Off the Road
In 1995, having backpacked
through Singapore, Thailand, and Laos, I flew from Vientiane to Hanoi,
traveled down the coast, and caught a motorcycle to Saigon’s Long Distance Bus
Station. It was not exactly a planned pilgrimage,
though events would turn out in that direction. The ride to An Loc cost sixty
cents and took ninety minutes. There
were no foreigners, only Vietnamese. Where would I stay? Who and what
would I meet? And what of Quan Loi? These were magnetic questions to me.
When the bus lurched to a grinding halt in An Loc’s neatly tiled center
I grabbed my gear and jumped off. Immediately a crowd gathered about
me -- a thin, weary tourist. A gaunt, soft-spoken man who later became my
guide led me to the ramshackle Binh Long Hotel.
“Here OK,” said Thanh. “Other place expensive.”
Cramped and stuffy, my two dollar a night room had a single hard mattress,
torn mosquito netting, and a solitary wood hatched window. At night the heat was unbearable. Mornings, the Binh Long’s communal bathroom was packed with noisy transient Asian men. The Chinese style squat latrines were not pleasant.
The following day Thanh and I rode his battered Honda Cub to Quan Loi.
I hoped to find bunkers, gun pits, culvert hooches, the rubber trees
which had brought us merciful shade when I first saw combat so many years
ago. After a breezy twenty minutes, Thanh pulled over and parked the
“Why are we stopping?” My heart dropped when Thanh said, “We are here.”
In fact, Quan Loi is gone, flat as a field, the tarmac airstrip scattered
by phantom hands. The rest is bush and scrub and unforgettably red. The pummeling
heat was unbearable. I poked around, plucked an AK 47 cartridge, rusted and
brittle, from the hard dry dirt. I took photographs:
The remains of the strip, a wide open field where the base once stood; a group of
peasants planting corn. The ghosts of their dead filled their faces. A sad,
weather-beaten man wearing a tattered American army shirt who spoke English said he
was fifty-five years old; he appeared seventy. He said that during the war he had worked with the First Cavalry Division. I asked him if he could locate LZ Compton.
“Yes,” he replied, pointing North, then pulled out his pockets, which were empty and flat, like elephant ears. “With Americans I had money and food. I had house. Now I nothing.”
I turned to hide my face, then pressed fifty thousand dong,
about two weeks salary, into his hands. A few minutes later, through Thanh,
I asked a colorfully dressed woman where she lived. She cautiously raised
her arm and pointed southeast. Thanh said the village was two
miles away. All the peasants, young and old, wore sandals ground down beyond repair.
Thanh said that at war's end scavengers and resettled peasants stripped
the base; scrap metal was carted away, heavy weaponry stolen, homes were built
from American timber. For years unexploded ordnance posed a constant danger;
only recently has it been cleaned up. Still, Vietnam is littered with
live mortar and artillery shells, rotting, fragile 40 mm grenades,
five-hundred pound bombs, Agent Orange; even now all take their toll.
It was hot, the noon sun beat straight down. Thanh said he wanted to
show me Lake Xosim. I said goodbye to the peasants, to Quan Loi, and hopped on his scooter.
“I think you will like,” said Thanh.
The Cub raced forward over the good American blacktop. In minutes the
hot rushing air dried our sweaty clothes. The sleepy village around the
lake lay untouched by time. Small neat houses with terra cotta roofs
encircled the clear and tranquil waters; low brambled coffee plants
edged the lake perimeter. Exquisite open air pagodas with graceful
walkways served as landing docks; I watched a fisherman grip and
sway and cast his net. Two hundred meters out, at the lake's center,
a sun-bleached bamboo platform, ghostlike and skeletal, stood eerily
at rest. Thanh said no one swam here anymore. Too many people had
drowned after holiday drinking. Their spirits haunted the water.
“I want to show you something else,” he said.
We walked a short ways through partially cleared jungle. The remains
of an old French fort, built completely of stone, rose up heavy and hypnotic.
The laughter of children playing badminton echoed off the moss-covered stones.
Thanh looked at me, but I could not speak.
That evening I met Ba, manager at the Binh Long hotel. Short, trim, and
pleasant, like Thanh, he too had worked for the Americans. Both had spent hard time in re-education camps. Both studiously avoided this topic.
“What is the English word for big machines that push earth?” Ba asked.
I closed my eyes a moment, scanning a distant landscape. “Bulldozers?”
Ba nodded grimly. “We put bodies in a big hole after fighting.”
