West of Sài Gòn lies Tây Ninh Province, which borders on Cambodia. Ah yes - we old guys from the 1st Cav remember it well - and anyone who was in the area remembers Núi Bà Đen - or as we Americans called it, the Black Virgin Mountain. It rose up out of the flat plains all by itself and could be seen easily from the big Tay Ninh base camp as well as numerous fire bases in the area. If you were up in a helicopter, you saw it.
During the war, the Americans held the top of the mountain where we operated a radio relay facility, but the middle of the mountains (and the bottom too, at night) was controlled by the Communist forces. There were many fire fights on the big hill and heroes on both sides.
There being a distinct absence of black people in Việt Nam, I often wondered about the name. Legend has it that around the turn of the last century, during the time of French colonialism, there was a beautiful young peasant girl who fell in love. She and and her man decided to get married, but the nasty ol’ landowner wanted to add her to his stable of wives. Rather than submit to marriage with a man she didn’t love, she ran away to the mountain. When the landowner’s men pursued her, she dove off the mountain to her death. But nobody knew her name. As the legend grew, her moniker became that of a peasant girl who dressed in the black clothing of her social status. She was The Lady in Black, rather than The Black Lady.
The local people took the story to heart and the legend grew. She became a demi-goddess - someone who would accept the petitions of others. A small shrine was erected and people made the trek up the steep mountain.
Which brings us to today. The faithful still beseech the Lady for help, but the shrine is much bigger - and the faithful do not need to walk up the mountain.
They take the gondola up the mountain.
The bottom of the mountain today is a park - a nice place for Saigonese to bring the family, enjoy a picnic lunch on the grounds, put the kids on rides - little kiddie rides for the small ones and sliding rides for the bigger kids. Mom and Dad might enjoy the ride too, with a girlish scream from her and a protective squeeze from him. I was there on a summer mid-week day and the crowds weren’t bad, but I’m told the weekends bring out the hordes.
But the main attraction is still The Lady. The shrine is about ¾ of the way to the top. The gondola takes you to within 100 (or so) steps of the temple - a bit of a tough climb for some of the elderly people I saw. Once past the souvenir stand and the huge new bronze bell being erected, the temple on the outside shields the grotto where prayers are made. It is a small cave - supposedly where The Lady hid before her death. Shoes are removed, reverence is given and petitions made. One young couple with a little girl were asking The Lady for a little boy - a typical request in a country where the government limits the number of children to two.
But for you veterans reading this - you don’t care about shrines and kiddie rides. You want to know about your old fire base or LZ. For many of those old jungle outposts, you will need scuba gear to visit them today.
A number of years ago, a dam was built, creating Dầu Tiếng Lake. While providing irrigation water and some electricity to the area, it is also a popular recreational site. The best one can do is stand on the shore and say “Somewhere out there was my old firebase.”
Such is the nature of change.