|Southeast Asia Trip
Vietnam was a real surprise in almost every way. We entered the country at Hanoi late on a rainy night by Thai Air from Chiang Mai, Cambodia. The city has a bad traffic problem at all hours but it is primarily motorbikes. The traffic can best be described as free form with little attention to any rules.
We stayed at the Melia Hotel, which is modern, large, efficient and well located. On the other hand, it is devoid of charm and might remind you of a Holiday inn on steroids. It is within two blocks of the Hanoi Hilton prison, which was our first stop on the morning sightseeing run.
A large portion of the prison has been torn down and the remainder is a museum. The genesis of the place was a prison / torture chamber / guillotine chamber for use by the French colonialists fighting the locals. Virtually all the museum is dedicated to pictures of various French atrocities and some blamed on the U.S. They even have a guillotine they state was the actual one the French used. It is not too sharp but looks to be effective.
One room is dedicated to pictures and memorabilia of our war, with an emphasis on the murderous pilots and the benevolence of the NVA. It is humorous, rather than emotional, as they are so outrageous in their rhetoric and so loose with the facts. They dwell on their care of John McCainís injuries without mentioning that those injuries were primarily inflicted after his capture. It is an interesting stop but their bombastic approach renders it ineffective in stirring any emotion, unless you were incarcerated there. The truth was bad enough; there is no need for them to lie.
We saw the national palace from the outside as it was a holiday. Ho Chi Mihnís tomb is there and it was also closed. Thatís o.k. with me. About a half mile from the palace is the lake where McCain landed in his parachute. We arrived in an air conditioned Toyota van and had a couple of beers at a sidewalk cafť on the shore. It is in an urban setting and quite attractive as it is surrounded by villas and apartment houses of the French management period. We ended the afternoonís festivities with a one hour cyclo ride through the old city. The streets are each dedicated to the sale of one type of item; shoes, locks, tin smithy, baskets, etc. The traffic is not for the faint of heart. Hold on and close your eyes.
We visited the old university and did some general sight seeing before leaving for Hue the next morning. A general impression of Hanoi: It has not rapidly changed to capitalism due to the communist managementís failure to release the capitalist spirit. Shopping is o.k. for fabrics and carvings. Everything is dirt cheap except the hotel. I donít need to tell any of you how hot and humid it is in April. It makes Houston weather seem cool.
We landed at the Hue airport which is Phu Bai. The revetments for the fighter planes and helicopters were still there and by comparing the runway to the concrete in those revetments and the unused taxiways, Iíd venture we landed on the original runway. We flew Vietnam Airways B-757, good service, cheap and good landings. We chose to stay in Hue as there are no good hotels in Dong Ha, or along Rt. 9. The hotel, the Imperial, was new, efficient well appointed and the dťcor was kind of San Francisco Steak House / bordello. We visited the sights including the Imperial city and took a river boat trip on the Perfume River. It was HOT! We left the next morning for points north.
Our guide was 18 in the year 1972 and missed having to do military service. He had acted as an interpreter during the latter stages of the war. He was an outspoken critic of the communists and referred to all current government officials, all former NVA and the VC generically as "Charlie". He knew every pig trail around the DMZ and we were able to see most of them. We started at Con Thien, arrival by air conditioned Mercedes was a lot better trip than the old PC with a tube in the back. The trip is on excellent two lane asphalt roads with paved shoulders, guard rails and good markings and signage. You take Rt. 9 west from Dong Ha past Cam Lo and then turn north. Access to Con Thien is unmarked and would be extremely difficult to find with a map and no guide. As it was, we stopped and walked about two clicks to arrive at the hill to the north east of the W-1-12 position where there was/is an excellent view
I was absolutely slack jawed looking at the old hill. After 40 years I had expected it to be totally covered by new jungle growth but easily recognizable to an old salt like me. In stead, it is a rubber plantation! The hill is completely covered by mature orderly rubber trees. Obviously, a lot of site preparation had been done; there are no recognizable features except one concrete bunker on that north east hill. Correct me if Iím misremembering, but I donít remember there being a bunker on that hill. This one is concrete with 18-24" thick walls and ceiling. It is small and only useful as an O.P., but what a fine O.P. In any case, it will be there long after we are all gone unless there is a nuclear war at Con Thien as it is really built well.
The other hill, to the northwest of the W-1-12 position is where the old Special Forces bunker was located. We didnít walk over there through that saddle as it is now more of a ravine from the erosion. I would expect that to run down through the gun position between Whiskey and the 105ís. That is approximately where the old illumination pit was where Sgt. Holcomb died, I think.
