Veto’s Bar in Danang (and the mostly forgotten story of a deserter from the US army)

Da Nang, March 26, 1973: Soldiers march down a street following a farewell ceremony for some of the last U.S. troops in the country’s northern military region (Copied from Manh Hai’s Flickr)

One day, I’d like to find a bar in Danang called Veto’s.

It’d be pretty unassuming from the outside — no neon signs or glitz — and the interior would be old-fashioned and snug. I’m thinking, mellow lighting, non-intrusive tunes and a solid bar for propping up punters. You could get away with reading a book at Veto’s, but if you want to come clean and admit the book is a pretence, you’d easily get talking to someone, too.

A solo traveller who happened upon Veto’s and stepped in the door would immediately appreciate this ‘ấm cúng’ ambience. He or she’d order a bottle of the local brew, or a glass of wine, and ask if there’s a food menu. The bar staff would slide over a menu with a mix of Danang staples and, surprising the traveller, a few Hawaiian dishes — say, baked manapua, or a poke bowl with local yellowfin tuna, maybe some lomi-lomi salmon (ok, you got me, I don’t know anything about Hawaiian food and just Googled those dishes).

Before ordering a dish or two, the traveller would look up over the menu and start to notice the black&white street photography and portraits of Danang locals from the 1970s as well as some vintage images of Hawaii that’d further pique a curious mind.

As their beverage arrives, the traveller would lean in and ask: em oi, tell me — what’s the connection with Hawaii?

“Because, Veto Baker,” they’d be told.

Um, who?

You see Veto Huapili Baker was a US marine from Hawaii, who was stationed near Danang during the American-Vietnam war. He fell for a Vietnamese woman, and wanted to get married, but the US military said, no chance private. Back to your barracks.

So, because, all isn’t fair in love and war, in October 1972 , Veto slipped away in the dead of night (or maybe in the middle of the day, which ever you prefer) and married her anyway.

Officially he’d deserted, but Veto didn’t ‘join the other side’. He wasn’t a traitor. He just wanted to be with his lady. As she was from Danang, a city he knew well enough, Veto stayed with her family, hoping neither the Vietnamese nor American military would come looking for him.

With his Hawaiian complexion, the slightly built Veto didn’t stand out too much. But to earn his keep (or, escape the in-laws? Maybe a little of column A and a little of column B), he must have have felt obliged to get out of the house.

Some have said he fixed motorcycles. Some believe he was part of a road construction crew up in the mountains beyond Danang. One source I found claims he spent his time hunting and teaching English.

Obviously while residing and working in Danang, after the US had pulled out, Veto became known to the Vietnamese authorities, and they were undoubtedly keen for this known-unknown to leave. Sure, Veto might have deserted the enemy’s army for love but they wouldn’t have bought that one in a hurry. Any American ‘stay behind’ just couldn’t be trusted.

Veto and his wife were visited at home and taken away a couple of times, and released a couple of times, but eventually a decision must have been made to send him on his way.

So in 1976, he was taken to Saigon, turned over to the Red Cross, and sent to Thailand, before winding his way home to Hawaii (I am not sure when the wife travelled, but she did make it there, too).

I’m told in the late 1980s, the DIA office had some contact with him about his AWOL experiences from 1973–75. What he knew I can’t tell you, but there were tales of POW in the area. Maybe they were interested in that rather than what Veto had for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

By the end of the century, apparently he was alive and well, but there the already frigid trail goes ice cold.

Sorry — it’s not much of a story this one. Still, I can’t help wonder about Veto in Danang and what he did and what he ate and whether he picked up a Quang Nam accent, and what the hell his missus’ family originally made of this strange alliance and, years later, how he reflected on that time he deserted the US army for love…

And even though I can’t find anymore info, what little I can find seems like more than enough to dream up the existence of Veto’s in Danang. A humble tribute to a mostly forgotten story.

To be honest, I reckon he’s pretty heroic. Why not celebrate him?

So, if anyone in Danang ever wants to open a bar and name it after Veto, well, you certainly have my blessing — I mean, as long as you don’t turn it into a tiki bar, make the staff wear Hawaiian shirts and garlands of flowers and say aloha when you walk in the door.

Because, Veto didn’t want to draw attention to himself, neither should the bar.

All-purpose-writer. Made in Ireland, living in Vietnam. Features: Short stories: