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Destination: Vietnam

A Veteran Returns

A quarter-century after the war, bicycling through a 'beautiful land'

October 25, 1998|THOMAS G. RAMPTON | Rampton is a freelance writer based in Nathrop, Colo

HANOI, Vietnam — You're going where? That was the reaction many of us got when we told friends of our plans to go to Vietnam--for a bicycle ride from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon).

Our trip last January was not that well-publicized bike ride, known as the Vietnam Challenge, that included veterans from both sides of the Vietnam War, many of them disabled. They cycled the same route, but a week ahead of us. Our journey was outfitted by Cycle Vietnam (now renamed Cycle the World) of Portland, Ore., which has been offering the trip once a year for five winters now. The package cost just over $4,000, including air fare.

I've had a latent curiosity about Vietnam since I spent a year there, very unwillingly, at the direction of our president. I'd seen enough of the country then to know it was a beautiful, exotic land. This time I'd tour it nearly from one end to the other--and it would be a voluntary act.

I'd been drafted in October 1968, made an infantryman and sent into the shadow of "Hamburger Hill" just two months after the big battle there. Through considerable good fortune, I never shot anyone, and the one trail-watcher who shot at me missed.

After poking around the jungle for six months, I became an army photographer with the 101st Airborne Division. I could go almost anywhere I wanted, as long as I turned in exposed film. I'd take two cameras--the Army's and mine--and used mine the most, so I have lots of photographs from those days.

This year, our Singapore Airlines flight left Jan. 5 from San Francisco to Singapore. From there, we flew Vietnam Air to Ho Chi Minh City, went through Vietnamese customs and then flew on to Hanoi.

We had a couple of days in the capital, during which we toured the "Hanoi Hilton," where some U.S. airmen were imprisoned during the war, now open as a historical site. We filed by for a quick look at the deceased Ho Chi Minh, displayed, very much against his wishes, in a large, gray-columned mausoleum. (Ho had asked to be cremated and his ashes buried on three unmarked hilltops in the north, middle and south of Vietnam.)

On the third morning, off we rode toward Ho Chi Minh City. We had 93 miles to go that first day, down the valley of the Red River to lunch at a restaurant in Ninh Binh, then across an estuary and over some minor hills to the city of Thanh Hoa for the night.

On each full day we'd have two water stops at pre-announced locations. It's easy to know where you are along QL1, Vietnam's Highway 1. There are red and white kilometer stones marking the distance from the northern border all the way south.

Our group consisted of 20 paying customers, two Cycle Vietnam guides and one bike mechanic. Twelve men and eight women ranging in age from their mid-20s to mid-60s, we represented 13 states from California to New England. There were six couples. Only four tour participants were veterans of the Vietnam War. The group included present and former teachers, a policeman, business people and retirees. One lady celebrated her 60th birthday in Vietnam. I was 53.

Group members had various reasons for making the trip. Some wanted to tour Vietnam before it was spoiled by development. For several veterans, it meant returning in peacetime. This was the case for Joe, who had been an Army lieutenant during the war. Now a teacher of photography in Massachusetts, he went to make photographs of his own.

Another vet, Wilson, had been a helicopter crew chief based in Qui Nhon, a coastal city. He had tried this trip three years earlier, but had to fly home from Hanoi because he began to have nightmares about the war. The following year he successfully completed the trip and, having made Vietnamese friends, joined the tour again this year.

Bob and Holly decided, essentially, on Vietnam over mountain biking in Nepal. We were a congenial group, though people very soon separated into smaller groups according to their cycling ability. Some would be far ahead each day, but only a few of us actually bicycled all 1,200 miles of the tour in our 14 days of cycling. I bicycled just under half that distance, but I did keep my eyes open the whole way.

Our Cycle Vietnam guide was Hung Luong, a native of Phan Thiet, a coastal town east of Ho Chi Minh City. Hung was a small child during the war. Hard times came, and in 1980, at age 13, he became a "boat person," made it to a Hong Kong refugee camp and finally settled near Portland, Ore. Since then he's gone on all the Cycle Vietnam trips, first as a customer, now as an employee.

Cycle Vietnam owner Rick Bauman was with us in Hanoi and for our first day on the road, then left to make arrangements for a new trip in Myanmar. He rejoined us in Nha Trang for what he said was the nicest day of the trip, soon to be followed by the hardest day: the climb up to the beautiful French-style town of Da Lat.

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