Travel & Life - February 10, 2018 | 05:56 pm PT

A day with Vietnam's 'Top Gun' veteran fighter pilot

Meet Nguyen Van Bay, one of the most decorated pilots of the Vietnam War, at his simple farm in the heart of the Mekong Delta.

A corner for souvenirs in Bay's house.

Trying to find Nguyen Van Bay in the heart of the Mekong Delta can tire out even the most enthusiastic of visitors. The address given for the Vietnam War jet fighter ace is simply Lai Vung Town, somewhere in the vast wetlands of Dong Thap Province. 

Locals hence become the de facto map for visitors wishing to discover his hideout.

Turn off the highway, they said, and head down a dirt track for a few kilometers to Hau Thanh Hamlet, and you'll find his farm there.

Bay carries a bamboo trunk he chopped down. The fish pond needs reinforcing, he said.

“Uncle Bay is a great man,” one neighbor added after giving directions to the astray out-of-towner. “Every month he pays to fix this dirt road we are standing on using his pension money. It often gets very muddy during the rainy season, you know,” the man said, before going back to his drinking buddies and their small rice wine party.

On a wider stage, Nguyen Van Bay is best known for his combat feats in the skies: seven aerial victories over the Americans flying solo in Soviet MiG-17s, making him one of only four North Vietnamese jetfighters to be recognized by both the Vietnam People's Air Force and the United States Air Force.

While his story of a farmer-turned pilot who “went straight from a bicycle into an airplane with no stops in between” appeals to many, the former jet fighter, now 82, has become aloof to the public attention as well as requests for interviews.

Instead, neighbors usually see him in a worn-out shirt, either busy tidying up his orchard or wading in his fish pond.

“Some reporters came to write about me and my farm the other day,” Bay complained, waving his hand in a gesture of refusal to questions about his life. “They assumed I must be enduring a tough life because I'm still laboring hard at this age. I told them I work because I like to work. What’s the fun in sitting around all day long?”

It was not until his guest agreed to join him for a bottle of rice wine at the end of the day that the old man smiled wryly and began to answer the questions, while continuing to work on his pond and harvest mangoes and coffee from his garden.

What prompted you to become a pilot?

I was 17 when I joined the revolutionary forces. At the time I had no idea what “revolutionary” meant, but I adored the Viet Minh [League for the Independence of Vietnam] people!

They only came into the commune at dark, and always carried guns with them. When they talked it was about a revolution, something about overthrowing somebody to liberate the nation. Back then I loved listening to that stuff, even though I didn't understand what "revolution" meant.

The only idea I had in mind was to fight the French “oppressors” who were around my neighborhood. I wanted to strike back for my people.

What about school?

School? What for? Things were different back then from how they are now. Back in the day we only went to school to learn how to read and write. Once you knew all that first-grade stuff, you were pretty much prepared for life. I didn’t even finish third grade.

And you were chosen for pilot training?

I couldn’t believe it either. Growing up, I had never even seen an airplane in the sky, let alone fly one. It was not until around 1954 when I was stationed in the North that I saw a French helicopter for the first time. Its blades spun round and round. Spectacular. That was when I started dreaming of becoming a pilot.

A Vietnam People's Air Force emblem decorates the top of Bay's house. The former pilot said he made it himself.

At the time, Uncle Ho [Ho Chi Minh] wanted the military to be equipped with an air force, along with a navy and infantry. The Central Committee started to send medical teams to regiments in the North in 1960. First they filtered out anyone who was profiled as coming from a family of former 'landlords', they were deemed unqualified. Following that was a series of health checks. Among thousands of men only three were chosen. I was 1m67 (5 ft 6) tall and weighed 69kg (10.9 st). Somehow I still think their selections were made at random.

But then it came to literacy requirements. I could do basic math, but that was it, and I needed to have at least completed high school to qualify for pilot training. So they told me: “Comrade, you’ll have to take intensive supplementary classes in Lang Son Province.”

An old photo of Nguyen Van Bay placed next to a MiG-17 miniature model.

So I got sent to private classes. The goal was to make me, a then third grader, graduate high school within seven days. They taught me all the laws of math and physics, for example, but I was told to memorize the formulas only and to skip the analysis. If you are in a plane, you only need to know how to calculate the forces of lift, drag, and traction. Memorize the formula and you passed.

And then?

Then thirty-four of us kids were sent to China for pilot training that same year. 

Before we departed, I remember we were visited by a special guest, Uncle Ho. He came to have a few words with us. At the end of the meeting, Uncle Ho asked if there were any southerners in the squad. When I and another member stood up, he turned to us and said: [imitating Ho Chi Minh’s Central Vietnamese accent] “I hope one day you will fly me to visit the people in the South, when our country is unified.” 

