Vietnam, Feb 4 – 18, 2006  By:  Wendy Uncles

  This was a trip of a lifetime.  For Towney, it was going back to places that caused him to grow up, maybe too fast.  For Wendy, it was a return to a part of the world that she loves, and one that hasn’t become too jet setting, and is still kind of honest.

Background … Towney spent a lot of time in Vietnam in 1969-1970 in not too great situation.  There was a war going on.  He was flying helicopters, Hueys, in the Central Highlands of what was then South Vietnam, close to the town of Pleiku, a rural settlement with no more than 30,000 residents.  The area was surrounded by ride paddies, hills and almost mountains, and a lot of the population around was Montegnard villagers, hill tribes with their own culture, language and way of life.  The area is not far from the borders of Laos and Cambodia.


At a reunion of the 189th Assault Helicopter Company near Washington DC last fall, we met a man named George who was not only a member of the 189th, but a travel organizer.  He had a dream to go back to Vietnam.  We signed on right away.  The price was right, and it was an opportunity that happens only once in a blue moon.


So, with passports, traveler’s checks and a travel diary in hand, we left Burlington on February 4 for a flight to Los Angeles via Chicago.  We spent the night at the Hacienda Hotel, close to the airport.  Not much to sightsee around there, but we were there for Superbowl Sunday, and the local watering hole was fine for that.


We flew Cathay Pacific across the big pond (aka Pacific Ocean).  The flight was just after midnight, but the check in was very confusing and time consuming, but we did make it onto the plane, a 747, and settled into our seats at the back of coach (window seats, but just the two of us, and the Bunnies!), watched the movie, ate amazingly good airplane food (two meals!), drank their wine … and landed in Hong Kong.  This is the new airport north of the city.  Kai Tak is gone, and the landing is much less exciting than before.  There are mountains close by, and water, but it is far from the city.  We were there for a couple of hours, so did some shopping and relaxing before getting the next flight to Ho Chi Minh City (but still called Saigon by everyone but those who are official … so that’s what I will call it from now on!)


We arrived in Saigon just before noon.  We made it through immigration (lots of returning Vietnamese), got our luggage, then through customs … finally the group managed to get together and we got onto a very big bus and headed into the city.


First impressions?  Lots of people waiting outside the terminal meeting travelers, 

   quonset huts by the runways, some with old Hueys without rotors, lots and lots of motorbikes, and the sounds and smells of an Asian city.  That’s not a bad thing!  Hot, of course.  The airport is very 60s Russian style, but the new one that is being built … wow!  It will be the kind of airport that we see in Bangkok, Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong.  What kind of future is this country anticipating?


Driving through the city, more and more motorbikes, shophouses, power lines, people,

people, people

We were staying at the Asian Hotel, a tourist hotel, but not at all fancy.  Good location, though.  We had our welcoming dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant.  This could have been the first and last time that the entire group would be together.  There was one subgroup that was going up to Danang to give a donation to the landmine group (this group, from Long Island, was centered around a man who had lost both of his legs there).  The food was good!  We had gone there after sitting at the rooftop bar at the Rex Hotel for some libations.  





The Rex was where a lot of the foreign news correspondents had spent time during the war.


We also had done some preliminary shopping.  There is lots to buy, and the prices are amazingly cheap.  Our first scores were some laquerware and postcards.


We tried very hard to adapt to the local time, going to bed at bedtime.  And then, waking up at wake up time!  Then breakfast for a kind of western breakfast …  One thing that we noticed, and this was confirmed throughout the entire trip everywhere … the French left one great legacy – the bread!  They call it panne, and they are awesome little French loaves!  The butter is canned, mostly from Europe.


The next day (Wednesday) the group split up.  One part went on a trip to the Delta (some of the vets on the tour had been stationed there, and others were curious).  The other, including us, decided to stay in the city and see the sights there.  We started at the market at Cholan, the Chinese section of Saigon.  I had known a lot of people from that part of the city in Edmonton (including Wendy Chau!), so I was interested in seeing it.  And yes, it was very much a very Chinese section, and the market, which is a wholesale market, had just about everything that you would every want, and more!