Some say the 1972 Battle of An Loc was the greatest battle of the war. At the time I knew nothing of it.
Late at night on the third day I had unexpected visitors.
“Wake up! Wake up!” said Ba, repeatedly knocking on the hard wood door. “The police are here. They wish to speak with you.”
“I’m sleeping,” I said. “Tell them go away. I’ll talk to them tomorrow.”
My travels in third world countries had taught me not to be intimidated. Still, what could they want?
On the first day, I handed a copy of my passport (never once giving the
real item at any guest house) to the hotel clerk. However, few foreigners
visited An Loc, and she had put it aside. Informed of my presence, the police tracked me down.
“You come out. You please talk with them,” Ba demanded.
Given the urgent tone in his voice, I quickly dressed
and unlocked the door.
In the narrow hallway, two thin officers, identical in black caps and
light green uniforms, pressed a litany of questions.
“Where is your passport? How long you stay? Have you drugs? Have you camera? Where you travel An Loc?”
Vietnam was, and remains, a secretive culture. Ba, standing erect and humble, dutifully translated. After ten minutes I agreed to visit police headquarters.
At dawn, the air sweet and cool, Thanh and I drove past thick,
impenetrable jungle, past infinite rows of stately rubber trees,
at last arriving at a squat one-story building on the town's outskirts.
Inside a damp, musty, ill-lit room, several American carbines hugged a mildewed
wall. Their battered wood stocks had once embraced gleaming gun metal,
but were now dull and pitted. A policeman pointed to a school child’s seat.
For nearly an hour I filled out tissue-thin forms in triplicate.
Later that day, riding a borrowed bike I returned to the haunting rows of symmetrical rubber, strung my GI hammock between two slender trees and slept while mosquitoes hummed and bit. Waking, covered with itching welts, I rode back and chatted with Thanh and his family.
At 9 p.m. his wife and young daughter went to bed. For hours,
as a light rain tapped on the roof, Thanh and I talked of war. Many things
were said in silence.
The following day, by a sad stroke of luck, I stumbled upon the town
hospital. In 1972, ten-thousand civilians and combatants had died in three
months of fighting. I walked the hospital grounds, stared in awe at
split-open buildings, the walls pocked by bullets and skittering shrapnel. I drew diagrams, inspected dark, abandoned med/surg wards untouched by time. A wary female doctor spoke of scarce medical equipment, types of patients treated, glanced at a woman who lay dying on an American gurney.
“Suicide by poison,” she said, which might have been true.
At night, I heard enormous trucks rumble through town from ten till dawn. Ba said these were timber convoys hauling wood illegally cut in Cambodia. Trundling past, each trailer lugged fifty immense logs held fast by heavy link chains. Hurried red numbers were chalked over the stiff dead trunks; they could have been bodies.
Four days later I stood outside the Binh Long Hotel, waiting to leave An Loc.
When the bus arrived, Thanh and I embraced. Much was said in those moments. I’ve written him several times and received replies, though money sent went missing.
“First Loc Ninh, then Bu Dop,” I said, waving farewell.
The bus to Loc Ninh cost thirty-cents and took twenty-five minutes.
It was there that the American’s fought NVA troops funneled down
the legendary Ho Chi Minh trail. Past the grim town center I took a room
in a shabby concrete hotel. An English-speaking man with a motorcycle
offered to be my guide. He said only MIA teams had visited An Loc. An hour later the police ordered me out.
“I’m cold and tired, it’s late, I don’t drive, I have a room,
I haven’t eaten, I need sleep, and no, you can’t have my passport,” I said
to three Sergeants, two Lieutenants, and finally a stone-faced Major.
Ten years earlier this sort of talk risked jail or expulsion. I was stupid and
“What you know about war?” the Major snarled.
“I fought here,” I said. “I’m looking for LZ Compton. An American firebase.”
Where I watched a man’s brains spill onto brick-red mud as medics dragged him away.
“Get out. You leave now,” said the Major.
My guide, translating, gave me an anxious look. Unlike him, I felt strong and confident facing this enemy.
“Alright,” I said. “But I’ll leave tomorrow.”
“Give me your passport,” the Major growled.
“No. I’ll give you a copy.” Tucked beneath my shirt, I opened my money
belt, plucked out a paper square, and handed it to him. “Here,” I snapped. “Keep it.”
I walked away, unaware that during the furious Easter Tide
offensive, American B-52s and thousands of North Vietnamese with
tanks and artillery, fought a pitched battle against American backed ARVN.
