HO CHI MINH CITY — Nearly 50 years ago, when the U.S. Marines landed on Red Beach in central Vietnam, Saigon was a small city.
Today, visiting there with three other Vietnam veterans from the Plattsburgh area, we found the landscape much changed.
Renamed Ho Chi Minh City, with a population of 8 million, the former Saigon extends nearly 20 miles to the northwest to the town of Cu Chi. This town is best known for the tunnel system that extended from the Cambodian border to beneath the Presidential Palace in Saigon during the Vietnam War.
It was the base camp of the U.S. Army’s 25th Division. Nothing remains today except the tunnels, which are a main tourist attraction.
Corky Reinhart, Neil Tallon, Pete Conroy and I, guided by former U.S. forces interpreter Omar Bui, drove from Cu Chi toward the Black Virgin Mountain in Tay Ninh province.
The stretch of highway passing through the small town of Trang Bang is the site of one of the most iconic photos of the Vietnam War. It was shot by AP photographer Nick Ut as “The Girl in the Picture,” Kim Phuc, was fleeing with some other children from military action when they were mistaken for enemy forces and napalmed by aircraft from the South Vietnamese Air Force.
Her family runs a small coffee shop and roadside memorial in that town.
“You wonder sometimes,” said Tallon, a two-time candidate for U.S. Congress, “how the U.S. could have used such a horrible weapon throughout this country. And why?
“And yet today, we’ve got the drones bombing in Afghanistan.”
U.S. HELD MOUNTAINTOP
Looming over 3,000 feet in the distance shortly past Tay Ninh is Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain, an extinct volcano centered on a plain.