Sunday, September 26, 2010

Traveling the Ho Chi Minh Trail

HANOI, Vietnam -- Our Vietnam Airlines flight landed at Noi Bai International Airport just after 10 p.m. Indochina Time on Nov. 5, 2010.

The flight ended some 20 hours in the air since my friend Tom Krumland and I boarded an American Eagle flight from Roswell, N.M., to Dallas-Fort Worth, where we then caught an American Airlines jet to Narita Airport in Tokyo.

Ken Fritz, a friend and former Vietnam helicopter pilot, met Tom and me at the Vietnam Airlines gate in Tokyo. Ken had flown in from Los Angeles.

Waiting for us just past Immigration Control at the Hanoi Airport was Dinh Ngoc Truc, who had suggested the trip over coffee, pastries and pho, the Vietnamese meat and noodle soup, when my wife Renee and I were in Hanoi last December and January.

"Welcome to Hanoi," Truc greeted us, before we headed to baggage claim and the 40-kilometer drive to our hotel in Hanoi's Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake.

I had met Truc in Saigon, now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, when he accompanied the Windfall Films crew making a documentary about a mission I had flown in May 14, 1967 as a pilot with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, stationed at Bien Hoa. Tom Baca of Albuquerque, the pilot of the other Huey; Larry Liss of Birchrunville, Pa., Tom's copilot; and Al Croteau of Andover, Mass., who was flying as my gunner on that day, also returned to Vietnam to be interviewed for the documentary.

Over dinner one night in Saigon, Truc described his hometown of Hanoi and said we would enjoy visiting the city. Renee and I planned to spend Christmas 2009 with our son and his family in South Korea. We figured, since we would be in the neighborhood, late December and early January 2010 would be a good time to visit Hanoi. It was.

Truc showed us around the city and drove us to Ha Long Bay, where we spent New Year's Eve cruising through the islands comprising the World Heritage Site.

On our last day in Hanoi, Truc picked us up and drove us to a French pastry shop across from the Hanoi Opera House. He ate a bowl of pho with his coffee; Renee and I had pastries. Over breakfast, Truc suggested I contact veteran friends from the Vietnam War to see if there was interest in driving from Hanoi to Saigon -- part of the time on the Ho Chi Minh Trail -- and visiting former military bases and battle sites.

Truc, as a recent high school graduate, had enlisted in the Vietnam Peoples Army (known to Americans as the North Vietnamese Army) and then was transferred to the Viet Cong. U.S. military forces had left Vietnam before he rode south from Hanoi to Vung Tau in a large lorry, towing a 37 millimeter anti-aircraft gun.

He had offered to contact Vietnamese veterans groups from the north who may have been firing into the landing zone (LZ) where Tom Baca and I and our crews rescued some 100 South Vietnamese soldiers and 1 U.S. Special Forces NCO from the midst of a firefight with 600-700 enemy troops.

He and I also were working on a book about everyday life in the Viet Cong, told through his perspective.

After returning home in January, I visited with two people I thought might be interested in the trip down Vietnam: Tom Krumland and Ken Fritz.

Tom and I frequently visit about trips we've taken, plus he has a deep admiration for U.S. military veterans. Tom owns the Toyota, Honda and Hyundai dealerships in Roswell.

After visiting with his wife Linda about making the trip, Tom was ready to go.

Ken, from Orangevale, Calif., near Sacramento, is former president of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. In an earlier conversation, we had discussed returning to Vietnam. He and his wife Marcia discussed the drive from Hanoi to Saigon, and he said he was ready to go.

Now we were in Hanoi. In a few days, our journey south would begin.

Location:Hanoi, Vietnam