Bay hangs his uniform next to one of his casual shirts.

How was the training in China?

Oh boy it was hard! The trainers were all Chinese and they instructed us in their language. 

The Vietnamese trainees had to study day and night to grasp what they were saying during training. But I was a lazy student and just learnt a few key phrases such as “turn left”, “turn right” and “pull or push the [plane] yoke”.

As trainees, we started to familiarize ourselves with propeller planes. The trainers flew the first round for us to observe and learn. Then they sat behind us in the passenger seat and watched us copy what they had just done.

Do you remember your first flight?

Yeah, it was so funny. The instructor told me to turn the engine on and to always keep a tight grip of the controls. But the moment I pressed the starter, the engine roared and the blades spun like crazy. I was so amazed that I yelled, took my hands off the stick and started applauding instead.

Of course my instructor sitting behind me was not as thrilled, but luckily he lunged forward and grabbed the controls in time, otherwise we would have plunged into the ground.

Bay re-enacts the moment he applauded when he started the engine on his first flight.

The scariest moment for me was when the instructor was replaced by a bag of sand and I had to fly solo. You know, without a trainer on the plane, if you screwed up, you were doomed. I was terrified at first, sweating like hell. But once the plane took off and flew into the sky, the feeling was incomparable, like I was finally the master of this giant machine.

What was the hardest part of becoming a jet fighter? 

Yeah. I quickly figured out that flying that metal heap was not so easy. I have a balance disorder, which made me sick the moment I got into the seat. We were not provided with sick bags back then, so I had to improvise with a soccer ball, cutting a hole in the top and tying it with a string around my neck. It was my sick bag during flights for the first year of training.”

Tell us about your first aerial engagement.

Yeah. I was flying for the first time in Vietnam, above Yen The [in the northern province of Bac Giang]. It was around 10 a.m. on June 19, 1965. I was escorting the lead aircraft, which we always called Mr Number One. “Always follow to protect Number One,” I remember our instructors saying in training.

So there I was busy keeping up with the lead aircraft when suddenly I heard a loud bang. Out of nowhere a group of fighters appeared from behind, shooting and firing missiles at us. One hit my left wing, and within seconds the whole plane started to nose dive. I had to pull up and nurse the plane back to land safely at Noi Bai airfield. Later they counted 82 holes in my aircraft. From that moment on I was always looking over my shoulder for enemy aircraft.

Though the State awarded me the second class military medal for the first air-to-air engagement, I took it as a failed mission. I was embarrassed when they gave me the award.

Bay takes a rest in a hammock in his living room. A photo of his comrades hangs next to a framed picture of General Vo Nguyen Giap.

But then you went on to shoot down seven aircraft. Was there any strategy you used in combat?

I always tried to fly close enough so the enemy was in firing range. The American aircraft were more modern, faster and better equipped than our MiG-17s, which only had three guns with a short range. To take down the big guys, we had to get close enough to maximize the damage on the target. It was risky, but it was the only way to win.

And then you were grounded after two years of combat?

Yeah, I was so upset at first. I wanted to carry on fighting but he [Ho Chi Minh] forbade me from engaging in any more combat. 

It took me a while to think it through. You know, in the end nobody can be the best at something; there will always be someone who is better than you. And I’d got to live, to be a living witness of our time. After all, I became a pilot because of Uncle Ho, and I am also alive today because of him.

Bay and his wife, Tran Thi Nien (R).

How did you meet your wife?

I met her during a training course at Cat Bi Airport in Hai Phong Province. I had always wanted to marry someone from my hometown in Lai Vung. So I managed to get hold of a list of southern high school students who had regrouped in Hai Phong, and I found her, a Lai Vung girl. We dated for a short time before I asked her family and proposed to her.

My wedding lasted for just 45 minutes in April 1966. We were holding the ceremony when an emergency alarm was sounded. I left my bride to finish the ceremony alone with the guests - she was still in her wedding dress – while I ran back and flew into combat.

Some afternoons his neighbors come over for a drink served with home-reared chicken and fish.

How is your life in Lai Vung?

It's great. I wake up at 4:30 in the morning and walk to my neighbor's house to have tea.

Then I head back home to my farm, tend to the garden and feed the fish before breakfast. Sometimes I take a break to either watch TV with my family or have a drink with my neighbors. 

I always find something to do during the day; it's the best way to keep me in good health. 

Bay in the vast farm he inherited from his parents.
Bay sells lotus seeds from his garden to a local trader.
Bay prepares breakfast for his fish.
Bay picks star apples from his orchard to send to his children in Ho Chi Minh City.
Ace fighter Nguyen Van Bay dressed up for a portrait photo.

Thanh Nguyen, Nhung Nguyen