Dear Friends and Fellow Marines/Corpsmen:
I have been home from Vietnam for over a week and have had some time to put my thoughts together regarding the trip. Because we were gone for 4 weeks, I will hit the highlights and include observations and events that I believe will interest you the most.
My traveling companion was Colonel John T. Winkler, USMCR(ret). John was the CO of Whiskey Battery(4.2 mortars) in BLT 3/1. Our trip was arranged by a former army officer, Doug Reese, of Falls Church, VA. Doug works for Vietnamtourism, Ho Chi Minh City. The entire trip was near perfect. We had good guides, drivers, and vehicles. The lodging was good as were the pre-paid meals. The only mistake I made this time was not taking Emily. At some point, hopefully soon, I will go back with her. She needs to see Vietnam with her own eyes.
Guys, it ain't the same... except maybe the heat. I had almost forgotten just how hot and humid it was. When we were younger, I guess it really didn't matter that much, especially when we were dodging bullets.
Those of you who know me, know that I have a passion for Asia. I prefer visiting there... almost anywhere in Asia... over Europe or most anyplace else that I have been. I like the people, the food, the beauty of the countryside and the customs.... so going back to Vietnam was a natural thing for me to do. I think that I am reasonably well adjusted with no hang-ups regarding the war... therefore I wasn't looking for what is so often referred to as closure. Fortunately, that came for me long ago. If I had been seeking this however, I don't think that I would have found it in Vietnam. Not now. Nothing seemed the same except possibly the smell and the barking dogs when walking through the small hamlets. Having said this, it was important for me to see Vietnam again. Vietnam to us was a war, not a movie. Many of America's finest young men died there; others shed blood and were physically and mentally torn apart. The experience ripped into our soul and, in many cases, defined our lives forever. I was not totally prepared for what I found on this trip back.
13 May...departed home, met J.W. in San Francisco...14 May...departed S.F....On our way to Vietnam we made a 2 day/night stop in Singapore (15-17 May) to visit Judd Kinne and family. Judd was one of my platoon commanders in Kilo Company. He had the 1st platoon and has lived in Singapore since the war. He and wife Lynda were terrific hosts and they showed us the city/country of Singapore. An absolute pearl in the orient, Singapore is safe, clean, and beautiful. We also spent one night with them on the way home.... 3 weeks later.
17 May...It was a 2 hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City... Although the name was changed in 1975, Vietnamese and foreigners still call it Saigon. Neither John W., nor I, had ever been there before. We easily cleared customs and were met by our first of 3 guides for this trip.... Ms Nguyen Thi Kieu. Kieu, pronounced "Q," was a very pretty 26 year old Vietnamese girl from Hanoi. She lived with her uncle, spoke good English, and was a very good guide. We went directly to the Cu Chi tunnels, about a 2 hour drive from Saigon. At present, the Cu Chi tunnel network is very touristy, but it became legendary during the 1960s for its role is facilitating Viet Cong control over a large rural area not far from Saigon. These tunnels were used to infiltrate Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army intelligence agents into Saigon. The attacks on Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968 were planned and launched from Cu Chi. In late 1968, B-52 bombers carpet-bombed the whole area, destroying most of the tunnels. As I mentioned, the place is now a tourist attraction... with a very small museum... a video in English showing how clever the VC were and how stupid we(actually the U.S.Army) were for not discovering the tunnels sooner... a tour through a small section of the tunnels... a place to shoot an AK-47 for a dollar a round... and you are out of there.
We returned to Saigon and checked in the Rex Hotel. I had always heard of the Rex. It was a large officer's quarters during the war where most of the officers assigned to the MACV headquarters were billeted. It is now a nice reasonably priced hotel with rooftop bar and restaurant. The buffet breakfast which comes with the room, was very good.
The following day, we had an appointment to call on retired NVA General Bui Van Tung. To my knowledge we were the only Vietnam veterans, with the exception of Doug Reese, to ever visit General Tung. He told us that he was in charge of the tank unit that seized the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace on 30 April 1975, that infamous day that South Vietnam surrendered to the North without firing a shot. The official North Vietnam version of the surrender is that General Tung actually accepted the formal surrender from President Minh. Through our guide we had a good visit with the general. He broke out his photo album and discussed various events leading up to 30 April. The general lives very humbly in the rear of his son's internet cafe.
Following the visit with General Tung, we went directly to the former Presidential Palace, now called the Reunification Palace. It was originally built by the French in 1868 for the Indochina Governor General. Later, after the French departed Vietnam in 1954, it was the home and office of the President of the Republic of Vietnam. In 1990, the Reunification Palace was first opened to visitors and tourists. It is an interesting building and one of the "must see" places in Saigon. Interestingly, a photograph of General Bui Van Tung, which is in a museum section of the Palace, notes that he was the "political commissar of Armor Division 203." So was he a tank warrior or a political officer assigned to tanks? Who knows?
The only other place of note that we visited was the War Remnants Museum. It was formerly called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, but that name was changed to avoid offending Chinese and American tourists. This museum is interesting but full of much one-sided propaganda with photos and details of napalm victims and stories of the My Lai affair. Despite the obvious one-sidedness of museum exhibits and comments, it does drive home the fact that war is brutal and ugly and that unfortunately many of the victims are civilians.
On the lighter side, we visited a couple of markets, bought 2 knock-off Polo shirts for $6 each, and a few other souvenirs. There was one market that had an "Army surplus" section. I purchased an NVA pith helmet for $4 and saw many fake zippo lighters and dog tags. The lighters and dog tags are for sale all over Vietnam. I would venture to guess that almost all of them are fake. How many guys do you know who lost their dog tags?
We ate lunch one day in the Song Fly Restaurant. Vegetable Soup, steamed shrimp, sugarcane stick, fried sea bass w/lemon juice, spring rolls, deep fried squid, boiled mixed vegetables, steamed rice and fruit. This is one of the meals include in the price of the trip. We ate both evening meals at the rooftop restaurant of the Rex Hotel.
19 May...The next morning we boarded Vietnam Airlines for our flight to Danang. When we landed, we were met by our new guide, Mr. Diem Mien. We had a new Nissan SUV for the next few days. Mien would be our guide in Danang, Hoi An, Hue City, Khe Sanh, Calu, the Rockpile, Camp Carroll, Con Thien, Dong Ha, the villages in the Cua Viet area, Thon Tham Khe (Badgertooth), and the Vinh Moc tunnels just north of the old DMZ along the coast. Mien had guided other American Vietnam veterans and quite a few former Marines. In real life, Mien was a cop in Danang. He knew his way around and was an excellent guide for the military areas.
Danang is the 4th largest city in Vietnam with a population of over one million. It is bustling with new industry... unlike Hue which despite growing tourism, is still a very poor, undeveloped city.... although, as we were to discover later, quite beautiful.When we landed at the Danang airport, the one we built, the first thing I noticed was that the runway is still lined with remnants of small concrete hangers used many years ago to protect our aircraft for enemy fire. There is one large hanger that still has the name of a Navy Squadron on its front. We drove past the old NSA (Navy) hospital on the way to Marble Mountain and Nui Kim Sanh. Several of the buildings in the old hospital complex are still standing. There is much activity near and around Marble Mountain. The road/street is lined with marble carving shops. These are impressive operations as they ship all over the world... and take Visa if one wants to purchase something. I found out that Nui Kim Sanh is a mountain, not a village. The word, Nui, meaning mountain. The village we called Nui Kim Sanh actually bears another name. But nothing looks the same, so it doesn't really matter. The old dirt road leading to the former 3/1 CP is now paved and lined with many new concrete block houses and tall trees.... and kids... kids everywhere. That should not be too surprising because 70% of the population of Vietnam is 40 years old or younger. There of course is nothing left of our old CP...only houses and trees and people. However, the Tu Cau Bridge (sometimes called the Cooper Bridge) is still there... right where we left it. It is a newer version but it is there...in the same spot. Again, even that area is hard to recognize because it is so built up... brick factory on one side and tons of houses on the other. I did take photos to compare with the old ones we have.
While in the Danang area, we went to Thoung Duc. This area was the home of Kilo Company during June and July, 1968. I had a map given to me by Les Levy, platoon commander of the 1st platoon during that time frame. The name Thoung Duc is no longer used. It is now Dai Lanh Village. I was able to find what I believe to be the exact spot where the Kilo Company CP was.... and also walked up a trail to some high ground which had been used as a landing zone and which overlooked the Song Vu Gia River and much of the valley. Operation Mameluke Thrust was conducted in this area. After the Marines departed that area, it was occupied by the South Vietnamese Rangers who constructed several French style concrete bunkers.... remnants of which can still be seen. I have spoken to the Kilo Company Marines who fought in this deadly area where many of our guys were killed and wounded. I thought of that when I was there. I was there for them.
When we left Thoung Duc, which was not far from Danang, we headed for Hoi An. We stayed one night is Hoi An, which is a picturesque riverside town about 20 miles south of Danang. It is a beautiful city and we stayed in a nice 3 star hotel with a swimming pool. Most visitors agree that Hoi An is one of the most enchanting cities on the coast and one worth spending some time in. It is probably most famous for the Japanese Covered Bridge ( the first bridge was built in 1593) which originally connected the Japanese community of Hoi An with the Chinese quarters across the stream. You can check out this area at http://www.hoiantourist.com.
20 May..The next morning we drove back to Danang where we made a quick stop at Red Beach. That area is being developed for tourism, similar to China Beach. Although we did not go to China Beach, I have heard that it is now a very beautiful, well developed, tourist beach. I spoke to several tourists who had either been there or planned on going there. Leaving Danang we crossed the Namo Bridge and drove past the old Esso Plant. What was once the Esso Plant is now a small military complex. It was the home of India Company when 3/1 returned from the SLF in June,1968. At that time the 3/1 CP was near Red Beach and was opcon 7th Marines, commanded by Colonel Reverdy M. Hall. The Esso Plant is pretty much the start of the Hai Van Pass which crosses over that part of the Troung Son Mountain Range that juts into the South China Sea. This is an incredibly mountainous stretch of highway with spectacular views of Danang on one side and the South China Sea on the other. At present there is a huge ongoing construction project to dig a vehicular tunnel through the mountain and under the Hai Van Pass.
That afternoon we arrived in the ancient capital of Hue, a city of around 300,000, and checked into the beautiful 3 star Huong Giang Hotel overlooking the Perfume River.. then had a boat tour of the river. Later that evening we boarded another boat where we had dinner on the top deck. The city of Hue lies on both sides of the Perfume River. The north side has the Citadel and the south side has most of the facilities such as shops, hotels and restaurants. For several hundred years Hue has been one of Vietnam's main religious, educational and cultural centers. Today, its main attractions are the remains of the Citadel, which was severely damaged during the Tet Offensive of 1968, the tombs of the Nguyen emperors, and several notable pagodas.... all of which we visited. The Citadel was the most interesting....partly I guess because of its beautiful architecture, but mainly because the 5th Marines were fighting to recapture the Citadel while BLT 3/1 was fighting in the Cua Viet. Hue was the only city in South Vietnam to be held by the Communists for more that a few days. When the NVA entered Hue, they hoisted their flag from the Citadel's Flag Tower where it flew for the next 25 days. During that period, approximately 10,000 people died in Hue....thousands of NVA/VC troops, 400 ARVN, and 150 Americans were among the dead.. Many of those killed were civilians who were rounded up and murdered by the Communists.
21 May... We departed Hue early and took a somewhat circuitous route to Khe Sanh. The dirt and gravel road was under construction in the process of becoming a part of the new Ho Chi Minh Trail highway system. Late that afternoon, we crossed a new bridge and hit Route 9....left to Khe Sanh; right to Dong Ha via Calu, Camp Carroll, etc. We went left to Khe Sanh Town, which has been renamed Huong Hoa. This town had been the home of a CAP unit consisting of around 175 soldiers, Marines and Bru tribesmen. After a several day fight, this area fell to the NVA on 21 January. Many of the inhabitants of this village today are Bru tribes people who have moved here from the surrounding hills. We drove a few miles further north to the Laos border just to see what it looked like. This was a scroungy, unimpressive area with a steady stream of big lumber trucks pouring out of Laos. In Khe Sanh Village we stayed at the Nha Khach Guest House...not very good but the best in town.
22 May.. I was up early... around 0500. The country folks were already on their way to market with whatever they grew... rice, bananas, chickens, pigs... whatever. Our guide pointed out the many cigarette smugglers entering Vietnam from Laos. These guys would sneak across the border on foot... then were picked up by Vietnamese on motorcycles. Each smuggler carried the cigarettes on his back under his shirt... kind of like he was wearing a flak jacket under his shirt.
We arrived at the old Khe Sanh Combat Base after a short drive. There is not much left... only a little museum a few meters from the old airstrip. Beside the museum is a brand new larger building which is to be the new museum. I can't imagine what they will put in it. The entire combat base is grown up with tall bushes and trees. You can see the surrounding hills and mountains but not much else. It was a somewhat cloudy and foggy day so even the hills were hard to see. I was disappointed as I am sure that many of the Marines who served there are when they return to take a look.
The 75 day siege of Khe Sanh began on 21 Jan 68 with a small scale assault on the base perimeter. Khe Sanh became the focus of world wide media attention. For over 2 months, the base received continuous artillery and ground attacks. U. S. aircraft dropped over 100,000 tons of bombs in the area around the base. In addition to the Combat Base, there was severe fighting on the hills surrounding the base... Hills 881S, 881N, 861, 558 and others. The expected final attack to overrun the base never came and on 7 April 68 Route 9 was reopened and the siege ended.
From Khe Sanh, we drove 10 miles east on Route 9 and stopped at what was once the outpost of Ca Lu, near LZ Stud. It is now the village of Dakrong. The area is totally unrecognizable except for the Cam Lo River. That has not changed. We asked a Vietnamese civilian where the American military had been. She pointed to the side of a big hill. The whole area is covered with tall trees and houses.
Eight miles further north on Rt 9 and the one area that is quite recognizable is the Rockpile, which is now surrounded by eucalyptus trees. Although Kilo Company was never assigned there, I had friends in 3/9 who were. We stopped and took photos... for them. From the Rockpile we continued 10 miles east across the Khe Gio bridge to the turnoff to Camp Carroll. During March and early April, 1968, Kilo Company was located right at this junction with one platoon providing security for the Khe Gio bridge. The road junction was a fairly clear area back then with good visibility in all directions. It is quite different now with a paved road lined with tall trees and houses leading up to what was once Camp Carroll. Peppers and tea are grown in this area now. The old Camp Carroll is now fairly barren with only a part of a concrete bunker still there. It must have been built by the ARVN who occupied the camp when the Marines left. John Winkler found the exact spot where his 4.2 battery had been located.
From Camp Carroll, we drove to Cam Lo, the first point of the old Leatherneck Square which consisted of Cam Lo, Con Thien, Gio Linh and Dong Ha. There is nothing to see at Cam Lo except for a small village so we continued on to Con Thien. A new highway is under construction from Rt 9 which passes very close to Con Thien. From this new road, as one looks north, 4 to 5 year old eucalyptus trees are growing as far as the eye can see. We parked and walked about 400 yards on a narrow path to what was once Con Thien Combat Base. The only thing left to see is an old ARVN command bunker and a very small cleared off area. Vast rubber tree farms now surround Con Thien.
