Daily Journal of Trip to Vietnam November, 2010
Arnold Krause, Dennis Buckley and Ed Wales (journal notes written by Arnold)
November 1 & 2
We departed SFO for Hong Kong at 0105. I had a rough start to the trip. Buckley gave me several pills to sleep and I did not react well. My nerves were a mess and I couldn’t sit still. I got up and tried to stand for awhile. After about a half hour I broke out into cold sweats. My legs were like rubber. I tried to rest my head against a seat. Before I knew it, I was on the floor passed out. I hit some lady falling down on the head and they had to put ice on her noggin. I was ok after a few minutes. Cathay Pacific staff was great both in attending to me, but their entire approach to service. We got to Hong Kong ahead of schedule shaving an hour off the trip. All the meals were well prepared. I had salmon with red potatoes, yogurt, fruit and juice. For breakfast, I had scrambled eggs, muffin, orange juice, and fruit and then we got breakfast served again when we got on the HMC flight. The seats on the 747-400 were not comfortable at all which is what I was worried about we arrived in Hong Kong around 0630AM, about 15 hours of flying.
We transferred to our next leg, Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City which departed at 0900 and arrived in Saigon at 1030. We gained an hour due to a time change. It took two hours to get our visa letter cleared, go thru immigration and find the departure terminal. The walk from the international terminal to the domestic terminal brought back many memories seeing the local people and listening to the blast of the car horns as they drove around the airport. The outside temperature was 91 degrees and very humid. Once we got to the domestic terminal and worked our way through check in we walked toward our gate to wait for our flight, but not before stopping to get a soda, price $1. After burning about an hour we went to our gate. Then we waited and waited. It started to rain in buckets for 30 minutes. When it was time to board our flight to Hue, we had to go downstairs and get on a bus which drove us to a parked aircraft out on the tarmac somewhere. We scurried from the bus to the plane loading ramp and finally after sitting another 15 minutes on the ground we took off. The landing at Hue was uneventful. Once again when we offloaded from the plane we got on busses which could not have driven more than 100 yards from the plane to the terminal. Oh well. We got our luggage and found our tour guide waiting amongst what looked like a forest of taxi’s parked and waiting or hopping to pick up a fare to town. We are in some kind of van which looks like a 7 passenger vehicle.
Our guide was a man about 32 years of age and very pleasant although his English was very difficult to understand. He name was Yong or it sounded something like young. His only job for the day was to get us to our hotel and see that we were checked in. His brother, I believe he is meeting us at 0900 in the morning to begin our tour.
We are staying at the Asia Hotel, about 25 minutes from Hue airport. It’s rated a 3 Star and looks to be in decent shape. The rooms are nicely furnished. The drive from the airport brought back many memories with all the Vesper’s and motorcycles outnumbering cars 200 to 1. They seemed to try and go where they wanted in a fashion that said we don’t have any driving laws here and I have the right of way. Downtown Hue from what we saw appeared to be unchanged from 42 years ago. It is old in the sense that it looks poor and run down or tired looking. I’m not sure about the neighborhood we are in but the hotel staff says it is perfectly safe to wander around in.
I tried to rest for a few hours after check in then the phone rang and Eddie and Dennis were upstairs in the bar which was located on the top floor, number 7. We had a drink and decided to have dinner there and call it a night. I had a pork sesame dish with a bowl of white rice and a glass of red wine. I think the price for dinner was 50000 Dong for the entrée and 30000 Dong for the wine. This is about $4 USD. I have set the alarm for 0730 so we can meet for breakfast on the 7th floor and be ready for our guide at 0900. I took a shower and shaved and laid out my clothes for tomorrow. It’s time for bed.
I had a pretty good sleep last night on one of those Japanese style beds. I woke early around 0630 and checked the TV to see how the elections were going. I met up with Dennis and Ed for breakfast at 0800. There was a very good selection of food, American and Asian. I chose to have coffee, baguette, fried eggs, bacon and hash browns.
We met our guide in the lobby at 0900. His name was Anh who is an independent free lance tour guide. He lives here in Hue along with his family. He is married with one child and is 37 years of age. He told me that his father was an NVA soldier who fought in the north. He dad is of Chinese decent and was forced to fight for the north.
We spent the morning visiting a pagoda and two mausoleums from three different dynasties of Vietnamese emperors and kings. This started with a boat trip up the Perfume River on an old vessel powered by an old diesel engine. The whole time we were pestered by a young woman who was part of the crew to buy some wares she had. There were wood carvings, silk shirts and outfits and paintings. I finally couldn’t take it anymore and bought a wood carving for Jesse Tostado. After number of miles upriver we docked the boat and proceeded to a Buddhist temple next to the river. It was built in 1605 by a Buddhist who had a dream. In that dream a woman came to him and told him that he needed to do that and gave him the location of the temple. It is called Thein Mu or Heavenly Dream Pagoda. From there we drove about 10 Km outside of Hue to visit the royal tomb of Emperor Tu Duc and the mausoleum of Minh Mang, two mausoleums of different era’s. After returning to the city we had lunch in a restaurant that was across the street from the hotel we are staying at. The food was bland in the sense that it is not over seasoned and there is no salt and pepper on the table. They served us a 5 course meal plus dessert. We had beef soup, pork balls with lettuce, cucumber, peanut butter sauce on a rice paper roll, some kind of seasoned pork, a prawn dish with onions and a vegetable noodle dish followed by a heated banana with a sweet sauce and shaved coconut. The meal also included a soft drink. The total bill for three was 60,000 Dong, a sneeze over $1 each. We gave the waiter a $5 which was a huge tip.
Driving the streets of Hue is indescribable. No one stops at any of the intersections unless it is light controlled and there are few of these. It’s like running a circle 8 track. Our driver would enter an intersection, and politely beep his horn but go straight or turn without hitting the brakes. It was insane to watch. Motorcycles everywhere and traveling in all directions and yet, no one was hitting anyone. All you could do was shut your eyes, but our driver kept moving forward.
When I have opened a window or stepped outside that peculiar smell is in the air. I can’t figure it out. Is it flowers, the foliage or the mixed smells of burning wood, incense, flowers and who knows what? I just can’t put my finger on it.
After lunch, we visited the Purple Forbidden City. This is the grand palace of the last ruling dynasty, the Nguyen family which ruled from 1802 until 1945. The city is probably better known for the Tet offensive in 1968 upon which the Marines battled the NVA for 5 days in the streets of Hue, finally driving them from the city and the Citadel. Very little of the Forbidden City was damaged in this conflict. Many of the buildings were burnt to the ground in a conflict during 1947 between the French and the local people.
The walls of the city are 10 Km long. It is a very big place. It is too bad it is in such sad shape. The Vietnamese are trying to restore it but most of the funding comes from outside of the country. Vietnam itself is still too poor to spend money on saving their heritage. It is very unfortunate to see this happen.
After the city visit we went to the Dong Ma market place where we got mobbed by everyone in there trying to sell us everything you can imagine. Eddie and I finally got cornered by a very nice lady who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. He bought several things and I finally bought a silk shirt which I really didn’t want. I’m going to wear it tomorrow anyway. It is a nice light yellow and we will see if silk is a cool material or not. I think I overpaid for the shirt but I won’t admit what I did hand over in US dollars.
We got dropped off at the hotel where we retrieved our room keys and got our passports back. When I got back to my room, I tossed the passport into my room safe and locked it along with some spare cash. I turned on the TV to see how the election went and after that, went on the internet to see if I could access my emails. Yesterday the WIFI was down, but according to the front desk, it was repaired. I am about to find out if that was true.
At 1900 Ahn picked us up and we walked over to the Perfume River where we got back on the same boat that we rode in that morning. This time we were accompanied by a group of 7 musicians who played and sung traditional Vietnamese folk songs for 45 minutes. They were very good and the music interesting to hear. After this we went back to the dock, and were picked up by our driver who then drove us to a restaurant for dinner. We had crab cakes, a beef dish, vegetable soup, white rice, some kind of fish taco and wine. Our dessert was the banana dish like we had at lunch. We returned to the hotel and had an after dinner drink and then retired for the night. We are going to be picked up at 0830 in the morning.
During our tour so far Ahn has asked us many questions about our time here in 1968. We tell him what unit we were with and what our jobs were as infantrymen. He is told that and believes that there wasn’t an army in the south, none existed. He is also understood to believe that there were over 80,000 people killed in the Hue attack. I’m unclear if he is referring to civilian or military deaths.
The people of the south were treated poorly from the time the south fell until around 1985. During this time the people had to fend for themselves and they were only allowed to raise crops for their own food sources. After this period of time, the Communist rule lifted the ban on many things and allowed the development of a capitalist form of market trade thus giving everyone the chance to create and own their own businesses. At least here in the north where Hue is about 500,000 in population, everywhere you look, the poverty level is very high. The infrastructure is not developed as you can see in the housing construction, road development and bridge construction. The country is at peace now, but its past has been a very turbulent one. Many of the dynasties were under constant attack internally because of the relationships some of the emperors and kings has with the French. Today, relationships were established with the Americans in 2000 and since then, they have been working with the U.S. government to locate missing soldiers of the Vietnam War.
This morning after breakfast, we traveled through Quang Tri, another quant but old and depressed city. Passing thru the city we proceeded to Dong Ha and made a left turn down a narrow but paved street for some miles before coming to the remains of La Vang Catholic church which was the scene of some heavy fighting between U.S. and NVA forces. All that is left of the church is the bell tower. Today there is a monument there and the local people fabricated a metal structure behind the bell tower to keep the church alive. There is also an orphanage there on the grounds.
We left the church and spent close to an hour driving to Khe Sanh, pronounced “Kasun” by Anh. On the way we pasted through some Montegard villages. The country is very poor in this area because of Agent Orange still affecting the ground soil and the ability to grow any crops there. As we arrived at Khe Sanh, there is little left of this FSB. The runway is still in place but the area where the base was which is most of the top of the plateau is now planted in coffee trees. There are vendors at every place we go trying to hock their wares. One man had NVA pins and what looked like were several G.I. dog tags. They were even selling bananas, sodas and coffee beans there. On the grounds is a museum depicting the great struggle and victory of the Vietnamese people liberating the land from the Americans. According to them, they turned Khe Sanh into “hell” and we shook with terror and wanted badly to escape from their onslaught. There is also what’s left of a CH-47 and a Huey and an M-48 tank. Most of the site is once again in sad shape. There is a memorial there also showing the North’s victory at this battle site. It is funny how the history is being rewritten at all the war memorials.
Back to the van and off we went to the DMZ. Upon arriving at the old border, we crossed over the Ben Hai River onto North Vietnam soil. This felt a bit strange to be here. Once again, the North erected a large monument on both sides of the river. Over head flow a large red flag with a bright yellow star in the middle. Across the street was a museum which we entered and toured. Here we found more photos and exhibits showing the tremendous resolve of the North to overcome the imperial oppressors. It has been raining all day, not heavy but enough to get you wet. Despite the weather, we walked over the old Hien Luong Bridge which spans the 17th parallel that divided the North from the South. We crossed the river to the other side and viewed the status on the South side then returned to the North side and got back into the van.
Our next destination was the tunnel complexes at Doc Mieu and Vinh Moc. But first, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. The food was good as usual. We had an egg omelet, stir fried greens, some type of spring roll, beef with onion and tomato, fried prawns and white rice. The cost of the meal was $1.50 for all three of us including drinks and dessert.
We arrived at the tunnel complex and Anh paid for our entry fee. We walked the grounds which are right next to the ocean. “There are multiple entries to the tunnels, with many of them starting or ending on the bluffs just above the ocean. This place is a fascinating labyrinth of tunnels and underground rooms. There are three levels and reached 33 meters underground. This area was developed by the local pheasants to hide from the attackers from the South. The area was a receiving point for supplies from the North that arrived by ship. From here, the materials would be transported to the South to help the invading army of the North. The tunnels can’t be more than 5 feet high. While at the museum a deaf and dumb man was there and he pointed out a photo of himself was he was a child carrying a gun in one of these complexes.
It took us over two hours to return to Hue. During our drive we covered over 300 Km and speaking for myself, I’m pretty tired from the drive. We will meet at 2200 for dinner somewhere near the hotel.
After taking a quick rest and doing some typing I went down to the lobby to use their internet computer since the WIFI is still not working. Ed and Dennis show up and check their emails then it’s off for a stroll in the rain to find dinner. On the way Ed and Dennis stop at several shops selling camera supplies and buy spare batteries for their cameras.
We stop in at the Temple restaurant and order dinner. It was ok and not the best food we have had but it will do. I ordered a vegetable noodle soup and stir fried pork ribs in tomato sauce. This was our most expensive dinner, $10 each and not even close to being worth the price. After enjoying a long conversation after dinner, it was time to return to the hotel. Tomorrow we check out and move down the coast to DaNang and Hoi An where we will spend the night.
I am up early at 0630 after tossing and turning all night. The rain that started in the afternoon continued steadily throughout the night. It looks like it will continue into the morning. But first things first and I am to meet up with Dennis and Ed for breakfast at 0730 before we retrieve our bags and checkout. Anh will be here at 0830 to pick us up.
Anh says that they hold elections here in his country. They vote for a representative to the party. Individuals can hold or own property. For example a farmer can hold 500 square meters for growing crops. They have to pay a tax for the water they use. This amounts to about 50 kilos of rice per family member per parcel of land. You can send your children to school if you can afford to pay for their education. The cost per child is about one million Dong per semester. This does not include the cost of books, paper etc. Anh has a BS degree from the University of DaNang. He says it is worthless in his country.
Everyone has cell phones here and the service is great and the coverage is everywhere. He pays about $30 per month for unlimited service. Cell service was introduced here around 2000. Many of the young people are carrying them.
Anh’s mother died from some kind of disease that turned her brain to liquid. She died in 2000. His dad is still alive. He was in the army for over 30 years but got nothing for it. People like his father who was Chinese, were persecuted by the government. In spite of his dad’s service to his country, in 1976 he was arrested and thrown into jail where he stayed for 6 years.
Anh’s mother Zieu (Dieu) worked as a spy for the North. She was arrested in 1968 and thrown in jail. She was there for a year before she was liberated by the North during the Tet Offensive. She then was trained and served as a nurse in the 6th NVA Regiment. It was here that his mother met his father Quang who was also trained to be a nurse. Anh’s farther was in logistics before he switched jobs They were stationed on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They were married in 1975. Anh had a sister who drowned when she was 2. She stepped into a puddle which turned out to be too deep. He has two step sisters and a step brother. His dad married another woman in 1995. They all lived together. It was OK to have more than one wife then.
Well, we left Hue as we found it, in the pouring rain. Nothing change on our long journey down the coast to DaNang (pronounced DaNan, when “ng” are together, the g becomes silent). On the way, we stopped at a coffee / tea house for refreshments. While there, Anh wanted to see more pictures of our time in the war. He asked many questions because we want to know the truth about his country so we offered our outsiders point of view. Back on the road, and we soon came to a tunnel which was built by the Japanese called the Homedco tunnel. It is 6 Km long, about 3.6 miles. On the other side, we came out just above DaNang. This appears to be a pretty city and has a deep water port. We passed over a new suspension bridge which opened last year and spans a large river that dumps its water into the bay. There is a tremendous amount of new construction going on in the city. The population is around 1.5 million. Both Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie have built golf courses here and there are new resorts springing up all along the shore line. I took many pictures of the changing face of this city.
Close by is Hoi An, which used to be a fishing village. It is also growing and for an older city, founded at the start of the 16th century, it has a strong Chinese culture here. We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant called Le Ba Truyen where we had Sup Hoanh Thanh, Wonton soup; Banh Vac, White Rose, a type of noodle with a center of meat. The noodle was in the shape of a rose petal. Muc Chien Don, fried squid; Bo Nuong Vy and Xoi Chien Phong, grilled beef and fried sticky rice paste; Comn Chien Trung, fried rice with egg; Tom Thit Kho To, sautéed pork and shrimp in clay pot; Ca Chien, Fried Fish; Ga Xao Laghim, sautéed chicken with vegetables and Trang Mieng for dessert which was wrapped in a banana leaf. We untied the leaf and found a dark round ball. This ball was made of sticky rice and something added to it, and in the center was green bean paste with sugar. It was like a large gum ball but tasted like, well, nothing special.
We visited many old places here. First went to an old covered bridge then several temples for Buddhists, a meeting hall and an old house that is 200 years old. The house is called the Ta Yah house. There are inlaid mahogany furnishings that must be priceless. This house floods since it is next to the river. When that happens, the owners just move their furniture upstairs and clean up after. There are markings on the wall where the water has reached a depth of 8 feet.
By 1600 we had enough of the rain because we were wet from the knees down including our shoes. So, Anh had the van driver pick us up and took us over to our hotel where we checked in. It is much nicer from inside than out. From the lobby, we go outside to reach our rooms. There is a large pool in the center of the courtyard and is a beautiful shade of blue. Our rooms are spacious and the bed is huge with a canopy overhead and flowers decorating the bed, bathroom and even the table where there is fresh fruit to eat. The floor and bathroom are covered in marble and I am happy because the internet is working. Dinner will be at 2130. Well, we got a cab and went to the Tam Tam restaurant for dinner. I had a nice chicken dish and wine. Dennis had won ton soup and a pork dish and Ed went for stir fry noodles and vegetables. We spent about $12 each with tip. We grabbed a cab and went back to the Ancient House, our hotel and turned in.
Breakfast was bright and early at 0715 and we met up with Anh at 0800 after checking out of the hotel. The rains continue to be heavy and we leave Hoi An bound for My Lai. It is about 2 ½ hours away. Everywhere are signs reinforcing the idea of the people and the government being of one body. Each town or village has a army post and if there are two sons in the house one is required to serve 2 years in the military.
All the government buildings are painted yellow. This includes the army facilities, schools, hospitals and local government offices. They are all surrounded by high walls and a arch that spans the entrance. At best you will see only one car in the parking lot and many of these locations are two story buildings. Many of them have numerous banners of different colors flying in the breeze above the arch and the country’s flag rising above it all.
The provinces south of Hoi An all look about the same. The highway in some sections is full of potholes, other spots rather good. They have a project expected to be completed in 2025 that will replace all the bridges over the rivers and creeks along the main highways. Today many of them are rather scary to cross over and our driver slows down as he approaches each one. The road surfaces are badly deteriorated on many of them. We can see workers at some of them setting new bridge footings. Most of the work is still done by hand and you don’t see much in the way of heavy equipment except for crawler shovels and pile drivers. We saw a crew of gandy dancers working on the train tracks. They were working by hand to carry ballast to the railroad tracks in baskets. It’s a wonder they are making any progress. At least the roads away from the main streets appear to be all paved and heavily traveled via scooters. Anh says everyone now has electricity in the house. This was accomplished between 1990 and 1995. The power wires are strung everywhere and really looks like a safety hazard. They use 220V here which is really low amperage and not as dangerous as our 110V. Anh says he has 4 lights, his computer, TV and a refrigerator. They don’t use any power during the day. He says that he pays about $3 a month for his electricity. If you have air conditioning, your bill can be $20 or more a month.
Bathrooms come in all sizes and shapes. It is very common to see a vehicle or motorcycle pulled over on the side of the road and someone taking a pee. Most bathrooms if you find one do not have doors, or even privacy doors. You can view both men and women doing their thing thru the front opening. The colors used in these places are usually a mint green and a very strong hot pink color. The cleanliness of the toilets can best be described as neglected and most smell strongly of mothballs. Most are not new and look like they could use some maintenance. I’m sure there are more important items to spend money on. Functionality is the top priority and looks is second.
You can own a house here which is usually three rooms. To build a small house cost about 50 Million Dong and if you include land, it will run around 200 Million Dong. The exchange rate when this was written is 20000 Dong to 1 USD. You have to have a lot of money to build a two story house here. Anh says the minimum wage is $200 per month. This is a far cry from 1968 when a farmer may make about $40 per year. Anh’s wife is a school teacher and she makes about $150 per month. Her name is also Anh but is pronounced Ann. Our driver’s name is Minh and has been a professional driver and tour driver for 16 years.
After a long mornings drive, we arrive at Song My, the official name for Mai Ly. We are given a 30 minute movie about the events of March 16, 1968 when American forces from the Americal Div., 1/20th
Charlie Company under the command of Capt. Medina and LT McCalley ordered the destruction and death of all the villagers. At the end of the film we discover it was done by Aljazeera, the Egyptian network. By the Vietnamese accounts, and eye witnesses, there were 504 villagers killed, including old men, women, some 180 or so who were pregnant and many children. Their account of that morning had the Americans arriving by chopper and to immediately start shooting the villagers and burning the houses. “We walked the area were the village was, and quietly listened to our host who worked at the memorial that was created around 1979. It is a harsh tale that she tells of the events of that morning.
Our site guide, a young woman gives us an accounting of the events of that day and it is given in a very condescending tone. She would talk, pause and continue with “however” over and over. The museum and memorials say we should remember but forgive. We end up leaving with a feeling the intent is just the opposite.
We tell her that we are also soldiers but served elsewhere in the war. We were asked if we had knowledge of the massacre and whether any of it was discussed by our officers. I told her that we heard about it but none of us would ever thing about following orders to commit such a terrible act. We told her that we were there to pay our respects. It is very clear that also the events of the day happened, why and how they went down is somewhat unclear. The Vietnamese think it was for revenge because some G.I.’s were killed earlier by some booby traps. I never heard any of us talk about getting revenge due to someone being maimed or killed. It continued to rain lightly while we toured the village. Even after we left, we talked extensively about how this should not have taken place.
As we drive back from My Lai (Song My) village we pass a truck and automobile factory, call Thalco. It is a joint effort between Vietnam and Kia Motors. This area is heavily industrialized. The roads along this stretch of highway are pitted with potholes. Anh says the government is responsible for making repairs. We arrive in Hoi An seeing several accidents along the way involving motorcycles. The cost for a Yamaha or Honda runs around $1000 while you can buy a Chinese bike for ½ that price. We have a nice lunch next to the river in old town Hoi An across the street from the Japanese covered bridge. After a leisurely lunch we climb back into our van for the forty five minute drive to DaNang airport. Anh helps us check in at the departure desk. While waiting Anh tells us that this has been the “most emotional tour that he has ever been involved with”. He says that he has learned a lot from us, but it sounds as if he is still in search of finding out what really happened during the Vietnam War. Yes, he has his father’s stories to listen to, but there is more to it. I asked for Anh’s email address and told him that I would write and ask if he would be interested in reading about our (Dennis, Ed and I) time here in his country during 1968 and 1969. He said that he would. I thanked him several times for his service and gave him a good hug. He really seems to be a great and genuinely sincere person. He believes that his government is not telling all the truth about some of his country’s history. For example, their constitution says that their education is supposed to be free, but today everyone has to pay for school. Anyway, we said our goodbye’s and departed ways. We proceeded to security screening and Anh onto his next tour group which he was meeting tomorrow in DaNang (Danan).
Our flight appears to be on time and we expect to board around 1800 for an 1820 flight to Saigon arriving there at 1930. Opps! We just heard on the public address system that our flight has been delayed about an hour due to our plane being held up elsewhere. So we buy a soda and look around in the terminal. We discover that our great deals at the sculptors in Hoi An wasn’t so good. That’s how it goes and no point groaning over it. About 40 minutes later around 1850 we hear that our plane has arrived and they are starting to board. By 1910 we are in the air and arrive at Ho Chi Minh City at 2230. Once we find our bags we exit the terminal and find our tour service waiting. Ky (key) is our new guide and will be with us next week when we return from Bangkok. He calls for our van and we load up and head to the Lavender Hotel, a nice boutique style located in District 1. The traffic is crazy here. There are 9 million living in the city and according to Ky, over 4 million scooters on the roads. The city looks fresh and modern and there are lights and billboards everywhere. The population is young and the mood very upbeat.
As we navigate the streets to our hotel, we get a running commentary from Ky on some of the key buildings and sites along our route. He asks us a few questions about when we were here and where we were located. I sure there will be more of this dialog upon our return. Dinner was in the hotel and was very nice. Everyone had fried pork with pineapple, white rice and wine. The bill came to $25 and change. After dinner, we returned to our rooms which are very nice and look very clean. Everything you could ask for. We will be picked up at 0600 tomorrow to head to the airport so it’s time to turn in and get some sleep.
November 7 – Travel to Saigon airport and on to Bangkok
November 14 Travel from Bankok to Saigon
Today we get to hang around the hotel until 1400 when we are to be picked up and driven to the airport. We have a 1935 flight back to Ho Chi Minh City. In the mean time, breakfast will be at 0830 and I hope the coffee is better.
Breakfast is over and I’m packed and we are waiting in the lobby for our ride. The temperature here is very pleasant with a breeze. In the sun it can be hot. Many of the days started out overcast especially around Bangkok because of the smog. They use a lot of LPG there and maybe it helps. The evenings are only a few degrees cooler than in the daytime and there is no need for any jackets or additional clothing. The people here are very laid back and never in a hurry to do anything. You can sit in a restaurant forever until you ask for the check. Driving however is another story and maybe their vice because I have yet to be comfortable in a vehicle with any driver. They have their own rules for the road and yet we rarely ever see any accidents. They take it all in stride. Thailand has a better infrastructure, roads, signals etc. and so the traffic is more controlled, except when traffic is moving. No one stays in their lanes and the rule is to weave in and out of traffic at whatever speed is comfortable for you to drive.
We get a note from the front desk that Tim will meet us at the Vietnam check in with our suits. After spending the morning waiting in the lobby, and in our room, we had to check out of the hotel and kill another two hours before our van arrived. Our driver was taking us to the airport and wasted no time getting there. Matter of fact he got a speeding ticket and then wanted us to pay for it. We politely declined but did give him a tip. Tim was there waiting with our suits and was very attentive telling us where to check in and then we said good bye once again and he left.
As usual, our flight was delayed about 45 minutes, but we got to Saigon and Mo, our driver was waiting. It is hectic trying to cross this city even late at night and we took 30 minutes to reach the Northern Hotel located in District 1 and in the heart of the city. Traffic was everywhere as we soon were to discover.
We checked in, and turned in for the night because we were to meet Ky, our English speaking guide at 0830.
We left the hotel after enjoying a good breakfast and instructed Ky we wanted to head out to Trang Bang and see the site of the old bridge on Hwy 1 which is now Hwy 22. It took over an hour to leave the city due to traffic. The road north to TB is paved but the speak limit is restricted to 50 km an hour. Boy oh boy was this slow. We stopped just short of the bridge for the driver to eat breakfast. Why, I don’t know but maybe part of our contract with the travel agency.
Anyway, in a few minutes we were staring up the road and the junction of the roads entering Trang Bang and we were standing on the bridge taking photos. Upstream and down you can see a good distance, but in any other direction, you can only see houses and trees. Most views of the surrounding area are blocked.
As we leave the bridge and head out to the west entering the edge of Trang Bang the old temple is standing there all fresh and gleaming in the sunlight. We quickly snap some photos. Our next stop is the area where my first firefight was. It takes some time reaching the spot. The road has some pavement, but there are a lot of potholes and stretches of red dirt filled with rainwater. I direct the driver where to turn. I am using my laptop and Jeanne’s GPS to locate our position
I tell Mo to turn left and soon I ask him to stop. I believe we are as close as we can get to that morning of April 4, 1968 when Schultz was killed and we lost 4 others. I look down what is now a road but was once an ox cart trail. Nothing looks the same as does the rest of the country now. Here there are rural houses and 40 years ago, it was jungle or trees and brush. I take pictures and describe to everyone in the car what had happened over a three day period here. There are open rice paddies behind what is now a large village, but the rains are still here and getting away from any main roads is impossible. I have to be satisfied that we are very close to the area of those days when we lagered nearby and engaged the enemy along the road that I am standing on.
As I am standing there looking, the local villagers are wondering what I am up to. There are several young men sitting on a porch and one comes over and takes my hand and escorts me back to where the others are sitting. I am invited to take a drink of Rice wine, more like drinking vodka. They offer me some food and everyone is jolly. Ky covers over and explains the custom of being social and not refusing a drink. After three Ed and Dennis come over any it is their turn. I have a sample of their food and we take more pictures and Ky briefly explains to them why we are there. It is time to go, and we shake hands and say good bye.
We drive to Tay Ninh and have lunch at a local tourist stop. We order from the menu and have a soda with the food. From here, we travel to the Black Virgin Mountain where we take a tram ride about half way up and look back over the area. It is very beautiful from up here. It is a very rugged and rocky mountain and an observation point for U.S. soldiers.
We see many memorials to the VC and NVA here and nothing for the South Vietnam Troops. There are many military cemeteries as well and all dedicated to the North. It is a tilted story that is told about the war. Ky says he has four brothers and two of them fought for the South. One brother was in the Mekong Delta and the other up in Hue. They served almost 6 years fighting against the North.
After visiting the mountain, we make our way back to Trang Bang and stop the house of the mother of the daughter who was photographed on the cover of Life magazine that won a Pulitzer Prize. The picture of the young girl who was naked and burned by napalm there in Trang Bang. We meet the daughter of the brother whose sister was in the photo.
From here, we leave and the time is 1700, we reach the edge of Saigon at 1730 but it takes us until 1900 to reach the hotel. We are going to each at 1945 and I still have to get everything ready for tomorrow’s activities. I am tired.
It was the usual start to the morning after breakfast. We need well over an hour to cross town. It’s amazing the amount of scooters and motorcycles on the streets. We left the city and headed toward Cu Chi then turned right and zigzagged east and north. We end up cutting through the back side of the “Mushroom” a very heavy VC area. Several times we cross the Saigon River traveling through country which shows less of the congestion that lines Hwy 22 from Saigon all the way to Trang Bang and beyond. The development is so intense that you cannot see beyond the buildings and know what the terrain is like behind.
Our choice of roads this morning has us cross from Hwy 22 to Hwy 8 and then left on Hwy 15 then turning onto Hwy 744 which takes us all the way into Dau Tieng where we begin to see groves of rubber trees. We stop at the edge of town and enjoy cold jasmine tea and use the bathrooms. Here they are just referred to as “toilets”. They come in all sizes and shapes. Some are unisex and have doors while others lack any doors for either men or women.
After our rest stop, I set up the computer so we can find our ambush patrol the night of June 9, 1968. I have Mo our driver turning in every direction. At one point we cut through a large rubber grove and end up hitting pavement on the other side. It is the road I am looking for and was a main route between Tay Ninh and Dau Tieng. Dau Tieng was the home to the 3rd Brigade of the 25th Div and our home for several months.
Soon we locate the spot where we can park the car and walk into the rubber plantation. There is a road cutting into the trees and about two hundred meters to our east is a berm road which we walk to. Somewhere along here on that fateful night we make contact with a group of VC and Juan Antu was killed and we had 13 wounded. At least we are in the area and perhaps actually standing on ground where it all took place. I pause to reflect and think about Juan. We take pictures and Ky our guide also helps us take a few group photos.
Back to the car on and on to our next objective which is Camp Rainer our base camp. With a little work we locate the old airstrip which it and the old base has been overrun with city buildings, residential houses and urban sprawl. We drive up the airstrip which really feels odd and make a left hand turn which brings us to the old swimming pool and some French buildings that were in the middle of the base. There is little else we can see or find. We leave the city and drive east to AP 12 and AP13 which are also spread out and no longer match the images of our minds. We drive around a bit and stop at a VC cemetery which commemorates the valor and unity of the soldier. There are no signs anywhere for soldiers of the south. Ky later tells us that there were two very large cemeteries near Saigon but in 1995 they told the families to remove the remains because they bulldozed the sites and eliminated them from memory.
We drive back to Dau Tieng and head back to Saigon stopping to eat at a local restaurant. Right after that and still on Hwy 744 we stop at the Cu Chi VC cemetery where over 10,000 graves are of soldiers who fought for the North were killed in this province. We look for dates from 1968 and wonder if we put them there. There are many designations on the headstones; guerrilla, village guerrilla, squad leader, nurse, hospital worker, payroll clerk, moral officer, spy and the list goes on. We have Ky do some interpretation for us. We spend about 20 minutes and head on out for Saigon. Ky says that our base camp at Cu Chi is now a military installation for the Vietnam army. We don’t have a chance to visit there. The memories of what was 42 years ago are quickly eroding by the expansion of growth and development throughout the country. But what did we expect, monuments created for the U.S. military dotting the landscape or perhaps the government preserving some of our former bases? They have, but only the large ones like Bien Hoa, Tan Son Nhut and some of the airstrips built further to the north. So we must be satisfied with the idea of walking the area we once roamed and visualizing the past and what took place.
Crossing the city is better because we have arrived at the outskirts of town at 4PM and get to the hotel at 5PM. Tomorrow we will return to Trang Bang and place flowers on some sites where we lost some friends. Dinner is going to be around 2000 and we plan to eat out from the hotel.
Down in the lobby we meet up and head out toward the river front which is only several blocks from our hotel. We traverse the traffic which is always a challenge not to get hit. You have to realize no one wants to give up the right of way in the city and everyone jockey’s their bike, scooter, car or truck into spots I would not go in order to block another car or create an opening so you can turn or merge into another lane.
We walk for several blocks and just pick a restaurant to eat at. This one is called Jasper’s and as the name implies, serves international foods. We order pasta as a change of diet along with wine for dinner and after, several shots of Grand Marnier, Jack Daniels and Sabuka or however you spell it. 2200 comes quickly and we pay our bill and tell our waitress who has a twin sister working there also that the meal was very good and we left. The walk back to the hotel was uneventful except for a lady offering her services for the night which we politely declined and turned in for the night. Ky and Mo want to start a little earlier so we agree to meet in the morning at 0800. Lights out.
Well, due to a traffic accident our van does not arrive until 0815 but what the heck. We leave the city, having a lot of patience again and are headed up Hwy 22. I point out where our lager site was during the months of July, August and part of September. It is located right off the road on our left. Today it is a mass of buildings and residential houses so there is really nothing to see. A little further up the road is another lager site that belonged to Team C. During May of 1968, Charlie Company was broken into platoons along with elements of Alpha and Bravo Companies of the 2/22. We did road patrols from south of Hoc Mon north to Go Dau Ha. This location sits to the right of a split in the highway, left to Cu Chi and right towards Trung Lap. Once again all you can see is a forest of buildings. The road from Saigon past Trang Bang only has two small stretches less than 400 meters long that you can see rice paddies or trees off from the road. All the rest is businesses, houses and villages all blended in together.
Just past Hoc Mon Mo turns left as Ky tells us we are going to visit a factory which uses handicapped people who suffer from the effects of Agent Orange. This was not on my itinerary but something the tour company tossed in. We see many wonderful exhibits of craft work here. There are workers making paintings and various art pieces having inlaid shell and other materials. They all do an excellent job with their creations. I buy several pieces and as I am waiting I buy a few more. I don’t know where I am going to put all this stuff when I get on the plane.
We leave here after spending 30 minutes enjoying all the pieces you can buy. Our first stop today is the market place in Trang Bang at the junction of Hwy 782 and Hwy 787, formerly called TL6A. As we park the car, Dennis and I put on our fatigue shirt we wore here 41 years ago. It is hot as hell and the sweat is already pouring off my brow. We want to buy some flowers to make some of the sites where we lost some friends. After walking a short ways we go up to a man and women selling flowers. The selection is not much, but it’s the idea. I tell Ky we need three bunches of marigolds. He picks them out for us and Ed says to Ky “he would make a good wife” and Ky laughs. The woman tells me that the flowers are 5000 dong per bunch. I give her a 20,000 Dong bill and get change.
Leaving their place of business, I tell Ky we will do some walking until we leave the market and get to the edge of Trang Bang along this road. We walk in silence and people stare at us and our fatigues. Soon I ask Ky to have Mo catch up to us with the car. Once he arrives I check the GPS coordinates on the laptop and discover that we are about 180 meters past where Beltran, Stepsie and LT Merrett were killed. We backtrack and walk behind a building sitting on the road and decide we are about as close as we can judge to be where it happened and place some flowers on the spot and mention their names. Ky takes some photos of us.
We drive on another mile or so and stop to repeat this process for the location of where Doc Solomon tripped a booby trap. We are next to an open area, so we quietly scan our eyes around the area. There is little talking going on. The drive down 6A revealing that the area has been developed and there are houses all along the road. Halfway to Pershing we pass a new government building and a new school. About a ½ mile from the turnoff into Pershing there is now a small village center equipped with buildings and a gas station.
We cross the old bridge and make a turn to the right passing under an arch showing the village name, several hundred meters and we stop the vehicle. This area once flat and open with rice paddies now is a forest of trees and houses. Many of the houses were built around 1985 and later. We walk up and down several trails leading away from the main road hoping to be able to create a view. We take a few pictures then walk further down the road and we talk to an older lady for a few minutes, and then wander behind her house. From here we see the rice paddies behind her house and hedge rows and trees in the distance. I think we are near where our old platoon area was, but no way to know for certain. Everyone is feeling the heat and I continue to drip sweat in the sunlight.
The road we are standing on is a dirt surface with many potholes. As we pass a few houses, I say hello to the people there and they reply back, and then start talking about hearing “hello”. We decide we want to find where Conlin and Satterswaithe were killed before we call it a day and have lunch. We have to do some zigzagging to get to where Satch got hit, but after checking the coordinates and walking along a canal we decide we can get closer to the spot. We backtrack to an ox cart trail and walk about 300 meters down it. But before we can continue our walk, it starts to rain so Ky asks a villager if we can use his porch for shelter. He says that is fine. We sit on some stools he furnishes and while sitting there, we watch the ducks, geese and a few turkeys frolic in the puddles. It rains heavy for 10 minutes. While sitting there a man wanders by with a monkey his shoulder. We motion for him to come over and we get some pictures and talk to him about his pet and get a few laughs.
The rain stops and we thank our host and walk around behind his house and out into hiss rice paddy. Dennis is feeling it now and believes we have found the spot where the action was on March 19, 1968. The company had been pursuing some VC and had to stop at nightfall, they did not have a night kit, which is barb wire and claymore mines. They did the best to dig in where they were. The 1/5th Bobcats were off to their right flank. It was at night when the VC attacked and they had no cover except for the berm lines forming the rice paddies. The fire was coming from the tree line about 100 meters away. Satch was hit with an RPG which killed him. Dennis was hit also and he said that he had passed out and it took awhile for him to come to. He says he was not clear about what happened after that but that he did get lifted out of there and taken to the hospital. We placed some flowers there and Dennis spent a few minutes reflecting about what had happened there.
Our next stop and last stop for the trip took us about 3 miles further to the North to where we did a combat assault into a rice paddy. I have Mo driving down this dirt trail or ox cart trail and the car is slipping in the red mud from the rains. I tell him to stop and we get out. I check the GPS and study map and we head off about 500 meters to get to the site of where Conlin was killed and McInvale was wounded. The trail is wet, muddy and slippery. We walk along the edge of a hedgerow and make our way along a narrow trail until we break out into a rice paddy. I walk a little further and point out that we are the area and maybe 50 meters south of the spot. We cannot walk into the paddies because of late rains here; they still have water in them. Everyone looks at the hedgerow and then we look across the field to the area where the choppers landed and where we spent a long afternoon hunkered down in those paddies trying to root out the enemy. We placed our last bunch flowers there and had a moment of silence, and then it was time to leave.
Did we do all that we wanted to do here? Was our “Veterans Tour” complete? I am satisfied with what we did. Understanding the tremendous changes that this country has gone through and seeing the growth in areas that used to just contain a few grass huts and miles of open terrain, it is not the same Vietnam. Many of the places where we lived and fought were dirt creations and time has erased them all.
We walked the roads and trails once more and felt the heat and sun beating down upon our heads.
We felt the rain pelting against our skin and the refreshing feeling that the cool water brought to our bodies. There was also the experience of walking across the top of some rice paddy dykes, and slipping in the soft red mud. And finally, that smell of the country, of the market place and the odor of some villager cooking a meal. Yes, all these memories came rushing back to us. And when I finally took off my fatigue shirt after wearing it since the market place in Trang Bang to the rice paddy in Trung Lap, hot with sweat and the wetness of the rainfall, I was satisfied that we had completed our mission here. I am sad thinking about all the young lives lost here. I tell Dennis that in spite of the scars we carry, life has been good to us and in many ways; we have many things to be thankful for…….We have paid our respects to our fallen comrades. I would like to think that they would be pleased that we cared enough to return to this land and remember them
We had a late lunch at a roadside café, Pho (phew) some kind of beef soup broth with rice noodles, fresh herbs and a cold drink. It is 1530 and time to go back to Saigon and get cleaned up and rest. We decide on dinner late again.
At 2000 we leave the hotel in a very light rain that quickly evaporates. Along the way, we get several invitations (solicitations) from some men and young ladies for a night together. I guess if you look European or white skinned you are singled out. It is the same with the street vendors always trying to sell their products.
After Ed has a chance to locate a store and buy another memory chip for his video camera, we end up back at that same restaurant for dinner. The food is good here and we all order steaks, drinks and I have dessert, a deep fried banana with vanilla ice cream. We make small talk and agree that today was a good and satisfying time spent. Everyone felt a bit sad reliving the tragedy we faced as we retraced the routes of some of our friends who we lost there. But we also felt that this was a good trip and we were all glad that we came. A good meal and another walk back to the hotel and bed.
Our trip is almost over and there are only two days left. We are ready to go home. Mo and Ky pick us up at 0900 and our first city stop is to Independence Palace. This is the home and governing building of several regimes and presidents of South Vietnam. The palace is not very attractive on the inside and is not elaborate for a government in power. We take a tour of the 5 levels of the palace and listen politely to Ky as he gives us the history. The heat is almost unbearable and there is no air conditioning in the building. Electricity is still a precious commodity in this country. From here we visit a large Catholic church which was built in 1887. There is a small population of Catholics living in the city and one of the presidents suppressed the practice of the Buddhists and Monks which ultimately lead to a coup day tah and he was murdered along with his brother because of how he ruled. Next to the church is the post office done in a French form and is a stark contrast to the rest of the buildings in the city. It too is over 100 years old. Inside besides doing your postal business, there are many vendors selling souvenirs.
