War on the mind

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A ride up the Ho Chi Minh Highway prompts an American to reflect

Ea Drang Valley.Photo: Stevie Lee

Three hours in, I got my first flat tire. I found a repair shop somewhere in Dak Nong Province.

A 60-year old woman walked up to me. She spoke beautiful English. Dak Nong had worn on her a bit, but a certain beauty persisted through the years. She asked me where I'm from, what I'm doing, married yet. The usual. I've been to a few villages in Vietnam, mainly in the north. This was my first motorcycle trip in the south, and the atmosphere was different.

She was from Saigon, but had relocated to Dak Nong after the war. Forty or so years ago, she'd had a boyfriend in the US Air Force. They were together a year. She brightened up when talking about him. Still remembered everything. They were courting each other, and he left. He was from Texas. Somehow, she was still there with him. Never got married. Wartime Saigon was a romantic place.

The roads were good. We were riding six days, from Ho Chi Minh City to Khe Sanh, and over to Dong Ha, down to Hue. This was the stretch of road I'd wanted to see for years. Growing up in the 1980s meant I was privy to a re-examination of the war that was happening in the United States at that time.

Sylvester Stallone had a go at it, as did Stanley Kubrick, Chuck Norris, Oliver Stone, Neil Sheehan, Michael Herr, and PBS Frontline. Something was percolating in the US back then; it was narcissistic. Yet like any bout of depression, this national self-examination in the 1980s was also seductive. I grew up cognizant of the battles, the politics, the mistakes, and the heartbreak of the war.

In the middle of the trip, we stayed a night in Kon Tum's Dak Glei village. The woman running the guesthouse was quite macho at first, but was charmed after 20 minutes of sitting in her garage with her, plastic stools and warm beer. Her two year-old son showed up, made a mistake of some kind, and she reached in the back of her pants and pulled out a switch. She got him three times on his poor bottom, and he was wailing soon enough. A few minutes later, I misplaced the padlock key to our room. I got 3 switches, myself.

We strolled to the canteen across the street for our evening meal. Loads of long-haul truckers in the place, the kind that ride with 3 in the cab, and they drive in shifts, not stopping for no man. Befriended some, but not all, of the truckers in the restaurant, with Michael McDonald music and dice. Easy formula. After plates of tofu, pork, and rau muong, we shut down the place. Back to the hotel, followed by half a dozen truckers who wanted to carry on.

We were at the garage, locked out. The woman let us in, unlocking several padlocks to the sliding barred door to the garage. Not a single trucker got through, she was quick with the door. And the padlocks. So we were left with an awkward situation in which we were drinking warm "˜333', with half a dozen truckers on the other side of the bars, no beers, melancholy. "Ve nha di!" she yelled at them. They sulked off.

After Kon Tum, the road quieted down considerably and a gorgeous day followed. Settlements, buses, and trucks thinned, and the real mountains began. Rich as anything I'd ever seen. In the sky, the trees were so lush and heavy, the branches just hang down, furry.

Winding roads, theatrical hills and valleys the whole way. Waterfalls both modest and proud. The road took us all the way to A Luoi, the A Shau Valley, where the notorious Hamburger Hill is located. A Luoi was maybe 60 kilometers west of Hue, and there was a real Hue vibe about that town. Girls in ao dai on bicycles, old women in black velvet ao dai, mother of pearl. Rainy season wear. We met a creased old man in front of our hotel, in a pith helmet and olive drab shirt. He was well into his 70s.

I introduced myself.

"The French, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Americans. None of them could do it. They all wanted our country." He was rolling.

"Da", I said.

"They couldn't do it. They couldn't defeat Vietnam."


"The Americans were here for years. The French were here for years. They couldn't defeat us. They fought here, right here, many times. They couldn't defeat Vietnam."


"They couldn't do it."

He knew how important this real estate was. He lived through it and was part of it. We were a handful of kilometers from Laos, from the fingers of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that facilitated Central Highlands battles, some of the most momentous points in 20th Century history.

Out of A Luoi, back on 14, we made it to Khe Sanh for lunch, and then to the old combat base and museum just outside of town. The airstrip is still there, and it all makes sense from old photographs. The surrounding hills from which the siege occurred. It was just us, and a couple of nice guys selling dog tags and Zippos who showed us around. They pointed out each hill, what units were there, and what they did.

The museum is small, yet triumphant. We glanced at the guestbook and messages. Many Westerners have passed through. Messages such as Edwin Starr quotes: "War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing." John Lennon: "Give Peace a Chance." Or simply, "The tragedy of this place knows no bounds."

Fair enough, all of it. Sentiments hard to argue with. But maybe the comments missed the nuance of the museum, the narrative of capturing of history from power and imposition. Somehow, the quotes felt rote and even out of place. The Khe Sanh Combat Base museum is celebratory. It is a story of the defeat of corrupt powers told through photographs of NVA attacks and American atrocities, captured weapons, and documents. The museum is about Khe Sanh yet also the larger account of the war: struggle against terrible odds, hard combat, loss, and ultimately vanquishment. It's not about peace.

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