Shortly after I got assigned to 1st Guns in March 1966 I was selected to stand watch in a hole on our perimeter wire. I was a “newbie” but I was surrounded by “newbies” because, while I had been in country for only a few days, the entire battery had only been in country a few days longer than me. The position I was in was set up as a machine gun position. The hole itself was shaped like a “U” with the machine gun on the ground between the legs of the “U”. It was sandbagged on the top and on all sides with a small slit in the front and an opening in the rear to allow us to get in and out.
I was assigned there with another guy from the FDC (Fire Direction Center). He said he was from California but he had a decided twang in his speech that said he had originated somewhere in Appalachia. We were expected to stand watch all night so we were not assigned any chores during the day and we took turns dozing and generally just farting around. My hole-mate decided to take a nap and he laid down on his back on a cot we had in the hole with us that took up much of the available space. He pulled a mosquito net over him and fell fast asleep. I sat in the hole wondering how I was going to die that night because all my ‘training’ in California convinced me that having been in country for a week or so I was on borrowed time.
Shortly I caught something moving in the hole out of the corner of my eye. When I finally saw it I just about came unglued! There, coiled on top of the mosquito netting on this guy’s chest, was a little green snake that was about a foot long. Now in my training in Camp Pendleton I had been told that there were some very dangerous snakes in Vietnam. One in particular was considered very dangerous. It was small and green and it was called a Bamboo Viper. It was considered very deadly. They told us the natives called it a “two-stepper” because you would only be expected to survive long enough to take two steps before you died if it bit you. In fact I don’t know if it had to bite you. I think it just had to look at you according to the training. Anyway here I was locked in a hole with the most deadly snake in the world and I had no way out!
I grabbed my rifle and chambered a round. When I did that it woke up my hole-mate and he moved, which agitated the snake. I leveled my rifle at the snake, which was sitting on this guy’s chest, and I decided if it made one tiny move towards me I would shoot it regardless of the fact that it would certainly put a good sized hole in my partner in the process of killing the snake.
The guy, who I had only known for a few days at that time, looked at me carefully, sized up the situation, and said to me in a very steady voice, “Don’t even think about it!” The snake took off and I ejected the round from the chamber of my rifle. I never slept a wink for the rest of the time I was on watch in that hole.
Well, I have to tell you that I’m very happy I didn’t shoot that snake that day back in 1966 because I just spent close to three weeks with that guy I was in the hole with. We had a great trip and learned that after 51 years we still enjoy each other’s company.
Today’s adventure was a trip to the downtown shopping area of the city. We had a cabbie take us downtown and drop us off on one of the shopping streets downtown and we walked for a while. It was interesting but not particularly exciting. After walking a while we stopped and had some coffee.
Then we walked down to a big Vietnamese market called Han Market on the banks of the Han River. Unfortunately we walked into the building at the food section of the market and the place was redolent with the smell associated with dried fish and a lot of very fresh fish on display. I did end up buying some peanuts. I have always liked the peanuts in Malaysia and I assumed these would be similar. They roast the peanuts longer there than they do in the states and they come out very crunchy. I was very proud of myself because I got exactly what I wanted and I bargained successfully to get the price down to what I was willing to pay.
As we made our way down the river, we found a place to grab a bite to eat and then we headed back to the hotel, but not before we got a cab to take us over the Dragon Bridge.
Jim has had a thing about driving over this bridge and for some reason the cabbies all avoid it. This time we had a plan. We would walk down the riverfront until we got to the street that crossed the bridge and hail our cab there. We made our way down the river in the 85°/125% relative humidity and got our cab. All the guy had to do was drive straight ahead and cross the river. I laughed my ass of as he turned right and drove down the near side of the river and took the next bridge. In the end Jim never got to ride over the damned bridge.
This trip has confirmed my love of Vietnamese coffee. It is stronger than espresso and they drink it sweet, either using sugar or evaporated milk to sweeten it. The other thing I learned on this trip is that drinking or eating hot soup or coffee in hot weather does not cause any discomfort. It was about as hot and muggy as it can get in Danang today but eating Pho didn’t make it any worse.
We had breakfast before we set out. The breakfast buffet is very good.
The last time I was in Danang (2011) I stayed at the Furama Beach Resort, which is right across the street from the Sea Phoenix Hotel we are using on this trip. Today we decided to venture across the street to see how the other half lives. We stopped and had a drink while checking out the views of China Beach and it was pleasant.