From there we visited three religious sites, a Chinese temple (with the joss sticks and other offerings, lots of incense), a Buddhist temple, and then a Daoist temple.

  The latter was the busiest by a long shot.  And, one of the most interesting things was the turtles.  I gather that people bring offerings of turtles (other places have birds, for example).  There are lots of turtles in the ponds by the entrance.   

Lunch was our first introduction to Pho, the Vietnamese national dish, I think, and certainly their signature breakfast!    It is basically a very nice beef noodle soup with herbs and vegetables.  Yum!


Our final tour stop was the Presidential Palace, now the war museum.  The public rooms are all open, both to the air and to the public, all the way up to the roof (4th floor, with a nice view of the city and a Huey) and down to the basement where the war was choreographed.  Very 60s!  No computers at all!



This Uh-1 belong to the 165 TC CO A CDS before Saigon fell.

Then we did some more shopping and ended up at the Rex again, and had dinner there.

The next day we flew on Vietnam Air to Pleiku (after a breakfast of Pho!).



  Pleiku Airport (Old Pleiku Air Force Base)

This was a homecoming of sorts for the rest of the tour (I am the only woman the other one went off with her husband on their one tour to Danang and Hue).  We checked into the Pleiku Hotel, a remnant of when the Russians came in after the Americans left in 1973.  One thing, the satellite dish on the roof – we were told that it covered the whole town – meant that we could get some English language TV, like CNN Europe and HBO!

    And what of the town?  Actually, a city now, of over 300,000 people.  In a sense it was kind of like Saigon with store fronts, houses on top built up for two or three stories, some new and colorful.  There are no windows on the sides.  They are very narrow, maybe one room wide, probably to fit city lots (but later we saw lots of them of the same design in the country where there weren’t urban space restrictions).


After a very elaborate lunch, we went for a little walk around the town.  Definitely not as urban as Saigon.  Lots and lots of motorbikes, but not nearly the big vehicle traffic.  Crossing the street was must easier.  No English spoken.  The people were mostly friendly, waving and smiling and “Hello”.

We got onto our great big coach for the afternoon sightseeing tour.  It took us to places from the past.  Camp Enari was the first stop.  We stopped for a photo op at what was the guard gate.  Then we went to see where the landing strip was.  They think they found it – right now it is flat and smooth and they are drying coffee on it.



Entrance to Camp Enarie




Camp Holloway is gone. Drove by where it was, but now it is occupied by the Vietnamese military.  We couldn’t even stop to take pictures.


Camp Holloway 2006

but we got a few.  (now don't tell).

Looking out over Pleiku and the new traffic circle.


  Looking out over Pleiku at night,


The next day (Friday?) after a great Pho breakfast (and buffet with all of the other stuff) we went out to see one of the local Montegnard villages.  Our local guide came from one of the villages, but he managed to get to University of Michigan for a couple of years.  The place where we were was called the Plei Phun Village (plei means “village”, I was told).


This was in an area that Towney and the guys knew well.  We walked in, looked at some of the structures, visited the chief’s house (traditional, but with the tv antenna on the roof), and then walked to the burial ground.  There were gorgeous views of a valley with ride paddies, a river, mountains – spectacular.  Towney recognized a place where he had landed his helicopter when supplying the troops with Thanksgiving dinner in 1969.  That was moving.

  Then we went back to town and had a really nice lunch at a place with great views of rice paddies.  Then we stopped by the newest luxury hotel in town – 13 stories!  A chance for some pictures of the area where Holloway was for, the cost of a Tiger beer or two.



 Camp Holloway 1969


Camp Holloway 2006


Looking south to Dragon Mountain.

Later we went to another village for a show of local dancing.  The ceremonies included drinking some of the local rice brew.



               They even made us dance…

Saturday – after breakfast we got onto our coach and headed north to Kontum.  It was about an hour north.  We checked into the hotel (another of the same kind of style as Pleiku), but the new high rise luxury hotel was next door, just about to be opened.


