By J. T. “Birdie” Bertrand
It is 12:45 PDT, April 14, 2012, in Los Angeles. Korean Airline’s A380 has just started its takeoff roll and soon we will be airborne on our way to Seoul Korea, a 1 hour 20 minute stopover and a connection to a Korean Airlines B-737 flight, non-stop to Da Nang Vietnam. Total time from LAX to DAD, 18 hours and 45 minutes. That is today.
But a long time ago, I saw the WWII movie 12 O’Clock High. It begins with the actor Dean Jagger walking down the centerline of an old abandoned runway in the English countryside. Weeds were growing through the asphalt. It could have been Alconberry, Upper Heyford, Mindenhall or any number of WWII military airfields before the cold war took its tight grip of the western world. That movie made a lasting impression.
So now my wife Loretta and I are off, not knowing what to expect, heading for Vietnam. I had little desire to see a lot of touristy stuff so the trip I planned was for 5 days in Vietnam. I want to see those things in “I Corps” like Hoi An, PhuBai, and Hue that I was slightly familiar with, but primarily I wanted to walk down the abandoned airfield from my war, the Vietnam War. I want to walk some of that Chu Lai ground where VMA 311, VMA 225, and some weeks later VMA 214 lived. In due course, other squadrons would come and call Chu Lai home.
I had arrived the first time in Chu Lai on June 14,1965 via A4 Skyhawk from Cubi Point to land on 3,500 feet of expeditionary runway made of M-2 Matting constructed by Navy Sea Bees. The landing was a Morest landing. Squadron aircraft arrivals were sequenced over a 14 day period starting on June 1, because the runway and ramp areas were a work in progress and couldn’t accommodate a full complement of squadron aircraft. By 15 June all of the aircraft from my squadron, VMA 311, and VMA 225 were in place at Chu Lai.
In the beginning, the 3,500 foot long runway, built on beach sand, was perhaps the pilot’s greatest enemy because of sub-surface stability. Arrested landings were the norm and JATO takeoffs were standard, day or night. And just when the Sea Bees got the runway built out to 8000 feet they would cut it in half again for complete subsurface repairs and then JATO departures and arrested landings started all over again. Like Dean Jagger in the movie wanted to remember and recall his experiences, I wanted to see what had become of that place called Chu Lai.
We arrived in Da Nang at 2145 on April 15, 2012. When I walked out the door of the B-737, I was hit with a blast of hot air that could have been caused by the shock wave of a MK-28 detonation. Damned near knocked me down. Temperature 87 Degrees F. and I was soon dripping wet. Welcome to Vietnam. Uniform guys – red stars on their caps were plentiful walking throughout the airport. We met Phan Van Vinh (our guide) and Nguyen Quang Minh (our driver), Vinh and Minh as we came to know them. The drive to the hotel was through downtown Da Nang. Some high rise buildings scattered throughout the city, neon lights, some wide 4 lane streets, motor bikes zig zagging, some cars, a few busses and trucks, less than a handful of traffic lights, white and yellow lines painted on the paved streets, and traffic circles. Lots of heavy construction vehicles were parked on sidewalks and in the streets waiting for dawn to start work. At 10:15 PM at night the city was slightly busy but going to sleep. About half way to the hotel, I observed that the traffic signals and lines on the roads surely must be “advisory only” because no one in any vehicle seemed to be paying much attention to any of them. Some kind of semi-controlled traffic chaos was at work…. but vehicle size was definitely a determining factor. Da Nang has all the appearances of an evolving modern city.
Driving south on the 4 lane China Beach road by the Marble Mountain complex the former Marine Helicopter Base on the right and the South China Sea on the left. On the seaward side of the road, there are several Palm Springs or Caribbean style luxury hotels. Some had casinos, some didn’t. And more hotels and condominiums were being built. The city has grown from a 1965 population estimated of between 100 to150 thousand to over 850,000 souls today.
We arrived at the Sandy Beach Hotel and Resort which would be our home base for the 5 days we were in Vietnam. The hotel, located on China Beach, had 2 large swimming pools and over a quarter mile of beautiful beachfront on its property. The grounds at the hotel are extensive and well kept. I noticed that there were 4 computers in the lobby for the guests that one could use to access the internet and pick up e-mail – for free. A Tiger beer was in order, and then to bed, the Tiger beer is much better than I remember. I love air conditioning!