Incidentally, they discourage calling the beach “China Beach”, probably because that’s what we called it. They are very ambivalent about using overt references to, what they call the “American War”. If it suites their purpose, such as to advertise a tourist attraction like Khe Sanh or the Chu Chi tunnels, they are fine with it but otherwise they emphasize the Vietnamese names. I have seen several places where the “American War” was characterized as a war America waged to colonize Vietnam. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it. I’ve always seen it as a clumsy attempt on our part to influence the outcome of a civil war.
Our next order of business was to stop at a shopping Mall down the street from our hotel to pick up a few things. Jim wanted some tonic water and I wanted to buy some Vietnamese coffee. We got both but it did feel strange walking around a supermarket in Vietnam a few miles from where we were running patrols and taking incoming fire 50 years before.
We’re back in tourist mode after we got the “finding our old sites” out of our systems. Our Hotel, the Sea Phoenix Hotel, is very comfortable and situated in a nice area. So today we decided to visit An Hoi for real to see what it’s all about. The Hotel had a shuttle that took us down there and arranged to pick us up at a certain time and we were off.
Our first order of business was to figure out where we were so we could find our way back to the shuttle. The guide book wasn’t really much help because all it showed was a detailed map of the very center of the town but after some pointing and grunting we learned that we were very close to the tourist center and just off the tour guide map. On the way Jim got a lesson on how to carry produce Vietnam style and I got a few fresh Mangostreens and Rambutans on the condition that Mamasan showed me how to peel the damn things.
On one of our “shade breaks” sitting in the shade and out of direct sun Jim noticed a Greek restaurant and we decided that was where we would eat lunch. We walked around the town for a while. It was pretty but crowded with tourists.
We stopped at one place and decided to have a cold drink. I am becoming a very big fan of Vietnamese coffee. I find I like it both hot of iced. While we sat there in the shade with a nice breeze blowing a cute kid came by selling trash and trinkets. I was predisposed not to buy anything but this kid was so cute (I should have taken her picture) that I couldn’t resist. She asked us to help her be lucky and be her first customers for the day. When I bought a few things from her she was smiling ear to ear and rubbed my belly thanking me for helping her be lucky. A few minutes later we overheard her asking a nice European lady to help her be lucky and be her first customer. I don’t think she rubbed the lady’s belly though.
We stopped at one place and this sign caught my attention. It dawned on me that given the misery Agent Orange has caused American Veterans who were exposed to this stuff for a year or so, it must be a major health problem here where they had to live in it after we left.
We stopped and had our Greek lunch, which was very good, and we found our way back to our bus. Incidentally, Jim is not trying to look pensive in this picture. I just caught him while he was looking at the lighting fixtures.
We got back to the hotel and spent some time sitting on roof and drinking Gin and Tonic. Life is good!
We were sitting at my new favorite place around here, the rooftop bar and pool on the roof of our hotel, and I was looking south towards Marble Mountain. These are a few large outcroppings of very high quality marble that are a few kilometers south of our hotel. Suddenly I began to realize that about 500 meters south of our hotel and partially obscured by trees and tall buildings was something that looked like the remains of a runway. After looking at Google Earth views and some old photographs I came to the realization that the Marine Corps Air facility at Marble Mountain was very close to our hotel.
As we drove by there the other day I thought I saw some of the concrete revetments they used during the war over there but I wasn’t sure. They look like open-ended cement Quonset huts. Now, after looking at Google Earth views I know they were revetments and I know why they were there. Here’s a view of the place looking towards our hotel site taken in 1968.
Our hotel is where the trees are at the far end of the runway.
There were three things we wanted to accomplish today and we did all three of them. We wanted to visit the sites of PK17 and the Golf-3-12 position across from the old runway at Quang Tri and we wanted to check into our hotel near Dong Ha. We started off with high hopes and a new driver. This guy appeared to have a better command of English than his predecessors and that proved to be the case as the day went on.
At his point this blog must sound like a broken record. We came very close to the site at PK17 but everything has changed so much that it is impossible to verify it. According to the GPS we came within a hundred meters. The landscape has changed. Whole new settlements have grown up where none existed before. So, we took a picture of Jim close to the spot and checked PK17 off our list.
As we headed up to Quang Tri, we asked our driver if the site of Camp Evans was near the highway and the next thing we knew he had turned off Highway 1 and onto a side road. He drove about a quarter of a mile, stopped, and informed us that we were on the site of Camp Evans. We thanked him and he headed off back up Highway 1 towards Dong Ha. Before we got to Dong Ha he made two other stops. I’m not sure whether there was something he wanted us to see or if he just wanted a smoke break. The first place was the bombed out remains of a church on the side of the road. It had really been shot up at one time. We poked around a little, not knowing what we were looking at but on the way back to the car I noticed some writing on the back side of a sign in English. The sign said something to the effect that this church was “the site where the Army held off the Southern Army and the United States forces as they tried to recapture Dong Ha”. The second place is a building that he informed us was a high school but it appears to have suffered the same fate as the church during the same battle. We showed no interest and he didn’t stop.
We drove to the middle of Dong Ha and he took us to the district where all the high-rise hotels were but we told him our hotel was out at the beach. After a quick call to his brother, who lives in Dong Ha, we proceeded to the beach. I can see why they call Vietnam the ricebowl of the orient because we drove through mile after mile of rice paddies to reach the shore. Stopping to let stray water buffalo and cattle wander off the road in front of us reminded me a lot of the Vietnam I remember from the 60’s. We eventually found the hotel.
Have you ever gone some place and instantly determined that you didn’t like it? Both of us got the same reaction when we got to our hotel. At first they couldn’t find my reservation and tried to book us into the same room. When we protested they looked again and only after I found my reservation on my phone was the mystery solved. Jim had booked his room through Trip Advisor and I had booked mine through Travelocity. You would think it didn’t matter but somehow it did. When we got to the rooms we found them stifling (as with many European hotels, Vietnamese hotels do not have any power in the room until you insert your key into a gizmo by the door), and they reeked of mildew. They were also laid out in a very bizarre way. The most bizarre part of the room was the fact that the toilet was in the shower. I didn’t take a shower that night because I knew that by taking a shower the floor would become treacherous and I didn’t want to chance slipping and falling during the middle of the night on a wet floor. I took my shower the next morning and it confirmed my suspicions.
We wandered down to the beach and sat by a shanty by the road. Momentarily four cans of warm Saigon Beer and a small bucket of ice appeared at our table. The beach was very long and it was beautiful but it was barren and deserted. We drank the beer and headed back to the rooms. By the middle of breakfast the next morning, after enduring the noise of a wedding outside our rooms the night before, we had made our decision. We abandoned the idea of visiting the sites along old Route 9 that we had identified (i.e., Khe Sanh, the Rockpile, and Camp Carroll) and we called for a car to take us to the train station in Dong Ha. I got us rooms back at the hotel we liked the best of all the ones we had stayed at in Danang and we bought tickets for the 9:18 train headed in the direction of Saigon. The fare was about $5.25 for the 4-hour trip.
The trip to Danang was about four hours long. Our car was air-conditioned and the seats were comfortable enough
but the best part of the ride was the scenery. We rode from Dong Ha past the site of PK17 to Hue. From Hue we headed south and past the Phu Bai site. The best part of the ride was the trip around Hai Van mountain. Eventually we got back to Danang, grabbed a cab, and headed to our hotel. After the fiasco in Dong Ha, arriving at the hotel on China Beach was like getting home.
The plan for today was to stay in Hue and catch some of the city. We asked at the front desk about the boat ride up the river to the Thien Mu pagoda just west of Hue. The clerk told us not to worry and she arranged for a cab to pick us up at the hotel, deliver us to the boat, and to give the boat owner instructions to take us to the pagoda and than back to the Citadel in Hue. The boat ride was short but interesting. Of course we were given the opportunity to buy from a wide selection of trinkets and trash the owner had on board and both of us made a small purchase.
The pagoda was just as I remembered it from 1966 but I don’t remember the long flights of stairs from the river up to the pagoda grounds. We looked around and got some pictures. The grounds were particularly busy today because we think we were told that today is Buddha’s birthday (it’s kind of hard to get the full gist sometimes).
From the pagoda we went back down river to the Citadel and the Forbidden City. on the way down the river in this dilapidated boat I kind of felt like a cross between Charlie Allnut in “The African Queen” and the narrator in the book “Into the Heart of Darkness”. I was on the wrong continent to be sure but it felt like that anyway.
