written by Todd DePastino

VBC Vietnam tour group on boat in Halong Bay

In November and December, 21 of us—including five veterans who had served in-country during the war—traveled to Vietnam, from Hanoi and Halong Bay in the North to Saigon and the Mekong Delta in the South. Vietnam is a beautiful and often bewildering place, ancient in history and now yoked to American history and memory. The country presents to the traveler more than can be absorbed. Below are select notes from the trip, not so much highlights but insights gathered day-by-day.

Day 1 Hanoi

Army veteran Bryan Barnes on Vietnamese cyclo ride

Army veteran Bryan Barnes heading out on a cyclo ride

Vietnam is about as far as you can travel from the United States. It’s literally half-way round the world. So, most of us who landed in Hanoi on November 28 for our two-week tour of Vietnam put in 24-hours or more to get here. That made us giddy and loopy, a good state for encountering the always fascinating and often strange capital of the country we once called enemy.

The first day begins with a “cyclo” ride through the ancient Old Quarter on what was once known as a “rickshaw.” If you can put aside any post-colonial reservations about being peddled around by a poor, thin man in sandals and a pith-helmet, you get to enjoy front-row tour of Hanoi’s chaotic street life. The odds are excellent you won’t get hit by a motorbike buzzing past you, front and back, and, in fact, the whole experience is strangely serene.

Hanoi is the ancient cradle of Vietnamese civilization, the heart and soul of the country, where it all began thousands of years ago. It’s the most Vietnamese part of Vietnam and remains, despite the nation’s emergence as a tiger economy at the forefront of 21st century globalization, a deeply conservative, patriotic, and patriarchal place. You still see men (in green pith helmets) and women (in straw conical hats) from the countryside peddling fruits and vegetables, ducks and chickens on the streets at all hours. Little flashy clothing or consumer extravagance.

The air quality in Hanoi is noticeably terrible. I connected to wifi and tried to see the Air Quality Index on a common weather app. “This content is no longer available in your area” was the message. The government has banned the Weather Channel app, I believe, for reporting the air quality here.

Someone in our group asked our guide the reason for the bad air. He uttered the one-word source of blame you often hear in response to the nation’s problems: “China.”

Overhead photo of Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

Pho Ga, Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

Our guide Kan, a proud native of Hanoi who admits, when pressed, he’s actually partial to Saigon, surprised me at lunch when he declared that Americans had never had eaten proper pho, the noodle soup that is the national dish of Vietnam.

“Not true,” I said. Pho is very popular in the US and is probably my wife’s favorite meal.

“But you’ve only had the kind of pho they make in the South,” Kan pointed out. “And that is not the real pho.”

He went on to explain that most Vietnamese-Americans come from the South, home of the former Republic of Vietnam (RVN) which the US defended from the North in the Vietnam War. In the South, he said, people adulterate pho with all kind of add-ons like basil, lime, sugar, bean sprouts, and anything else that might mask the blandness of the broth. Northerners strip pho down to its bare essentials: broth, rice noodles, beef or chicken, and a light sprinkling of green onion. Nothing more is needed because cooks spend hours getting the sweet flavors of the bone marrow into the broth. Southerners, he suggested, don’t have the patience for that kind of diligent cooking.

The national drink is beer, and the Vietnamese consume lots of it. Each city boasts its own slightly different popular lager. In Hanoi, the beer is Bia Ha Noi, and it’s served every lunch and dinner. Bia Ha Noi‘s slogan states plainly why people drink beer with every meal: ““Vị Bia làm nên sắc Tết”

Google translate gives this interpretation:

Google translate from Vietnamese (Vị Bia làm nên sắc Tết) to English (The taste of Beer creates the color of Tet)

If you enter the Vietnamese phrase without the diacritical marks around the Latinate letters, which indicate tonal distinctions, you get a blunter translation:

Google translate from Vietnamese (vi bia lam nen sac tet) to English (because beer causes food)

After lunch came the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology dedicated to the 54 official ethnic groups that call the country home. Vietnam’s immense ethnic and linguistic diversity is a problem for Vietnamese nationhood. It took centuries to unify the Vietnamese Empire–the Dai Viet–because so many non-Vietnamese people lived within the borders, especially in the Annam Mountain range that separates Vietnam from Laos.

VBC tour group all gathered around a table for a family dinner in Vietnam

Vietnam Family Dinner

Anyone who has lived in a mountainous area–whether it be Switzerland or West Virginia–knows that such terrain breeds isolated communities that fiercely defend their independence and don’t trust outsiders.

Many of these ethnic minorities–such as the Khmer, the Hmong, and the Muong, collectively referred to as “Montagnards” (Mountain People)–sided with the Americans in the Vietnam War. And many were also present in Vietnam long before the majority Viet or Kinh ethnic group appeared there.

Now, at the museum, these minorities are celebrated–though often in muted and condescending tones–as part of the unique heritage of Vietnam, a land of “unity in diversity.” None, however, is described as “indigenous,” lest it have a claim to independent statehood.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum is a once proud, now dated, home to an enormous number of one-of-a-kind artifacts that most Americans would probably look right past, but our veterans find mesmerizing. After all, much of the US effort in the Vietnam War was “interdiction”–stopping the flow of men and materiel down what the Vietnamese call the “Truong Son Strategic Supply Route.” The Vietnamese credit their success in keeping the Ho Chi  Minh Trail open with winning the war.

