Sunday, March 7, 2010

Back in the World

Coming back to the States from a 3rd world country is always a shock but Homeland Security at Hartsfield Airport seeks to make it an unforgettable experience. I’ve been to lots of airports in the world including my share of Central American crapholes, but the bureaucracy at Atlanta has to be experienced to be believed. One has to go through airport screening to get out of the building! No lie.

Anyway, some impressions about the whole trip and then I’ll talk about the closure thing for my shrink, Dr Doogie Bernon.

Vietnam will soon be an economic powerhouse in Asia. All the signs are there and it’s a very gratifying thing to see. The Japanese and Koreans are investing megabucks, there’s new construction everywhere one looks and hordes of tourists. The new road from NhaTrang to DaLat must rank in the top 10 of impressively engineered roads in the world. Everywhere, traffic is heavy and commerce moves 24/7. English is the second language and nearly everyone speaks at least a little English. There are bookstores everywhere with the latest self improvement books in English. Even the Germans are forced to speak English just to order a drink.

The Vietnamese people are a joy. They have every right to shoot at Americans on sight, yet they are universally friendly, polite and helpful. But 70% of Vietnamese were born after 1975 so all they know is knockoff Levis and T-shirts that look American but make absolutely no sense. Of course I could say that about the Germans too – now those folks wear some weird and incomprehensible T-shirts!! Sorry, I’ll try to stay off the Germans but they’re such a good target.

All the economic growth that we see today did not start until about 10 years ago, I suppose when all the old Politburo crowd died out. But make no mistake, this is a capitalist country regardless of what they call themselves. And HoChiMinh City is very definitely Saigon. It’s wonderful to see because we left them in one hell of a mess.

Agent Orange is still a problem although we did not see anyone grossly disfigured. There were hundreds of thousands of tons of the highly toxic stuff dumped all over the landscape and it eventually found its way into the upper part of the food chain, namely people. And that includes the GIs who were there then. The active ingredient is dioxin which does not degrade and damages DNA in successive generations. Our guide told me that the Vietnamese government will only allow minimal US investment until the subject of compensation for Agent Orange victims is settled. He was very surprised when I told him that the US Government treated its vets the same way by not acknowledging that there was a problem. I’m on a list of vets exposed to the stuff but until I have a terminal illness that’s as far as it goes.

And the war? There are quite literally no traces of it left. Not even pavement from any of the big base areas, although all their airfields are using the concrete we left. And no traces is a very good thing because after a day or two in country, one wonders what in the world were we thinking? It’s a great temptation to simply try and forget it ever existed if I didn’t know lots of those guys whose names are on the black wall in DC. Will I go back? Probably not, but had to see it one more time.

And for Doogie, that’s about as close to closure as it’s going to get – Vietnam has healed, I’m here, some of my buds are on The Wall, the others are here with me and that’s all there is to it.

Love to you all, Al

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Air Vietnam cancelled our flight from DaLat so we were forced to drive to Saigon – that’s 8 hours over Vietnamese roads which is a real strain on one’s backside.The guys started calling it the DaLat Death March. Vietnamese roads themselves are pretty good overall considering the heavy volume of truck and bus traffic except for the occasional rock slide or washout. But throw in the fact that most Vietnamese drive motorbikes or bicycles that have no lights and a night time drive becomes a terrifying experience. Why there is a not a continual slaughter on the roads is beyond me but somehow it all works. In two weeks we only saw one death underneath the wheels of a bus, but he was definitely graveyard dead. Maybe the police are just very efficient in clearing the roads after an accident so traffic can resume its crazy pace.

But we made it to the famous Majestic Hotel in Saigon about midnite. We’re the only Americans here – everyone else is German, English or Australian. Probably all the Americans are at home working and paying taxes to protect all those folks. Up at 6 to sample the delights of Saigon and I believe most of the city beat us up. There are literally millions of motorbikes on Saigon's wide French streets. They ebb and flow around the trucks and taxis paying no attention to traffic signals or to each other. If we thought our previous night's death ride was dangerous, our excursion driving through clouds of motorbikes with no regard for speed or right of way trumped it by far. But once again, no accidents. Most Americans would refuse to drive in such a mess. I think the lesson here is that there are many ways to make situations work and what works for us is not what others might choose regardless of what we think. I seem to remember a war here like that.

After morning shopping and sightseeing we wind up at the National War Museum. This place is collection of war trophies, ie. old American military equipment that was used in the war. Inside are hundreds of very graphic photos of assorted atrocities, war crimes, propaganda and the like mixed with Agent Orange victims. All the photos are of American atrocities, although both sides were equally guilty from what I saw. Many of the photos are doctored and are from the old anti-war movement in the US. Former Senator Bob Kerrey is prominently featured as a war criminal with a graphic description of his alleged crimes. If I were he, I don't believe that I would ask for a visa to visit or he might go on trial here. These folks have their viewpoint and after all, it's their country. Of course all the visiting Europeans love it because it reinforces what they think of the war and the US anyway. But it seems to make the Germans feel better about themselves.

