Ban Me Thuot to Chu Dreh and Pleiku
January 27, 1994
Ban Me Thuot
I start the day without a shower as the water pressure in the hotel has dropped to zilch. By now, I have found myself accepting of whatever discomforts the road may serve up to me. Go with the flow. I shrug off the lack of water pressure to my third floor room but when I discover that the power is also out I'm at least happy that my now habit of waking frequently during the night to recharge my video batteries has paid off. Also, despite the condition of last night's restaurant I feel no ill effects from dinner and really can't believe how good I do feel. As I pack my gear for the trip onto Pleiku, I go over in my mind what I hope to accomplish today. I pull out my maps and review the road between Ban Me Thuot and Pleiku. I hope to find the location of a major Viet Minh ambush of a large French convoy in 1954. The Chu Dreh Pass massacre.
Finished with packing and map reading I head to the roof of the hotel to video the breaking dawn and listen to the town come to life. Looking down on the street behind the hotel I can see residents bathing inside the walls of their homes. Shops are opening their shops and people gather to gossip with neighbors. The top floor of the hotel is a large room with a beat up conference table and broken down chairs scattered around. On one wall is an ancient blackboard, a box of chalk nearby. In neat, tidy script the white chalk flows over the craggy black surface in very good English, "She prefers classical music, when she goes out with me." I imagine the English class that is taught here, probably none in the class ever seeing an American yet eager to do so and try out their new language. Near 8 a.m. the town is in full swing and I decide to tour the local cho or market. I can see it from the roof and judge it to be several blocks over from the hotel.
As I stroll alone to the market I recall that my interpreter, Vu Con, has told me that many Vietnamese selling in the marketplace operate on superstition when it comes to making their sales. He informs me that it is not a good idea to photograph in marketplaces in the early morning when they are just opening up. The early morning is the time of the greatest volume of sales, especially in the perishables. To some the reason they have not made that first sale could be because that foreigner drifted through photographing their booth and jinxing any future sales. I save photographing markets until late mornings.
I wander through the market of Ban Me Thuot without cameras and it is a refreshing way to see it, without the pressure of finding a shot. I can enjoy the sights, sounds and smells. Still as the only foreigner around, I draw much attention albeit all friendly.
This marketplace is much smaller and more close than others I've been through. There is a real closeness, physically, with the people. Both the people shopping and the vendors are crowded together in knots of village commerce. As friendly as these markets have become to me, this market is even more so. You are confronted with all types in this marketplace and in true human fashion I feel compelled to nod a greeting here and voice a hello, there. I make my way along leisurely, glad that I didn't bring any cameras or trappings of a tourist. Save for the eyes constantly following my movements, I could be a citizen of this town simply going to market. I decide that it would be interesting to imagine that I have decided to stay in Ban Me Thuot for several months and that I'll go through the marketplace looking for items to make my room more comfortable and homey.
Within a few steps a young girl tending several boxes of handmade chopsticks solves my silverware problem. I get enough of the rough hewn bamboo sticks to last me for two months for twenty-five cents. Another stall provides me with bowls , plates and cups. I find a small vase and decide that while here I will make it a daily practice to find a flower in the marketplace to brighten the room. I find a cabinet shop operating at full pitch. Their specialty seems to be dressers, china cabinets and small, finely made cabinets. Everything is done by hand. Now I wished I had my video to shoot the men quietly working, assembling various pieces. The pieces are very crude but extremely attractive in that hand made, one of a kind way. The woods are nothing I'm familar with and probably fall on our wood embargo list. I now wish I had Con with me as I stumble through bad Vietnamese and pidgin English to try to communicate with the owner of the cabinet shop. Eventually, it's pictographs that allow me discuss the cost of a small writing desk. I could do very well with $75.
There are many stalls selling the handmade galvanized watering cans which when examined are really great pieces of hand made art with each one different slightly from its neighbor. I with I could take one along but it's not the price (about $1.50 each) but the bulky size that stops me. I turn over in my hands' one of the smaller watering cans and finally decide that the trunk of our car is already overloaded with souvenirs of the trip--hopefully, not more than I can get on the plane back to Ho Chi Minh City.
