Saturday, December 18, 2004
We boarded a bus around 2pm yesterday afternoon in Mui Ne, thinking we would be arriving in Quang Ngai at 9pm last night (or so they told us). When we transferred buses at 7, they let us know we'd be getting dropped off at 3 or 4 am. Shite. Ah well, what else have we to do? Shoulda called and reserved a hotel room. Issue for later.
Sleep didn't come for either of us on the bus. It was mostly empty so I had 2 seats to myself and tried every position possible (even topside down) to get comfortable but couldn't. Maybe slept 10 minutes. So 3:30am rolled around and they tossed us off. In the middle of nowhere, about 5kms from the town. Fortunately(?) a moto came by and Rachelle boarded (we had a hotel in mind and got the guy to understad) and we assumed he'd be back for me. They don't do that here. So on this scooter we had Rachelle's big backpack in front of the driver, the driver, Rachelle holding her small backpack, then me perched on the back luggage thing wearing my big pack with my small pack in one hand and our food bag (now filled with gifts instead of food) in the other. I had to ride bended knee style to keep my toes from losing their top layer of skin. Did the guy go slow? Hell no! It was very very exciting, in a scary way. Rachelle tried to hold the driver and me at the same time and I tried to stay alive. It worked. More or less. On our second try we found a hotel with a room available. The moto driver had me bend over so that he could collect his pay and we crashed in the room a little after 4am. Ouch.
So we slept in, until 9. Up we got, arranged to be picked up tomorrow at 3:30am (help!) and we got a couple motos set up to haul us to Duc Pho for the day. That spelled bfast time. Off we went, assailed with huge smiles and warm hellos at every turn. The people here (not a touristy place at all) are amazingly friendly and warm, and telling them we are from the US almost makes them smile bigger. Very cool. We got some coffee (R was so excited, being a tea drinker, that she made me take a pic. Cute!) then grabbed a couple street sammiches on our way back to the hotel where an older guy grabbed me and a younger guy grabbed R and they whisked us an hour down the road toDuc Pho.
Since I had no idea where the old US Army base was (at the base of 'the hill' according to my dad)(this is where dad was stationed back during the war) we (my driver) asked someone as soon as we entered the sleepy little town. The 2 older sun weary guys he asked immediately perked up and pointed us on. One asked me how long I was in town for and something else I could not understand. Passing a large memorial of some sort, commemorating an event in 1964 we headed up towards the hill. The road soon changed from a narrow almost dirt road to a wide, raised median separated newly paved road. A govt or military building swept by on our right, the gate out front pasted with "no picture" signs. Straight ahead of us was what appeared to be a gated off memorial looking thing. As we passed it, we observed more "no pic" signs. Adjacent to this memorial lookin' thing was a larger building, a restaurant from the looks/sounds of it, gated off with many worded signs, "no pic" signs, as well as a nice bit of propaganda (I assume)-it showed Uncle Ho (Chi Minh, the countries biggest hero) and a bunch of Viet Cong soldiers looking happy or something. No idea what any of the signs said. No matter. Rachelle's driver headed up the drive and we wandered around the outside of the fence looking for signs of an old base.
No need to go into details about what we saw, but suffice it to say there was no visible trace that we could find of anything with US symbols or writing on it. What I did realize (surfing the web last night looking for info helped to clear my misconceptions) is that my dad's base was not the small, fairly inactive secluded patch of land I'd imagined. The base was actually quite large and was used quite extensively by much of the US military. Also, based on the base's known presence in town and the efforts made to marginalize US efforts thru the use of propaganda in the area, the communists have used its relegation to history and not the present to illustrate their 'greatness'.
Ok, long story short time. I have been to Dachau. A bit disturbing but since it's been pretty well sterilized (minus the pics and stories and some hanging poles), a visit alone wasn't too disturbing. The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng on the other hand, are still pretty roughed out pack a pretty good emotional punch when you go there. I think visiting my dad's old base has taken the cake. It's one thing to hear of war and atrocities and all that, but when someone you know and love was intimitely involved and witnessed God knows what, it's much more powerful. I spent most of the rest of the day in a bit of a daze, and spent some time researching the area on the web. That didn't ease my dazedness. It's a bit surreal and very sobering to imagine my dad, younger than I am now, being shipped away from the States to a country so different in so many ways and being dropped down in the middle of such hell. Again, I've heard and read the stories and accounts, but being here made it more real. Scary.
It is mid-December. Walking around the area we found a searing sun and no breeze. Hotter than hell. And it's not the hot season right now. Holy shit it must have gotten hot!
The guys we got directions from (there was also another woman as my driver turned off down another road that wasn't necessary) seemed very intrigued and almost happy to see us and to hear that we were going to see the old base. As we walked around the memorial looking thing, my driver trying to get us to walk around the un-ended fence to get a closer look while R's driver made it very very clear that he thought that was a terrible idea, some people across the street stopped working to sit in the shade and watch us putz around. They didn't say anything, just watched.