CHU LAI - NOW AND THEN
The following was contributed by Dick Brown:
My trip to Chu Lai was intense and very emotional. I knew it would be but I could never have predicted what
happened. My driver drove the suicidal Highway One. This road is in most places merely a paved rice paddy
dike that is 2 and a half trucks wide. There are no rules. Buses and trucks of every imaginable manufacture are charging onward to their destinations. Some are left over US miltary 2 1/2 tons, some are old Renaults from French colonial times and there are Chinese monsters that belch clouds of deisel. Thereare many other types of buses and trucks and they all raise huge amounts of dust and fumes for the people that live, work, and travel on the road. In between the big machines are the everpresent standard mode of transport for the average Vietnamese, the bicycle and the motor bike. Everyone is playing chicken and beeping their horns. Its truly a nightmare.
We arrived in Chu Lai and found the front gate to the miltary establishment closed. The Army has taken over
the base and allows no guests or photography. They won't even allow me to take a shot of the gate. In the distance I can see old tarred sand berms that were probably used for munitions storage. Miniature thickets of pine trees are growing in these things and give them the appearance of huge square potted plants.The mountains to the west show that we are actually to far south so we turn around and head back to the river. The river empties to the sea were the US Navy built a deep water port and was the northern terminus of the base. Next to the port is the little hamlet that I visited a few times. We always called it Sam Hai but never really new for sure what its name was.
We reach a sideroad going east and take it. The mountains tell me I'm close to the runway but it ends abruptly at a beach and there has been no sign of any base. We go back to Highway One and this time I intend to go all the way back to the river and then head east. My driver finds another right and insists we take it. On this road we drive maybe a kilometer maybe two and then the road hits the beach but this time swings north. We keep going and drive through beautifull pines and low brush. As we crest a hill we come and face the gate of another Army establishment but behind it I see the remains of the old port. I could not believe what I was seeing. We had driven through a pine forest and if this was the navy base then the sprawling Americal Division base at Chu Lai was gone. Like really gone. Like no trace.
We head back through the pines. At the turn at the beach are a few small tents or huts that serve refreshments and food. I ask the driver to stop here so I can go to the beach and get reoriented. By this time I'm really frustrated and afraid I had come all this way for nothing. I walk through the eating area and past two guys doing some kind of carpentry and look around. It looks familiar but without the buildings, barbed wire and bunkers it feels wrong.
While I'm standing bewildered my driver who was coming up from the rear was intercepted by the proprietoress
and began talking. When I joined them this lady gives me huge smile and says hello in English. I ask her if she can speak English and she tells me that she does because she worked for the Americans during the war. I tell her that I was with the Marines at the airbase during 69 and 70 and she tells me she worked in the Enlisted Men's Club for the Marines at that time too. By now we are both grinning from ear to ear. She said her name but went by the name Anna back then. As we talked we slipped back into the slang, jargon and pigeon English Americans and Vietnamese used from that time. Before not too long I had been introduced to her husband, daughter, her daughter's baby and the two guys doing the carpentry. It was starting to get like old home week.
I ask her about the base and whether I could get on it. Anna says that after 1975 everything was let to rot or was dismantled and entry was not possible. I ask her if any one else has come back. She insists that I am the only one in all these years.
Anna's husband takes me to some high ground for a look down at the base and the little hamlet Sam Hai, which
is another story altogether. When we return Anna has made a feast of squid,vegetables and a lot of other things hard to describe that we roll in thin wrappers and dip in the ever present Nuoc Mum (say Nuke Mom) fish sauce. Some other family comes in for lunch and its party time. After lunch there is more talking. They graciously invite me spend the night but because of my driver I refuse. After an exchange of adressess and the photo shoot I promised to send them copies and retrun to spend some time with them.
With great reluctance we headed back to Da Nang. Words can not describe the feelings of friendship and joy these people displayed at my being with them. Their total openness, graciousness and hospitality to
a total stranger who only shared with them a brief moment in time so long ago was overwhelming.