I’m on another “final trip” to Việt Nam. Last year’s trip was supposed to be “The Final Trip”, but plans change. Cindy couldn’t come this time as she is at a family reunion in Ohio. Who knows - this may not be “The Final Trip” either - I did promise Trang I’d be in Việt Nam for her wedding whenever that happens.
There is a certain full-circle feel to this trip. Back in 2003, Cindy and took a wonderful two-week vacation in Việt Nam. It was the only time we ever intentionally sought places where we’d been during the war. We had a tour guide on that trip - a well spoken man named Truc. You can read all about that trip in my travelogue. (And I hope you do read it. Click here.) Since that trip, most of my photography and writing has been about the present day country. But this time, I decided to spend a little extra time in Saigon and look at old places made new.
I know from having lived in Việt Nam that the only things having to do with the war are either in museums or tourist traps. For people who have not been to Việt Nam, logic dictates the country has changed since the war - but most likely, they have no idea how it has changed.
Vehicle traffic comes to mind. You veterans remember all the bicycles and little Lambretta 3-wheeled minitrucks? Remember dirt roads and narrow streets in the villages and cities? Here is some roadway in present day Saigon.
You mean you didn’t expect to see an eight lane divided highway with separate lanes for the motorbikes?
And notice the vehicles - they are modern Japanese or Korean trucks and cars, except for the occasional BMW, Mercedes or Ford.
(As always, be sure to click on each photo so you can see a larger version.)
A few days ago, I rode on Việt Nam’s very first four lane divided limited access highway that does not allow motorbikes. In other words, a freeway or an expressway. More are planned for other parts of the country, but the new one runs south of Saigon into the burgeoning Mekong River Delta area.
Lets take a trip north of Saigon to try to find the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh.
The road to the Bien Hoa area leads into the industrial heartland of present day Việt Nam. You may own a pair of athletic shoes, some furniture or even an Intel computer chip made in Việt Nam and most likely it was made in Bien Hoa. Long Binh was never a town - it was just the name of the old plantation the Americans plowed under to build the post. Everything is part of Bien Hoa today.
The highway varies between four and six lanes. It just seems like one big city - no bucolic rice paddies here. Both Saigon and Bien Hoa have grown so much that they seem like one.
And the road is clogged with heavy truck traffic on the way to the deep water ports of Saigon carrying the next pair of Nikes or your next shirt.
Ooops - guess I shouldn’t have taken this shot of the traffic police. (You can tell they are traffic police by the tan uniforms. Regular police wear green uniforms. You can’t see by this photo, but Vietnamese police are not armed.) The heavy traffic means the cops work the highway regularly.
Just like any other city, car dealerships seem to cluster together in one area. In amongst the Kia and Mazda shops, you can haggle with the salesman for your new Chevy.
Now its time to find where the 24th was located. How to do that? Simple. Whip out the smart phone - the one to which you have already uploaded an old map of Long Binh Post. By translating the coordinates of old American military maps, Truc has made notes on the map to denote where different units were located. Using the map in conjunction with his smart phone’s GPS, he knows exactly where the 24th once sat.
Truc doesn’t have to worry about dead spots. Smart phone 3G data service covers all but the most remote areas of the country.
And here it is - the site of the 24th Evac. Korbelco manufactures heavy construction equipment. It is just one of the many plants within the Bien Hoa II Industrial Park - arranged all nice and neat and orderly just like an industrial park anywhere else in the world.
And yes - the guy on the scooter is talking on a cell phone.
Let's hope the traffic police don't catch him eh?
(Coming - posts from Binh Chanh and Nui Ba Den.)