Phill Cummings (179th)  Steve Hayduk  (57th) Joe Sottile (189th/57th)

Gerry Sandlin (189th) Barry Taylor George Deserres,  Bob Taylor, 

Towney Sausville   (189th)

On the road to Kontum.  

We switched to a smaller van to go out to the next village (there was a one lane suspension bridge that couldn’t handle the big bus).  We stopped at the village on the Dukbla River


This was a fun trip.  First, we walked on a road that turned to a path and then to a little track through the jungle.  We passed through rice paddies, tapioca, bananas, coffee plantations.  There were lots of cows and bullock carts and old rusted bicycles.  Up and down.  All the time there were beautiful views of the river.


It’s the dry season, so the greenest things were the rice paddies.  The plants are still that amazing new spring yellow green color.



All the time there were beautiful views of the river.



The trek was about six kilometers.  At the end of the path, we were met by villagers in dugout canoes.  Each was carved out of a single log.  Some were made of bigger trees, so they could carry 3, 4 or 5 people.  Others handled two, with difficulty!  We ferried across the river and had a picnic lunch.



Then everyone got on the boats and headed down river to the starting village and the bus.  The river was quite low, so we had to get out twice, walk across a sandbar to the boats, climb in again, and down we drifted.



Lunch Time

It was a beautiful day – warm, almost but not quite hot, with a cooling breeze.  Sunscreen was necessary, though!


Back at the hotel, most of the men hired a van to go to Dakto, a place where some pretty horrible things happened back in the war.  Towney chose not to go, although he had spent some time up there.  Instead, we discovered that the hotel was brewing its own dark beer.

We also did some quick souvenir shopping in the area around the hotel, including a couple of very interesting carvings from the hill tribes (and obscenely cheap).

  Sunday was a travel day.  We got back into the big bus and headed through and across the mountains to the coast.  It was a day to just look at the countryside and the way the people live.



The drive down the coast was amazing – gorgeous views of mountains down to and into the sea, lots of little and colorful fishing boats, fish platforms, tiger shrimp farms.  The ride paddies go right down to the sea.  I wonder how they keep the fresh and salt water separated!  It was cloudy going through the passes, but by the time we got down to the coast it was blue and clear.  There were enough clouds for interest.



We ended up in a town called Tuy Hoa, a fairly sizeable city that really isn’t in the tourist books.  One part of the city is really developing – it looks like people from outside are spending a lot of money and building big houses, close to the ocean.  There are two very distinct styles – one is the narrow tall Vietnamese style, the others are very western (kind of like the big expensive houses in California – I wonder if those are being built by people returning after making their fortunes in the west!).  But, that’s not where we were housed.  Another old Russian concrete hotel.  This was probably the worst of the trip.  We went across the street and had a pleasant local style dinner when the other guys came and said that they had discovered a place with restaurants and bars and lots of other things.  We joined them, walked across the bridge to a real Tivoli styled amusement park  -- all kitch and lights and music and amusements and restaurants and bars and … they had dinner, we had a beer.


Monday morning we were back on the coach heading south on the new highway to Nha Trang.  Lots of beautiful views, like yesterday.





  And then, Nha Trang.  This place could be anywhere, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia – beach and resort city.  It is big and bustling.  There are lots of European and Australian tourists, bars, restaurants, shops (didn’t see that many people on the beach, though, which was kind of strange).  We were staying at the Green Hotel (guess what … it is green!), and the afternoon was at leisure.  We went to a bar, Kimmy’s place, run by a Vietnamese-Canadian lady (met her later, she is from Ottawa).  Kimmy is collecting money to build a school to educate the street urchins and hopefully get them off the street. 


Later we went down to the Sailing Club and had a pizza, the first western food of the trip (the other men were on a quest for cheeseburgers …).  Gorgeous setting, gorgeous views.  That ended up as our dinner.


  Towney and Wendy



After wandering for a bit, we crashed in our seventh floor room with great view!


