To avoid an international incident, my driver and guide finished their lunch and we resumed our trip. Up to that point, no one had ever said anything negative to me about the American War—the Vietnamese name for the Vietnam War. Ironically, Most want to move on and prosper economically with the aid of the American economy. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find anyone of the war generation willing to discuss the conflict openly without government approval, and those who do request that I not mention their name or reproduce their likeness in print or video.
This inebriated individual appeared to be too young to remember anything about the war other than what he gleaned from history books; so, his reaction to my presence was a bit puzzling. I must have had “I’m an American war veteran” stenciled on my forehead.
The fog and mist began settling on the tarmac as we continued to drive obscuring our vision of the school children, some walking, some riding bicycles, all wearing matching uniforms climbing the elevated slope of the mountain. Such a trek to get an education speaks reverently about the precepts found in the Analects of Confucianism which explains the Asian culture’s propensity for higher education. Stunning hues of green, shades of dark, shades of light–everywhere! Beauty that belies centuries of violent invasions from the Chinese, the French, and the Americans.
Khe Sanh! We have arrived at the town monument commemorating the battle by the same name etched in NVA filigree. These hieroglyphic pictograms tell the stories of victorious battles against the Americans. Captured American soldiers with raised hands being marched away at gunpoint is one such illustration adorning the monument. To the victor goes the history and the Vietnamese monuments and museums all tell a story of Victory against the “Imperialist Bourgeoisie.”
We first drive ten to fifteen miles in the opposite direction from the Khe Sanh Firebase over to the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp which was a forward observation post in 1968 that was overrun in the February attacks. This attack facilitated the siege of Khe Sanh eliminating a troublesome obstacle for the NVA. We’re here! We’re here? We’ve passed it? What? Lang Vei Camp has completely vanished after some 45 years. All that’s left is one road with high vegetation on either side and a tank or personnel carrier atop a hill near the entrance. Nothing to see here, so we head back to the war monument and turn left up a foggy road toward Khe Sanh Museum.
After some early missteps and lost revenue, the Vietnamese government has learned to capitalize on American war nostalgia. So, in its best capitalistic
Practice there is a negligible cover and bathroom charge to enter the grounds and the museum. What one will find in many Vietnam war museums, indoors or outdoors, is a liberal stash of American hardware on display. War equipment from airplanes to helicopters to tanks to munitions that were abandoned, dropped, or captured.
Due to the dearth of people today, and a cool mist coupled with light falling rain, and a vast mountainous terrain, it all offers up an eerie quiet with the exception of a distant echo. Sound carries far here, even a whisper. Alas, interrupting this reflective moment is a lone peddler hobbled with a leg injury carrying a tray of American war artifacts–bullets, dog tags, and medals which he insists I buy. No amount of “No Thank you” can deter his singular purpose. As for my guide and driver, after a few photos, they appear to have abandoned me to my own devices venturing into the museum and then into the taxi, all in an attempt to avoid the elements.
The siege of Khe Sanh is so well documented that I stutter to add anything new. All I can do is walk the area and envisage the scene of exploding ammo dumps, raining (perimeter) B 52 bombs, rockets, mortar fire, and hunkered down Marines. The siege lasted approximately three months and ended in a whimper without the long anticipated NVA ground assault. Historians have concluded the entire siege was a diversionary tactic in order to conceal the North Vietnamese government’s real intention—Tet. The importance of Khe Sanh deals more with President Johnson’s fear of another Dien Bien Phu disaster and his preoccupation, even to the extent of maintaining a mockup model in the White House, with defending it at all costs. This was going to be a last stand battle that America was not going to lose.
After leaving Khe Sanh, I concluded that it was not feasible to head over to Hamburger Hill with the time I had left. I would have to stop in Aluoi and get a special permit and guide from town officials. I suspect the reason for this precaution is the continued danger presented by unexploded ordinance as a result of this tumultuous battle. One would be foolhardy to try and go there alone.