An overall impression of Saigon? One of the world's great cities, lots of commerce, a hustling, bustling city on its way up and a joy to visit.

Tomorrow it’s up at 0300 to get on the plane and start back toward the US. As always it will be a 24 hour trip and of course lots of things can go wrong but eventually I will get there. And it will probably be cold and rainy unlike here where it’s clear, breezy and 95 degrees. I will post some more pictures and do a bit more writing when I get home to try and capture some impressions for you. See you back in the USA.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


It’s now morning in Dalat, a resort city perched at 6000 ft above sea level. There’s an occasional cloud drifting across the city and it drizzles for a few hours every afternoon. The temperature is about 70 degrees year round.

Dalat is decidedly a French city. When the French colonial administrators 150 years ago realized that they could not go home to France very easily, they built this place as a substitute. There are very French cafes and restaurants and the hotel we’re staying in is the old resort hotel on top of the major hill in town across from the very French Catholic church. Attached to the church is the Catholic school where students wear blue uniforms and go to school when the bells chime at 0600. But it’s full daylight here by then because we’re high and this is the tropics.

During both Vietnam wars, Dalat was a city that was off-limits to combat by both sides. It has no strategic value except as a communications center for antennas since it’s so high. And both sides used it for a R&R center so it escaped the war largely intact. The indigenous people here are the mountain people of Vietnam, commonly called montagnards. But that is a pejorative term – while the French translation is literally “mountain people”, the commonly understood term is “savages”. Which is normally taken as an insult of course, so one must be careful. The “yards” are very small and dark and like all mountain people, quite sturdy. They don’t live in the famous long houses any more, but in government sponsored project houses, built mostly along the roads. Apparently the Hanoi government has concerns about the political stability of this region – as they should because the mountain people in this region have revolted several times. They were trained by US Special Forces to defend themselves and have not forgotten how. The last revolt about 5 years ago was apparently supported by a contingent of Americans from the Fayetteville/Ft Bragg area – fancy that!! Nearly everywhere we’ve been in montagnard country has required special government permission to ensure that we are not subversives bent on reviving the montagnard revolt.

We’re taking a day off from riding today and will head back to Saigon tonite via air in preparation for returning to the world. Because we’ve ridden bikes about 40-50 miles/day for the last 5 days, my body is demanding a break. So xin chao for now, catch up with you in Saigon.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Biking Down the Coast

The days are getting squeezed together as we work our way down the coast about 150 miles/day. We bike about 30 miles in the morning, then ride the remainder in the van. As we go south, the temperature rises and the rice becomes more brown – which means that it’s ready to harvest. Vietnam is the 2d largest producer of rice in the world next to the US. Most of that rice comes from the Mekong Delta but we see lots and lots of rice in the foothills of the central part of the country. As we bike along the coast we also see lots of salt ponds – evaporation ponds to make salt from seawater.

The past few days have been a blur – from HoiAnh, south to CuChi, QuynYohn and this past night at NhaTrang. Today we go up into the mountains to DaLat, the old French resort where it should be cooler. We are among the very few Americans at the resorts where we stay – most occupants are German, English and Australian. The beaches are spectacular but I have an aversion to swimming in seawater when I have large and beautiful freshwater swimming pools everywhere we go. Plus the ever-present waiters who bring cold beer as often as you need one.

I’ve been struggling to find a way to convey to you how different this place is than what many of you remember - so I’ll talk about water. Remember that this is a tropical country with all the problems of clean water that one finds in Africa and South America. Next to malaria, dirty water kills more people in the world than any other cause and the last time I was here no one in his right mind drank the tap water without endangering his life. Today the water is as consistently clean as anywhere in the states no matter where one goes. Water is processed at treatment plants and even the meanest shack has clean water on tap. That’s dramatic because of what it says about infrastructure construction and what has happened here. There is an absolutely enormous amount of investment money coming into Vietnam and the place is booming.

We see from CNN that you’re getting socked really badly by the weather and we’re not looking forward to returning to the rain and cold, but this is rapidly coming to a close. So until tonite while in DaLat, chao for now.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lesson for Peggy’s Class #1

Any good social studies class starts with geography…so Vietnam is a country that borders the South China Sea from latitude 23N to 12N. That’s about the same as Central America from Honduras to Panama so the climate and the plants are much the same. For instance we have lots of mangos and bananas here. Right now we are at about latitude 15N on the beach at a place called Qhuy Nhon – pronounced Quinnyon.

