by Dale Dye
Day Four of The Great Ghost Chase gives me a case of the staggering willies even before the bus rolls out of Danang headed north on Vietnamese Highway 1. Our course runs through the once-infamous Hai Van Pass that meanders as it climbs toward the far north. Then – somewhere up around 1500 feet – it twists into a series of radical switchbacks. And it’s up there where the road contorts like Lawrence Welk’s old accordion (okay…google it…he used to be a popular polka music guy on early American TV) right up around that point is where the North Vietnamese Army used to ambush truck convoys from the jungle-covered high ground above the Hai Van Pass. The convoys were called Roughriders with machine gun-festooned gun trucks rolling at front and rear of the cargo haulers. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents hitchhiking rides up to infantry units in areas like Phu Bai, Hue, Quang Tri and other killing fields closer to the DMZ hated the Roughriders. Granted riding a Roughrider was easier than humping hills but those heavy machine guns doing recon-by-fire played hell with nap time.
Our bus has no machine guns but there is a bad-ass dragon amulet swinging from the rear view mirror, so we figure it’s OK to relax. And when that happens war stories come bubbling up like swamp gas. Nobody wants to talk about the blood and guts stuff. Or if they do nobody is going to listen very long. That’s the kind of thing that makes you wheeze, gag and moan with night-sweats. Better to focus on the funny stuff…like the tine you were stranded with a broken down six-by overnight at the Hai Van Pass with only a .45 pistol and a bent tire iron to fight off hordes of marauding enemy. Yeah…well, maybe it wasn’t hordes. Maybe it was a couple of rock apes that scared the hell out of you and refused to retreat despite firing off every round of your pistol ammo and then grabbing the tire-iron from the panicky driver to do close-quarters battle with mountain specters. I’ve heard it all before, so it’s easy to tune out and contemplate some of the mysteries that confront us on this return to Vietnam after a half-decade of swearing we’d never return to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, The Nam where we all first learned to embrace the suck.
So we’re just past a mile marker that tells me we are a scant 734 kilometers from Hanoi, the capital or our anti-capitalist former enemies when I begin to wonder about beer. The most ubiquitous local brew was Ba Muoi Ba (Vietnamese for 33) and very often we were doomed to drink it as the Marine Corps officially banned anyone in the scum-sucking junior enlisted ranks from buying American beer in any sort of useful quantity. So we drank as much of the local bust head as we could get when we could get it and ignored the rumors that it contained formaldehyde. Never you mind the embalming fluid. The important ingredient was alcohol…and the more the better….because as Country Joe and the Fish reminded us on bootleg tapes, we were all gonna die. There’s another one…Google it. Today there’s still beer 33 but someone has added an extra 3, so it’s now called. Ba Ba Ba…333. It still tastes a little gamey and no one seems to know why or when the extra digit was added. Mr, Vinh just shrugs and smiles. The victors write the history.
Tuning back into war stories brings us to a discussion of water buffaloes, the beasts of burden that we saw so often on patrols one side or the other of the Hai Van Pass. “We called them Water Bo’s,” remembers former Sergeant Rick Lavers, “and they were sort of the Vietnamese farmers John Deere. God help an outfit that killed one out on an operation.” Your bog-standard Water Bo hated the scent of beef-eating Americans and would charge like a runaway semi when we got within sniffing range. Naturally, we shot a bunch of them which usually brought combat operations to a screeching halt until someone from higher headquarters arrived to compensate the grieving peasant farmer for his loss…with cash…and lots of it. Yes, well…that was then and this is now. Vinh says the current generation of Water Bo’s are much more docile with the sensitivity to running dog lackey of the imperialist war-mongers bred right out of them. In fact, he tells me, in the outlying villes that tourists frequent these days, farm families will let you pose on or around the family Water Bo for a couple of bucks, no questions asked and no chance of a fatal goring. These farmers, the peasants of the land whose hearts and minds we were told were the real prizes in our war, now consider a docile and camera-friendly Water Bo to be the family Mercedes.
There’s time for a stop at the top of the pass which is still strewn with the rubble of French fortifications from the days of Dien Bien Phu when yet another foreign legion tried to restrict free passage of guns, money and a little lawyer named Ho Chi Minh from north to south. And be that as it may, what brings on the willies are the familiar refrains of female hustlers and hawkers selling trinkets and Tiger Balm salve which is reportedly good for anything and everything that ails you in Southeast Asia. “You…you…you buy from me!” The demand is from a stocky little lady in a conical hat who proudly displays her international flair with a pink hoodie: ALABBAMA…Crimsion Tide. So Roll Tide and buy some Tiger Balm in memory of coach Bear Bryant. He’d be so proud…and likely a little confused. But no matter, it’s the least we can do for a college football fan at the top of the Hai Van Pass.
We roll down the other side of the mountain headed for Hue, where at least three of us got into some serious fights during Tet 1968. Vinh has it all mapped out for us. Former Sergeants Dale Dye, Steve Berntson and Mike Stokey don’t need no stinkin’ maps. They were there. And we bomb through Phu Bai headed for Hue watching the ground fog roll up the mountain and remembering when the NVA used to roll right up on us within that evil mist.