We found our way into the Citadel and wandered around a little. I showed a few people a photo I had taken there in 1966 in hopes of finding the same site but no one seemed to have a clue if it still existed or, if it did, where it may be. Once again the heat and humidity just got to be too oppressive and we made our way out of the walled city to a cab and a ride back to a restaurant we had found the other day that was near our hotel.
On the way out of the Citadel I turned around and “bingo” I recognized the spot. I got Jim to pose for me and the result is below. One picture in from 1966 and the other is today’s picture.
We were greeted at the restaurant like returning kinfolk, which indicates to me that we tipped too well the last time we were here. The meal was good and the shade and the breeze from the fan made it very comfortable. “It’s a dry heat” may be a cliche in Phoenix but it is true that heat without humidity is much more tolerable that heat with humidity.
What we ordered was something called “Hue Nem Lui”. These Vietnamese pork skewers are made of ground pork that is shaped around stalks of lemongrass and cooked on a chargrill, which releases a smoky aroma that flavours the meat beautifully. They are served with rice paper and fresh vegetables. The idea is to wrap some of the vegetables in the paper around the meat and eat it like a corn dog off the stick after dipping it in satay (peanut sauce). I’ve got to see if I can find them in Phoenix somewhere.
Jim went off in search of tonic water so he could fix a proper gin and tonic and I went back to the hotel and made arrangements for a massage. It is strange that most bars here can serve gin and tonic but it is almost impossible to find a can of tonic water. Jim poked around and eventually found a reliable source. My massage was in the hotel’s “sister” hotel around the corner. I got there a few minutes early and was informed that the therapist was late. It’s not a big deal but I had left my phone and my tablet in my room so I had no electronic toys to occupy myself while I waited. Eventually she arrived and I got a relatively good massage for the whopping sum of $16.45 (no tipping allowed). It was dark and it had started to rain by the time my massage was finished. I walked through the alleys back to my hotel in a light drizzle and it felt good..
We had a good dinner and capped it off with a gin and tonic from Jim’s stash before we headed off to our rooms. All in all it was a good day. Tomorrow we head to Dong Ha and the DMZ.
Mr. Teng came to pick us up as arranged at 10:00. Jim and I had decided that we would have a better chance of accomplishing our goals if we sat down with him in the hotel before we left and went over the plan. Jim had some details of the sites on his phone and I brought my PC down to the lobby to give him an overview of our route. Jim had also used Google Maps to calculate the distance between sites. We also explained to him that we did not want to see any other sites and we did not want to stop anywhere on the way. None of the sites were more than 10 kilometers from where we were sitting at the time and all of them were simply stops on the side of the road. We set off with high hopes.
Our first target was a site near a village called Gia Le. It had been the site of our third location in Vietnam. We moved there on 6Jun66 from Danang. My personal goal for today was to replicate the view from the site showing a panoramic view looking out towards the sea.
When we moved there the site was barren except for a lot of graves, some very simple and some very elaborate, scattered all around. The Google Earth image shows some sort of a campus on the site. The campus includes what appears to be an olympic-sized swimming pool and a pond that is formed by a dam.
When we got there we found that the site is wooded and is now occupied by a Vietnamese Army barracks. Teng didn’t want to stop but I got him to stop and I got out to take a picture. For those who were there, this gate is located just about where the Vietnamese barbershop was located near the entrance to our compound. Teng was very nervous about me running around a military site with a camera but he came along with me and chatted up the guard who came out to meet me and tell me that photos were not allowed. We eventually got back into the car and headed off to the next site.
We continued on our journey. The next site was the location of our fourth location in Vietnam on the southern perimeter of the Phu Bai enclave. I had visited this location on my 2011 trip but I learned soon after I returned that my plot of the site was off by about a half a kilometer due to discrepencies in the map coordinate systems. We headed off to the site with confidence since the new plot put the site directly on the side of the road. When we got to a big intersection Jim informed Teng that we wanted him to drive exactly 6.6 KM and then stop. Teng was still totally clueless as to what we were doing but he drove off. As I sensed that we were getting close I powered up the GPS in my bag and watched us draw closer and closer to the target. Teng would have driven past the site (despite all we had said to him, he still thought we wanted to go to the airport) but we told him to stop. It was kind of funny because he stopped the car and Jim and I both jumped out of the car. I began walking down the side of the road watching my GPS display and Jim took off looking for anything that looked similar to the picture of a grave that Larry Hilton sent me a few weeks ago that he said was out in front of our position. I am now confident that we located the position and I took some pictures to document it. The pictres below are taken from less than 50 feet apart but more than 50 years apart.
