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Published: April 1st 2011
Bill, Anh, Seul and David
Our first day out. Having a drink while the bikes are being tuned up.
In the town of A Luoi a group of American Vets relax in a small dining room. The table before them is cluttered with bottles of local brew and half filled ashtrays. They speak earnestly of days when they were soldiers and privy to the fearlessness of youth. The staff eats their evening meal at a table behind the men listening in on the American accented English. Four miles west of the hotel stands a detached Annanite mastiff called Dong Ap Bia. At 937 meters in height it looms over this part of the Au Shau Valley. The local Montagnard tribesmen know it as ‘The Mountain Of The Crouching Beast‘. After May of 1969 the American media renamed it ‘Hamburger Hill’.
Karen and I were sitting in Hoa’s one morning minding our own business for a change when a lanky 60-something American man planted himself at the table next to ours. We struck up a conversation. His name is Bill Ervin. He runs a tour business. He’s lived in DaNang, Vietnam since 1995. He served as a Marine with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Division. He was an M-60 gunner and humped the DMZ until he rotated out in 1969.
Our guide. Resident of Vietnam since 1995.
He told us about some beautiful spots in the Au Shau Valley and hidden roads that wind through haunts unknown to most American visitors. He let his words take root in our brains while he took a leisurely sip of coffee, lit a smoke and let time do its work.
Karen and I appreciate a good salesman. Within 24 hours the trip was arranged. We would travel by motorcycle with two nights spent at hotels. Our cost was $75 each which included meals, transport and hotels. Our new friend, David E. a Marine who served in the DaNang area with the 1st Battalion Engineers in 1968 decided to come along as well as Seul, another Marine from Bill’s old unit. We augmented the group with Sarah and Sam; a young couple from Britain, a friend of Bill’s named Larry and a non-military father/ son team from Alaska. Bill’s Vietnamese wife Anh, accompanied us to act as interpreter, negotiator and overall sunny presence. She’s a tour guide herself and has experience as a commentator on Vietnamese television. Karen and I have spent a total of over 3 months traveling through Vietnam and we quickly learned that having a native along
A lot of fighting in this area during the war. My cousin Paul Guimond with the 101st Airborne was killed a year later about 20 miles north of here during 'Operation Ripcord'.
for the ride makes for a much more enjoyable experience. Cultural doors that you never knew existed, swing open.
We pulled out on the morning of March 22nd. I rode behind Seul and Karen partnered up with David E. on his Chinese-built Hog. We headed west out of the city turning off the main road onto a meandering, two-lane, paved affair. The sound of our bikes heralded our approach and villagers along the route came out of their homes to wave hello. As we started our climb into the mountains Seul pointed out some areas where Agent Orange had been used during the war. At one time; triple canopy jungles, these places now support little more than elephant grass. I imagine that given time these spots will recapture their former splendor but that is only a guess on my part.
A couple of the bikes began suffering from minor mechanical problems so we stopped for a drink across from a repair shop. In less than half an hour all of the work was expertly done at a cost of fifty-cents US per bike. Anh hired the repairman for us. There seemed to be a bike repair shop every
kilometer along the road.
We visited a Montagnard village where we had to negotiate a narrow suspension bridge that creaked ominously when crossed. In the village itself we saw not a single person save a small boy who ventured forth to sit wordlessly on one of the motorcycles. We climbed higher to the town of Cu Prao. A commune of 14 villages and hamlets. It smelled like Christmas and the reason, we discovered, was that the area is a producer of cinnamon. We lunched on bowls of My Quang, a noodle dish served with broth, sliced pork and fresh herbs. After chow we stretched our legs outside the small restaurant. Four small women hauling pulp wood in umbrella stand-sized wicker baskets stared at us in smiling wonder as they walked by. Westerners are a very rare commodity in these parts.
The afternoon road traced a wild winding river jumbled with house-sized boulders. The crenelated peaks bordering the stream are covered in 30-meter tall, white-trunk hardwood trees, sylvan bamboo thickets and elephant grass tall enough to conceal a man. Waterfalls creased the roadsides, cascading down to the frothing river below. We reached an altitude where thick, white, wind-driven mists
Karen and I met David at Hoa's place. We hit it right off and spent many a morning together climbing Marble Mountain. Good times.
gently caressed the slopes like a doting parent, combing its fingers through bayonet leaves of elephant grass, fogging the tall stands of bamboo with a dripping sheen and whisking great white cotton candy halos around the hardwoods’ leafy crowns. If Diane Fosse had suddenly appeared with a group of highland gorillas I would not have been much surprised.
In late afternoon the valley floor at the north end of the Au Shau lay spread before us like a glorious welcome mat. Bill led us down a little used lane that took us further out onto the plain than the main road would have. We found ourselves cruising through a wide expanse of brilliant green rice paddies and Montagnard stilt homes capped with steep-pitched thatch roofs. Kids streamed out of their houses waving wildly to us from the roadside. It felt like the liberation of Paris. We slowed to a crawl touching small palms as we passed, transforming shy smiles into exuberant shouts of joy. Big, brown, lazy water buffalo lay under the trees. Old women puffing on thin curved pipes peered upon us with amusement.
We bunked that night in A Luoi at the Aliha Hotel email@example.com 0905.878499.
A clean comfortable place with hot water, cable and a restaurant on the premises. After a hot shower we gathered in the dining room for a drink and a bit of story telling. Anh was brilliant in dealing with the staff, making certain that we were supplied with anything we needed. She told me that A Luoi is now considered a prosperous town due to spending by visiting American Veterans, NGO support (non government organizations) and the opening of a border crossing into Laos. That evening we dined on local food like wild boar, delicious little silver mountain-spring fish and water buffalo all arranged for us by Anh and served in a private dining room. The trip, in the end, turned out to be the best excursion that Karen and I have ever taken in SE Asia.
There are a lot of Nam Vets currently living in the DaNang area. And many more coming for a visit. DaNang was a major entry point for US troops during the war. Per capita income in Vietnam is $1,052/ year. This is an attractive place to dwell if you’re currently living in the States and barely scraping by on a Social Security
check. That same amount of money in Vietnam goes a lot further. I talked with a Marine who resides in DaNang 6 months on/ 6 off. He pays less than $600 a month for a two bedroom apartment with a cleaning lady. Bill lives in DaNang full-time with his wife Anh , owns a home, runs a business and visits the States infrequently. Another fellow I met is here on his second visit and has pretty much decided to take up residence in DaNang. He’s single, his kids are grown, he loves the area and the Vietnamese women. I have not, to date, met an American Vet who has relocated here with his American significant other. I’m certain that there are some about but Karen and I haven’t met any so far. Single American men of a certain age coming here soon find themselves inundated with fawning, head turning Vietnamese women of all ages.
This situation will, inevitably, change. As the local economy grows so will the cost of living. The number of Vietnam era veterans continues to dwindle with time. We are, literally and figuratively, a dying breed. And while the World War II battlefields and cemeteries of
The Second Day
Chill was in the air. We hugged our coffees close taking advantage of every bit of warmth they had to offer us.
Europe are well maintained for the perusal of future generations the places of conflict in Vietnam have been given over to agriculture and industrial development. Without a guide like Bill a person would be hard put to locate those spots that were once so important to so many. The majority of Vietnamese are too young to have experienced the war. Their eyes are focused on the future and its promise. The battlefields are inexorably being erased from Vietnam’s consciousness as nature reclaims its own. There is a sad but gratifying beauty to it all.
Bill told me that the majority of the Vets he works with are either former Marine or Army troops. The Navy guys he assists are usually Marine corpsmen. Many of them ask to see Chu Lai, Cu Chi and the Quang Ngai area. The DMZ is also an oft requested stop. His groups consist, on average, of a half-dozen individuals. He can do everything from motorcycle tours up to four star excursions with stays at the finer hotels and transport via car and bus. Karen and I could not have been more pleased with the time we spent with he and Anh. A wonderful experience
KJ and Anh
Anh was a delight as she eased our way around the A Shau.
in every way. Allow me to close this entry with a story I heard.
In 1995 Bill led a group of Marines who chose to spend a night on the site of their former base at Con Thien. Bill had somebody erect a tarp on top of the hill and build a small fire. He arrived with the Marines and his interpreter later that evening. After nightfall the weather turned cold. It started to rain and the wind picked up. They soon found themselves sitting in cold, red, viscous mud. Ah, the memories! When the wind started blowing the rain sideways under the tarp their nerves became frayed. They began running out of wood for the fire. The Marines started complaining about the conditions and wondering why they hadn’t stayed back in their warm hotel rooms. ‘Whose idea was this anyway?’
Bill spotted the yellow rain fuzzed glow of a kerosene lamp swinging its way slowly up the hill. After a bit he could make out a water buffalo pulling a cartload of wood accompanied by three Vietnamese men. They were headed right at him so he sent his interpreter out to see what their story was.
David E. On His Hog
Chinese built. The bike. Not Dave.
The interpreter came back and told him that the men were former NVA soldiers who lived in a nearby hamlet. They had heard that some US Marines were camped out on the hill and wanted to bring them some firewood. Within an hour the old foes were gathered together in a tight ring around the now formidable blaze. The Vietnamese had brought along some plastic jugs of homemade rice liquor to augment the fire‘s warmth. The Americans uncorked some Crown Royal and the war stories poured out as fast as the drink. As they got happily drunk, Bill’s interpreter was kept busy translating the flurry of tales, questions, answers and toasts as the soldiers raised their bottles to salute the fallen. So many ghosts in that one place. Con Thien; The Hill of Angels.
One of the Marines sitting next to Bill leaned over, his shivering body rocking out a pause between each of his chattering declarations as he told Bill; “It is so damned cold, and it is so damned rainy, and it is so damned windy, but it is all… so damned perfect!”
"... and at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive
Alaskan, writer and part-time resident of Vietnam.
at where we started and know the place for the first time."
Tips for Travelers:
DaNang has a great airport making transit into the area very simple. DaNang also sits on the main rail line between Saigon and Hanoi.
You can contact Bill Ervin by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org His phone number is 0-121-674-3724
There are a number of tour operators working out of Hue. The majority of these are bus tour groups with little personal attention offered and little knowledge of the areas being visited, evident. Some private tour guides are available in Hue. Karen and I hired one two years ago. He was a former ARVN officer and while he was competent and his English passable, he lacked the intrinsic insight that we were looking for.
DaNang is more a business center as opposed to a tourist destination though that is changing. The city offers great food, pristine beaches and good lodging. Hoi An is less than an hour’s drive away. China Beach, Marble Mountain and Monkey Mountain are suitable for day excursions.
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