First Financial Impact of More Troops In An Khe Was New Sign Painting Shop
(EDITOR’S NOTE: In the following article, Charles Black, Enquirer military writer who has been in Viet Nam, describes the effect a buildup in American troops has had on the town of An Khe, headquarters for the 1st Cavalry Division.)
By CHARLES BLACK
The town of An Khe in Central Viet Nam hasn’t exactly developed into a model city, but it has developed since the 1st Cavalry Division set up shop there last August.
Then the business district was two blocks long, starting at a mud field where the water buffaloes liked to lounge and winding up in a kind of open market where even the local residents wrinkled their noses while buying anything from hammocks to coconuts.
Probably the first financial impact on the town came at the sign-painting shop. This is run by a kind of genius, a man named Nguen Van Lanh (he now has competition but he was the first) who has a sort of command of English which he augmented with a phrase book. His colors are brilliant enough, but the words of the signs are even more arresting.
Possibly the easiest way to trace the economic boom which turned An Khe from a muddy little highland village into a muddy big highland village would be through Nguen Van Lanh’s efforts with planks, pieces of tin, and paint brush.
The first stage of An Khe becoming an Army town was reflected in a series of Van Lanh originals which were posted along almost every road, trail and footpath in the area. Some samples:
“Number One Laundry. Clean and Warrant.”
“Airborne Laundry for GI Solder here.”
“New York Laundry. We speak enough English.”
“London Laundry. The erasor is careful.”
“Numero Uno Laundry. Wash clean and warrant.”
“Pretty Laundry. Solder Clean Agents.”
“Clean Shop. Wasp and Irons. Ice Agent, snack bar, tea room, sooveniers. Warrant and Guarantor.”
It seemed impossible for Van Lanh to keep up with the amount of signs made necessary by the sudden influx of 60,000 pairs of dirty fatigues, but somehow each of his signs was a work of art.
When the boom began to get serious and enterprising business men and women set up shop along Highway 19, other sign shops showed up, including one run on the side by “Nguyen-Tuyen the Contractor, beds, tables, lamps, bicycle repairs, laundry center, all clean and modern and sign painting done here.”
The little roadside shops sprouted almost overnight. As in most things requiring initiative and energy, the mamasans of the families seemed to be in charge. The shops suddenly filled a two-mile stretch right up to the barbed wire of the 1st Cavalry’s Camp Radcliffe and Golf Course home base on the banks of the Song Ba.
The Song Ba itself was cluttered with industry, not just its banks; right out in the middle of the river the hum of business went on. Little boys swarmed over muddy trucks with GI drivers watching the process critically from a midstream parking place.
Whole families waded out into the river and beat the dirt out of huge piles of laundry. In the middle of all this a couple of reed sampans floated with a disgusted-looking pair of old men trailing a net and arguing with the people ruining the fishing.
Signs began to sprout announcing that “cars washing, cars greasing, cars and bicycles fixing” were taken care of there. The sticky mud of An Khe made the car washing places real moneymakers.
The GIs drove trucks and jeeps in, got the mud hosed off, paid a price usually hammered out with the proprietor in a hard bargaining session, and drove out into the mud again.
The Van Lanh touch appeared at the largest and most elaborate of these establishments in what must have been his crowning effort. It made the half-dozen new sign shops in town envious, this huge billboard - bigger than the office of the car wash rack - which appeared, saying:
“Good Friends Bathroom. Fresh or Warm Water. Car Washing and Greasing.”
Another series of business endeavors drew on his talents and he busily decorated the fronts of these buildings with neatly lettered signs.
The buildings were mainly constructed of tin roofs, rough lumber with dirt floors, and sheets of thin steel sent over by the U.S. Foreign aid program.
The steel was obtained from mills making beer cans. For some reason or another the sheets were rejected for beer cans, although labels had been stamped on all of them. A building may advertise half a dozen brands of beer on one wall. (Some fascinated GIs have bought suitcases made out of these beer can sheets.)
The signs on these included ones like:
“Ankhe Tea Room. Beer and Restaurant.”
“Far West Bar.”
“Imperial Supper Club and Laundry.”
What they didn’t have in luxury they made up in atmosphere. The floors were muddy, the lighting nonexistent, and the furniture catch as catch can, but they definitely had atmosphere. Many of them located in the area of the former buffalo wallow, for example, and that place was loaded with atmosphere.
There was only one problem here. A sign painter who hadn’t entered the competition came on the scene and, one after the other, neat little placards appeared on various of the new business’ front doors. Each displayed a simple but effective message: