|Ngoc, my fixer, travel agent & waitress|
|Dong Ha today, in central Vietnam. This was a strategic crossroads town during the war.|
“I am 25,” she tells me. Maybe it’s her petite size that throws me off; she’s barely five feet tall. I’m glad to hear she’s older than she looks, since I need to consult someone with experience. Ngoc is my travel agent for the old De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), the infamous Highway9, and everything else I’m doing in this part of Vietnam.
“I work here two year,” she tells me, in between taking and making phone calls in Dong Ha. Ngoc is a busy woman. In addition to arranging my route and driver, she also takes my lunch order. In this junction town, she works in a combination restaurant and travel office, making her both waitress and travel agent. Speaking passable English, Ngoc has found me good deals, arranging reliable guides during my stay. She’s one of those rare people you find while traveling. A little ball of energy, she has the ability to multi-task. Bright, friendly and energetic, she has enough smarts to get ahead in any corporation, but she’s stuck here in Dong Ha. Still, for this town, she has a well paying job.
I come into the restaurant/office at early and late hours, and she’s almost always there. “I work 12 hour every day,” she tells me. As if that isn’t enough, she only gets one or two days off a month. I’m reminded that despite communism’s promise of helping the workers, in today’s Vietnam there is little done to give laborers sufficient days off, or overtime pay.
“My grandfather VC. He die from Americans,” Ngoc told me. She never knew her grandfather; he was killed before she was born. She says she doesn't have any problem with Americans today; Ngoc has arranged many trips around the DMZ for returning American war veterans. Soon after, Ngoc hands me a plate of chicken fried rice at my table. I wolf it down, just as my driver arrives.
“You go with him,” she tells me, pointing out the door. I look at my vehicle for the day, and groan. There are few taxis in Dong Ha, so I’m stuck hanging onto the back seat of a motorbike, and today it looks like rain. My new guide is Nguyen. His English isn't fluent, but he’s able to get his point across. Nguyen is a former ARVN soldier; he was drafted near the war's end.
“I work(ed) in office," he tells me, "I work maps." Rather than a frontline soldier, his job was at a base in Quang Tri. Nguyen was luckier than most. Working inside a base, he was relatively safe from the fighting. “(When) I have 18 year, war finish,” he says. His unit surrendered to the NVA when Quang Tri fell. Like the soldier Duc I knew in Saigon, Nguyen was sent to a ‘reeducation’ camp. But since he had only been a soldier and low ranking private for six months, he was released in less than a year.
|Bizarre sight: Vietnamese home built right next to old US built hangar on former Dong Ha Air Base|
Nguyen winds the scooter through Dong Ha streets, before stopping in a residential neighborhood. I hop off, and I’m puzzled by what I see. I’m right next to one of those old half-cylinder shaped, US built concrete military hangars. These are the exact same kind still in use at Ton Son Nhat airport, but this one is different. It isn’t intact. A large hole has been blown into the side of it, almost big enough to walk through. The concrete on these protective hangars is very thick and strong, this hole must have been created by a massive explosion.
|Vietnamese memorial by ex-Dong Ha Air Base hangar|
I walk around to have a look inside the old hangar. Not surprisingly, there are no traces of aircraft left. Inside I see a couple of workmen doing carpentry in the hangar’s dim light. They don’t even look up, they’re so engrossed in their work. Piles of building materials and other junk are stacked up inside. Since the damage to the hangar wall wasn’t repaired, that hole in the wall probably occured during the 1972 spring offensive, after the US Marines had already turned the base over to the ARVN. During fighting that year, much of Dong Ha town was destroyed by the advancing North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
Dong Ha Air Base was not surrendered back to nature like other bases. Strangely, it was turned into a residential neighborhood. It’s a bizarre sight to see this old military airport hangar closely surrounded by small family homes. One house was built so closely, that it nearly touches the hangar itself. Dong Ha Airfield exists no more, but the town has been rebuilt into a transportation hub. All this areas imports and exports going to and from Laos pass through here, as well as all of Vietnam’s north – south road traffic. There’s a memorial next to the damaged hangar, and at its base, I find a small ceramic bowl, filled with the remains of incense sticks from Buddhists praying here. This used to be an American base. I wonder, who were they praying for?
|Decaying memorial on former Camp Carroll|
We buzz along Highway 9, and I look at the skies, which have been gloomy all day. They finally open up. Nguyen pulls over, and pops open the seat compartment. I’m relieved to see that he has raingear for both of us. We don ponchos before we get too drenched; soon we’re back on the road.
He turns south off highway, and his scooter struggles to carry us both up a long hill. Then he pulls to a stop next to some kind of strange, artsy concrete sculpture that appears to be under construction. I think this is a strange place for a sculpture, out in the middle of nowhere. Then I look at it closer. What this really is, is a war memorial that is falling apart. In recent years, local people came and carted away parts of this memorial to sell for scrap. Most of the surrounding fence is gone, and they’ve cut away all the metal pieces that they that could get. I had already seen this done to old buildings and bunkers on old bases, but this is the first time I’d seen a memorial made by the post-war communists defaced for scrap.
One of the informational plaques has been torn away, but the other is still there, and Nguyen translates it for me as follows, “This Hill 241, had very strong American artillery army base along Highway 9.”
|Aerial view of Camp Carroll during the war. (Photo: USACMH)|
Walking around the former base, I see sections of sandbags lying in the dirt, like those I found in the highlands. We encounter one concrete foundation, which is the former foundation for the base mess hall. This strategic base once had 16 heavy cannons, including the feared 175mm artillery guns. These massive cannons could fire 174 pound projectiles as far as 20 miles away. As American troop numbers were reduced towards the war’s end, Camp Carroll was turned over to South Vietnam’s military (ARVN) in 1970. Later, the ARVN colonel in command surrendered the entire base to the NVA, without firing a shot. That same colonel now owns a hotel in Hue today... At the top of the memorial here, the stone lists the year of his surrender, 1972.
|Camp Carroll today. It's been reduced to farmland.|
Nguyen tells me that in the post-war years, the only visitors that bother to come all the way up here were American war veterans that served in Camp Carroll. That explains the dilapidated state of the memorial. The government had no interest in preserving the old base, it is more useful now as a farm. Rubber trees, pepper plants, and cassava grow on a hill that used to be covered with bunkers, tents and artillery. On this gloomy day there aren’t even any farmers present, only a water buffalo chewing on grass.
I ponder the difference that I saw between Dong Ha, and here. Dong Ha is at a major crossroads, so it has been rebuilt. But since Vietnam is now reunited, Camp Carroll’s location is no longer strategic. With the heavy guns long ago captured and carted away, this former military base is now nothing more than a quiet, unimportant hilltop in central Vietnam.