The town was pulverized. Some say Loc Ninh has yet to recover.
A long ugly scar was stitched across the face of the owner of the
cement hotel. “Me hit by rocket,” she said, smiling as she pointed
to her indented frontal lobe. “My daughter hit by rocket.
My daughter five years. My daughter dead.”
An unspeakable demon-grin filled her child-like face. I ate supper, lay down, tossed and turned in my cavernous room, rose early, and caught the first bus out.
“Here, I want to go here,” I would tell drivers, pedestrians, street vendors, anyone who would listen, pointing to Song Be province on a glossy fifty-cent map bought in Saigon. “I’m trying to find LZ Compton.”
After the third time in two days heading to the wrong town on National Highway 13, I hollered, “Stop!” The peasants on the sweltering bus giggled when I jumped off. Sometimes traveling makes you crazy.
Jungle edging both sides of the road, I threw down my pack, sat on it,
and wept. A minute later a crowd of well-mannered children surrounded me.
“Where-are-you-from? What-is-your-name? How-old-you-are?” they sweetly badgered.
I sat silent as stone until all had departed.
All save for a dear child who pedaled her blue bike in tight, uniform circles, and in perfect English asked, “What do you want, sir? My father can help you. Please, sir. Where do you want to go?”
As if she were the adult I lamented, “Go away. I don’t need anything. Just go away.”
I hitched, got lost, snared a ride at a checkpoint from a fat, slick-haired cop.
“You wait here,” he said, then returned, gripping the handle bars of
a 1500cc Kawasaki. I hopped on and threw my arms around his ample waist,
(careful to avoid the holstered U.S. Army .38 caliber pistol) as we sped fifty miles an hour to the same wrong town.
“This Song Be,” he said, his right fist sweeping the air. A welcoming
billboard read, "Tu Dao Mot." I smiled. He zoomed off, a puff of blue
smoke trailing behind the engine's loud roar. The search for LZ Compton had ended.
I hoisted my pack and trudged to a nearby restaurant. Once seated, the cheerful waitress, a former American employee, introduced her supervisor, an elder woman with a slender build.
“She NVA. In war, she shoot me,” she said.
The supervisor cocked her hand, pistol-like, and put it to her subordinate’s head.
“Now we friend,” the waitress tittered.
The happy pair watched me pluck stale noodles from a chipped ceramic bowl. The thin gruel was tasteless. A full plate of fruit salad was superb.
Refreshed, I walked down a wide black road dotted with flimsy shops and spindly trees which stood scourged and withered. Dark heavy clouds loomed overhead. I spotted a corrugated metal porch roof a hundred meters away. The sky turned coal black, streaks of lightning
snapped across the horizon. I walked as fast as I could. It began to rain. None
too soon, I huddled beneath the roof; a moment later the wooden door creaked open.
Nguyen, short and wiry, invited me inside his neat, cozy house. He introduced me
to his wife, a shy thin woman who smiled diminutively. He flicked on the light
of a large aquarium. A huge goldfish swam indifferently back and forth. Nguyen
reached into a bookcase, selected a volume, and proudly opened his BMW manual.
“Before war I work in Germany,” he said, holding the book like a bible. Outside, sheets of rain swept over the roof; torrents swamped the street. Closing the book, Nguyen said, “Soon, we look for hotel.”
When the rain stopped Nguyen disappeared into a small room, then wheeled out a shiny Honda Cub. His wife opened the front door.
“Good meeting,” she said. We touched palms. On the porch, Ngyuen mounted the bike, inserted a key, and began the ritual of kick starting. On the fourth try a throaty roar and lush black plume announced success.
I hopped on behind him. Off we sped, the wheels cutting a path through flooded alleys and nameless streets, until we suddenly arrived at a bland, dismal building which appeared empty. My hopes skyrocketed. Nguyen switched off the motor. “I wait,” he said.
Inside, a young gaunt-faced clerk wearing wire-rim spectacles said, “Passport...” Reluctantly, I handed the prized document to him. His gaze fastened on the gold stamped American eagle, one talon clutching an olive branch, the other a cluster of thirteen arrows. He looked at me full in the face, wagged a finger in the air.
“No foreigner allowed,” he said. Then muttered, “Sorry.”
Nguyen patted the back of his seat. “I show you more,” he said.
We drove to a monolithic five-story building whose drab cement blocks alternated with large rectangular windows. A hundred canvas curtains blocked out Vietnam’s delicate setting sun. I pushed open the large glass doors, walked into the spacious foyer. A pleasant young woman with long black hair sat behind a large wood desk.