Vietnam is now a very prosperous and happy country but it has not always been so. It was originally a French colony that produced all the rubber for Michelin tires until it was taken by the Japanese in World War 2. Being a French colony for the Vietnamese people was very much like slavery for them. After that war, when the French came back, many of the Vietnamese people decided that they no longer wanted to be a colony, so they revolted under a leader named Ho Chi Minh and after a war that lasted almost 10 years, were able to kick the French out. That was known as the 1st Indochinese War. The country was split into two halves at the center – North Vietnam was led by Bac Ho (Uncle Ho) and South was led by the traditional king Bao Dai pronounced Bow O Die. BTW, the North Vietnamese Constitution was written using the US Constitution as a model. Bac Ho and many of the people of Vietnam were unhappy that the country was split and decided that the nation should be one country. That led to the 2d Indochinese War where the US fought Bac Ho and the North Vietnamese. The 2d war lasted from 1961 to 1975 when the US left Vietnam and the nation became one country as they are now.

Today Vietnam is a growing and happy country that makes many products for America including Nike tennis shoes. Next time we’ll talk about the Vietnamese people.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The KheSanh Combat Base

We’re traveling north up the AShau Valley on the Yellow Brick Road. The Valley parallels the Laotian border and was the main conduit for supplies moving from North to South Vietnam – and so became the scene of much of the heaviest combat of the war. The place was so bad that our GIs named the road made mostly of yellow dust for the mythical road from Oz. When a unit got orders for the AShau, there was no doubt that there was some major misery in the near future and maybe a death sentence. But today, the large valley road is lined with new houses and fields where once it looked like the moon from all the bomb craters. The Communist government repopulated the region after the war with immigrants from all over Vietnam. Every house has a TV dish and the restaurant where we have lunch has a large flat screen TV with the BBC World News piped in. BTW, the 2d language of Vietnam is English. There are large hydroelectric projects that provide power to the region and a modern lifestyle where there was desolation 40 years ago.

The KheSanh combat base – once home to a large airstrip and thousands of US Marines – is now a coffee plantation. When KheSanh was occupied, the hope for both sides was that it would be the final battle of the conflict, similar to the Battle of DienBienPhu in the 1st Indochinese War. It didn’t turn out that way for either side. It was a large tactical defeat for the North Vietnamese but they didn’t quit and 3 years later our 101st troopers were back there. Today there is little to be seen and most of that is in a museum to the glorious soldiers of the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam. There’s some American junk laying around but otherwise the place is unrecognizable. And we’re not going to walk around looking for the old mines that are still out there everywhere. My legs are as valuable now as they were 40 years ago. On the way out, we stop at a scrap metal dealer where the locals make a good living scrounging the plentiful pieces of metal that still litter the landscape. Thanks to the American taxpayer, these folks are making a fine living selling free American steel.

There’s not much to be seen here – and even more ghosts – so we head back for Hue past The Rockpile, Camp Carroll and DongHa, all locations for Marine logistics bases. Nothing there either. On to DaNang and HoiAnh tomorrow.

Hamburger Hill - NOT Just a Movie

Up at 0600, we’re going out to our old combat zone today. By sunup we’re already in the mountains passing places I can dimly recognize from combat 40 years ago. One never forgets what the ground looks like but all the trees have returned after defoliation from Agent Orange and the place doesn’t look like a war zone any longer, thank goodness. These are high and heavily forested mountains, much like our Smoky Mountains and there are lots of them – our road out is curvy but now paved, unlike the days when we patrolled and cleared ambushes on the same road. After 30 miles, the road empties out into the AShau Valley at the small village of ALuoi -ALuoi is the scene of the infamous Hamburger Hill fight in 1969. Three battalions of the 101st Airborne and a 1st ARVN Division battalion surrounded a North Vietnamese regiment located on a small mountain named ApBia. Over a 2 week period the paratroopers assaulted 11 successive times until ApBia was taken. The combat was brutal even by jungle standards with heavy casualties and there were no prisoners of the original regimental strength of over 1000 N Vietnamese soldiers. The first picture shows you what it looked like then. Today the hilltop is a shrine and our guides have to obtain special permission to visit, apparently only given to returning American war veterans. From the parking lot to the top is over a mile with steps most of the way. I had forgotten the agony of walking up these mountains on slick clay with 90 lbs on my back, but quickly remembered why the Army only wants 20 year olds for wars. On the top we find the shrine built in the Vietnamese style with Russian/Soviet writing about the gallant defense of the hilltop against the “America-Quislings” - which I don't quite understand since it refers to a WWII Norwegian turncoat. We can still see craters from 40+ years ago filled with slimy green water. I’m glad I saw it but I won’t be back this way, twice is enough....too many ghosts here.

The inscription on the plaque in the hilltop shrine literally translated as follows:
A Monumental Stele
A Victorious Place at A Bia Hill Airport
From May to September 1969, this is the place where our soldiers and people bravely fought, defeated America-Quisling's raids, wiped out many enemy Army groups, contributed to our country's victory in the resistance war against America.
This place has become America's obsession.
A Bia victory and our warriors and people's sacrifice is forever known by our country's people and friends all over the world as exploits and a symbol of Vietnamese people's patriotism and independence will.
People's Committee of A Luoi District January 2009

On to KheSanh, some 90 Km north.