The spine of the route was formed from pre-existing mountain footpaths that people had used for centuries to travel the rugged mountains straddling Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In one of the greatest achievements of military engineering in world history, the North Vietnamese Army (including our guide’s father) transformed those old paths into a vast network of trails and even paved roads. An estimated 300,000 full-time workers labored round the clock to maintain the trail under triple-canopy trees in a primeval rain forest.

In 1965, the CIA and Army Intelligence estimated that 200 tons and 50 people a day were arriving in South Vietnam on the Trail.

Vietnam Veteran Nick Edinger holding a yellow can

Vietnam Veteran Nick Edinger enjoys the national drink of Vietnam on the first day of our trip

Because of that, western Vietnam and Laos became the most bombed places on earth. Three times as many bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia than dropped by all sides in World War II. By the end of the war, Laos itself saw a mission dropping a payload on it every 8 minutes, round the clock, 7 days a week, for nine years. You can still see the craters in the Vietnamese countryside today. Where water tables are high, the holes now serve as duck ponds.

Hanoi’s immense pride in the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the respect it garners from Americans show at the museum. There’s a “hey, look how we beat you!” kind of excitement to the exhibits. Around back, there’s an elaborate memorial to some 10,000 Vietnamese who died on the Trail. It’s a vast undercount. The real number is maybe ten times higher. And most died not from bombs, but disease and starvation.

Today, the Ho Chi Minh Trail is a four-lane highway in some places, and the whole network is still being improved and widened as an alternative to Highway 1, the main artery from North to South.

The day ended with a remarkable dinner at the home of a three-generation extended family. The family welcomed us, told us a little about themselves, and served an overwhelmingly abundant meal featuring items both familiar and strange. They also served us shots of their homemade rice and ginger wines. Not for the faint of heart or stomach.

Our travelers may end up saying that evening with the beautiful Vietnamese family was a highlight of the whole trip. And it was only the first day.

Day 2 Hanoi

One immediate difference I noticed in this year’s trip to Vietnam is the absence of Chinese tourists.

In 2018 and 2020, we shared our hotels, tourist sites, and the streets with large groups of well-dressed Chinese vacationing in Vietnam. The sumptuous hotel breakfast buffets were strictly segregated—sometimes even by floor. The American buffet had Danish, omelets, cereal, and sausage. The Chinese buffet had congee (rice porridge), fried rice, cabbage, meat and noodle dishes, and all sorts of unrecognizable items.

This year, the food is still there, but the Chinese are not. The occasional Russians we saw back in 2020 are also gone.

Map of South China Sea with red dashes marking the China Nine Dash Line

China’s Nine Dash Line Map

Instead, there are many more Indians, South Koreans, Taiwanese, and West Europeans than ever before.

I asked our guide about the lack of Chinese tourism. He told us the issue was the infamous Nine Dash Line Map. This is the map China uses to claim territorial waters and a host of islands—the Spratly and the Paracel–in the South China Sea (what the Vietnamese call the East Vietnam Sea).

The problem with the map, from the Vietnamese point of view, is that Vietnam has sovereignty over some of these islands, not China. Same goes for Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, all of whom reject the Nine Dash Line Map.

China, for its part, banned the Barbie movie in 2023 because it briefly showed a map of China without the Nine Dash Line.

Last year, China started putting an image of the Nine Dash Line Map on its passports (it had also done so in 2012). In response, Vietnamese border officials refused to stamp the passports and admit the Chinese as tourists.

Banning Chinese tourists is an extreme move, especially given how much the Vietnamese economy depends on tourism from their northern neighbors.

“It is hard,” says our guide, “but it is a matter of sovereignty.”

That sense among the Vietnamese that its sovereignty is always in peril, always threatened, not only by the giant empire to the north, but rivals near and far, explains much about the culture and the people.

One of the day’s visits was to Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” where 591 US POWs were tortured until finally released in 1973.

The museum doesn’t emphasize this American connection to the prison complex. Instead, it focuses on the colonial history, when the French created Hoa Lo to detain, torture, and execute Vietnamese rebels and revolutionaries.

Hoa Lo Prison is a grim place—its very name means “Fiery Furnace”—a double meaning capturing its origin as a place of brick firing as well as the hell it became.

John McCain monument in Hanoi, Vietnam that reads USAE

Close-up of John McCain monument in Hanoi

It’s hard to look at the staged photos of smiling American POWs decorating Christmas trees and playing games, as if they were enjoying a respite from war. There’s no mention of torture or how the years of solitary confinement bred ingenious methods among the US servicemembers to communicate with each other and boost morale.

John McCain’s flight suit is on display. But you wouldn’t know it unless someone told you ahead of time. The Vietnamese removed McCain’s name from the display as a token of honor and appreciation to him for his role in spearheading diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam in the 1990s.

I think it’s no dishonor putting McCain’s name on his flight suit display, but perhaps the Vietnamese view it as a demeaning war trophy. Or, perhaps, they attach some shame to McCain’s POW status.

Rear landing gear and undercarriage of an American B-52 bomber in lake

B-52 Lake

McCain, of course, was shot down right over Hanoi in 1967. There’s a marker next to the lake where he landed.

Can you spot the error on the monument?

One final stop for the day: a winding walk through narrow alleys of the Ngoc Ha neighborhood opened up on a small pond called the Huu Tiep Lake. In one corner of the pond sticks out the rear landing gear and undercarriage of an American B-52 bomber. It’s been there since it was shot down on December 18, 1972 as part of the so-called Linebacker II or Christmas Bombings.