Day 1 — April 16:
The first thing after breakfast was to exchange money. $10.00 = 208,000 Dong. I had a helluva time keeping track of all the zeros. I got a hundred dollars worth of Dong. I had money and stuffed it all in my pockets. Being a millionaire is easy in Vietnam. Loretta generally walked behind me picking up all the loot that randomly fell out of my pockets. One time I gave a baggage handler a 2000 Dong tip and he said “you gotta be joking.” I had to quickly re-calculate and re-evaluate!
Pickup by our guide and driver was at 0900 and soon we were on the road to Hoi An, some 20 miles south of Da Nang. Leaving Da Nang, the China Beach road soon turned in to a traditional one lane each way road with seemingly thousands of motorbikes. It took 50 minutes to get to Hoi An. We drove by two Greg Norman golf courses and one Colin Mountgomery course (more on this later). Hoi An is a much different place than Da Nang. Da Nang is on the move, money is flowing, and the modernization of the city is obvious. Hoi An on the other hand, and except for large numbers of motor bikes, is stuck in an ancient past, somewhere in the early 18th century. The paradox is that everyone old enough to talk has a cell phone and if one is over 15 years of age they have a motorbike. Cotton facemasks cover each rider, probably to keep the bugs off one’s face and guard against pollution. I didn’t notice much pollution, only haze.
Hoi An is actually a city within a city. They say that the inner city of Hoi An is a historical, cultural, and artistic center. I donated some Dong to a small museum we visited. Buildings are rarely more than 2-3 stories and all look like they are about to collapse. The city floods every year usually covering the first floor of every dwelling and building in the city. When the floods hit, the people just move up a story for a couple of days. The Japanese, as part of a trade agreement, volunteered to build a dam to control the waters of the Thu Bon River but the Vietnamese declined. Hard to Figure! Hoi An is an ancient sea port (over 500 years old) and during the USA Vietnam war it was part of a Viet Cong supply route. During that war some kind of “rules of engagement” agreement was made between the South Vietnamese Army, the Viet Cong, and the Americans to isolate the city of Hoi An from the war with the understanding that there would be no fighting within Hoi An. I don’t know of anyone who was ever actually in Hoi An during the war. And if there was such a person they would never have heard a shot fired. Today everyone seems to believe that the Viet Cong was the dominate force within and close to Hoi An in those days. Surely it was a traffic point for arms for the Viet Cong. No wonder we lost.
There are very few actual stores per se in Hoi An, only open markets that have everything from meats, fish, vegetables, clothes, etc., all in the stifling heat of the day. As we walked around the town it didn’t take long to be soaking wet. There are silk manufacturing shops that start with the basic silkworm and manual labor develops and manufactures silk products for sale in the open market. Their products are surely beautiful. It truly is an ancient town in every sense of the word. Although barely 20 miles apart, the contrast in physical modernity between Da Nang and Hoi An is truly remarkable.
It is getting late in the day and so back to the hotel. We stop off at the The Colin Montgomery golf course and the two Greg Norman Courses which are close to the beach and only minutes from our hotel. There are 5 such courses in the area. I felt like I had just left the 18th century and stepped into a golfers fantasyland of 2012. The courses are world class and pristine in every sense of the word. They could be located anywhere in the US where there are palm trees. Hand cared manicure. Nice clubhouses. Pretty, young Vietnamese girls for caddies or golf carts…. take your pick. Real tough choices! The Japanese and Koreans fly in on the weekends and cram the courses on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. If you need golf clubs there are rentals, all new top line clubs. During the week there are very few players. You can play Monday through Thursday for $42 or about a million dong. Weekends the price is $75 or some incredible and equivalent amount of Dong with lots of zeros. We are back at the hotel at 1630 for a beer and dinner.
Day 2 — April 17:
Breakfast was a combination of Vietnamese food, American food, and some strange stuff. We had some of each and it was all pretty good. I had to pick up some more Dong. I think I lost at least a half million out of my pockets in Hoi An.
Pickup is at 0900 and we are on our way to Route 1 and on to Chu Lai. The small town of An Tan is 85 km away and is adjacent to the Chu Lai Complex. It will take about 2.5 hours to get there. Our Guide tells us that Route 1 in this area, for the most part, has been completely rebuilt by raising the roadbed some 8-10 feet to preclude being flooded during the rainy season in some low laying areas. Nonetheless, it is still a narrow two lane paved road. The paving is adequate but not in the best of shape. The traffic is impossible, busses, trucks and a plethora of motor bikes all competing for the road that is sometimes marked with center lines that, in the end, truly mean nothing in terms of rules of the road. It was good to have a driver. Rice fields were on both sides of the road. We hardly saw any of the old “black pajamas.” Today they are multi colored but the hats were still typical and straw colored. Fashion and style, it seems, has taken over. If we were going to Saigon on this road with the traffic we are experiencing, I imagine that it would take two weeks to get there. So far, 30-40 km per hour is max. Train service to Saigon, on the other hand, takes a couple of days. Two check points were positioned along the way where we have to pay a fee to continue. I would not attempt to drive on my own in Vietnam without a cocktail or two to bolster my courage and a third to blur my vision so I couldn’t see what was really happening around me.
