Over several years I have read articles in this publication about VVA members returning to Vietnam to repatriate remains, find unexploded ordnance and provide prostheses to Vietnamese who have lost limbs to war materiel left in the country. I have always wondered where do these veterans sleep or eat while on these missions? The US Army is not there anymore to take care of them. Maybe they take food and camping gear with them?
A year ago I finally retired. I would have more time to travel.
Last year my daughter visited both Hanoi and Saigon on business. She is our particular child, not a camper at all. I knew she would not put up with a rundown hotel or questionable food. So I concluded that 47 years after I had visited the Central Highlands, accommodations in Hanoi and Saigon, which I had never visited in 69-70, were something more than thatch and corrugated iron or run-down French accommodations. But what about the Central Highlands and the rest of the country?
I was still wondering about how an American would function today in the old 4th Infantry Division AO, along and near HWY-19 from the Cambodia border to Duc Co to Dragon Mountain and Pleiku, through the Mang Yang Pass, to Hong Con Mountain and An Khe, through the An Khe Pass, and then almost to the ocean at Quy Nhon.
I had thought about going back there some day, but I always thought I would have to make such a rough trip alone because of accommodations and food, and that wouldn’t be much fun.
Or perhaps it should wait until we had taken another cruise, sought out my and my wife’s Irish roots, or returned to Andalusia.
Then in early December 2016 our daughter announced that her Christmas present was to take my wife and me to Vietnam using her frequent flyer miles. Suddenly I was face to face with the idea. Obviously Hanoi, Halong Bay and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) were modern enough for my daughter—and she wanted to explore further afield.
If I was going back, I wanted to show my family where I had been. They had already heard many of the stories. And our son and daughter wanted to cover their own new ground up HWY-1 to My Lai, Hoi An, Danang, and Hue, places that everyone had seen and heard about on the nightly news. I was curious about those places too.
Our daughter had the scoop on planning Hanoi and HCMC (Saigon); she could easily duplicate her business trips and her Halong Bay excursion or branch out a little. Our son and daughter wanted to plan HWY-1. I was the natural choice to decide what we should do in the Central Highlands.
First, we chose February before the monsoons hit the Central Highlands.
Second, we read the travel books, distilling the places we would go: potential tourist sites, hotels and restaurants. In Hanoi and HCMC (Saigon) taxis or Uber, away from and back to the hotels, were logical choices with the hotel’s assistance.
For the other locations we needed vehicles, a driver and a guide that could get us where we wanted to go and who would know something about what we were seeing. There are several companies in that business. We used More Fun Travel, a local tour operator in Hanoi, and they were excellent.
I do not know what the hotel room rates were in the two large cities; our daughter and son used frequent flier miles. In the Central Highlands and up HWY-1, the rooms averaged $119 for two occupants and a king bed. The HAGL Hotel in Pleiku at $99 is the one that brought that average down from a rather consistent $125 for two.
The rooms were extraordinarily nice and modern. One of the hotels the company booked for us was a newly opened and gorgeous beach and golf resort at Quy Nhon.
We did not stay in the hotel proper but in one of the luxurious beachfront condos. Back in the day, I had sat for a couple weeks on a tiny firebase (only three 105mm howitzers could fit) on a mountain just a couple clicks north of this new resort, and I’d watch the surf roll in and wish I could wander the then barren beach. But that beach and HWY-1 were outside our AO, so we never got there.
As we had driven across HWY-19 on this trip, I did spot a couple hotels advertising $40/night rates, but I know nothing about them. Look for signs saying “Nha Nghi” or “Hotel.”
In February 2017, everywhere we stayed throughout the country, the hotel offered a breakfast buffet that was included in the room rate. They ranged from “Wow” to magnificent. Often we would eat such a hearty breakfast that we had only one more meal each day. The guests in the hotels were from the United States, Europe, Japan, Korea, China, and other places. Breakfast usually included cuisine from each of those places. Such variety indulged our palettes.
I knew the way to my favorite firebase on a side road north from QL-19, but the advantages of the driver and guide were 1) liability, 2) freedom to take photos, and 3) they knew the back roads, so that on our way we got close to the mountain that that tiny firebase overlooking the ocean had hung on, so I could take some close-up pictures. Plus they drove us past several Cham towers along those back roads and other interesting sights that were not visible from HWY-19.
My favorite firebase had been LZ Hard Times, an ugly scar on the valley of the Song Con, a valley we had called “Happy Valley” just as the 1st Cavalry had for several years before our battery arrived. The old French fort had been turned into a CIDG unit encampment with US infantry and artillery units surrounding that. I knew our bunkers made of 105mm crates filled with dirt, the sandbags and the OD canvas would be gone.
But I was not prepared to see that the thatch and corrugated iron village to the south had become a gorgeous town of poured concrete homes 2-3 storeys high and painted in lovely pastel colors. Or to see that it had overgrown the ugly, old firebase to the north. But it was the same place; the mountains were the same. The year was not.
Throughout Vietnam I was awed to see how modern Vietnam is today, even in rural areas. That is true for eating as well. We had to find restaurants for lunch or dinner when breakfast finally wore off. For each city we had created the list of restaurants generated from our travel books and based on our tastes. And we usually consulted the list.
However, in the Central Highlands our guide and driver chose a barbecue place in An Khe one day and another restaurant in a suburb of Quy Nhon the next. Both were excellent.
We had eaten street food at a few places in Hanoi. One morning around Quy Nhon when we drove by a street-food vendor, we got a shout, friendly waves and big smiles from a cluster of guys having breakfast. We would have joined them had we not just finished the beach resort’s astonishing buffet. Instead, we too smiled and waved enthusiastically.
Using the driver and guide we were able to visit LZ Hard Times, the Quang Trung Museum, My Lai, Hoi An, a Danang museum, Hai Van Pass, the citadel at Hue and the emperor’s tombs along the Perfume River at our own pace rather than as part of a tour, marching in lock-step.
In Saigon, as in Hanoi, we used taxis and Uber. One day we took a speedboat trip into the upper Mekong Delta, stopping for short walking tours and lunch.
I was also awed to see how welcoming the people were all over the country, north and south. Whenever I would bring up the war, I was told, “That is ancient history.”
All in all, our trip to Vietnam was one of the best overseas vacations we have ever taken, first, because the necessities were easily obtained and, second, because I had left a large chunk of my heart there.
The next time I go, I would like to meet in friendship some of the men we fought against. They were very brave men.
– Pat Ryan, C 6/29th Arty, 4ID, 69-70.