Woven mats, brooms and baskets are piled and hung along the dirt streets. A young couple on a moped bumps by, the wheels hugging the mud moguls that the street has become. I've settled comfortably into the pace of this market. People wave and holler a hello, nudging a neighbor who has not yet seen me. For my entire trip in Vietnam I have been recognized always as an American and only once as a German. It is in this open and friendly market that I hear someone call out in Vietnamese "Russian"! I turn my head to the person and holler out, "No, no! My. . .my!" (Pronounced "me"--American) pointing at my chest. For the most part the Russians are hated by the Vietnamese for very simple reasons. I recall days earlier when I was in a Saigon cafe speaking with a veteran of the revolution that he had stated that when the American war was won the Russians simply came in and said, "We paid for this war, now we want your oil." The new Vietnamese government was hard pressed to say "no" given the pressures to quickly consolidate the new country, the looming Cambodian situation and distant rumblings with China. The Russians came and created such a lasting bad taste with the Vietnamese that I certainly did not want to be mistaken for one. There was the story of the lien so who had been shot up in this area the previous year. I don't feel threatened at all but decide I should get back to the hotel to start the day's travel.
We leave Ban Me Thuot about 8:30am and start up the road to Pleiku. All along this road we are flanked in the distance by high tension towers and cables rolling over the plateau-like countryside. Vu Con informs me that these lines come down from Hanoi but they are not operational as yet. Apparently there was corruption in the construction of the lines and the official in charge was relieved. Con points out that under the communists when one of their own screws up he is simply relieved--no justice court for him. Con is as sarcastic as I've come to know he can get which is still stone faced. He shakes his head and continues that at least under the old Republic government there was a justice court to deal with the corruption. I believe Con to be honest and simple, a man doing what it takes to survive and provide for his family. I just nod my head, even if he thinks I'm that naive I don't want to embarrass him but I just know that were there justice courts during the war they were probably running 'round the clock to deal with all the corruption of the South Vietnamese government.
I settle back in the seat, letting the countryside whiz by, the driver blowing the horn every few seconds to signal our coming. I pull out the maps to study the Chu Dreh Pass. During their war, the French had moved men and materiel around the country by way of large troop and vehicle convoys. The helicopter troop ship, the slick, would come with the Americans a decade later. As these convoys geared down over some remote, winding pass the Viet Minh would trigger spectacular ambushes. I hoped to find the exact location. I estimate that the Pass is about 80 kilometers from Ban Me Thuot and have Con note the odometer.
The driver slows for groups of soldiers out collecting firewood or doing road repair. Upon seeing each new group of soldiers, Con has developed a habit of calling out, "Ah, Mister Taylor. . . NVA, sir, NVA." He says it not as a joke but more out of the honesty as to who the soldiers really are--they are young men from the North. I ask to stop at a large group of soldiers, some fifty or so men casually ambling down the side of this remote road collecting firewood. Some of the men crowd around immediately, like typical soldiers, the chance to screw off comeing too seldom. Con passes out the Marlboros to soften them up, all the time answering numerous questions about his passenger. Soon even the more timid ones are dropping their stacks of firewood and coming over. I can see that one soldier seems to be in charge but I notice no rank that makes him different from any others. I talk to him through Con about a group photograph. The soldier puffs on my cigarette while Con pleads the case. The young soldier shakes his head no, pointing back behind him. I can barely make out the details of some type of camp. I'd really like a photograph of these young guys, all dressed in their uniforms that are complete from their pith helmets to their sneaker-like boots. It's no deal and we wave our good-bys.
We continue our drive winding through this plateau of rolling lush scrub and knots of trees. We pass several more cemeteries for Viet Cong and NVA soldiers. It seems that these graveyards are every few miles and other than an occasional government building, seem to be the only new construction going on. The cemeteries are uniform in design and layout. Generally, a large cement obelisk rises out of the center pavilion that is a cement patio surrounded by neat rows of small cement vaults, the size of a suitcase. Since each man, woman and child who lay in these cemeteries died in the struggle they are all considered heros. At the foot of each hero's small vault are the name, date of death and location. The whole cemetery is kept up in whitewash and they appear to be regularly tended. Con tells me that whole ARVN cemeteries were simply plowed over by the communists without notification of families to make room for the NVA graves. The South Vietnamese dead were believed traitors to their country and thus deserved no final resting place. According to Con, once a communist soldier was killed in battle his remains were carefully hidden and noted in a log. After the war, teams of government workers scoured jungle burial grounds using these logs to bring more heroes to their final resting places. I can only think of the battle accounts I have read in which some remote American firebase repelled some human wave assault only to have dozens of dead communist soldiers scattered around the perimeter. Sometimes, bulldozers would be lifted in to dig mass graves that probably were unbeknownst to the communists. Recently there has been a movement by American vets to not only return battlefield souvenirs taken from bodies but to locate these mass graves for the Hanoi government.