As we arrived in the small town of An Tan I looked at my watch … it said 1965 – and I don’t mean the time … I mean the year. Having only been in the town once 45 years ago it seems that little has changed. In 1965, when Mag 12 CO Col. John Noble found out that some of his Marines had been in the town, he restricted everyone from going there. I don’t know of anyone who ever went there again. We are on our way now to a very large monument on a hill a bit northwest of the Chu Lai complex, which is described as a memorial to the war. We were told that occasionally ceremonies are held here. Arriving at the monument, there are about 200 – 250 steps to climb to get to the base of the monument. It overlooks the entire Chu Lai complex and the view is excellent. The obelisk style memorial is approximately 120 feet tall. One can see the “new” Chu Lai runway and a new airline terminal building. As we stood there, an Air Vietnam airplane had just landed. To the west of the monument about a half a mile away we are told there was a big battle at some point. Looking out in that direction – it looks like a jungle. Our guide said there is a rumor that several American airline companies are interested in development of a new joint aircraft overhaul and maintenance facility at Chu Lai. Having seen a fairly good portion of the area and population by now, it makes one wonder where they would get qualified workers to work on transport category airplanes…. and then most important, where would they find adequate housing for those technicians and families.
Climbing down the stairs we are soon on the way back to the north for about one half mile to a paved access road that will take us to what I remember as Chu Lai. To where, in 1965, the M-2 matted runway was located and that particular area that I want to see up close. But first, we turn right on another access road. The road is 4 lanes wide with a center lighted island and takes us to the new terminal building that sits in between the ends of the concrete runway. I believe that an American construction company (Morrison Knudsen) built the runway. That runway was still in the planning and clearing stages while I was in Chu Lai. The terminal is a rather modern building with no jetways. Some concrete covered revetments and bunkers still exist at the north end of the airline and ramp.
Back to the primary access road and turn right toward the beach. At the end of the road, we turn right to the south and a couple of small buildings and a compound with a flagpole and a flag with a red star came into view. A Vietnamese Army area that evidently guards the entire old Chu Lai complex. I can’t figure out just what the Vietnamese Army is guarding. A 6-7 foot high brick and rock wall with broken glass imbedded on top is on the right and extends a couple of miles to the south. This particular road as I remember the terrain, is probably close to the same location where the dirt road that traversed through the living areas where the squadron members lived. We traveled south about 2-3 miles and made a right turn down a dirt road a quarter of a mile to where we could see to the north where the old M-2 runway was probably located. I’m guessing our actual position was real close to the old bomb dump and fuel farm area. There were some concrete revetments like those by the new airport terminal building, but other than that, there was nothing there – not a trace, except for shacks and some workers doing “something” who paid us no attention.
I wasn’t satisfied with what I saw and we turned around headed back to the north to retrace where we had been. That damn wall obviously built to keep people out, was a barrier to where I really wanted to be. There were some holes in the wall and I had not come 8000 miles to be denied access to what I really wanted to see. Inside the wall was a large extended sand dune that, in my time at Chu Lai, separated living areas from working areas and overlooked the old Chu Lai runway complex. I told the guide and driver to stop at one of the breaks in the wall and told them I was going through to the top of the long extended sand dune to get my bearings and get a better look. The sand dune was probably 25-35 feet higher than the road. With the Vietnamese Army outpost in mind, the guide said to me, “I going with you,” and said, “If we are caught, we would probably both end up in some kind of prison or I would be held and you would be put on an airplane in Da Nang for the USA.” With that warning I told the guide, “I may look old but I can run faster than you think.” We then went through the opening. We did that four times, through 4 different holes in the wall. Loretta and the driver stayed in the van, chickens that they were. I suspect that some others who came there before us, who also wanted to see the other side of the dune, took a sledgehammer and beat holes in the wall. Whoever they were … “you all did good work and thank you.” It saved me from buying a sledgehammer.