There’s a plaque with limited information, some of it incorrect.

The airplane–tail number 56-0608, call sign “Rose 1”–took off from U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand. While flying over Hanoi, an SA-2 surface-to-air missile hit the plane, and part of it crashed into the pond. Two of the six crew members (navigator Richard Cooper and gunner Charlie Poole) were killed in action. The rest survived, held as POWs until 1973.

Day 3 Halong Bay

Our morning excursion in Halong Bay was a welcome respite from the bustle and war stories of Hanoi.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and visual wonder. Two-thousand islands (officially 1,969, the year of Ho Chi Minh’s death), each draped in thick foliage, stand like soldiers at attention throughout the bay.

These tall, narrow limestone towers are called “karsts,” a geological formation caused by eons of erosion (they are not remnants of volcanic eruptions). Sailing among the closely grouped towers is dizzying. Exhilarating, also.

This being Vietnam, the green karsts are not just beautiful limestone formations. They are dragon pearls sent as obstacles to confuse and defeat Vietnam’s enemies.

“Ha Long” means “descending dragon.” The Vietnamese people, according to mythology, are themselves dragon descendants. Back in time immemorial, so the story goes, the Viet Emperor called upon Mother Dragon to repel invaders in Halong Bay. Mother Dragon and her children answered the call and incinerated the enemy to the last.

To help keep the Vietnamese safe, Mother Dragon and her children spit teeth-pearls-emeralds into the bay, leaving behind what are today the karsts. They remain there as a curtain against future attack.

In fact, Halong Bay did play a key role in repelling Chinese invasions.

The first came in 938 CE, when the Han Dynasty invaded Vietnam up the Bach Dang River from Halong Bay. Vietnamese general Ngo Quyen was waiting for them with an ingenious plan.

First, Ngo ordered telephone-pole-like spikes to be driven into the river bed, then tipped with iron points. Then, at high tide, when the spikes were deep under water, he lured the Chinese fleet upriver. He assembled a small attack armada, exposed it to the Chinese, and then had the armada flee upstream.

The Chinese gave pursuit. Then, the tide receded, and a strong outward current pushed the enemy’s ships downstream so they were impaled on the poles which were now close to the water surface.

The Han were sitting ducks. Flame-throwing archers emerged from the shoreline and ambushed the Chinese fleet.

No one knows exactly how large these ancient forces were that clashed on the Bach Dang River, but estimates range from 50,000 on the Chinese side to 500,000. The Han forces lost half their army and navy that day and retreated to Halong Bay.

Limestone formations in Halong Bay, Vietnam that look like kissing chickens

Kissing Chickens

This was the great battle that won Vietnamese independence from more than 1,000 years of Chinese rule.

The Vietnamese would use this very same tactic 350 years later in 1288 when the Mongol Empire, led by Kublai Khan, tried to conquer the Dai Viet (Great Viet), the Vietnamese empire established after independence. Once again, the enemy sailed up the Bach Dang River, and once again, the Vietnamese unveiled a masterpiece of guerilla tactics, saving the Dai Viet from Chinese conquest.

Such sanguinary stuff was far from our minds as our travel group cruised Halong Bay. We looked for monkeys on the islands, waved at vendors and fishermen on the water, and spotted two karsts that, from the right angle, looked like kissing chickens.

Day 4 Hue

Our attention turned once again to war in Hue, which burst into the American consciousness like a flash grenade on January 30, 1968, the first day of the Tet Offensive.

Violating the truce for the Lunar New Year holiday—Tet, in Vietnamese–the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched a massive coordinated attack across all of South Vietnam, hitting every town, city, and military installation in the country. At least 84,000 enemy insurgents and soldiers participated in the uprising. Some US-supported strongholds fell, others almost so. Americans back home watched television with horror as VC “sappers” penetrated the outer courtyard of the US Embassy in Saigon.

But, while the news media and even the US military focused on securing Saigon, the real story was unfolding further north in Hue.

VBC group gathered below an old air field control tower in Hue citadel

The old air field control tower in Hue citadel

The VC and NVA concentrated one of its largest forces on Hue, a city of learning and worship that had been spared fighting since the beginning of the war. In fact, it was something of an Open City, where both sides respected the spiritual and intellectual independence of the residents and thus avoided drawing them into battle.

That changed on Tet. Thousands of enemy fighters, who had infiltrated days before, rose up and slaughtered anyone who opposed them. They did so on both sides of the Perfume River, which split Hue into the old walled citadel to the north and the new modern university city to the south.

Within hours, Hue was occupied, and the flag of the VC, the National Liberation Front, flew over the citadel’s massive flag tower.

It would take over three weeks, thousands of buildings flattened, and an unknown number killed before Hue was back in South Vietnamese and American hands again. The Battle of Hue City, 1968, was the largest of the Vietnam War.

We walked the battleground, which is the city itself, and saw some ghostly remains: an old air field control tower, the blasted brick of the citadel walls, and the Truong Tien Bridge, damaged during the battle and not repaired until the 1990s.

But the most fascinating residuals of the catastrophe of Hue are the improvised shrines, easy to overlook, that perched on stone walls, metal utility boxes, even at the bases of trees everywhere.

Sometimes they’re elaborate, with kumquats, cigarettes, and cans of Coca-Cola laid as offerings. Most often, they’re just incense, carefully placed in a cup or vase and lit as an offering to those who died on these streets.