Our road begins to descend from the plateau and down into a broad valley. Near as I can tell from my 1950s topographical maps this should be the area of the Chu Dreh Pass. Because of the age of the maps with village names that I know are changed many times over, I tell Con that it may be a good idea to stop and ask directions of the oldest people we can find. The area is dotted with Vietnamese and montagnard farming villages and an occasional stop for directions keeps pointing us down the road. Highway 14 winds through the middle of an E'de (or Rhade) village and I tell Con I would like to stop and wander through the village. As I stroll through the village, the people are very friendly and the children even more so as I attract an ever increasing crowd. Typically, the poverty to my eyes is immense but they seem happy and healthy. I pull out what has become the icebreaker that cuts through all language barriers -- the Polaroid SX-70. These people are familiar with cameras but not instant technology. When I point the Polaroid at a small group of children, invariably several children dart out of the group not wanting to be photographed. The remainder smile broadly and fend off cat calls from those not in the picture. Once the photo is taken and they see that I am holding something in my hand and that it is "moving", the crowd swells. Once the image comes up it is truly a magical thing for both of us to observe. I shoot off several more Polaroids to a now willing audience. I kept very few Polaroids, tending to give them away to those whom I photographed. Whatever misgivings I have about this process that we seemed to have fallen into -- stopping at a sleepy village, Polaroiding the several residents present, then have a large crowd gather, more Polaroids, and then video and stills so that by the time we are ready to leave the crowd is large and noisy. They are having a good time and the word has gone around that this is an American.
Continuing north on Highway 14 and several miles down the road from this village we come to what I believe by the maps to be the general area of the Chu Dreh massacre of 1954. . As a Viet Vet, I am interested in our American experience in Vietnam but when I find a place that was part of the French experience I find that fascinating as well. I had researched about four such locations of French involvement in South Vietnam that I would hope to locate during my trip. I had taken most of my information about the Chu Dreh Massacre from a Bernard Fall book, Street Without Joy. During the “American War”, we got around by helicopter but the French moved by truck convoys. The book’s photos and simple maps coupled with the 1:50,000 topo maps I carried with me gave me an excellent fix on the exact location of this battle. I had estimated that once we left Ban Me Thuot we would have a drive of about 80 kilometers to the site of this ambush.
When we crested the top of a hill range and started to wind down a mountain pass the surrounding area looked just like the maps. I knew I was close to the site of this long forgotten ambush. In 1954, the French convoy, made up of vehicles and marching units, was going up the hill slowing down to a crawl in this long steep stretch of road. The road is barely two lane and although it is paved asphalt today, I can only imagine that it was simply hardpacked dirt back in 1954. Going up the hill through the ambush site the road is fronted on the right by a steep embankment that is upwards of thirty feet. On the left side, there is a small shoulder in places. Beyond this shoulder there is an extreme drop into the canyon below, some hundreds to at least one thousand feet in places. The Viet Minh positions were dug in just back and along the edge of the embankment among the low scrub jungle.
I tap Con on the shoulder and tell him that I think we are at the spot. I tell him we need to find a local to ask. By this time we were went past the site and whizzing down the road onto a broad plateau. Up ahead, beside the road under the shade of a tree, sat two old montagnard men. The driver pulled to the side of the road. One is white bearded with black pajamas and a conical hat or nung la. The other wears a dirty windbreaker and a rumpled baseball cap. Con speaks to them for several minutes and finds that they don’t speak much Vietnamese. He communicates with them in a mixture of Vietnamese, montagnard dialect and French. While the talks with the old men, I, like an idiot, relax in the backseat of the car figuring to let the interpreter deal with these two old guys. As it turns out I should have been right up with them. After several more preliminary questions they started to excitedly chatter back and forth. It was extremely hot and I was starting to nod off in the back seat of the car, unaware of what’s going on. Yes, they know of the battle, and in fact one of them (see picture)was in it in 1954 as a young man of 18 in a Rhade Battalion with the French. By the time all the commotion is relayed to me I’ve missed a great video opportunity. Anyway, I finally take it all in and realize I may have a real vet of the battle. What a stroke of coincidence in this remote part of Vietnam.
As an aside: when you are traveling around Vietnam you are constantly trying to separate truth from fiction, especially in dealing with the Vietnamese and then if there is money involved. So here was an old ‘Yard claiming that he was at the Chu Dreh massacre some 40 years ago. Montagnards don’t know from lying and what did he have to gain in this instance. The old man had been walking all day from his village to the east to visit a friend in the valley below. I decided to put him to the test. In between French, pidgin Vietnamese and a very few words of Rhade I was able to convince the old man to take us to the site of the ambush. Now another thing about the Montagnards, they don’t understand distance as you and I. To them, distance is measured in time. Of course all this escaped me at the time. We piled the old man in the front seat of the car and headed back up the road. I gathered that the interpreter told him to tell us to stop at the ambush site.
