This is a guest post from my friend, Jonas Thorsell, a Swede, who routinely travels to Vietnam on business. He and two other partners have visited former war sites over the past few years and recently launched a website and blog to chronicle their findings. After 40 – 50 years, veterans are still curious about what those places may look like today. Jonas and his team go to great lengths to find and visit a site of significance. From hacking their way through the thick jungle to climbing up the sides of mountains, very little stops them from finding evidence and taking pictures of bygone battles of the war.
The photo above is from a Vietnamese shrine on the summit of Hill 937 – Hamburger Hill – commemorating those who lost their lives in that battle. It is a photo from Jonas’ website and was also used in an earlier article that I published in 2014. The direct link is at the end of this article.
More than 40 years after the war in Vietnam ended, a country once devastated by decades of conflict has blossomed into a major tourist destination boasting its own megacities of Hanoi and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Saigon, itself, is now a city of 10 million people where business is flourishing and the economic growth seems unstoppable. In the countryside, villages have become small towns, and towns like Pleiku in the highlands have grown into cities. Yet large sections of the countryside still look very much the same as they did 40 or 50 years ago with farmers still growing their rice and worshipping their forefathers as they have done for centuries.
In the midst of all this, Vietnam has also become a very popular tourist destination with large resort developments popping up along the south and south-central coastlines and golf courses appearing at a rapid rate. This is the modern Vietnam trying to attract the more affluent tourists to come and visit a country that for so long was just part of the backpacker trail.
golf course in Da Nang
There is also another type of tourist that has been coming to Vietnam for years and these are the history tourists and veterans interested in the visiting (and often re-visiting) the sites the Vietnam War and the first Indochina War.
Firebases and battlefields
For those who have a connection to the war or are interested in the history, there so much to see, especially outside the cities and the museums. The war played out literally all over the former Republic of Vietnam, and so naturally its remnants can be found everywhere. Some of these old battlefields now have museums of their own, like Khe Sanh Combat Base, which has become a very popular destination for tourists visiting the areas around the old DMZ. There are tours going from the ancient capital of Hue up to the DMZ all the way west to Khe Sanh, passing other important sites like Camp Carroll, The Rockpile and Con Thien. In the south, the Cu Chi Tunnels are also a very popular site to visit. Part of the area where the Viet Cong dug their tunnels is now an outdoor museum where English speaking guides give tours around the area, complete with a trip into a few of the old tunnels themselves — modified to fit the comparatively hefty bulk of the average Western tourist. There is even a firing range where it is possible to try out some of the weapons from that time.
Cu Chi tunnels museum
Away from the museums, the rest of the country awaits the explorer. Legendary places like the An Khe Pass and the Mang Yang Pass can be visited on the QL19 between Quy Nhon and Pleiku — now without the fear of ambush.
As many of the readers of this blog already know, the countryside was strewn with U.S. Fire Support Bases, Combat Bases, Special Forces Camps and larger facilities like in Da Nang, Cam Ranh, Bien Hoa and Chu Lai. While some of these places like An Khe and Bien Hoa are now used by the Vietnamese military and so off limits to travels, others are now civilian airports like Da Nang and Chu Lai.
When it comes to the smaller bases and camps scattered around the country, however, the story is fortunately different – most of those places are now more or less deserted and used as farmland. They often have a runway or chopper pad, which makes them quite easy to find. At a place like Kham Duc the former SF camp in the mountains of western Quang Nam province (then Quang Tin), the runway is just outside of town and it possible to walk or drive down the runway and navigate from there, the same goes for Ben Het, Loc Ninh, Dak To and several others. In Aluoi the old runway is now a street in the small town.
Kham Duc runway
Other places like Firebase Gela are completely overgrown and no traces remain.