Incense burning is universal and reflexive in Vietnam. People do it any time, any place, but mostly in the morning in front of their homes. “With a sincere heart, I offer this stick of incense,” is the incantation as the long red stick is lit and a prayer is said.

Americans call them ghosts, but the Vietnamese refer to them as spirits, and they’re everywhere. When people die, they slip this veil and live beyond sight or sound, but they’re often felt, and they’re never far away.

Especially present are spirits of people who were ripped from life suddenly, violently, and without preparation for the afterlife. These unquiet dead need to be appeased, and they need to stayed connected with us. And the Vietnamese don’t make distinctions between enemy and friendly dead. The Americans who died in Hue during Tet–they are also honored.

We gathered after our tour at the well-known DMZ Bar, just a block from our hotel. Opened in 1994, the year the US and Vietnam normalized relations, the DMZ attracts foreigners but also some locals who enjoy the DMV relief map on the ceiling and colorful cocktails and the ever-present Huda Beer. Huda is the favorite beverage here in the Hue-Danang corridor, and its name reflects the connection to both cities.

After Happy Hour, we enjoyed an unusually elegant dinner, supposedly inspired by the royal heritage of Hue as the seat of the Nguyen dynasty. The food presented as whimsical works of art. Some judged it the best food we’ve eaten so far.

Day 5 DMZ

The Demilitarized Zone–the DMZ–stretched across the narrow waist of Vietnam, 30 km north of Hue City, cutting the country into two states along the 17th Parallel, much as the DMZ at the 38th Parallel does today in Korea.

Three women straddling the 17th Parallel on the Hien Luong Bridge in Vietnam

The “three amigas”–Debbie Bussinger, Peg Deibel, and Kathy Jo Wells—straddle the 17th Parallel on the Hien Luong Bridge

It was never intended to be a national border. The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War between France and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces, called for two “temporary re-groupment zones.” Like boxers going to their corners, the Viet Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North while the anti-Communists forged a new state in the South, eventually called the Republic of Vietnam.

The Accords scheduled national reunification elections in the summer of 1956. They never happened. The US-backed President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, made sure of that. So, in 1960, Communist insurgents and others in the South created the National Liberation Front, which Diem derided as “Viet Cong”–slang for “Vietnamese Communists.” They launched a war to overthrow the Diem government and begin some kind of reunification with the North.

The final collapse of the Saigon government on April 30, 1975, erased the DMZ and prompted the creation of a new state, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which remains the government today.

The Hien Luong Bridge is the most prominent icon of the former DMZ. It was blown up by the US in an attempt to stem crossings from the North. After reunification, the Vietnamese rebuilt it as a Bailey Bridge. We walked across, North to South, and took some fun pictures.

On our drive back south, we slowed down to check out the former site of Camp Evans, created in 1966 by the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, and taken over later by elements of the 1st Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division.

VBC tour member Kathy Jo looking out bus window

Kathy Jo reflects on her brother’s service as we pass Camp Evans

The brother of Kathy Jo Wells, one of our travelers, served at Camp Evans for one hard year with the 1st Cav. He was a loving and dutiful brother, but that year changed him. He died tragically soon after returning home, and the family never healed from the loss.

You can’t stop at the site, and you can’t take photos because it’s now occupied by the People’s Army of Vietnam. But we slowed down enough for our traveler to look at the place where a large piece of her brother was left behind.

Day 6 Khe Sanh

Back in the 1980s, Mt. Lebanon High School, south of Pittsburgh, had a great mound of landfill in the rear we called “The Rockpile.”

It was flattened on top into a rectangle and used as a practice field. During track season, discus, shotput, and javelin throwers did their thing up there.

One day, during practice, a classmate with older brothers tapped me with back of his hand and pointed up at the throwers.

Mountain in Khe Sanh, Vietnam called The Rockpile

The Rockpile

“The Rockpile was named after a place in Vietnam,” he said. “My brother told me that.”

The reference was lost on my 15-year-old self in the 1980s, but in the 1960s, when the stadium was built and the landfill mound created, everyone would have understood it.

The Rockpile entered the nation’s vocabulary in the fall of 1966, when news outlets began reporting on the extraordinary battle between the Marines and the NVA for this lone Gibraltar of the jungle just 10 miles south of the DMZ.

Rising almost 800 feet straight up from the rainforest floor, it was a limestone karst, like those in Halong Bay. But this one was positioned perfectly for reconnaissance. From the peak, you could see five river valleys, as well as the East Vietnam Sea, Laos, and into North Vietnam.

The Marines fought ferociously in July 1966 for this perch, then, when the perimeter was secure, established Camp Elliott there.

Atop The Rockpile sat electronic surveillance equipment and a small crew. The peak measured 40 feet by 17 feet at its widest. It had to be supplied by helicopter, which could only hover, not land, when the weather was clear enough.

Time magazine ran an article about The Rockpile in the fall 1966. Life also published photos. The extreme, even freakish conditions of life atop The Rockpile left an impression on readers.

They also made their mark on those who served near the DMZ along the Route 9 corridor, which ran and still runs from Dong Ha in the east to the Laotian border in the west. For these servicemembers, The Rockpile was a towering landmark, instantly recognizable and useful for orienting yourself on the valley floor.

We stopped on Route 9 at The Rockpile to take photos and talk about the effort made and the lives lost in its conquest and defense.

The tiny village of Khe Sanh is only a 15 miles south west of The Rockpile. It sits at the base of another promontory, where the Marine Corps occupied and enlarged a combat base in 1966.

