Monday, March 6, 2006
We're off down Highway 1, previously known as the QL1. This is the highway that Chris and the boys built as part of the engineering group they were here with during the war. We're looking for Long Binh Ambush Alley and other places they remember from long ago.
Long Binh was the military installation where they spent much of their time, hauling gravel, laying road surface, leveling. The kind of heavy construction work that usually comes with a union card and a decent salary.
It's a long road out Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City and this morning it seems like Los Angeles has dumped part of its freeway traffic smack dab in the middle of Vietnam. Hundreds of people ride bikes, cyclos, small motorcycles, and strange little three-wheeled trucks called Lambrettas. They dart out and push cars and make turns into traffic without looking. Even on this proper two-lane highway, there seem to be no driving rules in force.
The world changes faster than we like to think and after what seems like hours, we find faint traces of the places they remember. There's nothing left of the old Long Binh except for the main gate. That gate, which was once a heavily guarded by armed sentries is now the entrance to an industrial park.
There seems to be lots of freshly dug ground ready for new construction, office buildings half built and other signs of bustling commerce. The industrial park is a cooperative run by the Vietnamese government and an international Thai corporation.
More than 80 businesses are headquartered there including a Bayer, San Miguel Beer and a heavy machinery company I've never heard of. A concrete water tower that was one of the base's main landmarks is now a VIP club for visiting executives and dignitaries. A welcoming part from Amata – the company that now controls the park greets us and takes us into the water tower for a slide presentation.
I don't know what Communism is like in the rest of the world, but here we were treated to a slide show highlighting all the great business opportunities available at Amata. They even had building specs; timetables for permit issuances and a preview of the bustling community that would soon spring up around the park. As strange as I found the whole thing, it was even weirder for Chris and the boys.
We'd spent the morning looking for Ambush Alley, a turn off the main road that provided Viet Cong fighters with enough coverage to fire on passing American trucks. Huge stones for road building were brought in from "Rock City," a quarry dug out of the mountainous area surrounding the QL1. None of these things existed anymore. All that remained was this part and what was once a French-owned rubber plantation. The trees still stood in miles of neat rows, but they seemed to have been left to their own accord.
Bony cows grazed under their leaves and in between the closest trees, you'd see hammocks strung up and people sleeping in them. The only thing we actually found was an old stone gate at Xuan Loc. Chris' eagle eye spied the gray-on-gray structure behind a lower wooden fence. We pulled off the road to explore and inside the gate found a market place with six rows of low stalls. They sold everything from plastic containers to shoes to rain gear and Korean soap operas on video.
The most dangerous thing in the whole place was a stand offering top prices for your gold jewelry. It was like one of those deluxe flea markets in Florida where you can by all the tube socks you'll ever need.
Thirty-five years had passed since Boone, Perry and Chris had seen this place. They were expecting the same frightening landmarks that ruled their lives for that year in country. They kept saying from the seat behind me, "But it used to be right here," "I know this is where the turnoff was to Ambush Alley, man you went in there you were taking your life into your own hands" and "Where's Long Binh?"
Progress is a real kick in the butt. It comes in and provides a clean slate for the young and makes the old feel like their youth was a prolonged hallucination.