All in all, it was very peaceful and the agrarian use of the hill, while shocking at first, seems very appropriate. Again, I didnít find it too emotional an experience as it has changed so much. So have I.
Next we headed back down to Rt. 9 and drove toward Khe Sahn with intermediate stops. Camp J.J. Carroll is now a thriving plantation of pepper trees. Again, there is some concrete here and there, the remains of bunkers but nothing too recognizable. I was prepared for the farming so it just looked natural. It was not at all like a battlefield. At 240 meters elevation, it was much less humid than nearer the South China Sea.
The Rockpile is still an imposing tower, however; the next hill east is being reduced by some sort of quarry operation. I only passed through there on a roughrider and never knew much about the place. Ca Lu is marked on the highway as a bridge but I was never absolutely certain where our position was. I should have researched the coordinates and used a GPS. The highway is excellent and the guide kept showing me the old road where it showed up as we drove west. I didnít want to burst his bubble, but what he referred to as the "old road" was a lot newer than the one we used on my first trip to Ca Lu. The valley is beautiful and the river has what looks like Class IV white water here and there.<
Khe Sahn has a little village and a museum of the war. The museum is interesting as it refers to the great NVA victory and how they ran the Marines out. Again, the truth is bad enough, why tell obvious lies. The airstrip is currently visible in its entirety but quite grown up. There are paths along it and some of the old ammo bunker remains. Everything but the air strip is covered in coffee trees. The elevation is again high enough to give a respite from the humidity.
From Khe Sahn, we motored in a/c comfort back toward Cam Lo, back up past Con Thien and into the ville of Gia Lihn. There is a stripped hull of an M-48 marking the McNamara Strip. There is nothing else evident from the war as Gia Lihn has about 50,000 people. The good road continues east to just south of the Ben Hai River where it meets Rt.1 and we crossed "Freedom Bridge" to what was North Vietnam. There is a memorial and a flag about the size of a football field. The area is tourist free and I was able to complete my assigned task and whiz in the river from the north side. My wife understood my desire to do so but refused to dignify it with a picture.
After my refreshing pause, we headed south on Rt. 1 toward Dong Ha. Just south of Gia Lihn, we turned east and headed for the mouth of the Cua Viet River where W-1-12 landed from the LST. The road is straight and ends at a beach that must be about where C-4 was located, about 2 km north of the mouth of the river. The South China Sea is still beautiful and the sand is very white. The beach has a series of temporary hooches that serve as bars and cafes. It can best be described as a sort of "dog patch".
Dong Ha is a thriving city of some 150,000. You can see where the airstrip was if someone points it out to you; otherwise, you would miss it. It is still quite dirty! We went on back to Hue where the next day the two ladies had a cooking class scheduled. I watched and drank a few beers.
Ahhhhh! Saigon. No wonder we lost the stupid war. Anyone in Saigon would be too busy to fight. It is as pretty as they always said it was; the food is excellent, shopping is outrageously cheap, the women are lovely and everyone loves Americans. We stayed in the Caravelle Hotel of legend. It was a 10 story building with a rooftop bar frequented by the press, CIA and the blackmarketeers. It has been completely refurbished and a new 29 story building added adjacent. The old roof top bar is really neat and is now frequented by expatriate businessmen, tourists and wealthy Vietnamese.
Our sight seeing took us to the usual guidebook places but the high point was the war museum. They had one of each type arm we had given the RVN. I was walking between an M-48 and a 175 SP and what did I see? A 4.2, by god! It had no sight and the bore was rusty.
This trip began in Bangkok. I rate it high for shopping and it has the best hotels in the world. We stayed in the Peninsula. The hotel was expensive but otherwise the place wasnít too pricy compared to Houston. It has a lot of charming temples constructed 1700 Ė 1875. They tend to bright colors and mirrors. Friendly people, good food, awful traffic and damned hot and humid weather are to be expected.
From Bangkok we went to Chiang Mai, Thailand, some 200 miles north for more and older temples. We stayed in the Four Seasons and it was 5 stars. Nice, but pricy. The older temples are more interesting. From Chiang Mai we flew to Siam Reap, Cambodia to Angkor Watt. That is a sight not to be missed if you are anywhere near. Built around 950 a.d. and it covers about a half mile square. All of the stone for construction was brought from a quarry 55 km away by elephant. The Siam Reap area is crowed by old temples. One that was not restored and had buildings covered with trees hundreds of years old, was where "Tomb Raider" was filmed. I looked the crowd over carefully while my wife wasnít looking but I could see no gratuitous nudity so I suspect the star was gone.
From Siam Reap we went to Hanoi.
There it is. It is the trip of a lifetime. If anyone has any specific questions they may e-mail me.