Going Full Circle

Dong ba Thin Travel Blog

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The cut-across from the coast to Highway 1
  

Several of the expats were making another road trip to Bai Dai Beach near the airport at Cam Ranh Bay. I decided to go early, pay homage to my own wartime helicopter base at nearby Dong ba Thin, then catch up with them at the beach. It was one of those times that I needed to travel alone. I followed the four-lane out of Nha Trang along the coast to the first intersection after passing the hills. Instead of turning left for a hundred yards to Bai Dai Beach, I turned right to head inland. The dirt road was sandy in spots and after passing a few houses of a small village, quickly narrowed.

 

The one or two-acre, man-made lagoons along the northern edge of Cam Ranh Bay were probably fish farms.

Fish farms on Cam Ranh Bay
No workers were present so I kept moving. The track became rough and rocky after angling upward to hug the hills that separate Nha Trang from the coastal south. I rode a long while in the tree-line zone between steep, rocky, lightly wooded hills and the fertile wetlands lining the bay. I passed only a few rustic farms with small plots of rice and a few banana trees. Several streams crossed the track.

 

At the largest stream, an old jalopy dump-truck was being loaded with sand by two men with shovels. I stopped to watch them. They eventually tired of watching me and went back to work. The truck could have been a salvaged 'deuce-and-a-half' from the American War but it was too hard to tell since, other than riding in them once in awhile, I was not familiar with the vehicle. This contraption had fenders over the front wheels but no cab for the driver and no cowlings covering the engine compartment.

Jalopy loading sand
It could have been Russian or Chinese built too.

 

On this desolate cut-across from the coast to Highway 1 I would have expected to find abandoned helicopter rotor blades used for wet-season walkways like in South America or their gutted hulls for primitive shelters like in parts of Africa. Vietnam seemed to have removed all traces of those times - except for the four short lengths of PSP at my flip-flopped feet. The scraps were the only remnants of the war that I had seen outside the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City or the War Park at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

 

PSP (perforated steel plates) had been used since World War II for laying out roads or runways in rough and often wet terrain.

PSP and the upstram water pump
Interlocked together into any length or width, they dispersed the heavy weight of loaded trucks and aircraft. These before me would have been used as part of the taxiways or flight line ramp at my old helicopter base at Dong ba Thin, about seven miles to the south. One of the pieces had faded yellow paint on it; probably part of a taxiway. The scraps now served to support the weight of other trucks. Upstream, a water pump sat idle beside the stream-bed.

 

The road became its roughest where it crossed a ravine that was fairly steep and winding. Jagged rocks and gravel created prime conditions for a flat tire but I was fortunate in not having that mishap - or any other breakdown. I realized the foolishness of doing the excursion on my own, knowing it was far too late to do anything about it but to continue. On the downward side of the divide, land was more tame.

The old runway, yams, and the sugar mill
Farms became newer and their fields bigger. I eventually met other motorbikes and passed a school. I finally reached a village on Highway 1 but came out much closer to Nha Trang than to my intended destination. I recognized the location from last year's ride to Dong ba Thin.  The traffic was just as heavy as then but moved much faster than on the cut-across.

 

 The sugar mill, colored green like a Russian hospital room, came into view as I rounded a wide curve. Immediately past it, I made a left turn into an open field that was once part of our American helicopter base. The yam drying operation on the old runway had expanded from last year to cover its entire length. There were more chipper machines, more wheel-barrows carting their output, and more people shuffling them to dry in the sun.

Guards at Dong ba Thin

 

I followed the dirt road through an open, unmanned pole-barrier toward the inland side of Cam Ranh Bay. I rode slow to maybe see something familiar from 1970-71 that I may have overlooked last year.  A pair of Vietnamese Navy troops halted me at a small guard shack. They were friendlier than the annoyed guard of last year but also spoke no English. The two guards were pleased to have a picture taken as were a marching formation armed with rakes and shovels returning from some kind of lawn or gardening detail. Dong ba Thin was greener now.

 

I continued a wide slow loop back toward Highway 1. Trees grew where our hootches once stood. Between those and the runway, I strolled the perimeter of the swamp that stood behind our old maintenance shed.

VN Navy detail at Dong ba Thin
Dragging those stagnant waters with a magnet would undoubtedly produce hurled tools and broken helicopter parts. This was the swamp where I had learned my trade in 1970-71 when I lost my youth along with several friends. I met the mother and two sisters of one. After thirty-seven years, Patti had never given up hope that someone who had served in Vietnam with her fallen son would make contact. That happened last Memorial Day - May 26, 2008 - on a road-trip to North Brookfield, Massachusetts - the absolute toughest of all my travels. Now, we had both somehow come full circle but neither of us would make sense of it all.

 

I continued south on Highway 1. Just a few miles down the road, a traffic light marked a left turn to the Cau Long Ho Bridge which crossed blue-green waters to the airport at Cam Ranh Bay. I met up with the expats at Bai Dai Beach. After a few swims and some grilled squid, we all returned to Nha Trang.

 

Here's a blog from last year's visit to Dong ba Thin:  http://www.travbuddy.com/travel-blogs/18515/Going-Back-Nha-Trang-46

 

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The cut-across from the coast to H…
The cut-across from the coast to …
Fish farms on Cam Ranh Bay
Fish farms on Cam Ranh Bay
Jalopy loading sand
Jalopy loading sand
PSP and the upstram water pump
PSP and the upstram water pump
The old runway, yams, and the suga…
The old runway, yams, and the sug…
Guards at Dong ba Thin
Guards at Dong ba Thin
VN Navy detail at Dong ba Thin
VN Navy detail at Dong ba Thin
Loading sand
Loading sand
Rented bike, PSP, and the jalopy
Rented bike, PSP, and the jalopy
Upstream
Upstream
Country farm
Country farm
Stream crossing the track
Stream crossing the track
Another rice field
Another rice field
Yams on runway 32
Yams on runway 32
Post American War anti-aircraft …
Post 'American War' anti-aircraft…
The swamp at Dong ba Thin
The swamp at Dong ba Thin
The Cau Long Ho Bridge
The Cau Long Ho Bridge
Hoisting anchor
Hoisting anchor
Bai Dai fishing boat
Bai Dai fishing boat
Boat off Bai Dai Beach
Boat off Bai Dai Beach
Grilling squid
Grilling squid
Grilled squid
Grilled squid
Dong ba Thin
photo by: rotorhead85