The tour the next morning (who knows what day it was) was to two places.  The first was the Cham pagoda/temple, dating from the 9th century.  We had seen other ruins on the trip down the coast, but this was the first that we could see close up.  Then to the local market.  I bought some Vietnamese pepper (we’d seen it being cultivated at Kontum), and some local pottery (Pho bowls) and a few other things.  It was a typical market.  There were lots of the usual tourist souvenirs as well as the market stuff.




There goes Gerry shopping....more t-shirts. 


In the afternoon (again at leisure), we hired a couple of Cyclos for a leisurely tour.  We went out to the Buddhist temple.  What a ride?  Cyclos (one or two passengers in front, man pedaling in back) have right of way, but with all of the scooters and motorbikes coming at you from all sides, you wonder …



The temple had one large reclining Buddha and a large sitting Buddha, and the bell.  There was a little old Mama-San ringing the bell.  She made us sit under the bell while she rang it three times (for a blessing).  What an amazing vibrant sound.  It reverberates long after the bell has been rung.



Evening was more Sailors Club and quasi-western food.  And then to bed before leaving on a 4 – 5 hour trip down to Phan Thiet.


The trip was interesting.  The terrain changed noticeable as we headed south from Nha Trang.  We drove down the coast past Cam Ranh Bay (beautiful).  The road literally went to the beach and then up and around the coastal mountains.  From there it was much drier.  There were a lot of vineyards, sugar cane and then the salt flats.  Most of those had been recently flooded (they did that at the Chinese New Year), so we couldn’t see any of the salt, yet.  You could see that some of the flats were drying and had small deposits of salt forming on the edges.  There were some huge piles of salt in the distance, and we passed one truck that was loaded with salt.






At Phan Rang we stopped at another Cham Temple.  These people are preparing for tourists, it is obvious!  This one dates from the 16th century, near the end of the Cham era in Vietnam.



As we headed south it got drier and drier – it seemed to be almost semi-desert, kind of like the dry side of Maui, or Arizona.  One usually has an impression of this country as jungle.  Not true!



There were lots of sand dunes and burial sites.  Not much else.  It was kind of moon-like.


As we came closer to Phan Thiet along the coast we began seeing all kinds of luxury resorts, and lots more under construction.


Imagine our delight when we pulled into one – Bamboo Village.  It is only a three star resort, but still nice enough!







  Joe Sottile, George Deserres, Towney Sausville and Phil Cummings


We had a welcoming libation and then pulled on our swimsuits and went for a splash in the South China Sea.  Warm, clean, just enough waves to frolic in … perfection and just what we needed!


Then we went to the pool, sat in the whirlpool, did a little swim, then a walk on the beach to gather seashells.  Then happy hour, dinner at a little restaurant right outside the gate.  Grilled fish, barbequed tiger shrimp, salad, big beer, rice, dessert, all for less than $5.00.


And one thing about the beach?  No hawkers!  There were lots of (western) guys parasailing, but that’s about it.



And, after breakfast back into the bus and on the road back to Saigon.  We headed inland.  This is a very populated area.  There were more towns than rural stretches.  There were lots of rubber plantations (small trees, though recent plantings, which was typical of just about everywhere that we were), but most of the time we were in urban and suburban areas.


And it was all pretty uniform.  There were small houses with the shot in front, sidewalk restaurants and drink stands, all with little plastic tables and chairs.  Westerns could never sit on them – too small, too low.  For us they’d be children’s chairs.  And hammocks – lots of then, even in some of the small restaurants, on the side of the road rest stops (for people on cycles).  The driving was quite thrilling – it seems that there were countless near head-on misses – but all of the drivers were in control.


And back in Saigon for one more night.  Last minute shopping, mostly, and packing, and repacking.  There is one extra bag (everyone seems to have bought one more bag!  Shopping was great!).  Our last dinner was on the terrace bar at the top of the Majestic (another site of war correspondents way back then … before CNN took over the business).





Back in LA, after the long trip home.




Overall impression?  Great trip!  Can’t wait to go back!

By:  Wendy Uncles

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