We drove about 5 minutes and the old man has us pull over. It looks close to me but according to my map it should be further up the hill, but I’ll go along with it. Remember, ‘yards only understand distance through time. We’ve just driven in a car to a spot and taken several minutesit could have taken him 45 minutes to cover this on foot. Now we get out and proceed to walk up the hill. As Con offers up a Marlboro, the old man relates that in 1954, he was nineteen years old and part of the lead company of Montagnard troopers walking at the head of the French column. I trust the old man because I believe that by heading back up the road the way we came is surely where the ambush occurred by my maps. We walk a good half-hour.
According to him there were dozens of vehicles in the convoy and all had to gear down low to crawl over the pass. They had set out from Pleiku headed to Ban Me Thout. The convoy was stretched out in a long line. Our guide walked with the Montagnard Brigade at the front. Without warning, from the cliffs above them he heard the command “Dung Lai!” (Stop!). A Viet Minh officer set the ambush in motion as his command was followed immediately by rifle and machine gun fire that raked the length of the column. He said there was instant panic among the column. The Viet Minh were well dug in along the cliffs and easily chopped the column to pieces. The old man continued up the road gesturing at various spots along the way. Finally, he came to his spot during the battle and described how when the trap was sprung all those around him made a dash for the jungle opposite the cliffs and many tumbled down the steep ravines to their deaths. There was death all around him and the old man points to the spot he was wounded. He slaps his shin to demonstrate the bullet penetrating his leg and then falls to the dirt shoulder of the road at the ravine’s edge. They cannot get off the road. His friend is shot and killed. He wound is severe. Others jump off the road into the thousand foot drop to take their chances but most fall to their deaths. He pulls his dead friend atop himself and plays dead. The ambush rages on with the French forces giving little retaliation and then the Viet Minh assault over his position and down the convoy line. He can see vehicles exploding and burning down the convoy line. Soon he can see Viet Minh troops walking among his unit and the vehicles, mopping up, finishing off the wounded, setting fire to the vehicles not already destroyed and pitching grenades down the ravines at any retreating survivors.. He continues to play dead. Finally, the Viet Minh are satisfied with their slaughter and move back into the jungle and the fight is over.
During this whole narrative I cannot understand a word that the old man is saying and I’m sure I’m not getting all the details from Con because of the language barrier but the old man is still spellbinding in his honest, matter of fact way as he recountsf this long ago, forgotten battle. I videotaped this old warrior describing this long forgotten battle with his gestures and excitement. He said he hadn't talked about this incident in 40 years. He showed me the scar on his leg.
I step to the shoulder of the road and look down through the jungle into the canyon below--it was a straight drop down. The ravine is truly too steep to climb down and I turn my attention across the road to the Viet Minh positions. I dash up into the jungle and within seconds find numerous old foxhole and bunker positions. Con finds the remains of an old sandbag but it is the type use by American troops. This ideal location became a key ambush site well into another war. Perhaps, American and ARVN convoys were ambushed from these positions originally prepared by the Viet Minh. It is quiet in under the trees as I prowl around the positions. It is also eerie in a melancholy way. Looking through the trees and out down the Highway I can see exactly what the Viet Minh forces must have seen some fifty years before. The fields of fire are perfect.
Back on the road, Con continues to talk with the old man who remarks that he has not spoken this much French since the war, but that it comes back easily to him. We retrace our steps back down the line of what had been the broken column. The old man continues to point out small little actions that happened in the fight and its aftermath. Back in the car we drive him toward his destination near Pleiku. As he exits the car I give him 100,000 dong (ten dollars) for his time. The driver kids the old man in pantomime that indicates he feels the old man will use the money for wine. He smiles but says that now with this money he can stay with his friend longer and pay for his return trip back to his village. He sets off down a dusty road toward another village as we wave our good-bys. What a find! I’m elated and tell Con I want to buy lunch for all of us.