Three-miles square and almost 2,000 feet above sea level, the Marine base at Khe Sanh occupied a less strategic location than The Rockpile. But it could accommodate more troops. Most historians now believe the 6,000 Marines placed at Khe Sanh were there as bait.

The head of the US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), General William Westmoreland, figured the NVA would not resist the opportunity to lay siege to so many Marines, so isolated and so far from reliable resupply.

He was right.

The NVA staged three divisions around the plateau–22,000 men–and attacked on January 21, 1968. For the next 77 days, they rocketed the combat base while trying to infiltrate from the surrounding jungle forests.

The NVA cut Route 9. All resupply had to be done by air.

Life inside the Khe Sanh perimeter descended into World War I-like conditions. Trenches and sandbags shielded Marines from some of the rockets, but supplies on the plateau ran low. Wounded Marines died from blood loss before they could be evacuated. Water had to be rationed.

Meanwhile, the US diverted air power to Khe Sanh to bomb enemy positions. Over 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped by American aircraft and 158,000 artillery rounds fired in defense of the base.

A Bru Montagnard farmer with his hands showing a heart towards the tour bus

A Bru Montagnard farmer shows his love

In April, the NVA seemed mostly to vanish. In July, the Marines evacuated the area. Both sides claimed victory.

Touring Khe Sanh is always a highlight, though its impact is subtle and dependent, in some ways, on the knowledge of what unfolded here in 1968. One of our travelers said it was like visiting Flanders Fields in Belgium and France. Looking at the beautiful scenery, you’d never guess what happened there unless you knew the names Ypres and Passchendaele.

At Khe Sanh, the trenches are gone, and so are the sandbags. But the Vietnamese have carted up abandoned US military vehicles and equipment, including a C-130, for display.

In truth, the former Khe Sanh Combat Base is a serene oasis of tropical rainforest, flanked by coffee fields and speckled with roaming chickens.

One of the delights of visiting Khe Sanh is the journey there and back. Laos is a stone’s throw away, and up in the mountains the dominant ethnic group is the Bru people, not the Vietnamese. Their wooden stilt homes stand out, as does their affinity for Americans.

As we rode up to tour a portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this Bru farmer escorting his water buffalo signaled to us. I’m grateful to Valerie Brendel for catching this photo.

Day 7 Danang

A quick poll of our travelers at the end of Day 7 was almost unanimous: they wanted more time in Danang.

I don’t blame them. If I had to choose one place to live in Vietnam, it would be Danang. It’s considered Vietnam’s cleanest and most livable city.

Sunset view of Danang, Vietnam with mountains in the background and a bridge over the river

Danang, Vietnam

It’s also thriving. Centered at the halfway mark on Vietnam’s coastline, Danang has an extraordinarily diverse economy that includes colleges and universities, tourism, a bustling seaport, textile manufacturing, and high tech production and software engineering.

But it also has 20 miles of sandy beach and somehow couples all its vibrant economic activity with a relaxed vacation-town vibe. It’s like South Florida with a dash of Myrtle Beach and San Jose.

During the Vietnam War, Danang was a small city that only boomed because of the overwhelming American presence there, anchored by the massive US air base. Danang was the main welcome center for American servicemembers arriving in-country for their tour of duty. They also came to Danang for R&R to enjoy the famous China Beach.

We did the same, standing on the exact stretch of beach that served as the R&R Center. It’s beauty is breathtaking.

Four of our veterans spent time in Danang, and two were stationed here. Terry Choate was a Navy Corpsman assigned to the Marines in Danang. He patrolled from the base of Marble Mountain across from the Marble Mountain Air Station.

Nick Edinger served with the 1st Logistical Command right next to the R&R Center on China Beach. I took a quick selfie with Nick on the beach where he played volleyball almost daily–yes, Nick had good duty, which 101st Airborne veteran Bob Anckaitis never lets him forget.

Each was thrilled to see the place again, military buildings all replaced with resorts, hotels, restaurants, and stores.

Rich Doerr at Phu Bai airport enterance

Rich Doerr at Phu Bai

We made two special stops along the way. You can call them photo opportunities, but they were more than that.

The first was to the Phu Bai International Airport, built by Navy Seabees as Phu Bai Combat Base back in the 1960s. It was take over by the NVA in 1975 and today serves as one of Vietnam’s smaller but busy airports.

In 1970-1971, Vietnam veteran Rich Doerr was Officer-in-Charge (OIC) of the Phu Bai Signals Support Detachment, which served the 101st Airborne Division. It was here, with just a couple months left on his tour of duty, that he opened a package from his wife, played the cassette tape enclosed, and heard the crying voice of his one-month old baby for the first time.

Bob Anckaitis standing on a dirt road to FSB Tomahawk

Bob Anckaitis at FSB Tomahawk

We stopped to take a quick photo of Rich before a police officer asked us to move along.

The next stop was on a more remote mountain road in the hills near Phu Bai. We were searching for the location of Fire Support Base (FSB) Tomahawk, where Bob Anckaitis served. Most FSBs were so remote, you can’t get to their coordinates easily today. Tomahawk was perhaps the only FSB supplied by road.

We found the location and snapped a photo of Bob at the entrance to the base, which is now re-enveloped by nature.

Our travelers would agree that the highlight by far of our trip to Danang was dinner at Bamboo Bob’s Cafe, where we were met by our host, Rob Carscadden, the one and only Bamboo Bob himself.

