This is the overview of my September 2008 return trip to Vietnam. To get a more complete description of each phase of the journey, click on the "story" links below. Be sure to see the slideshow page for photos of Vietnam in 2008.
I'd been wanting to go back to Vietnam for a number of years, but certain obstructions militated against it –- working and raising a family, etc. Finally a couple of years ago I started making serious plans to return in 2008 -- figuring that an exactly-40-years-later return would make a nice bookend, so to speak, to match up with my first tour.
I started looking into the airfare and saving the cash, but as everyone knows, fate has a way of throwing a monkey wrench into the works. A it turned out, in the midst of all this planning, my wife Susan (aka She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed) had to have vertebrae-fusion neck surgery and her doctor advised her against an extended vacation in a Third World country.
So in the spring of 2008 I was having lunch with a friend of mine, Minh, who is from Vietnam – and not only from Vietnam but he grew up in the village of Thu Duc, which is where I was stationed for the first five months I was there in 1968, and where most of the action in my book, A Bad Attitude: A Novel from the Vietnam War, takes place. I started grumbling to Minh about probably having to cancel my long-anticipated trip back, and then he told me that his brother was getting married in Hanoi in September and I was more than welcome to tag along with him, not only to the wedding but also for my planned extended trip through the country.
So I would have not only a tour guide but also a translator with me, for the entire trip?
Yes, that was one of those "does a bear shit in the woods" moments, and I took him up on it immediately. Then, of course, I had to go home and break the news to Susan. Who took it quite well and actually encouraged me to go ahead and go without her. She knew how important the trip was to me and wasn't going to stand in my way. Probably because she didn't want to hear me whining about it for the rest of our lives…
I let Minh take care of the tickets, the visas and the hotel for our first night in Hanoi, and lucky I did. He was able to get the tickets through a local Vietnamese travel agent – I didn't even know this guy existed – for a savings of almost $500 off the Internet price per ticket, and on September 7 we were winging our way out of Seattle aboard a new Boeing 767 from Asiana Airlines to our first stop, Seoul, Korea.
Asiana has some state-of-the-art planes, and embedded in the back of the seat ahead of me was a video screen. You could take your choice of watching a movie or of watching the progress of the plane as it flew over a map of the North Pacific. Since I have a high-definition big-screen television at home, I didn't want to watch a cramped display of a movie, so instead I listened to my I-Pod (I had taken the time to download the top 100 songs for 1968 and 1969, just to get me in the mood) and watched the progress of our flight on the video display.
As we flew within about 50 miles of Ketchikan, I metaphorically waved to my son (who lives there) and then kicked back to absorb some 1968 pop-culture sounds. Everything went fine until the video display showed that we were over southwest Alaska, with the Russian border looming up at us like an Arctic storm. "Surely we will take an abrupt left turn," I thought to myself. "But it seems as though we are getting awfully close to that border…"
I then watched in panic as the plane skipped across the Bering Straits like a cannonball and rammed its way into Russian airspace. And the last time that I knew, the last Korean airliner to invade Russian airspace got shot down (Flight KAL 007 on September 1, 1987). Had I had a little more to drink (BTW, if you order Scotch on Asiana, you get nothing less than Chivas Regal), I might have gone into screaming panic mode. But fortunately all I did was grip the armrests and try to physically keep the plane in the air by wrenching upwards on them.
But, long story short, needless to say we did not get shot down, and by the time we'd finally passed into Chinese airspace the worst I could complain about was severe cramps in both deltoids.
Finally then we landed in Korea, at the Inchon airport. I asked a couple of helpful-looking locals who were manning the "buy me" booths if the Inchon Landing had taken place here, but all I got for my troubles was a look that said "Crazy American—quick, sell him something and he'll him go away"… I guess the Inchon Landing is about as ancient as the Peloponnesian Wars is to us.
After a short three-hour layover, we flew south to Hanoi (see story), and landed at night.
Here is a small map of Vietnam, with the yellow line showing the route we took in country. During our stay in Hanoi, we took an overnight trip by bus to the picturesque World Heritage site, Halong Bay (see story), with its primitive limestone outcropping sticking up out of the South China Sea. We spent the night on a boat anchored in the bay, and the next day made our way back to Hanoi. We also got a chance to see the notorious Hanoi Hilton prison (see story).
