HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam —
When John Rockhold drew a low number, No. 12, in the 1971 draft lottery, his adolescence in the San Fernando Valley forever changed. Seeking to avoid the Army, he signed up for the Navy just after graduating from Granada Hills High School. As an enlisted petty officer, he spent months operating boats that dropped off SEALs at night along long and humid Vietnamese shorelines where American troops were trying to stop the communist north from taking over the south.
More than 58,000 U.S. service members died in the war, and since it ended in 1975, innumerable American veterans have returned to Vietnam, seeking understanding, forgiveness or reconciliation. Now some are coming for more mundane reasons: inexpensive housing, cheap healthcare and a rising standard of living.
After his military career, Rockhold worked as a defense contractor, operating mostly in Africa. He first returned to Vietnam in 1992 to work on a program to help economic refugees. He settled in Vietnam in 1995, the same year the United States and Vietnam normalized relations. He married a Vietnamese woman in 2009.
In fact, he liked it so much that he persuaded his mother to move to Vietnam from Santa Maria, Calif., also in 2009.
“She came for the wedding, and decided to stay,” he said with a laugh. She lived in Vietnam until her death in 2015 at 94.
Rockhold, now 66, sits on several boards and is raising two children, 10 and 9, with his wife, Tu Viet Nga. The children were born via caesarean
section; the procedure, including a four-day hospital stay, cost about $1,200, far less than it would have in the United States. The family lives in a 20th-floor condominium overlooking the Saigon River and the sprawling city beyond. They bought the four-bedroom, 3½-bathroom unit, measuring about 1,840 square feet along with a separate veranda, for about $250,000 in 2011.
Rapid growth in Vietnam and its Southeast Asian neighbors has created a situation that would have been unthinkable in the past: Aging American boomers are living a lifestyle reminiscent of Florida, Nevada and Arizona, but in Vietnam. Monthly expenses here rarely exceed $2,000, even to live in a large unit like Rockhold’s, including the help of a cook and a cleaner. The neighbors are friendly: A majority of Vietnamese were born well after the war ended in 1975, and Rockhold says he has rarely encountered resentment, even when he talks about his service as a combat veteran.