Bamboo Bob Coffee is a company with a powerful social mission and vision. It supports only family farms and Direct Trade, eliminating middlemen and allowing money to go directly to support community programs in Vietnam and the farmers and families that grow the coffee. It’s the product of Rob’s extraordinary business acumen and love of Vietnam, which is now calls home. Watching him interact with our group and honor our veterans was moving, and the American-style pizza and cheeseburgers he served were welcome and abundant.

American entrepreneur Amira and Vietnam veteran Ray Brendel in Danang, Vietnam

Amira, a young American entrepreneur in Danang, Vietnam veteran Ray Brendel

I’d known Rob for over three years, but this was the first time I met him in-person. He’s a charismatic but gentle force, orchestrating a busy restaurant while connecting with everyone there. A whirlwind of fascinating people buzzed through the cafe on their motorbikes.

Take Amira, for example. She’s opening the first Soul Food restaurant in Danang, if not Vietnam. She’s 28-years-old and from Pittsburgh’s North Side. Army veteran Ray Brendel, also from the North Side, posed for a photo with her.

Day 8 Saigon

Officially, it’s Ho Chi Minh City. But no one calls it that. For residents and most Americans, it remains Saigon, the former capital of the defunct Republic of Vietnam and, today, the dynamo powering Vietnam’s tiger economy.

We landed at Tan Son Nhut International Airport–another one of those American-developed properties since reclaimed by Vietnam–and felt the blast of heat when we de-planed.

After lunch it was off to the former Presidential (now, “Independence”) Palace, the seat of South Vietnam’s government and home to President Nguyen Van Thieu during the Vietnam War.

Front of independence Palace in Saigon, Vietnam with water fountain

Independence Palace in Saigon, home of the old South Vietnamese government

It’s an elegant and graceful building, beautiful but not grandiose. The palace is modernist architecture as its best, balancing East and West, indoor and outdoor, horizontal and vertical. It’s not anything like the Baroque French buildings that had served the imperial court with ostentation.

And yet, it says something of the Communist Party’s spartan taste and Vietnam’s austere past, that the government treats the palace like some kind of exposé of South Vietnamese autocratic decadence. Casting the beautiful Independence Palace as akin to one of Saddam Hussein’s golden-walled follies is misleading. The building in Saigon is not excessive, but a worthy home for an aspiring state.

My favorite part of the palace is the basement bunker, where everything is as it was on April 30, 1975, when an NVA tank crashed through the palace’s front gate and ended the Vietnam War for good.

By that time, Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu had fled to Taiwan with 30 tons of luggage, handing the office over eventually to former ARVN General Duong Van “Big” Minh.

Minh reportedly greeted his conquerors by saying, “We have been waiting for you so that we could turn over the government.”

The ranking NVA officer replied, “You cannot give up what you do not have.”

You can almost feel the terror and confusion in the sweltering war rooms as the NVA moved ever-closer to Saigon in mid-April. Stacks of American radios and other communication equipment line the walls, as do telephones and large maps of South Vietnam.

After Independence Palace came the War Remnants Museum. The museum was founded almost immediately after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 in the building that had housed the US Information Agency. Its original name says a lot: “Exhibition House of American and Puppet State War Crimes.”

It’s a museum of war crimes. It’s ghastly and gruesome, humanity at its worst on three floors, two rooms per floor.

I lingered outside among the courtyard collection of US guns, planes, helicopters, tanks, and bombs–the best assemblage I’ve seen. Traveler Andy Glaid and Vietnam veteran Jerry Augustine instructed me in the differences between the M41 and M48 tanks and the comparative virtues of the 155mm and 105mm howitzers.

Most arresting is the bomb display, anchored by a giant barrel-shaped shell–the BLU-82. At 15,000 pounds, it remains one of the largest conventional bombs in the world. It was developed for the Vietnam War and first used there in 1970.

At the War Remnants Museum, the signage correctly identifies the weapon and details its destructive capacity. What it doesn’t mention is that the BLU-82–nicknamed the “Daisy Cutter”–was used primarily to clear landing zones and fire support bases. Dropped from C-130s by parachute, they were designed to explode outward three-feet above the ground so as not to create a crater. They could be, and occasionally were used as anti-personnel weapons during the Vietnam War, but that wasn’t their primary purpose.

That kind of nuance is absent at the War Remnants Museum, whose purpose is to show how the United States harnessed its technological abundance to devastate a country and its people. Anything that might seem like exculpatory evidence is excluded. Also absent is any reference to the US-backed South Vietnamese government as an independent or autonomous entity. It is simply the “puppet.”

In other words, there’s a lot about the US war effort in Vietnam left out. And there’s no explanation about why the US fought the war to begin with.

Visitors are instructed to start at the top and work their way down so they can ease into the trauma. The top floor exhibits are “Historical Truths,” a broad overview from French colonization through the American War, and the expertly-crafted “Requiem,” about photographers killed in Vietnam. The next floor down focuses on the work of two Japanese photographers, Ishikawa Bunyo and  Goro Nakamura, who captured some of the American War’s destruction.

The gut punch comes the next floor down with two exhibition rooms labeled “War Crimes” and “Agent Orange Aftermath.”

“War Crimes” tells stories of atrocities mainly through gruesome photographs of charred bodies and severed body parts, some being held up by American service members as trophies. There are descriptions of flame-throwers and cluster munitions, mines and napalm.