Still much of a frontier area, this stretch between Ban Me Thuot and Pleiku does not offer many places to eat. The small road is fairly busy with the afternoon traffic. School kids on bikes returning home, overcrowded and top heavy buses teeter down the lane and a half of blacktop. Oxen are driven by in herds or hitched to ancient carts. All the while this tumultuous flow dodges around all sorts of crops put on a part of the asphalt to dry. Tobacco, rice, tubers, grains, all lie along either side of the road taking up about three feet of the already narrow roadthree feet of the road not the shoulder. Hard, dry surfaces for drying products are rare in the countryside’s of most agrarian societies and a road is a great place to perform this task. All the traffic simply deals with it as we would cars parked along the street. I have seen my share of incredible head-ones that are avoided at the last second. There are many times that I have glanced up from my maps to see us flying along with Hai pounding the horn facing down a logging truck as the road is narrowed to one lane for all the produce lying on either side. There is some macho hidden code that doesn’t allow one to lose face even in the face of sheer death from some logging trucks whose brakes, if he has any, are probably original equipment. These incredible close calls don’t even seem to phase Hai or even Mr. Con.
After a little travel the ever resourceful Con has found us a good sized restaurant that caters to the bus traffic. Most Vietnamese roadside restaurants are open to the air allowing all sorts of people and animals to become part of your dining experience. Usually little urchin beggar children hover around the table while others quietly flit from table to table selling all sorts of merchandise including tickets for the national lottery. Add to this all the patrons within the restaurant watching my every move. This particular restaurant owner has erected a large chain link fence around the restaurant and parking lot allowing in the passing bus or car at the sound of their horn. Still the crowd stalks the fence, calling to you. Hai, my driver, blasts the horn and the gate opens in dividing the crowd of twenty or thirty hanging around the outside. They peer into the car and I can see a murmur go through the crowd. There is already one large bus within the parking lot, loaded on top with crated pigs, chickens and geese, furniture, motorcycles and produce. All those farm animals squealing and squawking on top of the bus has also provided the interior of the restaurant with a distinctive smell as well as several battalions of flies. Most of the passengers are inside in the midst of their meals. We find a table and I again tell Mr. Con that I trust him to order.
Vegetables combined with chicken and bones is the soup of the day along with steamed rice. Another bus arrives and all tables are soon filled, watching me eat. I’m still getting the hang of chopsticks and feel that I’m putting on a good show. Small, scrawny dogs patrol the floor looking for scraps. Con has already told me previously that anything I don’t want goes on the floor. This is practiced rarely by the Vietnamese but at this particular meal I find a lot to put discreetly on the floor. Soon I have several dogs happily prowling my neighborhood.
What I take to be a woman roaming among the tables singing, Con corrects me and says she is a crazy woman. I see that the back of her neck is covered with open sores. The Vietnamese seem somewhat tolerant of this crazy woman drifting among them singing fragments of songs and taking a scarce handout of a few dong. Lunch for the three of us including beer and tea comes to 40,000 dong (about $4), with a tip for the server and the crazy singer. Most of the time when I’m given the bill and add in the tip the server invariably gives me back the tip explaining that I have paid too much. Con then explains to them the theory of tipping and still with a puzzled look on their faces they do take the extra money. Sometimes I see that the server simply gives the extra money over to the owner.
We start back to our car in the little parking lot and the crowd outside the fence comes to life, calling for me to look at their goods. As I’m taking photographs, one of the bus passengers, a woman, comes out from the restaurant and tugs at my shirt. I get the idea that she wants to be photographed. She appears to be in her forties and probably remembers the Americans, she is friendly and pulls me over to a part of the lot where she can pose with her hand resting on her chin and her eyes shaded by the nung la in her best imitation of a movie star pose. All around me while I’m taking her pictures are her girlfriends catcalling to her and trying to crack her up. I get all of them into the shot and it’s like a group of forty years old schoolgirls posing and goofing around. Just friendly people.
Back on the road I can see a distinctive mountain rising out of the ground much as Monkey Mountain does in Danang. As we approach the mountain to the East of the highway, Con points in the distance to Pleiku and I can start to see the outskirts. I orient the map and realize that this mountain overlooks the turnoff to what was the 4th Infantry Division Base Camp. On top of the mountain would have certainly been a firebase and today a radar station occupies the peak. Just north of this mountain we turn east on a road running into the Division compound. There is nothing left except the cement island where the MPs would have stood guarding the main gate. This was a huge base and now there is nothing, not even cement pads are left. Con tells me that when the war ended the people stripped the ARVN and American bases clean. All along the road in little stalls I have seen all sorts of merchandise stripped from these basesperforated steel planking (PSP), vehicles, storage containers, and even cement runways and parade grounds broken up into two feet by three foot chunks. It comes as a surprise to me. Some of the biggest American bases of the war would have made fine military installations for the victors but apparently they wanted no trace left of the Americans and were content to build their own new base nearby.