After I finished taking the picture I walked back to the car and found Teng sitting in a shed with a local guy drinking tea. He offered me a cold bottle of water as I arrived. The proprietor seemed to be curious about what we were doing so I cranked up my Kindle and began showing him pictures of the site taken in 1966 and 1967. He immediately understood what he was looking at and began to talk with Teng. He pointed out the river on one of the pictures and explained to us that you couldn’t see it now because of the trees. He also told us that this was an “Army Base” during the American War and it dawned on him that Jim and I had been there during the war. I am not certain, but I think his conversation finally made Teng understand what we were doing. Up until then he had been clueless. I showed him the picture of the grave that Larry had sent me
and he identified it as a “Nguyen Family grave” and said there was one similar to it about a kilometer down the road but we didn’t pursue it. Next we were off to a position where we had located two guns during the summer of 1967. I asked Teng to drive us to the Minh Mang tomb. We had no intention of going to the actual tombs but the site we wanted to visit was a few kilometers beyond the tombs on the same road. We got to the tombs and Jim gave Teng the exact distance to the site in kilometers. We hadn’t gone far before we realized that Teng had no idea what Jim was talking about. He didn’t understand what an odometer was and, in fact, he had the display on his car set so the odometer was hidden. It wasn’t a big deal because I knew the site was located just off the road and I had it programmed into my GPS. When we got there we found, you guessed it, a military facility. Also, as in the other cases, it was very wooded so it was impossible to see the horizon.
All I can figure is that we had a knack for picking spots that were prime real estate because Jim and I found several of our positions had been converted into Vietnamese military facilities. All in all it was a good day. We located all three spots I was loking for. We got verbal agreement that the place we found had been a US military site. We headed back to Hue and had Teng drop us off at a restaurant close to our hotel that was recommended to us. The food was great and the beer was cold.
I was not anticipating any problems on the drive from Danang to Hue. It is a simple case of driving from one hotel in one city to another hotel in another city and for the most part if turned out fine. Our driver, Mr. Teng, drove down from Hue and picked us up on time. He was familiar with the destination and that was reassuring. He appeared to have a basic understanding of English but it didn’t take long to realize that his command of English was worse than my command of German, which is negligible. I took a few tries to get him to understand that we wanted to go over the Hai Van pass rather than taking the tunnel under the pass. The trip over the pass was very pretty. The last time we were on that road was around the first of June, 1966. I can’t tell you if anything changed because I don’t remember anything about the drive except that I was Bert’s driver and we had a trailer attached to the Jeep and Bert allowed me to put my footlocker in the trailer with his stuff.
The plan was to then stop at a restaurant on Lang Co beach. I had been there in 2011 and it was rated highly. I must have told the driver 3 times I wanted to stop at the Lang Co Beach Resort. When we got to the peninsula the driver asked, “You want fish and crabs at Lang Co?” to which I restated that we wanted to go to the Lang Co Beach Resort. As I was saying that we pulled into a shanty restaurant on the wrong side of the peninsula. He turned off the engine and announced, “You get fish and crabs here.” I told him I wanted to go to the Lang Co Beach Resort. At his point it was turning into a battle of wills and, since we were paying I thought we should win.” He started the car, drove a few hundred meters across the peninsula and pulled into the parking lot of the Lang Co Beach Resort. The parking lot was empty. He said the place was open but we went in only to find it was, in fact, closed. We drove back to the shack. Our driver sat and ate with the locals (probably his cousins) and we ate lunch.
We got to Hue with no incidents. Highway 1 has been greatly improved with the addition of two new tunnels between Lang Co and Phu Bai and it made the trip much shorter and easier. I watched Jim go through the same reactions that I had when I saw Phu Bai in 2011. It’s hard to imagine how built up it is now when you think of how rural it was when we were there before. It is so different from what we recalled that it is actually disorienting. For those who were there in the 1960’s you may recall that highway 1 from Phu Bai to Hue was a narrow two-lane road that had a sprinkling of huts and small houses on the east side of the road. You could look off to the east (the right) and you could see miles of rice paddies. Today it is a four-lane road with a median and it is so densely populated that you cannot see anything on the side of the road besides houses.
Tomorrow we head off to visit the sites around Hue. These include the 3rd and 4th Battery center locations and the sites of a few of our deployments in 1966 and 1967.