By Jeb Bing
Back to Vietnam for an ex-flight attendantUploaded: May 8, 2009
Those of us who know Nancy Pennell, and there are no doubt hundreds in Pleasanton who do, also know that she's hard to track down. A world traveler who celebrated her 65th birthday two years ago with others her age in Paris and then cruising the south of France, she's as comfortable on trans-European trains and the streets of Beijing as she is on medical missions or at Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce mixers or downtown Rotary Club trips to El Salvador to distribute free wheelchairs to the handicapped.
Nancy first got the travel bug as a 21-year-old flight attendant for Seaboard World Airways where, for five years, she helped ferry troops back and forth between Oakland and Saigon during the Vietnam War. The planes she flew were shot at many times as they made steep descents and takeoffs at U.S military airfields. One time, the plane was forced down by Russian MIGs over the Kurile Islands and held for three days as the Soviets negotiated with President Johnson for an apology for flying over Russian territory.
But even though the war years weren't her favorite, Pennell was always impressed by the beauty of Vietnam from the air and vowed to go back one day when no one was shooting at her. It took a while, and scores of other trips in between, but Pennell had her chance last February when the group she often travels with found a special travel package to Vietnam, with Cambodia as a side trip.
It's not a trip for the physically or emotionally weak, Pennell found. It took 28 hours to reach Hanoi, a bit longer coming back with the side trip to the scenic part and also the killing fields of Cambodia. But she found Vietnam's countryside to be as beautiful on the ground as she remembered it from the air. She was saddened, though, by the poverty she saw. There are few cars, most people work two jobs to feed their families and there's a noticeable absence of middle-aged men because so many lost their lives in what they call the American war. Still, no one seems to hold a grudge and, as one Buddhist told Pennell: "It's over and we don't dwell on it."
Those under 30 make up the bulk of the population and with 1 million babies born ever year, Pennell sees Vietnam growing as a nation of youth. Her trip included the guided tour of the Hanoi Hilton, where Sen. John McCain and others were held as prisoners of war. Saigon, since renamed Ho Chi Min City, is more vibrant with an estimated 8 million population compared to Hanoi's less prosperous 3 million. It's also more friendly, although Pennell's traveling party "gritted our teeth" as tour guides talked about the city's post-war namesake as the greatest man ever created and who is still worshipped everywhere in the country.
Saying the former Saigon is more prosperous, however, is a misnomer. Pennell learned that the average Vietnamese worker earns about $200 a month and families squeeze into small living quarters. Living standards are still much worse than before the war, at least in the former Saigon.
After working for Seaboard, Nancy went back to college for a nursing degree, taking a position with ValleyCare Memorial Hospital in Livermore. She married Robert Pennell, a plumbing contractor on the Peninsula, and they both moved to Pleasanton to be closer to family and the ski slopes in Tahoe where they spent many weekends. When they retired, Bob introduced Nancy to fly-fishing and golf and she introduced him to Europe, she jokes. He joined her on many trips until he died in 1998. Shortly after, she joined the chamber and began a whole new chapter in her life as a community volunteer, working with the Pleasanton Downtown Association, joining Rotary and serving for eight years on the board of CTV30, the community television system, before the mayors of Pleasanton, Dublin, San Ramon and Livermore took over.
She's also kept busy traveling, going in very recent years to Egypt, Germany, Copenhagen and last year to Estonia and Russia. Her favorite trips by far have been into the bush country in Africa, where she's planning to return soon. But first it's time for another trip to Hawaii or to Seascape Resort in Aptos, where she's a board member.