“Forty dollar one night,” she said.
I thanked her and walked out. It would be dark soon. Where would I eat? Where would I sleep? Undaunted, Nguyen made for Thu Dau Mot’s Central Station.
“You go Saigon,” he yelled, as the hot wind flattened our hair and pelted our faces. Slowed by evening traffic we entered the depot as the last crowded bus rolled off into the night.
“Take taxi!” Nguyen hollered above the urban din.
I hopped off the Cub. “Here,” I said, and flourished money.
Cars honked, impatient cyclists gunned their engines. We shook hands. Nguyen vanished.
Inside a much abused American station wagon, twelve skinny passengers vied for impossible comfort. A lovely Chinese woman squished tight against me explained the riddle of Song Be. “People no understand map. Name change many time in war. Also, some people
Sweaty and swayed by the sleepless road, we drifted past small, impoverished towns, emerald rice paddies, exhausted peasants hunkering down for the night. Several times I shook myself awake. Weeks, or was it years ago, a Vietnamese monk had warned me, “Always
watch your things. The people steal.” I dropped my guard and slept.
Waking at Saigon’s Long Distance Bus Station I checked my gear,
crawled out, and headed for the main road. An alert cyclo driver pulled up, and tried to hustle me.
“Where you go? I take. Two dollah. Two dollah. Where you go?”
I shook my head. “Too much,” I muttered, shouldered my pack and walked away.
“How much? How much?” the desperate voice repeated.
After the brutal re-education camps, where beatings, starvation
and slavery were commonplace, many ARVN officers could only find work
“Fifty cents,” I said. The pack grew heavy. Its straps dug into my shoulders.
“OK...OK. Get in.” The pedicab groaned forward.
The next morning, after breakfast at the Sinh Café, I flew to Phnom Penh.
A stifling cinderblock room with bed and sink at the Capitol Guest House cost three dollars. On the adjacent street I met the cheerful bully called Elephant Man; he had survived Pol Pot and now
ferried backpackers on his motorbike. Elephant Man took me to Tuol Sleng, the notorious torture center. We visited the Killing Fields, actually one of thousands across the country. Then I asked Elephant Man to take me to the Ministry of Information.
“Why you want?” he asked.
But I would not tell him. “Just pick me up in two hours,” I said.
The clothes of the clerk at the Ministry office hung limp against his body. He knew I was lying.
“Here,” he said.
I filled out a mimeographed form, gave him a one inch passport photo, presented a counterfeit resume, pressed an American five dollar bill to his palm.
“You come back one hour.”
I explored narrow winding side streets, poked my head into shops tucked into stucco buildings weathered delicate shades of pink or blue. I smiled and waved to school children
dressed in white uniforms, their teacher carefully chalking Khmer script on ancient blackboards. I bought Aerograms at a French built post office, then walked back to the Ministry of Information. “Here,” said the clerk, who produced an official gold stamped and laminated Media Pass. His broad mouth formed a diminutive smile. A survivor’s smile. Then he was gone.
Three days later I used the Pass to spend an extra week at the famous
ruins of Angkor Wat. In nearby Siem Reap, I met a burly American
who spoke fluent Japanese, and also a shy Japanese girl on the rebound from a
broken love affair. I flew to Sihanoukville, found a backpacker’s place,
then strolled the tranquil shoreline. One night I met a crazed pot-smoking Boston
cabbie named Joe. He introduced me to Alex, a cheerful expatriate Englishman,
married to a local woman who had escaped death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge,
but who acted strange.
“Why is she like that?” he asked, after describing her symptoms.
When I explained the basics of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), all Alex said was, “So that’s it. So that’s it.”
I traveled with a young Frenchman who knew the land
and language; took a six hour taxi to Kampong Cham;
found a guide; crossed a river; spent a sweltering day in the
hushed serried ranks of a rubber plantation.
On the ride back to Phnom Penh, I witnessed first-hand the striking red placards whose skull and bones stood ominous guard over a single word: MINES!
I mixed M-150 with Coca-Cola (liquid extracts of nicotine and
caffeine are a potent brew for weary travelers); visited serene monks
in secluded monasteries; sat with soft-spoken villagers in airy bamboo
shelters; played pool at The Heart of Darkness Bar;
shrugged off midnight prostitutes and watered-down whiskey.
I had many adventures, though none as dense with feelings as my
travels and talks with Thanh in Quan Loi. I think of him often and hope he is well.
©2009 by Marc Levy