A Trip Back in Time to Vietnam – Part 2

Day 3 – April 18

While at breakfast at the hotel, 8 Mig 21’s took off from Da Nang and flew right by our hotel. Those guys must get up real early.

Pickup by our guide was at 0815. We are heading for the Phubai – Hue areas. We drive through Da Nang and the streets are very busy mostly with motor scooter traffic. At the north end of the city is new modern industrial area with new, rather large buildings and it looks like a typical big city multi-national industry.

We are going to take the 2 lane mountain road over the Hai Van pass into Phubai area. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the top of the pass. Traffic was rather mild as we started the climb. Reaching the top there are some old bunkers and gun emplacements still in place which were obviously built to control the mountain road during the war.

Adjacent to the bunkers were souvenir shops and refreshment stands. I had forgotten how high the mountains were in this area and if one looked to the west they were even higher. Looking back and I’m remembering some of the work we did at night under flares over toward the Laotian border some 30 miles away. The trip down the mountain also takes about 45 minutes. Once down the mountain, the country side is not unlike the trip to Chu Lai, rice fields and all, but there seemed to be more heavy trucks on the move in both directions.

As we enter the Phubai area the road expands to what I call a two lane road on each side – but who really knows, the traffic lines on the roads are deceiving. Phubai does not seem to be developed very much and in my opinion probably seems much like it was in 1965 just as An Tan at Chu Lai also was. The airport at Phubai still has 10000 feet of runway and is in fairly good condition. The area around the airport is slightly overgrown with vegetation and controlled by fences but you can still tell where things were probably located. Because of Phubai’s proximity to Hue and the heavy tourist trade, our guide Vinh tells us that there are plans to rehabilitate the runway complex and put in a new airport terminal. This was confirmed by an American (former Army) we met at our hotel who was been to Vietnam 5-6 times and was very familiar with the Phubai area. He knew that it was in the planning stages but the weakened world economy had set those plans back a year or two. He also told us that Phubai had expanded quite a bit in terms of population since 1975 but that very little modernization had taken place there. I’m thinking he was right.

Pressing on up the road to the high rise buildings of Hue, came into view. The improvements, in the roads are obvious, the architectural changes are many in the city and the traffic is crowded. Hue has, by no means, been developed as much as Da Nang but still, the city takes on a more modern profile.

Hue is historical and was the ancient Capitol of all of Vietnam, largely because it was located almost exactly half way between the southern border and the northern border of Vietnam.. There is a real pride within the people about the city. The walled city or Emperor’s residence as you may know is really 3 cities in one, all protected by high stone walls and by a moat supplied by the Perfume River. The walled city is roughly 8 tenths of a mile square and is much larger than I expected.

There is a rather large Vietnamese Army barracks just across the street from the walled city that has a giant flag flying on a 200 foot flag pole. There is selected restoration going on within the walled city and tourists of all nationalities visit it every day. During the Vietnam war it was also once a fierce battle field for control of the area and the battle scars are evident everywhere. The battle is much discussed by the many tour guides traversing the grounds with their flocks of people.

While visiting the gift shop in the walled city I saw a pictorial in a book that used a bar graph depiction to illustrate time lines which shows the time that Vietnam had been at war with various neighboring and imperial countries. The Chinese line naturally was the longest covering many different dates through many centuries. For comparison let us say the cumulative Chinese line was 24 inches long. The colonial French line was 2 inches long and the USA Vietnam war, a half an inch. On that scale, our Vietnam War in history will almost be an afterthought to the Vietnamese.

We had lunch just outside the walled city and we could tell the influence of the French in the food. It was much better than in some of the other localities. After lunch, we started the trip back to Da Nang over the same route except instead of retracing our ride over the mountain pass, as we approached the city we were going to go through a 6 mile long tunnel directly into the city of Da Nang. The tunnel built by the Japanese, eliminates at least one hour and 30 minutes, or more, of travel time.

It was a long day but we finally got back to the hotel in Da Nang at 6:45 pm, had dinner and off to bed.

Day 4 – April 19

Today we will tour Marble Mountain, China Beach area, Monkey Mountain area, the port of Da Nang, the beach where the 5th Marines landed in 1965 and then Da Nang. Driving from our hotel it was a short distance to a Pagoda located on and inside one of the five Marble Mountains. There is an elevator that takes you to the top of the pagoda.

The pagoda inside the mountain was fascinating!

At the base of the Pagoda there are literally dozens of manual labor marble carving factories and the view from the pagoda of a China Beach area is spectacular.

Some areas of the beach are nicely landscaped. Driving a bit further down the beach is the Marble Mountain helicopter base.

The only things that remains are some concrete bunkers and a few watch towers. Those bunkers are slowly being torn down. Most of it is gone and cleared, awaiting investment money to build hotels, condominiums, or apartments. It seems to me that just like the Chu Lai area, the war is being erased.

