changed his life.

He was a 21-year-old Air Force sergeant from St. Joseph, Minn., a virgin, who had been in Vietnam three months before his buddies at Tan Son Nhut Air Base finally persuaded him to head into town and have some fun.

That night, he met a bar girl named Linh Hoa and bought her a cup of tea. She was a sex worker. She spoke little English. She had a cascade of long hair that fell all the way down her back. He was smitten.

After nearly a lifetime had passed, he found himself back in Vietnam, the first of four trips he would take hoping to find her. All this time later, he has never been able to forget something she said shortly before he was due to ship out on the Fourth of July 1970.

"She told me she was pregnant," he recalls. "Was she telling me the truth? I don't know. At that moment, she said she wanted to come back to America with me."

He didn't believe her at the time. He thought maybe she was trying to trap him into taking her to the United States, something his military trainers had warned him about. But nearly 45 years, two failed marriages and some Agent Orange-related health problems later, he can't stop thinking about what she said.

"I want her to tell me whether it's true or not. Is there a child involved here? That's what I want to find out," he says.

Reischl, 67, a retired cartographer, is not the only soldier who has turned up in Vietnam looking for his lost love in recent years, according to Brian Hjort, a Danish man who runs a volunteer website to help reunite solders with their Vietnamese girlfriends — and their children — called Dozens have reached out to Hjort for help just in the past few years as their time has begun to wane.

During the years American servicemen were posted to Vietnam before the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) 40 years ago this month, their liaisons with local women produced an estimated 100,000 children. Many of those children were able to immigrate with their close family members after a special act of Congress passed in 1987, but hundreds remain in Vietnam.

"We're at an age now we want to find out answers," said Dennis Hall, a Kirkland, Wash., veteran with a lost girlfriend and child who is helping Reischl. "It's been in the dark for so many years. It would be nice to know before we pass away."

The group has connected Reischl with a Vietnamese translator and helped him place ads looking for Linh Hoa in local newspapers. He has even undergone hypnosis to see whether he could remember the address she gave him on a scrap of paper that he threw away after she never answered his first letter. So far, nothing.

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The next day, Reischl makes a trip down to the neighborhood where he and Linh Hoa had a $5 a month apartment, on a street that was once called Nguyen Van Thoai but that has a different name now since the country unified and the government changed all the street names and numbers.

By matching up the terra cotta tiles and distinctive grill work, he is able to narrow the search down to two adjoining buildings that were still there. The actual apartment where the two lovers shared whiskey sours and watched Armed Forces broadcasts on a small black-and-white television has been lost in time, just like the woman he knew there. A resident invites him to have a look around, and Reischl mounts four stories of stairs to reach a balcony with his old street view, his arthritic knees complaining as he goes.

"I will never stop looking," he says, once outside, gazing down at the traffic below.

He still has a photo of the last time he saw Linh Hoa. He snapped it quickly as he was heading off in a cab. In the photo, she is bent over the balcony rail in an apartment on this very street, watching him go. The picture is fading now, of course, but the grief endures.