We wandered into the airport restaurant and ordered pho ga (chicken soup). The flight was called again, and this time it wasn't canceled. A whole room of travelers left steaming bowls of soup on the tables and rushed to line up for the bus that would take them to the plane, a new Air Viet Nam aircraft of neither Russian nor Chinese extraction, piloted by a Frenchman.
We arrived in Da Nang under soggy, gray skies. After retrieving our boxes, we moved through baggage control and spotted our guide, Mr. Hoi, and the two Hue Tourist vans assigned to us. We divided ourselves and our boxes between the two vans just as the rain began to fall again.
As we drove outside the airport, huge billboards advertised the desirability of Da Nang as a site of commerce and trade. Still visible were remnants of the American presence--large revetments and hangers used to shelter planes from attack.
We stopped briefly at Peace Village, the clinic established by Le Ly Hayslip's East Meets West Foundation. It was raining harder. Our itinerary called for us to drive to My Lai, where we would spend the night. The hospital staff had planned a banquet for us that evening and the next day we would deliver the boxes of medical supplies.
As we flew into Da Nang, we had noticed the flooding below us. Not only were the fields and rice paddies flooded, but also many rivers, ponds, and roads. There had been severe flooding in the Mekong Delta, and we had seen the seriousness of that situation as we flew over the flooded landscape on our journey to Saigon from Manila. We asked Mr. Hoi if this amount of flooding was normal; and he answered that it was not, that this year it was much worse.
As we drove along Highway 1 the road became awash in water. Sheets of rain and water washed over the van. The bottom halves of the telephone poles running alongside the road were completely submerged. The wind and rain pummeled the local residents trying to hold themselves, their bikes, and their motor scooters upright against the deluge. Water was flowing into many of the houses in the roadside villages that we passed. Highway 1 itself was becoming more flooded, making it increasingly difficult for the van to continue. The driver was concerned that water might reach the engine and wash it out.
Finally, at Tam Ky, we were told that the road ahead was washed out; and we couldn't continue. Going back to Da Nang didn't seem to be an option either. It seemed that we would be spending the night in Tam Ky.
Tam Ky was described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as a nondescript town between Da Nang and Quang Ngai. The Tam Ky Hotel (Khach San Tam Ky) was mentioned as a decent place in the center of town and the only hotel that accepted foreigners.
As luck would have it, that is precisely where we were forced to stop, as the hotel was located on the bank of a river that was overflowing its banks and washing out the road. And so began our overnight adventure at the Tam Ky "Hilton."
The hotel's attached garage seemed to do double duty as a cafe. The guide insisted that both the vans be garaged, so tables and chairs were moved and rearranged to accommodate that need. The hood of one van rested comfortably on the bar.
The word traveled quickly that six Americans had stopped to spend the night. Almost immediately dozens of kids appeared at the garage door, some anxious to practice their English, others just anxious to look.
Those members of the group lacking rain ponchos quickly waded across the road to purchase them. Cameras were pulled out to photograph the roaring river rushing past our doorstep. One kid elected himself our mentor and guide, following us to our rooms and helping us to find the mosquito netting and hang it over our beds. He was fifteen and looked ten.
The hotel's electricity had been cut off by the storm, so flashlights were popular accessories for negotiating the stairs, wading through the standing water in the corridor, and locating the communal bathroom at the end of the hall.
In Cam Ranh Bay in 1969, there were no bathroom facilities for women except in their living quarters. After a few days of utilizing the space behind a conex (a large metal storage container) outside the library as a rest room, a solution to the problem presented itself in the form of a chamber pot disguised as a coffee can. A chamber pot seemed just the thing for the Tam Ky "Hilton", since midnight trips in the dark to a communal bathroom held little appeal.
During a break in the storm, our young guide led us down the street to the Tam Ky market. We had been successful in communicating what we were looking for by pointing to the plastic wash basins in the room and using English words that he knew.