From Con Thien, we made our way south to the city of Dong Ha, the former site of the Dong Ha Combat Base and the headquarters of the 3rd Marine Division. Dong Ha, a city of around 70,000, is the capital of the reconstituted Quang Tri Province. It is at the intersection of Routes 1 and 9. After the Marines left Dong Ha, it was the site of an ARVN base. After eating a late lunch at the Dong Que Restaurant, we checked in to the relatively new Hieu Giang Hotel. It is the best hotel (1 of 6 there) in Dong Ha. The rooms are large, the head clean, and it had air conditioning. The hotel had internet service so I was able to email home.
23 May.. This was our day to visit the north side of the Cua Viet River... Kilo Company's home during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Today we were to visit Bac Vong, My Loc, Mai Xa Thi (east and west), Lam Xuan (E), and Nhi Ha. The Cua Viet area is only about 12 miles from Dong Ha. In 1968 it seemed more like a hundred miles. There is now a 2 year old hard surface road from Dong Ha to the beach on the north side of the Cua Viet River. It passes right through Mai Xa Thi (W), where there is a new bridge that crosses Jones Creek right where the old foot bridge was....then through Mai Xa Thi (E) and on down to the beach. The road parallels the river along the north edge of what we knew as My Loc... then swings a little NE through what was once the refugee camp and ends at a large parking lot. The beach area, with small drinking and eating hootches, is about 50 yards from there.
Both Mai Xa Thi hamlets were easy to identify, mainly because of Jones Creek. For some reason, Jones Creek seemed much wider than I remembered it. We parked on the west side of the bridge, then walked across it into Mai Xa Thi (E), turned right and followed Jones Creek down to the Cua Viet. I stood on the exact sandy point where 2nd Lt Mike McLean, our Naval Gunfire Spot Team Officer, and I called in Naval gunfire.... got a short round of "willie peter" which fortunately was a dud since it landed right beside us. There are concrete houses all over this area now as well as fishing boats all along the riverbank.
The hamlet of My Loc was harder to pinpoint. For one reason, there is no hamlet by that name now. As a matter of fact, we could not find anyone who ever heard of My Loc. They seemed a little confused when we showed them the name, My Loc, on our old military map. But everyone we spoke to knew all the other villages. They knew Bac Vong and Mai Xa Thi which were the hamlets on either side of My Loc when we were there. Actually, Bac Vong was a little to the NE of My Loc. With help from our guides (we also had a local guide for this area) and John Winkler helped me pinpoint the exact location in "old" My Loc where Kilo Company engaged in a horrendous battle on the morning of 25 January 1968. The area which was once void of any houses, roads, or even electricity, now has all three. The new road is built up high, I guess to prevent flooding, so you can not see from My Loc north to the grave yard. Much of that grave yard where we once fought was relocated when the road was built. A little further to the north and in clear view, is a huge cemetery, probably for those who have died since the war as well as the relocated graves.
We drove north to Lam Xuan (E) and parked just outside the hamlet. The entire west border of Lam Xuan (E) butts up against Jones Creek. The hamlet is larger now, with more houses and tall trees, but it is very recognizable. I walked throughout the ville and found the exact area on the east side where Kilo Company moved to on 1 Feb 68. It is still a fairly open area with a scattering of small shrubs throughout. Lam Xuan (E) was not an exclusive battleground for Kilo Company. Every company in 3/1 fought there at one time or another. After BLT 3/1 went to Camp Carroll, BLT 2/4 and an Army unit from the 196th Light Infantry Brigade also fought there.
About a click north of Lam Xuan(E) is Nhi Ha, a very small peaceful looking hamlet with an elementary school. I suspect that kids from the surrounding hamlets go to this school. Adjacent to the main school house is a small teachers' building with a brass plaque on the outside wall. The inscription on the plaque is in English and Vietnamese. It states that the Army's 3rd of the 21st, 196th Light Infantry Brigade had fought there on 6 May 68 and donated money for that building on 6 May 98. On 28 Feb 68, Nhi Ha was the scene of a fierce battle involving the 2nd platoon, Kilo Company.
After lunch in Dong Ha, we went to see the only remaining Marine Corps structure in what was formerly the center of the Dong Ha Combat Base. As the city of Dong Ha grew in size, all the old Marine buildings were torn down and the materials used for other projects.
24 May... We departed Dong Ha early to tour the south side of the Cua Viet. Our first stop was at a small village just west of the area formerly occupied by Camp Kistler, home of the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion. To enter this area, one must have permission from the head of the local police. Without this permission this whole area is off-limits to tourists. For this part of the visit, we hired a local guide (for $5) who was familiar with the area to assist our guide. After securing permission from the head policeman(said to be a lieutenant colonel) to proceed, we walked a short distance to a large new fish facility. After looking over that operation for a while, we continued on a couple of hundred meters to a police house/station. There we met a police "major" who offered us beer and rice wine. It was only about 0930, but we gracious accepted... before moving on to the lighthouse which overlooks the mouth of the Cua Viet and the South China Sea. We were introduced to the man in charge of the lighthouse, had tea, and took photos. There is very little that one can still see of the old Camp Kistler except for remnants of some old black top pavement.