The entire length of the China Beach area from our hotel toward Monkey Mountain was remarkable. It is some 8-10 miles long. The beach is beautiful, and is of course, the attraction. One can readily see that it won’t be long before it will all look like Miami Beach. Some of it already looks that way and I imagine eventually it will be a jewel in the orient and a masterpiece for Vietnam. The road for the most part and noted before in this writing is 2 sometimes 3 lanes wide on each side. I suspect this road overlays the location of the small runway at the Marble Mountain Marine helicopter base. There are already many world class hotels and condominiums spread out along the beach, some owned by the Chinese and other investors. Land is being cleared about 4-5 hundred feet to the west of the China Beach road awaiting new condos and hotels.

At the north end of China Beach the road transitions to a new two lane road that traverses the south eastern side of Monkey Mountain and connects to the old northern road at the top. On the south side, facing the South China Sea, there is a statue that can be seen from 6-7 miles or more away. It is bright white marble statue of a Lady Buddha. It stands 180 feet tall. Reminds one of the statue of Christ in Rio de Janiero. A very large Buddhist Pagoda is also constructed on the grounds. After visiting this statue and pagoda we continue on the road but can’t complete the circle of the mountain because of a dirt slide and the road was being repaired. So we did not get to see the tunnels in Monkey Mountain where the VC reportedly had a hospital and supply area.

Retracing our route and now heading north we cross a large suspension bridge which crosses the harbor. To the right, the harbor for the Vietnamese Navy and very large ships. About a month before we arrived, the US Navy was in port with a carrier (name unknown) and an LSD (also unknown). They were there for 6 days and according to our guide were well received. Supposedly, there were some joint naval exercises held before their arrival. To the left the extension of the harbor for smaller vessels that can sail under the bridge.

There are now 5 modern bridges across the harbor connecting the city with the beach areas and two more under construction. We are told that either the Koreans or the Japanese are building them. Entering the down town area of Da Nang, traffic is heavy with motor bikes, a few cars and many trucks. In downtown Da Nang there is a display of Vietnamese airplanes that were used during the war. Construction going on everywhere. Our guide tells us that some of the construction has been stopped or delayed because of the world economy. Sounds familiar. We are asked if we would like to go shopping but we decline. We head back to the hotel now to prepare for an evening flight back to Seoul Korea and then on to the USA. As we ate dinner in preparation to depart, we met an active duty US Marine. He told us he would be in Vietnam for 4 weeks. He had been to language school and was doing “some stuff” for the Marine Corps. He did not elaborate nor did I ask.

Vinh and Minh picked us up for the ride to the airport. We bid them good bye with a nice tip. They did everything we asked and were just super. They made the trip educational and fun.

The airport in Seoul (Inchon) is something to see. World Class is every way. We planned to spend the day in Seoul at the airport, go to the airport hotel which is part of the airport, and sleep for 6-7 hours then board the airplane for LAX to make the homeward portion of the trip easier on the body. And that is what we did arriving back in LAX at 10:00 am in the morning of April 20, the same day we left Korea. Both of us were in bed that evening by 700 pm and were almost thoroughly rested the next day.

In Retrospect:

Knowing what I now know, I would have taken 2 more days for the trip. I would have liked to have played a couple rounds of golf on those signature courses and I would have planned the trip for mid-March instead of late April because the weather would have been milder.

It is forty miles from Hue to Dong Ha. Dong Ha is at the southern approaches to the former demilitarized zone. It is also where highway Route 9 and Route 1 intersect. Route 9 will take you to Khe San, and the Ashau Valley. The extension of Route 9 into Laos will also take you to Tchepone and on to Savannakhet Laos. Route 9 is an important highway. As I’m sure most of you know, this particular area was the heart of the Ho Chi Minh trail. On the trip back to Da Nang, Vinh told us that the Route 9 road was in good shape and could be traveled quite easily. Khe San is about 25 miles from Dong Ha and the Ashau Valley is 3-5 miles further. He also said that the Vietnam/Laos border is now open. Tchepone is 65 miles from Dong Ha. If I had known, I would have spent another day or so and gone to see these areas. In a previous paragraph I remarked that I didn’t remember the mountains being as high as I thought they were. I would have liked to have seen those mountains up close from the ground, the Ashau Valley, possibly Khe San, and the Tchepone area. That would have been really fun and interesting

I think if I had to eliminate a day it would be the day we went to Hoi An. It was fun but I think I would have enjoyed the trip up Route 9 much more. Loretta, might see it differently.

I always said, that from the sky Vietnam was a beautiful country. Except for some of the poverty in the country side it is also a very pretty place to see from the ground. I didn’t get to walk down that runway like Dean Jagger did, but I came real close. The Vietnamese with their walls kept that experience from me. Hopefully in the future someone will be able to walk the ground where the runway did exist. But I saw where it was and I knew I had been there before. I had not forgotten, I had remembered, I had come back and saw what had become of the place called Chu Lai and for me that had to be good enough.

Was the trip worth it? Absolutely! But I am also aware that there are those who have no desire or inclination revisit Vietnam. That said, I had hoped that some others in my squadron, VMA 311, who had expressed a desire to go, would have gone with us which would have made the trip a more fun and better experience. Just seeing the Chu Lai would have sparked many stories and those stories would have given me solace that would last the rest of my life. But sadly, in the end, it was not to be. However, for Loretta and I, it was a great trip.