From here, we travel to a market place that sells everything and I mean everything; foods, clothes, fish, meats, vegetables, fruits, watches, jewelry, wood figures, paintings, art crafts etc. I buy a duffel bag to house some of the stuff I have bought so I can get it on the plane more easily. I find a bag for 180,000 Dong, $9. We wonder around looking for a place to buy a cold drink and end up back at the market and order some 7 Ups with ice. After our drinks, we find Mo and drive over to the War Remnants Museum where we see all sorts of stuff left over from the war. In addition, everything presented here paints a picture of how horrible and vicious the U.S. was against the people of Vietnam. It is very political and we are all shaking our heads reading the captions under all the photos. You cannot change the photo, but you can make the photo represent a different story from what really took place or the reason why.
No matter what you looked out, there was never a VC or NVA we were questioning, but some poor innocent peasant that we were torturing. I moved through the exhibits and tried to keep my mouth shut. For the most part I do, but I did talk at great length to a pair of young men visiting from France and Israel who asked me many questions about Vietnam and the war.
We returned to the hotel and freshened up, then had a drink in the bar. The bartenders here just struggle trying to make mixed drinks. The bartender is a young woman, 26, who is single and trying to make a living. We decided once again to meet at 2000 for dinner. This will be our last dinner in Vietnam and last night here. While waiting in my room there is a dazzling lightning storm passing over the city. I cannot make out some of the taller buildings which have signs on the tops. The traffic on the streets below does not slow down and continual blast of motorcycle and car horns can be heard from all directions.
We wander through the area around our hotel and return to Jasper’s for dinner, wine, drinks and conversation. Dennis orders fajitas while Ed and I go for pasta and red wine from Australia. The wine list is not good and only contains wines from Argentina, Chile or Australia. We pick out a Merlot and hope for the best. After dinner, it‘s back to the hotel to pack and get ready for our last day.
After our usual breakfast, Mo and Ky pick us up and we get a tour of District 2, 5 and 7 in the city and can see where they are trying to address their environmental problems and improve traffic flow. They are building a new east west route and are tunneling beneath one of the rivers rather than construct a bridge. This road takes us over to his huge wholesale Chinese market where we spend the next several hours milling around and continuing to add to our gifts pile. There is activity everywhere and we marvel at the workers loading various items on their motorcycles, and then speeding off to make a delivery.
We head back to the hotel where we checked out earlier that morning and asked them to store our bags until we departed for the airport. We have a 1900 flight on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, then home. Since we had a few hours to kill before Mo and Ky met us at 1600, we decided we should grab lunch and once again walked over to Jaspers knowing they served pizza there.
We ordered two small pizzas and sodas. Outside, the sky was turning gray and I was wondering if we would get an early thunderstorm like the previous day. The pizza was good and we took our time enjoying the change of food. About 1415, we headed back to the hotel. The wind was picking up and I was hoping the rain would hold off until we got back. Well, no luck there for it began to sprinkle. We got within 3 blocks of the hotel when we had to take shelter under the roof of a bank. It started to pour and pour. Soon the street gutters were full of water. Walking anyone trying to even cross the street had them soaking wet in just a few seconds. We passed the time waiting for the storm to clear. Nothing doing!
When we left the hotel I thought Ky said they would be there about 1530 so I had my eye on the clock not wanting to be late. Finally, I sensed that we needed to do something and I hailed a cab. It took about 15 minutes because of traffic jams just to get back to the hotel. By then the water was up over the curbs and on the sidewalks 3 to 6 inches deep. Our cab driver was very timid and we needed him to be aggressive so we could make good time back. He finally got us there then refused to even drive over to the curb. He wanted us to get out in the middle of the street. He was afraid he would get stuck in the water.
Mo was sitting in the van and saw us and waved. We had the hotel staff and Mo all waving to the cab driver to pull up on the sidewalk so we could get out. He finally did so, but I think he was shitting his pants. I gave him $5 and overpaid him at that. It should have cost me $2 at the most. Anyway, we all pulled off our shoes and socks and rolled up our pants and waded through the water to the hotel. By now the water was really getting deep. Both Mo and Ky said we needed to get going now because there was no telling how long it would talk to cross the city.
The rains began to let up, but the traffic remained insane and drivers where just plain crazy. When we rounded the corner and got to the first intersection, we had a bus trying to make a right hand turn, while the car in front of us wanted to cross the intersection while cars were moving from left to right and front to back and I just cannot describe what it looked like. No one wanted to let the other person move. After 30 minutes we managed to get out of this area, and the waters started to recede and soon we were at the airport and it only took an hour.
We said our goodbyes to Mo and Ky and thanked them for all their efforts and the job they did that week and then we gave them a hefty tip. We made it through check in, immigration and security. Our flights back were on time and a little shorter time wise. We left Hong Kong at 0100 on November 20th and arrived in San Francisco at 2130 on November 19th. Entering the U.S. took about an hour and then baggage claim.
Dennis and I said goodbye to Ed at the airport. He was going to spend the night there, then catch an early morning flight out to New York. I drove Dennis back to my house and he decided he would drive home to Nevada that night. He had a good sleep on the airplane and felt we would sleep anyway and home sounded too good to him.
So our great adventure has ended. We took a ton of photos each and will be spending the next several weeks organizing them. When I counted mine, there were over 2500. Each of us felt that it was a good trip, and were happy that we had done it. There were no complaints with the tour agencies we used (TNK Travel in Vietnam and PDSiamTours in Thailand). I would recommend both if you ever plan to travel to Asia. They made good choices for hotels (we used 3 Stars) and we were very pleased with the accommodations. We did not have one single glitch or problem on the tour. Our guides Anh, Tim and Ky were top notch as were the drivers, Chi and Mo.
A good trip indeed…………………
Edited to remove Bangkok portion of trip (AK)