The “War Crimes” exhibit contains many small arms, including the M60 machine gun, which Jerry Augustine used in Vietnam. I preferred chatting with Jerry about the artifacts to gazing at the horrific war photos on display.

One alcove is devoted to the infamous Thanh Phong Raid led by Navy SEAL and former US Senator Bob Kerrey. Kerrey’s account differs from those of other witnesses, but everyone acknowledges that up to 20 non-combatants, including women and children, were shot and stabbed to death by Kerrey’s SEAL team in the remote Mekong Delta village.

The My Lai Massacre also gets ample treatment, as it should. The museum makes lavish use of Ron Haeberle’s infamous photos of the March 16, 1968 event, when as many as 504 non-combatants were meticulously executed (and several raped) by two infantry companies of the Americal Division.

As if these atrocities weren’t enough, across a courtyard is a graphic menagerie of human deformities caused by Agent Orange, the herbicide used by US forces to defoliate suspected enemy hiding places, rice paddies, and infiltration routes.

The dioxin in Agent Orange continues to afflict those exposed to it, including US service members. More controversial is whether and how dioxin damage can be inherited. Scientists haven’t been able to confirm that dioxin alters DNA of those exposed in ways that can affect the genetic material passed to their children and grandchildren.

But the War Remnants Museum expresses no doubt: Agent Orange continues to impair those born in Vietnam.

Photos of grotesque disfigurements and disabilities litter the Agent Orange exhibit. There’s also two large jars containing stillborn fetuses in formaldehyde, one having two heads.

One of our travelers said she broke down and cried in that room. She wasn’t the only one to shed tears.

Museum visitors end up staggering through “War Crimes” and “Agent Orange Aftermath” as if in a daze. Most of the tourists there are European, and it’s hard, as an American, not to feel their glances as slightly accusatory.

The unstated founding purpose of the War Remnants Museum is to justify Vietnam’s one-party Communist rule.

“This is why we fought the war,” the exhibits seem to say, “and why Vietnam needs us for protection.”

With Vietnam’s economy prospering and living standards rising, the Communist Party relies less on the War Remnants Museum’s story of the Vietnam War to justify its rule. Perhaps the day will come when the museum will smooth the jagged edges of its Chambers of Horrors and present less shocking displays.

Day 9 Mekong Delta

We often say there was no one Vietnam War. There were many.

A unique version of the war was fought in the Mekong Delta, today’s destination.

The Mekong Delta juts out from the southern end of Vietnam’s curvilinear land form. It’s an anomalous part of the country, a one-of-a-kind ecosystem, 50-feet, on average, below sea level, and crisscrossed by thousands of canals and streams. The rest is largely mangrove, swamp, and marsh. During the rainy season, 70% of its land is covered by water.

Yet, this seemingly uninhabitable terrain is home to 20% of Vietnam’s population. It’s also the agricultural powerhouse that has fed the country for generations.

The rice grown in the Delta accounts for 10% of all rice shipped globally. It’s also home to Vietnam’s largest fisheries, much of its coconut, and a lot of its commercial fruit production.

Vietnamese tour guide on the Mekong Delta in Vietnam

“Cute” speaking on board our boat. Note her khăn rằn around her neck. It’s a checkered black-and-white scarf distinct to the Mekong Delta. During the Vietnam War, Viet Cong guerrillas adopted it as their signature garment. So did the infamous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Our first stop was the old provincial capital of My Tho, 70km southwest of Ho Chi Minh City on National Route 1. From there we boarded a boat and chugged downstream—at least, I think it was downstream—to Ben Tre, Vietnam’s coconut-growing capital.

A local resident named “Cute”—that’s what it sounded like to us—described life in the Delta and also showed us how the Delta’s “coconut candy”—a sticky, taffy-like confection—is made.

We then boarded sampans—large canoes—while a boat pilot steered us down impossibly narrow canals.

Buried deep within the Delta, sheltered above by arching palm-like foliage and dense vegetation on either side, you get a sense of how impossible it would be to fight a war here.

In the 1960s, there were at least 30,000 Viet Cong insurgents living in the Delta. The only way you could find them is if they attacked you. No wonder why some of the US’s most imaginative tactical innovations—like the joint Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force—happened right here, to fight guerillas in the Delta.

The Mekong Delta faces imminent peril. By the end of the century, this whole jutted landscape could be gone, drowned by the ocean, which wages war daily on the Delta.

The only thing that has saved the region from disappearing under water is the 150 million metric tons of sediment deposited from upstream each year. To stay above water, the Mekong Delta must keep adding sediment in a desperate race against ocean tides.

The fundamental problem is that the Mekong River begins 3,000 miles away on the Tibetan Plateau. The river snakes through five countries—China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia—before emptying out in Vietnam.

That means Vietnam is last in line. China has pinched the fresh water flow over the past two decades by building 10 massive hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River. These dams also create reservoirs that trap the sediment that the Delta depends on for survival.

With less fresh water and alluvial soil washing downstream, the Mekong Delta is sinking under the salty East Vietnam Sea (South China Sea).

Making matters worse are the Vietnamese themselves, who harvest the Delta’s sediment for sand used to make concrete.

If you care to see one of the great and most diverse ecosystems in the world, you should probably do so soon before Vietnam’s agricultural powerhouse disappears forever.

Day 10 Cu Chi

Today, we head to enemy country, 35 miles northwest of Saigon to a place once known as the “Iron Triangle.”

Before 1966, this was the capital of South Vietnam’s Viet Cong insurgency.