Once through the wall in several of our breaches I could make out what I believed to be some of the terrain where the living areas were located. But 45 years changes things. The Vietnamese had also rearranged some of the terrain and planted lots of those scrubby trees that occupy the beach area. The guide told me that the weather was not what it used to be and much of the trees and vegetation had died out and they were replanting in hopes that the trees would once again flourish.
On top of the dune one could approximate where the runway was once located, because the terrain expressed itself to the eye as a rather long flat line. But there really was nothing to see except sand. The old working spaces access road (dirt road) that ran the length of the runway was now visible slightly below and in front of us. It was partially paved, and blowing sand had covered up much of it. Throughout this process of climbing through the holes in the walls and trekking to the top of the dune I never saw anything that would lead anyone to believe that anything was ever there, let alone a runway and airport complex…it was all back to nature. On two of those occasions I could see a guy walking in the distance out beyond where the runway used to be located. I don’t think he ever saw us. The guide said that there was some mining going on in the area but I suspect something else but wasn’t sure just what. I think it was a contamination clean up. At any rate, after climbing up, down and all over the dune several times, my shoes were full of sand, I was soaking wet, and could have been used as a mop.
On the South China Sea side of the dune the beach is still beautiful and inviting. There are two medium sized resort hotels and a museum. Except for those concrete revetments Chu Lai has been physically removed from the landscape. I would hope that some of what once was there has been remembered in the museum but unhappily I didn’t get to see it because it was closed. The two resorts were also closed because, according to the guide, it was “getting into the hot season.” Hell, my body told me that the hot season had already arrived. The sea breeze I remember was still softly blowing making the temperature milder and less humid.
Driving to the north end of the area where the Vietnamese Army post was located, another smaller hotel is located on the west side of the road. It was also closed. On the right side of the road (street) on the beach there were what I call two or three very different, primitive beach side restaurants. We stopped and our driver and guide had lunch. Loretta and I had two Tiger beers. I was kind of dehydrated (that is my excuse and I’m sticking to it). It was Loretta’s first experience with Vietnamese natural rural bathroom. It was an apparent hole in the ground and the flushing mechanism was a small bucket that you filled with water and threw down the hole. She had a sheepish grin on her face when she returned and wondered if she did it right. I said, “if you didn’t get any on yourself, you did just fine.” She also said, “it was real dark in there and I couldn’t see and I was afraid of falling in.” Falling in would not be good!
From the beach restaurant and looking back (7-9 miles) toward the south as the bay curves around to the point there were lots of very large buildings which our guide told us was an oil refining and industrial area. After lunch, and continuing north we arrived into the Ky Ha area. From the cliffs at Ky Ha, one could barely see the island Cu Lao Re quite a distance off shore and looking back was Chu Lai. I remember that during “Operation Starlight” one of our pre-flight intelligence briefers said that the island was a suspected VC stronghold and arms trafficking port. Our guide confirmed that intel, briefing some 45 years later. I also remember one time, flying very — very low over the island at real close to Warp 9 speed. The Ky Ha area, where the helicopters were based, is completely grown over although you can tell where land was flattened and the helo parking pads were once located. Continuing on the road around the small peninsula there was the small fishing village of Ky Ha. Today, the little village and has some good-sized cranes. Fishing boats occupy the small docks. It looks to be abandoned but the guide said the cranes worked and the fishermen were still active providing fish for the local population. No one would ever know that there were 4 to 5 thousand or more US Marines based or located at Chu Lai and Ky Ha.
It was time to leave. We were in the Chu Lai area for about 4 hours and I got to see most of what I came to see. I would have really liked to have walked out to where the runway was once located but our guide advised against it. Besides, I’m not sure of how far or how fast I could run in the heat of the day if I needed to make a quick getaway. In the end it was OK.
Our guide wanted to get back to Da Nang by 5:30 PM. The trip back was pretty much the same except we saw 2 accidents. I’m surprised there were only 2. In one case a tracked backhoe had slipped off the road and was upside down in a rice field. Five or six guys in red star clad uniforms were standing around scratching their heads as were lots of people in those typical straw hats. Luckily, we made it through the crash scene area with a minimum delay and arrived back at the hotel around 6:00 pm.
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 countryside 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 10,000 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 highrise 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 stonewalls 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 and finished. Driving a bit further down the beach is the Marble Mountain helicopter base. The only things that remain are some concrete bunkers and a few watchtowers. 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 2 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 there is an 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 motorbikes, a few cars and many trucks. In downtown Da Nang there is a display of Vietnamese airplanes that were used during the war. Construction is 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 goodbye 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. They are World Class in 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 1900 and were almost thoroughly rested the next day.
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 countryside, 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. JTB