Before leaving that area, the head policeman invited us to a mid-day party of Huda Beer, squid, and noodles. He asked us if we knew anything about an underground U.S. hospital in that area during the war. Neither John W., nor I, had ever heard of this... even as a rumor. An hour later, we proceeded on to the hamlet of Thon Tham Khe, site of Operation Badgertooth on 27 Dec 67. Badgertooth was a nightmare. Lima Company had been assigned the mission of sweeping the village of Thon Tham Khe after having gone through that same village on the 26th... the day before. Lima entered the village from the northwest and was taken under intense automatic weapons and mortar fire. The company commander was killed and most of the other officers and staff NCOs were either killed or wounded. A staff sergeant was the senior man standing. Mike Company was ordered to move up on Lima's left flank to continue the attack on the village. They also were taken under heavy fire at close range and pinned down. When Mike was unable to advance, Kilo Company was ordered to attack from the south... to take the pressure off Lima and Mike. As we approached the south side of Thon Tham Khe...across a vast open area... without benefit of supporting arms ... we also were taken under heavy fire. Finally, a couple of tanks, that had still been on ship when the battle started, were landed and helped us move up into the treeline and later, evacuate our dead and wounded.
Prior to driving Thon Tham Khe, we picked up a local policeman who would accompany us. We spent about 2 hours in this village walking it east to west and north to south. Through our guide, we spoke to many villagers and asked them questions about the war, particularly during the period of Badgertooth. Everyone with whom we spoke had moved to this village after the war and most of them were young with small children. At one point as we walked through the village, we had 35 kids following in trace. I walked the south side and found Kilo Company's assault area. As before, it was a vast open area which extended to the south edge of the village. I found a secluded spot and buried one of our BLT 3/1 coins in memory of all our guys who were killed or wounded there. Later, John W. and I walked around to the northwest side and located Lima Company's area... then further around to the north side to Mike Company's position. The little creek is still there. This peaceful village...seemingly in a time warp today... was once the scene of a terribly ill-advised combat operation where 48 Marines of BLT 3/1 died and another 88 Marines and Corpsmen were wounded.
25 May... At 0830 we headed north on Rt 1. Prior to reaching the old DMZ, we took a brief look at the former Gio Linh Combat Base, the last point of the Leatherneck Square for us to see. Our guide led us through the yard of a small Vietnamese house to get to the trail we would follow about a 100 yards. We reached a point where we had good vision to the north. As far as the combat base is concerned, there is absolutely nothing to see. Obviously, this would mean more to someone who had served there.
About 13 miles north of Dong Ha, Rt 1 crosses the Ben Hai River, once the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam. We crossed over the river on the new bridge. The original Hien Luong Bridge(called the Peace Bridge by Americans) is presently being restored. During the war, the north half of the bridge was painted red... for North Vietnam... and the south side was painted yellow for South Vietnam. About 3 miles north of the Ben Hai River, at the small hamlet of Ho Xa, we turned and drove east for another 7 or 8 miles to the Vinh Moc tunnels.
The Vinh Moc tunnels are larger and taller than those at Cu Chi... and much more interesting to see. There is over a mile of tunnels where a complete village went underground in 1966 to escape American bombs. The tunnel network remains essentially as it looked back then though some of the 12 entrances have been reinforced. The tunnels were built on 3 levels ranging from 15 meters to 26 meters below the crest of the bluff. These entrances are well concealed and only a few meters from the sea. The day we were there, a platoon of Vietnam Army recruits were also there. They seemed more interested in having their picture taken with us than seeing the tunnels. These guys looked all of 17 years old.
26 May... Around noon we checked out of our hotel in Dong Ha and drove back to Hue. After lunch, we went back to the hotel we had previously stayed in... just to wait around until it was time to take the train to Hanoi. While at the hotel we met "Jerry," a former South Vietnamese Special Forces officer who had escaped in 1975 and has resided in Cleveland ever since. Jerry had been back to Vietnam once before but this time he had his 32 year old daughter, Linda, with him. Linda was a graduate of Ohio State and practiced medicine in Akron.
We said our "good-byes" to our guide and driver. The train ride to Hanoi was long, but fairly comfortable. We had what is called a soft sleeper. The compartment had 4 beds, so we had 2 other guys with us. Both were Vietnamese and both spoke English. One was a 36 year old English teacher going to Hanoi to teach English to high school teachers. He had studied for a while at the University of Southern California. The old guy had a Ph.D. in physics, but worked for a computer software company. He was on his way to China... for both vacation and business. The train was air conditioned and box lunches were served for dinner. Around 0530, just south of Hanoi, we passed a large Catholic church and cemetery. It was going to be interesting seeing the differences between Saigon and Hanoi.
27 May... We arrived at the Hanoi Train Station around 0630 and were met by our new guide, Nguyen Thranh Trung. Trung, pronounced, "Chum," was 26 years old and had a good command of the English language. Trung told us right up front that he hated communism. His father had been a photo journalist in the war and spent 10 years in the Army. He now worked for the official communist newspaper in Hanoi. Today, we would go to Halong Bay... 3 hours away by car.
After a couple of stops along the way, we arrived in Halong Bay around noon and checked in the Halong Bay Hotel. Halong Bay is the number one tourist spot in Vietnam but we were there before the main tourist season. >From our hotel room, which overlooked the beach, we could see the beautiful karst mountains (there are 1969 of them) jutting out of the bay. That night, after dinner at the hotel, John W. and I took a walk down by the beach. This would be a great place to have your wife, not some ugly Marine.
