Tuesday, April 23, 2013


An old bridge on 'Ambush Alley' runs parallel to the new Highway 9
It’s a new day, and judging by the skies, I won’t have to worry about rain today. Since I’m traveling much further out of Dong Ha, my fixer Ngoc has arranged a small van for me. I’m going onto Highway 9, and this time I’m heading even further west, almost to the border of Laos.

During the war Highway 9 once bore the nickname, ‘Ambush Alley’. Weaving through the mountains just south of the old De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) it was one of the most dangerous roads in Vietnam. Unlike the fast, four lane highways in the US, this was a treacherous two lane road, and in many places it narrowed to only one lane. With ambushes a
View looking north of Highway 9, towards the old De-Militarized Zone
thing of the past, Highway 9 is much safer than it was during the war, but it’s still only two lanes.

As we cruise along in the tiny van, I look north towards the old DMZ, where the horizon is filled with rugged, smoky mountains. Most of these hills are covered with greenery, and with the hills so close to the highway, you would expect more of them to be growing crops. Here too, the land is suffering the lingering effects of Agent Orange, and much of the hillside farmland remains fallow. The presence of wartime unexploded munitions and mines, has also kept many of these hills from being cleared for agriculture.

The current highway has been
Remains of bridge destroyed during the war
solidly rebuilt, and in many places entirely new bridges have been constructed. As the scenery flies by, the highway splits away from the old route. To one side, I can see the old narrow bridges not in use anymore. Most of these bridges are only one lane wide, which made vehicles that crossed them easy targets for an ambush. Some of these bridges were blown up, leaving remnants of concrete supports still lying in the river below today. I notice that on the old bridge next to us, many of the safety posts along both sides have been broken away. I wonder how many vehicles may have fallen off that bridge into the river below. Looking out on the Cua Viet River, I see fast moving whitewater. Maybe someday this will be a popular place for river rafting, although landmines and unexploded munitions on riverbanks are still a hazard.

The 'Rockpile'; a US Marine Corps outpost was once atop this karst formation

There is little military presence here these days. I saw only two small Vietnamese Army bases along the road, and they were rather small. The only thing strategic about this highway today, is that it’s a trading route leading from the coast into Laos.

My driver slows, and we pull to a stop on the rural roadside. Looking north across farming fields, climbing steeply above the landscape, is an imposing, jagged topped mountain. Bare rock shows through the overgrowth along steep cliff sides, Along the top is a mountain ridge reaching 750 feet high. The US Marines had a nickname for this place: ‘The Rockpile’.

As a former Marine Corps lookout post, the slopes of the Rockpile were so dizzying, that the soldiers based up there never had to worry much about attackers climbing up from the ground.

“It was so steep, the VC couldn’t climb it,” said my buddy Rick, the former helicopter pilot. During his second tour of duty in Vietnam, he had been based in this province, and he had flown Huey choppers up to the Rockpile. “It was small up there. They could only be reached by helicopter,” he recalls. “We’d fly in to resupply them.”

Longboats from local villages on the Cua Viet River
With such a small space to defend, it was one of the most cramped military posts in Vietnam. When they weren’t directing artillery fire at the NVA, there was little to occupy the Marines during their down time. “They didn’t have anything to do,” Rick said. “They’d lay around getting a suntan.”

As I watch, a group of white egrets take flight near the base of the mountain. Before there had been a wooden platform built on top as a helipad, but there’s nothing man made visible up there anymore. Nature has overtaken the Rockpile.

We climb back into the van, and continue west. Crossing another bridge, I see many longboats out on the river, like those so common down in the Mekong Delta. Away from the highway, there are few paved roads in this area, so moving materials and crops by boat is still used in some places.

Stilt homes and local children of an ethnic Bru village
Soon after, we stop at a village along the highway. The inhabitants here are the Bru people, an ethnic minority community. Bru fighters had joined the American side, and like other Montagnards, they had been oppressed by the majority Vietnamese for years. They are still marginalized today.

Walking through the village, the residents I encounter appear much like the other highland people I’ve met further south. It’s not too difficult to tell the Bru apart from the Vietnamese. They have darker skin and more distinct facial features. Some adults are wearing traditional woven skirts.

Pigs roam loose in the village
As I head down a village path, the children walk along with me, curious about the white western visitor. “Hello! Hello!” some of them call out. Like other highlanders, many of their houses are built on stilts. Some of the homes are well made, but others are little more than shacks.

One child climbs up a tree, and cuts down the ripe fruit, dropping it to his friends below. I pass a toddler with a colorful woven vest, who gazes at me from his seat in a wheelbarrow. Around here, that takes the place of a stroller.

A sow grunts as I pass by her and her two piglets. Nearby in the village, is a Bru health promotion sign that translates: “Wash your hands clean to prevent infection by worms.” You know that this is a poor place to live, if they are having problems with intestinal
Curious Bru boy watches me from a wheelbarrow
worms. Most of the Bru here live below the poverty level.

When intense fighting hit this region in the 1960’s, the Bru were forced to flee their homeland in the mountains.  Like the Jarai and other Montagnard groups, they were simple highland people, overwhelmed by a conflict beyond their control. 

Some of the Bru fled for Laos, where they still remain today. Since then some Bru have lost their land, but other Bru refugee families have returned, such as these families here. They built these homes, cleared hillside land, and planted corn on the river banks. Life remains hard for the Bru, but at least it’s peaceful these days.

We leave the quiet village, and I climb back into the van to continue my journey west.

No comments:

Post a Comment