'Chump' or saviour? Trump trip divides US war vets in Vietnam

Danang (Vietnam) (AFP) –


When President Donald Trump lands in Danang, once a key US wartime air base, he'll receive a mixed welcome from American veterans who fought on Vietnamese soil but now call the coastal city home.

Trump fans among Danang's community of war vets are keenly awaiting an "America First" clarion call by a man they are proud to have as president when he addresses the APEC summit of world leaders on Friday.

Others are strikingly less enthusiastic.

Former marine David E. Clark, 68, is convinced "Trump the chump", as he dubs him, will drive the United States into ruin.

"He's going to start a war, there will be a recession, he'll triple the national debt," Clark said, poring over meticulously-kept notes about previous presidents' economic records.

"It will be the greatest depression the United States has ever seen."

Clark left Danang in 1969 an angry young man after 13 months as a combat engineer, vowing to never return to the country he once thought of as "the asshole of the world".

Now, in a twist of history, he lives in the coastal city a stone's throw from Marble Mountain, where he was posted, during a bloody, bitter war that ended in 1975.

Today, the 68-year-old recovering alcoholic is married to a Vietnamese woman and some charity work with Vietnamese victims of the war.

He says he knew he wanted to move to Vietnam soon after his first trip back in 2007, in an effort to "make amends" with the people he once considered an enemy.

- 'He's not a wimp' -

The city he now calls home looks nothing like it did nearly 40 years ago as Vietnam's economy surges and its people embrace consumerism -- much of it American-tinged.

Budweiser is on offer in the fast-growing city's many bars, and five-star resorts dot the coast where the first American marines landed in 1965 to fight communist-backed Viet Cong soldiers from the north.

On the outskirts of the city, the US launched phase two of a dioxin clean-up campaign last year, an area where millions of litres of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange were stored.

Not all vets share Clark's acerbic views on the president.

He knows one fellow vet back in the US planning to travel to Danang hoping to catch a glimpse of Trump.

Former marine Chas Lehmann is equally happy to see Trump in Danang, a city he's lived in since 2012.

"He's got backbone, he's not a wimp, and he's not obligated to (political) parties," said Lehmann, who arrived in 1965 as a serviceman and spent 18 months in the conflict.

The billionaire businessman has come under fire for deferring the Vietnam draft five times -- including once reportedly for bone spurs.

Neither of the Danang-based veterans would be drawn on Trump's draft dodge.

So far, the president is not scheduled to speak about the war on his visit, which will also include a stopover in Hanoi to meet with Vietnam's top communist leadership.

He also sparked controversy for saying US veteran John McCain, whose bomber was shot down in Hanoi in 1967, is not a war hero because was captured.

And during a 1998 interview with radio shock jock Howard Stern, Trump compared avoiding sexually transmitted diseases from his active love life to the travails of fighting in Vietnam.

"It's Vietnam," he said. "It is very dangerous. So I'm very, very careful."

To Vietnamese vets, Trump is not as easy to love as some of his predecessors.

"He seems odd, he doesn't pay much attention to Vietnam unlike Clinton or Obama," former Vietnamese soldier Nguyen Thu, 72, told AFP.

But none of that phases Lehmann.

He offered to drive Trump in his war-era American Jeep that sits in his driveway in Danang.

The White House still hasn't replied to him.