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Myths and Legends of Soul Alley, Saigon

Having written two books about Australian army engineers (sappers) in the Vietnam War and having visited the country a dozen times as both a tourist and a tour guide, I am always on the alert for anything that taps into those two areas of interest.

Over the years I had heard rumours about an area called Soul Alley  – a legendary, almost mythical zone that was a home from home for African-American soldiers and a no-go zone for white GIs. 

A few years ago I started noticing requests in Tripadvisor for information about the precise location of Soul Alley. Most of the info provided was vague and/or well off the mark.

That led me to do my own research and that in turn led to me featuring Soul Alley in my crime novel Mole Creek (written under the name James Dunbar), as I explain in this feature that I wrote for the Australian Financial Review and which was published in July this year (2023).

Soul food and soul music in Saigon’s no-go zone

Blame it on the fog of war, or the mists of time, but there are tales from our military history that remain in the shadows.

When it comes to war stories, some secrets are carefully protected while others are quietly forgotten.  These are the rumours that have stopped being spread, the whispers that have simply fallen silent.

Take the legend of a black-only area called Soul Alley in wartime Saigon, a veritable den of iniquity that provides a backdrop for a couple of critical plot points in my new crime/spy thriller Mole Creek.

Look it up on all-knowing artificial intelligence platform Chat-GPT and you got nothing (until tricky AI plundered this article).

I first heard rumours about Soul Alley when I was researching my two non-fiction books on the Vietnam War – Tunnel Rats and A Sapper’s War. Frequently, I’d pick up references to this semi-mythical African-American area but could never find anyone who had been there.

Casual references would pop up on American veterans’ websites and it became clear that Soul Alley was very real; a cluster of narrow streets and typically twisting alleyways less than 2km from the US Army base at what is now the international airport.

However, hard facts were thin on the ground. After all, it was the kind of place you wouldn’t boast about having frequented. I finally struck gold when I discovered a 2018 website report about efforts to make a documentary film.

Entitled “For black GIs in Saigon, ‘Soul Alley’ was an oasis of food and vice”, the article describes how the film makers kept coming up against the same passive secrecy.

“These vets would look at me like, ‘How do you even know about that?’” film maker Ted Irving said. “It’s something they keep to themselves.” 

Part of this forgotten aspect of the Vietnam War was the racial tension within the American forces that occasionally led to riots in US army camps and near mutinies at sea.

Throughout the same period when the country was sending young men to fight in South-East Asia, the civil rights movement was growing in power and intensity in the USA.

When its leader Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the Vietnam War was at its height.  Only two weeks earlier, 500 Vietnamese civilians had been murdered in the My Lai massacre and the battle of Khe San was in full swing.

It was probably inevitable that racial tensions would simmer and occasionally boil over. In August 1968, hundreds of black prisoners overwhelmed prison guards at Long Binh Jail, a military facility just outside Saigon, where they captured the stockade commander and set buildings on fire.

Later that year, according to the New York Times, there were reports of large-scale battles between black and white soldiers in service clubs, while racial incidents occurred at the China Beach recreation area and in Danang clubs and dining halls on an almost daily basis.

In October, 1972 there was a race riot on the USS Kitty Hawk, with similar incidents on other Navy ships.

In Tunnel Rats, Australian sappers reported that many black American troops preferred to socialise with them rather than their countrymen.

So one can see how Soul Alley would be a refuge for African-American troops from the racism, both casual and overt, of their white comrades in arms. 

There the bars played soul music and blues rather than pop and country, there was soul food such as collard greens, grits and fried chicken (prepared by Vietnamese cooks) and it was effectively a no-go area for whites, unless they were accompanied by a black comrade.

For a long time, military police wouldn’t venture there, partly for fear of starting a civil war among the US forces. With no laws but its own, it predictably became a hotspot for drug dealing, prostitution, gun running and money laundering, with many deserters finding a haven there.

This was confirmed in a hard-to-find Time magazine article from December 1970 which detailed a combined raid on the area by US MPs, Saigon city police and South Vietnamese Army troops.

That rare incursion was prompted by an assault on a Military Police Jeep that had strayed into the area. The two MPs escaped with their lives but not their vehicle or weapons. The subsequent raid captured 56 local women and 110 GIs, 30 of whom were deserters.

One year later, according to a contemporaneous TV news clip now on YouTube, Soul Alley was back in action.

Wartime Vietnam is just one part of Mole Creek, which is mostly set in modern-day Tasmania. But while Mole Creek is mostly fiction Soul Alley was 100 per cent fact..

Mole Creek (by Jimmy Thomson, writing as James Dunbar) is published by Echo Publishing

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