The Viet Cong weren’t just present here. They ran the place. They were the village leaders, staffed the schools, and collected the taxes. Much of the early American war effort in Vietnam focused on eradicating the Iron Triangle.

Our stop was Cu Chi Tunnel Ben Duoc, a tourist destination with much the same perspective as the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum in Hanoi. Visitors get to marvel at the ingenuity and determination of the Viet Cong, with some sadistic-looking booby trap displays thrown in.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail, in fact, emptied west of Cu Chi, putting the region at a strategic crossroads where vast amounts of weaponry were stored and distributed.

In an attempt to take control of the region, the US built one of its largest bases in Cu Chi to house the 25th Infantry Division. Sabotage and theft became an immediate problem on the base, even though there was no evidence of the perimeter being breached.

Cu Chi tour guide coming from underground tunnel system created by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War

One of our guides, dressed as a Viet Cong, demonstrates a hiding place in the tunnel system

The Cu Chi Base Camp had been erected on top of an enemy tunnel system so extensive that its complete mapping was unknown even to most Viet Cong.

The Cu Chi Tunnels stretched over 250 miles from the western outskirts of Saigon to the Cambodia border. The tunnels had bunkrooms, hospital rooms, kitchens, and even a few classrooms. And there were escape hatches and trap doors everywhere.

The soil of Cu Chi is unique, allowing easy digging by hand but hardening when exposed to air.  It was also permeable enough to allow a bit of oxygen to pass through, meaning you could live underground with a minimal amount of ventilation.

Countering the tunnels were so-called “Tunnel Rats,” GIs who entered deep holes with a knife, a .45, and a flashlight. Once inside, the soldiers dodged booby traps, scorpions, snakes, and, of course, enemy guerrillas.

Greeting visitors at Ben Duoc is an eerie “Planet of the Apes”-type tableau of wrecked American guns and vehicles, including Armored Personnel Carriers, a tank, and a C-130 with tall trees grown around it.

Our guides—dressed like Viet Cong guerillas–then led us down a trail. You could see immediately see how hard the soil gets when compacted. You also see leftover B-52 bomb craters, reminding you that this part of the country was absolutely bulldozed—literally—in order to make the region uninhabitable for the Viet Cong.

We were led to a thatched pavilion housing a light-up map showing the tunnel network and a diorama looking like a human ant farm that depicted the rooms and levels within the tunnel system. Also shown were the dead-ends, escape routes, and zigzags added to confound American Tunnel Rats.

Faux tire clock reading 11:15 in front of Vietnam era military plane and vehicles

Part of the strange display greeting visitors to the Cu Chi Tunnel Ben Duoc is an inexplicable faux tire clock reading 11:15.

There are a few tunnels accessible to tourists. They’ve been widened to accommodate American-sized bodies. Several of us crawled through. We each emerged shaking our heads wondering how anyone could live underground like that.

Along the way were displays of diabolical booby traps, including the infamous bamboo “punji sticks,” and mines made from re-purposed unexploded America ordnance.

The trail then took us to a relaxing jungle spot where our Viet Cong guides served us pandan tea and cassava.

We started back from Cu Chi and passed through some old rubber plantations where rubber was still being harvested. I thought of some of our veterans, like Ron Worstell, who fought in rubber tree farms like this. For every tree damaged, he told me, the US Army had to pay the Michelin company $1,000.

How do you fight a war like that?

Day 11 Saigon

Our last full day in Vietnam was a free one. Since our hotel was located in District 1—the very heart of the city—there were many options for spending the day within a few blocks.

I suggested folks check out the Pittman Building, site of the most iconic photograph of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Back then, the building was home to the CIA Station Chief, who called in a helicopter to evacuate friendly South Vietnamese from the rooftop.

Another must-see in District 1 is Ben Thanh Market, the central market of Saigon.

The place is a sensory onslaught with vendors crammed as tightly as possible, each calling out to you to check out their wares. Haggling is expected.

Left to right: Vietnam Veteran Nick Edinger, Fox News host Harris Faulkner, Vietnam Veteran Bob Anckaitis, and Vietnam Veteran Jerry Augustine

Left to right: Nick Edinger, Harris Faulkner, Bob Anckaitis, Jerry Augustine

Part of my last day involved escorting three of our Vietnam Veterans—Jerry, Bob, and Nick—to Doi Dep Café for an interview with Fox News host Harris Faulkner.

Harris arrived in Vietnam yesterday to start production on a documentary about her father, Army Lt. Col. Bobby R. Harris, who served three tours in Vietnam. She’s traveling the country to speak with veterans, see key sights, and connect with her father’s memory and service.

Our veterans spoke on camera with Harris for over 90 minutes. Harris was engaging and full of insight as she talked with Jerry, Bob, and Nick about their service then and how they view it now. I was impressed by the whole experience, and our veterans felt honored to participate.

At our farewell dinner that night, we paid tribute to the veterans who accompanied us on our trip and also to our Vietnamese tour guide Kan, who instructed and learned from us along the way.

The most moving moment at the dinner was Air Force veteran Debbie Bussinger’s brief tribute. She reminded us that each of the three days of the Tet holiday are dedicated to specific Confucian-defined social roles. The first day to fathers. The second day to mothers. And the third day to teachers.

On the third day of Tet this year, said Debbie, I will pay tribute to you, Kan, our teacher.

That was about the highest compliment one could give in Vietnam. And it was a fitting salute to a country and people so different, yet so intertwined with our own.