Monday, March 4, 2013


Arriving at Pleiku Airport in the Central Highlands
I’m airborne again, only this time I’m not flying on a big comfy jet. Today I’m only in a two engine propeller plane, just a puddle jumper really. This trip will be much different then my earlier destinations. On Vietnam’s coast I had plenty of tourists to keep me company, but there are few westerners where I’m headed. I’m about to enter a more remote region of Vietnam. The seatbelt sign comes on, and we start our descent near the southern end of the Truong Song Mountains. I'm arriving in Pleiku, in the central highlands.

Looking out the window, it's not what I expected. I thought I’d be surrounded by rugged mountains, but there are only a few mountains off in the distance. The altitude here may be higher, but topography around Pleiku is mostly low rolling hills. It’s not as green as I was expecting either. The trees around the airport are all young, since this area was so defoliated with Agent Orange during the war.

Touching down, I look across the empty tarmac. There are no other planes or jets in sight. This was once the military airport known as Pleiku Air Base, run by US and Vietnamese Air Forces. The largest and busiest airport in the highlands, it was once loaded with planes and helicopters. Now there’s only one vacant government helicopter sitting off to the edge of the airfield. There is so little traffic, that one whole section of tarmac is no longer maintained, and has grass and weeds growing up through the cracks. Pleiku is in a poor province, so there are few flights to the highlands these days. In the new terminal, I spot a tall older westerner with a faded US flag on his cap. Approaching him, I can make out three tattoos on his aging forearm shaped like military medals. I introduce myself, and meet Larry, a friendly American war veteran from North Carolina.

“I came back to have a look with my girlfriend,” Larry tells me. He was an Army soldier here in 1969, and he’s glad he came back. He had been visiting some of his old haunts further south. He was surprised at what he found, so many old buildings had been torn down, removed for new construction and businesses, “Like Bien Hoa,” he said, mentioning another large, former air base. “Today it’s an industrial area. Everything is changed, it’s hard to find some of the places where we were before.”

Pleiku today is more developed than during the war years

I’m relieved to meet two other Americans here, but they soon hop into a taxi and depart. Pleiku doesn’t get many foreign visitors. I grab a late taxi, load up, and head out. Leaving the airport, we drive by barracks now occupied by the Vietnamese Army. It’s a sleepy looking facility, and all the soldiers I see walking about are unarmed. The only activity I see is a platoon of enlisted men doing calisthenics. With their dark green pants and white t-shirts, they look like a recruiting film. 

The taxi drops me at my hotel, after checking in, I head back out the doors to get to know this highland town. Pleiku was once a group of humble villages of the Jarai minority tribe. Then French colonists arrived, and it grew to be the provincial capital. The French referred to the Jarai and the rest of the hill tribe minorities as ‘Montagnards’, meaning ‘mountain people’, and the name stuck.

Walking through Pleiku now, I see few hill tribe folk. People I encounter are ethnic Vietnamese, who have moved to Pleiku in droves. The villages are long gone and the downtown is modern, by Vietnamese standards. Compared to crowded and polluted Ho Chi Minh City, it’s much more orderly, clean and pleasant. There are few old homes, most of buildings around me are relatively new. In this highland town where most homes had only one story, there are now countless apartment buildings. These changes weren’t just due to urban planning, it was also due to the war's destruction.

Can she really drive in traffic?

When the communists began advancing across the highlands in 1975, there was a chaotic, emergency migration eastward towards Vietnam's coast. Soon after the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began to rocket and shell Pleiku, the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) retreated from the city. When the civilians realized what was happening, the population of Pleiku fled with them in fear. To deny the communists use of Pleiku, departing ARVN torched many buildings, further adding to the destruction. As packed columns of military and civilian vehicles headed for the coast, they were attacked by the NVA, killing not only at the retreating ARVN, but also fleeing civilians. The panicked evacuation was horrendous, and thousands died in the chaotic exodus. It was the most tragic and costly retreat of the war.

In the 1980’s much of Pleiku was rebuilt, partly with Soviet aid, and today the population is triple what it was during the war years. This is mainly due to the influx of so many Vietnamese who moved here from the northern provinces, since the conquering government of the north encouraged them to move here.

Kpa Klong, who fought the Americans

It was a long road back, but Pleiku has been rebuilt. As part of the government’s changes in the south, Pleiku is now referred to as ‘Gia Lai’ on many official maps.

Looking around the commercial district I see few cars, and as I saw in HCMC, many locals use motorbikes as if they are pickup trucks. Outside the market, I watch one woman pack her small motorbike with a load of nine foot long stalks of sugar cane. I wonder how she’s going to make it through traffic with such a wide, oversized load. The police seem to have less visibility here than in other parts of Vietnam. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t around, since there are plenty of plainclothes police. Perhaps they keep a low profile to please the minorities. 

As I check out Pleiku, I notice that most traces of the former American military  presence are gone. Even most American made buildings have vanished. I do spot one bit of historical evidence, when I stop at a local hardware store. Piles of gear are stacked outside on the sidewalk, and among a pile of chains and springs, are old US Army ammunition cases. They may be discolored and rusty, but they’re still waterproof.

Walking through a town square, I come to a statue dedicated to Kpa Klong, a Montagnard fighter who died in 1975. Wearing a loin cloth and carrying a carbine, he’s about to throw what looks like a pipe bomb. From one of the local hill tribes, he used to fight the Americans. Friezes on the statue’s pedestal show him gunning down American soldiers, and attacking an American tank using only a hand grenade.


A dog guarding a tank? Really??!

Kpa Klong and his village may have joined with the communists, but the reality is that most hill tribes sided with the Americans during the war. The highland minorities have suffered discrimination from the majority Vietnamese for centuries, and the US ideas of equal rights and democracy appealed to them. They desired to continue practicing their own religions and languages, so they had no love for communists, and still don't. The Americans also provided arms to the Montagnard militias, giving them their own means for self-defense. It’s sad, but true that many Vietnamese refer to the highland minority peoples as savages, even today. Not surprisingly, occasional unrest and uprisings in the highlands against the Vietnamese government have continued.

I stop at the Gia Lai Museum, to find the doors locked and the lights off. After finding a staffer, she opens the front door to show me why it’s so quiet. Artifacts and boxes are piled up everywhere, the museum is closed for renovations. Before I leave I walk behind

The remains of a US made Huey helicopter, and a spotter plane
the building, and I’m startled by a furry yellow dog barking at me from behind a chain link fence. Strangely, the dog is tied to an M-41 tank, with a .30 caliber machine gun mounted on top. A dog protecting a tank! Piled in among other wreckage around it are an old howitzer, and the remains of various American made aircraft, including an A-6, two Huey helicopters, and two spotter planes.

As I check out all the wreckage, the dog never stops barking at me. He’s the junkyard dog, for a military junkyard. Since the museum is closed, I imagine that his barking at me now, is probably the most excitement that this dog has had all week. 

I head back to my Pleiku hotel. Time for Vietnamese cuisine.  Next stop, a local restaurant.

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