Ken and Bill's Excellent Adventure
XIII. Formerly I Corps
       But we weren’t much interested in Ho Chi Minh City, neither Ken nor I ever having been there during the war, so the next day we flew to Hue-Phu Bai Airport aboard a nifty modern Vietnam Airlines A321.  (The last time I’d flown Vietnam Airlines, 21 years ago, the airline had boasted a fleet of aging Soviet aircraft that did not inspire confidence.)  This was the area Ken and I had come to see, the coastal region of central Vietnam between Hoi An and the old Demilitarized Zone at the 17th parallel, the area in which Ken and I and the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment had spent our time in the war.
      Phu Bai had been a huge Marine base during the war, but all evidence of that was gone.  Indeed, aside from the ubiquitous soldiers’ cemeteries, the occasional monument or statue, a fleeting glimpse of old revetments at Tan Son Nhut and Da Nang, evidence of the American War is hard to find.  Even the concrete bunkers atop Hai Van Pass and at either end of the railroad bridge over Song Cai (the Cai River) were built by the French, not the Americans.  Ken and I spent more than an hour trying to find our old battalion command post near Hoi An, but when our van ended up on a road no wider than our own wheel base, and it seemed for all the world that we were going to topple over at any moment and end up in a rice field, we gave up looking.  Where had all these people and houses and roads come from?  When I was 18, I would have sworn nothing would ever again thrive in this place.
An old French bunker at the top of Hai Van Pass,
with Bill leaning on a corner. (AGE)

      Of course, I’ve since learned, I would have been wrong.  Rutted, crumbling Highway 1, made famous by Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy, is now four lanes between Phu Bai and Hue with a median strip sporting palm trees and flowering plants, the road lined with houses, noodle shops, sundry stores, repair shops, dress shops (western-style dresses seem to have largely replaced traditional ao dais except for jobs like hotel receptionists, restaurant hostesses, and airline employees), and billboards advertising cellphones, banks, cars, gasoline, scooters, resorts, insurance companies, clothing, restaurants.

Left: Looking north from the interior of the same bunker. Sections of the long, twisting road to the pass are visible to the left and right. (SA)
      As we approached Hue, we crossed the bridge over the An Cuu Canal, just as Ken and I had done on the morning of January 31st, 1968, but the war was nowhere to be seen and there were no ghosts awaiting us, just a vibrant, throbbing city that was almost unrecognizable except for major landmarks like the Truong Tien Bridge spanning Song Huong—the River of Perfumes—Hue University, and of course the famous Citadel.
Ken and I and a handful of other Marines had crossed Truong Tien Bridge during that first day of fighting, though we couldn’t have told you its name.

      We had tried to reach the Citadel, but had taken terrible casualties at the hands of hundreds of well-entrenched North Vietnamese firing down at us from windows and walls, and we’d had to fall back to the south side of the river, where most of the fighting took place during the first few weeks of the battle.

      Now the bridge is lit up nightly by an array of ever-changing colored lights that make the lights illuminating Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Bridge look anemic.

Right: A view from our hotel in Hue City, overlooking the River of Perfumes and the Truong Tien Bridge. A flag flying at the Citadel is just visible in the distant upper left of the photo. (AGE)
(Background photo by AGE)
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