The town market is the Vietnamese equivalent to the mall. The market is divided into sections of stalls specializing in different goods -- food, clothing, appliances, and of course, housewares. He led us directly to housewares to a stall filled with plastic pots and basins of every imaginable size and color. These pots are very important, serving as sinks, bathtubs, and storage containers. We selected an appropriate chamber pot and wash basin, heading back to the hotel as the rain began to fall again.
The hotel staff offered to cook dinner for us and asked what we would like. Soup, boiling hot, and rice were the popular choices. They must have wondered at our culinary tastes, but prepared a fine meal to our specifications.
Our young friend returned with his sister after dinner to visit with us some more. They explained that they went to school at night to learn English. It was embarrassing that almost everyone in Viet Nam seemed to be learning English, while none of us knew even rudimentary Vietnamese.
At one point the power returned. This was not necessarily a benefit because the increased light allowed us to see the super-sized cockroaches sharing the rooms with us. The next morning, after a fitful night's sleep, I was *very* glad that I had my chamber pot, as another group member described the roach occupying the toilet he had approached during the night. One look had convinced him to simply move to the next stall.
Paradoxically, the unplanned overnight in Tam Ky was one of the highlights of the trip for me. What was lacking in creature comforts was more than made up for by the opportunity to meet and talk with the hotel staff, the kids, and the shop owners on the street and in the market. I'm glad we got stranded there.
The water had receded enough to allow travel to resume along Highway 1. We loaded ourselves in the vans and set off again for My Lai. We stopped at a roadside cafe in a village a small disance from Tam Ky for breakfast. The more adventurous eaters had a full meal of whatever was available. The less adventurous ate bread and tea.
Soon we were passing through Chu Lai. The site of the huge base--first Marine Corps, later Army--was open ground. Little evidence of its existence remained. The shanty town that had grown up outside the gates had disappeared.
Just outside Chu Lai we were forced to stop again. The water was rising over the road, and the drivers did not think the vans could pass through.
THE MY LAI HOSPITAL AND THE PHU LOC CLINIC
We were determined to reach the hospital. Mr. Hoi, the guide, suggested that we return to Chu Lai and rent a local bus. These buses, which travel between towns and cities all over the countries, are fifty-plus-year-old French Renaults held together by wire, spit, and Vietnamese ingenuity.
The bus we chose, or more likely the bus whose driver was willing to deal with us, had no starter switch. He just stuck two wires together to spark the ignition. The seats were rusty metal, and the floor consisted of wood planks with plenty of space between each plank for a nice view of the road below.
But the bus was high off the ground and very nicely forded the flooded road without washing out its engine. It was excitig to watch the water rushing under our feet through the gaps in the floor planks.
Soon after, to everyone's relief, we pulled into the driveway of the My Lai Hospital. Dr. Ky, the director, met us along with a delegation of other hospital personnel. We toured the hospital, which had few patients at the time, and delivered our boxes.
Because of the bad weather, we did not visit the Son My monument and museum at the site of the My Lai massacre. We did, however, enjoy lunch with the hospital staff, the guides, the drivers (including our erstwhile bus driver, a former ARVN [South Vietnamese Army] soldier), and representatives from the local people's committee.
The beer and the camaraderie flowed in equal amounts. Interestingly, few of the Vietnamese admitted to being veterans. The hospital personnel said they were not veterans. They were in the medical corps.
The trip back to Da Nang was much less eventful than the previous day's adventure. Halfway between My Lai and Chu Lai we met our vans. The water had receded enough for them to continue south on Highway 1. We bid our bus driver and his Renault a fond farewell and returned to our far less interesting Hue Tourist vans.
There was still a substantial amount of flooding, and many people were getting to and from their houses by boat. Still everyone seemed to take the situation in stride. Later we learned that the main force of the typhoon had struck the Philippines, causing major flooding. Manila was without power for over a day.
Just outside Da Nang, we stopped briefly at the souvenir stands in a small village, Non Nuoc Hamlet perhaps, near the Marble Mountains. These small stores sold a plethora of statues, boxes, and jewelry made of, what else, marble.