After the wedding on Sunday, September 14, the next day we took an overnight train (story) to Hue (story), where we spent the day sightseeing the collective tombs of the emperors and the night on a music boat on the Perfume River.
The following day we were off on a day train along the coast to Nha Trang (see story). We could have taken a night train, but since we were going to be traveling along the most beautiful coast in Vietnam, we wanted to see it in the daytime.
After a couple of days in Nha Trang, seeing the sights of this off-season beachfront resort, taking the longest aerial tramway in Asia to the almost-deserted Vin Pearl Island resort and a daytrip on a party boat, we again left on an overnight train to Saigon.
Saigon – aka Ho Chi Minh City – (see story) was once referred to as the Pearl of the Orient. The Paris of the Orient. I couldn't see it in 1968, but now that it's been cleaned up and painted, I can see why it had been called that.
Minh and I took a day trip to Thu Duc (see story), where we walked around marveling at the changes that 40 years had wrought, and thanks to his brother-in-law who still lives there, we had the advantage of a private car and driver. So we were able to drive up Highway One until, using the Thu Duc water treatment plant tower and a large community water storage tank in Thu Duc (both of which had been there in 1968) I was able to triangulate my location until I was within, best guess, less than 50 yards from the former location of the 543rd Transportation Company (see story).
Then it was off to the north and TC Hill. It was easy to find its location, since it was the first thing you saw when you came off the Dong Ngai bridge, but to my surprise it was no longer a hill. They'd long since bulldozed it off level and now there's a huge shopping center there. Nevertheless, using the old intersection of Highway One and the Vung Tau Road, I was able to get to, again, within 50 yards of my old unit, the 151st Transportation Company.
On the way back to Thu Duc I mentioned that I would like to see the military cemetery (see story), which had been such a prominent landmark on the road between TC Hill and Saigon. But because every inch of the road has been built up with shops, storefronts, gas stations, etc., the only way we could recognize where it had been was identifying a growth of jungle on a small rise off to the right.
We took a day trip out of Saigon to Tay Ninh and the Cao Dai Temple, (see story) along the famous Ambush Alley (where a number of our convoys had been ambushed in 1968 and we lost a number of drivers, including the 62nd Transportation Co's SGT William Seay, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for action in the August 25th ambush). As in so much of Vietnam, the roadsides are hardly recognizable. What used to be miles of rice paddies and rubber plantations are now blocked by an almost continuous line of little shops, stores, repair stations, etc.
On the way back from Tay Ninh we stopped at the Tunnels of Cu Chi "theme park" (which I immediately started calling "Cong World" – see story) for a tour of How the Other Side Lived during the war.
Yes, I was pissed off when we had to sit through a movie showing American atrocities during the war, but what the fuck, I guess they can afford to be smug and self-righteous about it, since they won… But it cured me from wanting to see the War Museum housed in the former presidential palace in Saigon. I'd pretty much had enough of having our atrocities shoved down my throat by movies and exhibits without having any counterbalance by showing the other side's atrocities. We also took a couple of overnight trips out of Saigon, one to Can Tho (see story) in the Mekong Delta, where we went on a tour of the Floating Market (see story), and on another day we took a trip by hydrofoil down the Saigon River to the beachfront resort town of Vung Tau (see story).
We traveled by almost every conceivable form of transportation on this trip: airplane, taxi, pedicab, bus, private car, motor scooter, pony cart, hydrofoil, car ferry, suspended gondola car, sampan and riverboat. About the only forms of transportation we didn't avail ourselves of were bicycles. And camels, of course, which would have been pretty difficult since we didn't see any...
So what was the cost of all this free and easy traveling? Incredibly cheap. Airfare, including the cost of the visa (fifty bucks, and required to enter Vietnam) was $1000, and then, despite not worrying about my spending at all, three weeks on the ground came to another $1000. Bottom line, $2000 for three weeks in a tropical paradise.
The hotels were incredibly cheap. The most we paid was $35 a night at our ritzy oceanfront hotel in Vung Tau. The hotel in Saigon was surprisingly inexpensive, at about $17 per night. In fact, it was so cheap that it was easier and more cost-effective to just keep our hotel room and pay for the two nights that we were out of town, in Can Tho and Vung Tau, rather than check out and check back in again.