28 May... Trung met us right after breakfast. We drove down to the pier and boarded our 30 passenger boat. Today, we were the only passengers...with a crew of 3 including the cook. It was a 5 hour cruise throughout the bay with a couple of stops. One was to take a swim after we climbed up 435 steps to a lookout platform and then back down to a beach. The other was a large cave... which was said to be a sacred place to the local fishermen. The cook prepared a gourmet meal of crab, squid, shrimp, prawn, veggies and rice.
After the cruise, we headed back to Hanoi and checked into the Hang Nga Hotel. Our room had a good view of the city. Just around the corner from the hotel was an internet cafe where we sent an email home. It costs only 20 cents, U.S., for use of the internet for 1 hour. Later that evening we ate at the Seasons of Hanoi restaurant.... first class, but very inexpensive.
29 May... breakfast in the 10th floor hotel restaurant. At 0800, we headed for the Army Museum, established in 1959 in the center of Hanoi, near Lenin's statue. On the grounds of the museum is the Hanoi Flag Tower, a national historic cultural monument constructed from 1805 to 1812. The museum, in most cases, is a straight forward history of the Vietnamese Armed Forces fight against the French, Japanese, South Vietnam and the U.S. On display are exhibits, photographs, maps, weapons and pieces of American airplanes.
Our next stop was the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, sometimes referred to as the Ethnic Minorities Museum. It is a very interesting museum with a display over 15,000 artifacts from all over Vietnam.
One of the "must see" places in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature. It was founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong who dedicated it to Confucius in order to honor scholars and men of literary accomplishment. I had been asked by a friend and former Marine to say hello to Mrs. Hoang Tuyet Huong, the senior English speaking guide here. After seeing the Temple, we asked our guide to locate Mrs. Huong. She is a rather famous person having been the personal guide for President Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and several other heads of state. We met her, had tea, and made arrangements to see her again on 6 June, our last full day in Vietnam.
Hoa Lo Prison...what we know as the Hanoi Hilton...Americans think of this prison as the place of confinement for the hundreds of pilots who were shot down in North Vietnam. Vietnamese think of this prison as the place where the French imprisoned, tortured, and killed Vietnamese patriots and revolutionary fighters. The fact that our POWs were imprisoned and tortured there between 1964 and 1973 is but a footnote in this prisons history which began in 1896 as the largest in northern Indochina. When the war ended in 1975, most of the prison was torn down. A small portion has been restored and is open to tourists. It does have the original guillotine used by the French.
Not far from the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake is the Municipal Water Puppet Theater. I had seen the Peking Opera in Beijing, China and thought it too touristy. I thought this would be the same. It wasn't. This is a thoroughly entertaining art form originating in northern Vietnam back in 1010. Eleven puppeteers, trained for a minimum of 3 years, are involved in each performance. They stand in the water behind a bamboo screen. Some of the puppets are simply attached to a long pole while others are set on a floating base which is attached to a pole. The music, which is provided by a live band, is as important as the action of the puppets. Anyway, the performance is very entertaining and definitely worth the $1.60 US that it cost.
2130-boarded a soft sleeper train to Lao Cai, the major town at the northwest end of the rail line and right on the Chinese border.
30 May... 0630...arrived Lao Cai. This town was razed in the Chinese invasion of 1979 so most of the buildings are new. Met at the train station by our new driver with a Toyota Land Cruiser. Drove about 25 miles over a dirt road to Sapa, our destination. Sapa was a French Hill Station built by the French in 1922. It lies in a beautiful valley which is the home to diverse hill-tribe communities. Sapa is rapidly becoming a major tourist attraction. The road between Lao Cai and Sapa is being paved and many new hotels are presently under construction. We stayed in the Victoria Sapa Hotel. This is definitely a top end hotel with a great restaurant, 2 bars, swimming pool and fitness center. Check it out at www.victoriahotels-asia.com. By the way, traveler's checks can be cashed here for a small fee.
After breakfast, we took a walk through the town. It was rainy so not much was going on. Later, when the rain stopped, the town came alive with ethnic minority people in colorful traditional garb hawking their wares... mostly jewelry and small embroidered pieces. At 1300, our driver took us to a point outside of Sapa where we launched on a long walk through several Black H'Mong villages. Since migrating from China in the 19th century, the H'Mong people have grown to become one of the largest and most underprivileged of the ethnic groups in Vietnam. There are 13,000 in this area and medical care is almost non-existent. Our guide took us into several homes... dirt floors... bamboo construction... gear adrift everywhere... coughing children... no toilet facilities... a crude electrical system powered by flowing spring water providing electricity for 2 houses. Our guide said that these folks did not understand the concept of toilets. They just did their business anyplace outside their house.
Later that evening our guide took us to a local "restaurant" called the Gerbera. For 3 large meals with 3 beers, the cost was $9.00.
31 May... Up at 0600... took a 20 minute high altitude run. I failed to mention that John W. and I took a run every morning that we could. At 0730, we had breakfast in the hotel. It was the best breakfast buffet of the entire trip. Most of the guests in the hotel were French. We met 2 American families. One was in Vietnam to pick up a newly adopted son.
