Friday, February 15, 2013


Houses ruined by Typhoon Xangsane
I’m looking at an uninhabited, heavily damaged house. The windows have been blown out, and the rooftop torn away. Only the cement and brick walls are left. Walking down a path, I find another wrecked house, and then another. They all look the same; they’re now only empty shells of what they once were. Weeds are growing inside, as nature is taking over.

There are no bullet holes on these ruined buildings, and no scorch marks from fire either. They weren’t wrecked in the war. These coastal houses were laid waste by a powerful force that still destroys property, and kills people every year in Vietnam.

Weeds grow inside the ruins

“It was typhoon,” says my guide Khanh. Typhoon Xangsane hit Danang a few years ago, wrecking this seaside resort. Between Vietnam and the Philippines, the deadly storm killed 169 people. I recall other damaged houses I passed on the beach on the way here, and I wonder how many of those were wrecked by the same typhoon. 
As if tropical storms weren’t enough, environmentalists have said that flooding from the typhoons and the rainy season has worsened in central Vietnam in recent decades. The biggest culprit is from inland logging, much of it illegal. Fewer trees are soaking up less water from the rains, bringing higher flood waters to low lying areas.

I’ve seen some of this phenomenon myself. I recall riding on another road further south, when my xe om driver stopped unexpectedly. A river ahead had overflowed its banks, and the road was flooded, along with several houses. Some homes had three feet of water flowing through their door. 

We leave the ruined resort, and Khanh hands me a helmet. He starts up his motorbike, and we head back towards Danang along the coastal road. On the way, Khanh tells me about another American he brought through here.

“He was soldier in the war. His friend died here on the beach, from landmine,” Khanh told me. The soldier had been very distraught over the loss of his buddy, and he never forgot it.

Flooding in central Vietnam is now common

“He come back,” Khanh said of  the old veteran, who returned to Danang decades later. He managed to bring himself to finally walk back out onto that same beach where his buddy had been lost. It was a healing moment.

Leaving the beach, we pass the King’s Hotel, and I snicker at the name. The small, narrow hotel, looks like it doesn’t have any more than 10 rooms. It would only host a very small king. I’ve seen other lodgings in town, with English names such as the Sun River Hotel, and the oddly named Plenty Hotel. With foreigners returning to Vietnam, some businessmen give their hotels English names, hoping to attract foreign visitors with more money.

Khanh turns through some neighborhoods, and pulls onto a main road. Khanh points and says, “That built by Americans.” It’s a tall concrete water tower, constructed for the port. Built by military engineers with sturdy materials, it still works today, supplying water to the surrounding community and nearby port. 

US built water tower still works today

Motoring on, we begin to pass buildings inhabited by the Vietnamese Navy. There are roomy, modern barracks with curved rooftops decorated with an Asian flair. These are almost new, built by the current government. A lone sailor guards the gate. He may be carrying an AK, but his navy uniform looks like something out of the 19th century.

As we drive further along the base, I see other buildings from all different eras. Beyond the new barracks, old shutters hanging from windows mark the aging French colonial buildings. Over the thick walls, are the faded but sturdy concrete structures built with that 60’s American look. An old spotlight on a rooftop points skywards. A rusted ‘No Trespassing’ sign hangs on a wall.

I am entering what is now called Tiensa Port, but American sailors remember it as the Port of Da Nang. At its peak, this was the largest overseas shore command in the US Navy.

As a deep water port, these waters were once filled with hundreds of vessels from the American and South Vietnamese Navies. The docks here worked overtime, since most of the war material to fight the Vietnam War arrived in the country not by air, but by sea.

These days, the current Vietnamese Navy is far smaller. Looking through a gate as we drive by, I count seven small navy ships docked closely together. They look vacant and unused, and the two largest vessels look no bigger than a destroyer. The Vietnamese have never been known as a major naval power, and that weakness at sea still haunts them today. 

Old spotlight on former US Navy base
East of Danang out at sea, lie a group of small, nearly uninhabitable islands known as the Paracels. 

USS Lassen visited Danang. Are US military & Vietnam getting friendly? (photo USN)
Although far from China, this body of water isn’t called the South China Sea for nothing. Even though they have little strategic value, the Chinese claim these islands, and fought a brief battle there in the Paracels in 1974, forcing out the small group of South Vietnamese troops still stationed there. With their claim to the Paracels established, the presence of Chinese troops not far offshore has been a thorn in the side of Viet-Sino relations ever since.

Further south, is another group of remote and barren of islands called the Spratlys. There is nothing of use on those 100 or so tiny islands, but there are fertile fishing grounds, and the possibility of something even more valuable beneath the sea floor: oil. With this in mind, the Spratlys are claimed by not only the Vietnamese, but also the Chinese, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia. Strangely, all of these countries have small military contingents based on different islets here.

In 1988, the Spratlys were the scene of an unlikely conflict, a sea battle between two communist navies. With the Chinese looking to assert their control over the Spratlys, their larger navy sailed south to meet the Vietnamese. Vietnam’s navy was put to the test, and the results weren’t good. When the brief battle had ended, two Vietnamese Navy ships had been sunk, with 60 sailors killed.

In recent years, opposing navies continued to harass each others' fishing boats in the Spratlys, so the conflict is far from solved. If oil is ever found out there, there may one day be another naval battle fought over those islets.

For now, commerce and capitalism are much more important to both countries than a few barren islands, and the Tiensa Port unloads a great deal of Chinese imports from freighters and container ships. Even big cruise ships make occasional stops at Danang, dumping hundreds of invading tourists, who head for the beaches.

Continuing on Khanh’s motorbike along the port road, we pass numerous parked trucks waiting for their cargos to clear customs. Nearing the dock access gate, Khanh pulls to a stop in front of a café. Stretching my legs, I invite him inside for a cool drink. We take a seat outside, and I survey the scene.

Like any seaport throughout the world, there are many businesses around the gate hoping to take money from the world’s sailors that make this a port of call. There are other cafés, restaurants, barber shops, and of course, a few seedy massage and karaoke places. The authorities may have cleaned up My Khe beach, but they haven’t cleaned up everything in Danang.

My sweet green tea arrives, and I kick back for a chat with Khanh. He speaks English better than most of the translators I’ve had, since he learned it in university. Like many southerners, he grew up in difficult circumstances. His father died during the war, but he wasn’t in the military. He was killed in 1970 in a construction accident in Saigon, while working for an American construction firm.

Ex-Vietnamese refugee Le returns to Danang commanding US Navy destroyer(photo USN)
As we sit outside the port’s gate, a few foreign sailors are milling about, mainly Chinese and Malaysian. This is a far cry from the days when thousands of American sailors were based here. But there is one notable case of an American who found his way back to Danang.

In 1975, an unknown five year old refugee named Hung Ba Le fled Danang by sea with his parents. They later settled in the states, and he eventually became a US citizen. In 2009, Le returned to Vietnam, also by sea. This time, Le was an officer in the United States Navy. He happened to enter Danang’s port, returning to the country of his birth, as the commander of a US Navy destroyer! As a sign of improving relations between Vietnam and the USA, Le’s ship, the USS Lassen, had come into port on a goodwill visit.

Le’s case was certainly a unique homecoming. I wouldn’t call Le’s visit a triumphant return, but it was certainly a cause for celebration.

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