The weather and the delays encountered in getting to My Lai left no time for visiting Hoi An or China Beach, but we did squeeze in a stop at the Cham Museum in Da Nang. Founded in 1915 by the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient, it has the finest collection of Cham sculpture in the world. The Champa civilization flourished in southern Viet Nam between the 7th and 15th centuries before they were conquered and assimilated by the Dai Viet or ethnic Vietnamese.
My Son, one of the most important Cham archaeological sites in Viet Nam, is located just outside Da Nang. Unfortunately, it was used by the Viet Cong as a staging area and as a result many structures and monuments were destroyed or damaged. The hills and valleys around My Son were heavily mined and live ordnance still explodes there, killing and injuring hapless humans and animals. The clinics and hospitals must still contend with fresh war wounds twenty years after the end of the war.
The next day we set out from Da Nang, heading north toward Hue over the Hai Van Pass. The Hai Van Pass, in the 15th century, formed the boundary between Viet Nam and the Kingdom of Champa. It crosses over a spur of the Truong Son Mountain Range and is one of those spots in Viet Nam where the mountains actually touch the sea. Before the Viet Nam War, it was heavily forested; and some of that growth has now returned. The sun shone; and the views of the sea, the beaches, and the mountains were spectacular.
At the top of the pass was an old French fort used by both the Americans and the South Vietnamese during the war. The guidebook warned that live mortar shells were still strewn in the undergrowth. Vendors aggressively marketed their wares at the bus stop just across the road from the fort. Chewing gum, bottled water, film, and food were offered for sale; and no one took "no" for an answer.
As we descended the other side of the mountain, a breathtaking view appeared before us. The lagoon, on one side of the Lang Co peninsula below, was filled with fishing boats. The guide said this was unusual for this time of day and attributed it to the fact that the typhoon had washed in a large number of fish. On the other side of the peninsula, waves from the South China Sea lapped languidly up onto the brilliantly white sand beaches.
Phu Loc, the hamlet located on the Lang Co peninsula, was the site of the next clinic for which we had brought supplies. We had seen pictures of the Phu Loc clinic taken by participants in PHAM's October 1993 trip, showing buildings and equipment in very poor condition.
But there had been improvements in the past year. Funding had been secured from an Italian NGO to refurbish the clinic, and the work was in progress. Walls and floors were painted and tiled; windows and doors were being installed.
Most of the village--men, women, and children--seemed clustered around the meeting room where the supplies were distributed. The doctors at Phu Loc worked with the doctor in our group to put together a list of supplies and equipment that would be most useful to them. An ambulance was high on their list.
Phu Loc's location at the foot of the Hai Van Pass meant that it was the first stop for those injured in the many vehicle accidents that occurred on the steep and twisting mountain road. Most often, these cases had to be transported to the hospital in Hue, but the village had no appropriate vehicle to transport the injured.
A one-armed Vietnamese veteran chatted with the veterans in our group. He had never fought the Americans, and we were the first Americans he had met. A Viet Minh, he had fought the French and the South Vietnamese. He lost his arm in the early 1960s and was sent north to Hanoi. In 1975, when the war ended, he returned to Phu Loc, the village of his birth. Now, in 1994, wearing one American's gift of a Viet Nam Veterans Against the War pin, he posed for pictures, smiling and shaking hands with the two American veterans, enemies no more.
After lunch, we continued north toward Hue. As we drove off the picture postcard that was Lang Co, I read its description in the guidebook: "...one of the most tranquil places in all Viet Nam."
During the war, this area between Da Nang and Hue was the scene of intermittent fighting. Lang Co/Phu Loc was one of the first villages targeted during Tet 1968. A friend's company had been overrun here in the summer of 1968, just after his departure.
I thought about the war that had been fought up and down this peaceful, beautiful coastline, in these rice fields and villages -- Chu Lai, My Lai, the Que Son Valley, Da Nang, A Shau, Hue, Phu Bai -- and hundreds of fire bases and landing zones now gone, still existing only in the memories of those who fought there. It seemed unreal, as if two different worlds, the one that was and the one that is, were converging and occupying the same space.