At 0900 we were picked up by Trung. After being dropped off a few miles out of Sapa, we walked through a Red Dao village, went into several homes, and bought a few things from the Red Dao women. Later, when we returned to Sapa, we took a walk through the market area. Later that afternoon, we went to Cat Cat, another Black H'Mong village. This area was both interesting and charming because of the beautiful waterfall nearby.
It is my observation that Sapa would be far less interesting without the H'Mong and Dao montagnard people, the largest ethnic groups in the region. They are mostly very poor and for the most part ignored by the Vietnamese government. Lots of women and young girls have gone into the souvenir business.
1 June... At 0800 we were on the road to Dien Bien Phu with a one night stop in Lai Chau. A couple of miles outside of Sapa, we stopped to take pictures of Thac Bac, the Silver Waterfall. It is 100 meters high and right off the road. The road between Sapa and Lai Chau is rough and rocky... totally unimproved. Only 10 or so miles from Sapa, we crossed the Tram Ton Pass on the north side of Fansipan. At nearly 5,700 feet, Fansipan is the highest mountain in Vietnam. On the Sapa side of the mountain, it can be cold and foggy; on the Lai Chau side, it is often sunny and hot. Sapa is the coldest spot in Vietnam and Lai Chau is said to be the hottest.
About noon we stopped in some small village and had lunch. I don't remember what we ate but it was cooked over a wood burning fire and very tasty. After chow, the driver had a smoke using the house bamboo water pipe. These are the same type pipes formerly used to smoke opium but now "most" of the men smoke a hard core Vietnam grown tobacco. After lunch, we walked down to the village market where I purchased one of these pipes for 30 cents.
Later that evening, we pulled into Lai Chau and checked into the Lan Anh Hotel. I was totally surprised at this nice little hotel out in the middle of nowhere. Not only was our room very nice (with air conditioning and TV), but the food was very good as well. There were 2 backpackers staying there. One from England and the other from the U.S.
2 June... The drive on to Dien Bien Phu was long and rough, but as before, the scenery was quite astonishing. We passed through 8 different ethnic minority area, each with its on distinguishing colorful dress. We arrived at DBP around 1600 and checked into the Muong Thanh Hotel, said to be the best in town. Unfortunately the "peoples electricity" was off and did not come on until around 2100. The hotel did have a small generator that provided electricity to the hotel lobby so everyone could watch World Cup Football... what we call soccer.
3 June... I hate to say this but Dien Bien Phu, a city of over a half million and the capital of Lai Chau Province, is pretty much of a waste of time unless one is a history buff interested in the French-Indochina War. It is the site of a truly decisive battle where all 13,000 men in this French garrison were either killed or taken prisoner by the Viet Minh on 6 May 1954. Viet Minh casualties were estimated at 25,000. After a 57 day siege, this total defeat of the French shattered morale and forced the French government to depart all of Indochina. Over the course of 2 days, we visited the following points of interest:
1. The Dien Bien Phu Museum... the site of the battles is marked by this museum. Probably the best part of the trip to DBP. Excellent exhibits... a documentary video of the battle in English... plus a large lighted map which helps to explain the battle.
2. The monument to Viet Minh casualties and several reconstructed bunkers on the site of the former French position known as Eliane or A1 Hill. From the top of this hill, one has a commanding view of the entire DBP area.
3. The Dien Bien Phu Cemetery... a very large stylish cemetery with several hundred markers, most without names or information.
4. The re-created command bunker of the French commander, Colonel Christian de Castries. The gate to this exhibit was locked all day and we could not get in.
5. A memorial to the 3000 French troops buried under the rice paddies. Erected in 1984 on the 30th anniversary of the battle.
6. The old Muong Thanh Bridge has been preserved and close to vehicular traffic. The Viet Minh came across this bridge to capture Colonel de Castries. Near the south end of this bridge, there is the remnants of a bunker where French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, committed suicide.
7. About 20 miles outside the city on the far side of a mountain area, is the reconstructed command bunker and sleeping quarters of General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander in Chief of Viet Minh Forces. There is a tunnel through the mountain that connects this area with the DBP battlefield. Interesting to see, but except for the tunnels which are not open to the public, everything is new.
Our second night in Dien Bien Phu, we ate dinner at the Lien Tuoi Restaurant, unquestionably the best place to eat in DBP.
4 June... We got an early start and made it to Tuan Giao for lunch. Tuan Giao is a remote town located at the junction of Routes 42 and 6A. The best place to eat is the Hoang Quat Restaurant. In late afternoon, we arrived in Son La and checked in the Trade Union Hotel (Khach San Cong Doan). We ate supper and breakfast in the hotel restaurant and the food was good and plentiful.
5 June... Before departing Son La, we made a quick visit to the old French Prison, Nha Tu Cu Cua Phap. Above the wrought iron gate entrance is an old faded sign..."Penitentaire." This prison is where the anti-colonial Vietnamese Revolutionaries were incarcerated. It was destroyed by U.S. aircraft during the Vietnam war. Much of the prison, however, is in tact and the guard tower has been restored. There are 12 ethnic minority tribes in this area, but the 4 most dominant are Black Thai, Meo, Muong, and White Thai. The road from Son La is paved but narrow and rough with much traffic. The valleys and mountains along the way are beautiful and the rice fields were being harvested by hand. Arrived Hanoi in late evening and checked back in our old hotel, the Hang Nga.
6 June... Trung met us at the hotel at 0830 and we went straight to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. In the tradition of Lenin and Stalin, Mao's final resting place is a glass sarcophagus inside a well guarded building that has become the site of pilgrimage. As you pass Uncle Ho, you have to be in long britches... no cap... no talking and you have to keep your hands out of your pockets. Oh, and, of course, no photos. From the mausoleum, it was a short walk to Ho's Stilt House where Ho lived on and off from 1958 to 1969. This is an interesting ethnic minority style house which has been preserved just as Ho left it. Near the stilt house is the Presidential Palace which is now used for official receptions. It was constructed in 1906 as the Palace of the Governor General of Indochina.
For lunch, Trung took us to the Phong Do Snake Restaurant. There are probably 100 or more such snake restaurants in Hanoi. I know this sounds gross, but every Vietnamese in Hanoi with whom we spoke had eaten in one of these and does so on a fairly regular basis. Trung said that this one was his parents favorite snake restaurant. When you first arrive, and before you even go to your table, a guy pulls a cobra out of a burlap bag and plays around with it. We didn't eat the cobra; too expensive. After this little demo, we were escorted to our table in a private room. It was the 4 or us... me, John W., Trung and the driver. A guy comes in the room with a smaller snake of unknown species.... squats down and suddenly smacks the snake's head against the door jam. He then pulls out a knife and drains the blood into a decanter... and cuts out the heart and liver. He places the heart on the table.... still pumping away. Our guide and driver kind of looked at John W. and me like to say that you don't have a hair on your you-know-what if you don't divvy it up and gulp it down.... which, of course, we did. The next challenge was the snake blood wine which is consumed in "shots." The little shot glasses were filled.... glasses held high... then came the customary Vietnamese toast, "Chuc Mong," and down the hatch it went. It wasn't all that bad... just different. The snake soup and the various snake dishes were actually pretty good. After this most extra-ordinary reptile feast, the grand finale was the snake liver wine. Are you still with me?
This, our last evening in Hanoi, we met our Temple of Literature guide friend, Hoang Tuyet Huong, and her 2 small children for dinner at the Seasons of Hanoi restaurant. Her husband could not attend because he was working late at a new job with a Hanoi newspaper. She brought along her photo album with photos of all the world dignitaries she had guided. Quite impressive!
7 June... We got up early and took a jog around a big lake just a few blocks from our hotel. This is where John McCain was shot down and landed right in the middle of this lake. I guess this didn't happen very often so they erected a monument right there at the edge of the lake describing this feat. Later that morning John W. and I took a taxi to the Silver Street, a little strip of small shops specializing in fairly inexpensive hand made silver jewelry. After purchasing a few item for the gals back home, we returned to the hotel to pack up. At 1115, Huong met us in the hotel lobby. She had a card and small a book about Vietnam for my wife, Emily. At 1200, Trung met us and off we went to the new Hanoi Airport. Soon afterward we boarded our Singapore Airlines aircraft and headed for Singapore. By 1800 we were there... and by 1900 we were back at Judd's house. Judd and Lynda had a few friends over that evening for drinks, shrimp, and grilled burgers. As usual, they were terrific hosts once again.
8 June... We hung out with Judd, Lynda and Lydia until just after lunch when Judd took us to the airport. Our flight to San Francisco, via Hong Kong, was long but uneventful. After we landed and cleared customs, John W. and I split up... he to Delta and me to American. My plane departed SF shortly after midnight.
9 June... Arrived Amarillo at 0934 and was met by the love of my life. End of mission.
If you have hung in there with me through all these pages, you can probably tell that I write these journals for me... to record my trips... but I like to share them with anyone interested. In general, here are my observations....
Vietnam is not the same as we who served there remember it. Most of the people are young, under 40, and could care less about the war. Every person I met... regardless of age... regardless of social status... had a genuine smile on his or her face. They seem to love America and anything American. Most want to come here but know they never will.
I pretty much left out the part about the NVA martyr cemeteries. They are located everyplace, especially in the south. Millions of Vietnamese military were killed and over 200,000 are still missing.
As for our old battlefields... We can forget the Leatherneck Square. It doesn't exist anymore except in our mines. If the Vietnamese government had known that we still wanted to visit those combat bases so many years after the war, I am sure they would have left them in tact. Nothing looks the same except maybe some of the distant landscape. Even that looks different because of the massive groves of trees. Our old 3/1 triangle CP south of Marble Mountain simply cannot be located without some sort of global positioning system. There is nothing but concrete block houses and tall trees. The little hamlet of Nui Kim Sanh is not there... gone forever. In it's place is a bustling village which is now just part of Danang. Thon Tham Khe and the hamlets north of there in the Cua Viet area are a bit different in that they haven't grown in size very much. But we must remember that even these villages were totally obliterated during the war... and later reconstructed using different materials for the houses and other buildings. At one time only footpaths connected these hamlets. Now there are paved roads... schools....electricity... town halls. And the people... They are not the folks who were there when we were... none of them.... zip! I wanted to scream out, "Do you remember me?" "I was right here." "Many Marines and Corpsmen died right here." "Where is everyone?"
John E. Regal