A few of the locations even date back to the days of the French, including old bunkers and watchtowers located along roads and strategic points around the country.
watchtower Xa Mat Lai Khe
Having traveled to many of these places over the last 15 years, I decided a few months ago to set up a website to share my pictures and videos from my visits. Together with a couple of like-minded individuals that I have come in contact with over the years, we have accumulated a vast amount of material between us, which we now are making available on our Vietnam War Travel themed website https://namwartravel.com/
Our small team consists of myself, a history-interested middle-aged guy from Sweden, an Australian historian with a keen interest in what the ANZAC soldiers went through and an American combat veteran who has lived in Vietnam for quite some time and is probably the most knowledgeable person on III Corps. Between the three of us, few will have visited as many places of interest from the war and traveled the country as much as we have. Our overall aim is to make history available to our readers.
A Shau Valley
We are not in it for the money. We don’t have any sponsors and all our material is free for anyone to access. Also, all the material is from the three of us, only original pictures, videos, and texts. We do not borrow content or have any sent to us. This we believe will ensure credibility and quality over time. There are plenty of other websites with copied material from the internet, I have even seen some of my pictures and screenshots from my videos being used on other sites without my consent.
One of our aims is to help the veteran who might be interested in going back finding his former AO. Although returning to Vietnam might not be for everyone, our experience is that the vast majority of those who do return do not regret it. It is strictly a personal matter. And for those unable to go, this website can at least help show what it now looks like at that base camp or battlefield today. We also believe that families of veterans will appreciate seeing the areas where their loved ones once served.
Loc Ninh runway
Traveling in Vietnam
Traveling in Vietnam today is as easy as it gets. There’s an abundance of options, just like in any developed country. Domestic air travel is affordable, safe and very flexible, so getting around longer distances between the larger cities is very easy. For shorter and medium distances buses and trains are available. Our recommendation is for the traveler to rent a car with a driver through your hotel. If you are a group then a bus or minivan will be the best option. That way you get to decide exactly where you want to go and how long you want to stay at the places you visit. Some areas in Vietnam are closed off, that especially goes for areas close to the borders with Cambodia and Laos. Your hotel will be able to help you get in touch with local authorities to get the proper permits for traveling there.
frontier area sign Loc Ninh
Our team mostly travels via motorbike, which is easy to rent but comes with the hurdle of negotiating the traffic. It is a great way to get around the country, but all of us have had more or less serious accidents over the years so we would only recommend it to experienced drivers. One also has to make sure to have a local driving license and all insurances in place before getting on a bike.
For those who are interested in what you or your relative’s former AO looks like today and you can’t find it on the website, just contact us through the email on the website and we might be able to help you with information or we can put it on our list of places to visit on our next journey.
riding to Plei Trap
Thank you for all you do for us Vietnam Vets. Good luck on your website and blog – I hope many of my readers visit and take you up on your kind offer. The best to you and your crew!
I published an earlier article about “Hamburger Hill” – Hill 937 – then and now in 2014 and used photos from Jonas’ website. Here is the direct link to that posting:
Here is the direct link to Jonas’ website: https://namwartravel.com/ Please take a moment to check it out and see his offerings.
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What a thrill, to go back and see Vietnam now. Although I spent my time in one or two locations, this was a ride down memory lane. What a great contribution to your site John. Thanks for sharing.
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Same to you Ron. Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!
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This looks like an awesome site. You have certainly done your research and homework. Everyone I knew, who made it back alive, had terrible nightmares and wish they’d never gone. Others has good and bad. No one can have it all their way, I know. I know the country is beautiful, but how can you ensure that where you are walking is all safe. It only take a smidgen of a corner of a land mind to go off. I read this article and do plan on visiting your website and will ask a few friends if they’d like to visit. Keep up the nice work.God bless your travels and journalism. Peace
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Actually, I found a bomb several years ago while climbing up to LZ Center, which is several miles outside of Hoi An and Da Nang, where the 196th operated out of. The US consulate when told of the bomb and with pictures never even asked where I found the bomb. Yes, there are I feel left over bombs in Vietnam. The country is absolutely beautiful.
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Thank you Nadine. Please have a look at the website when you find time and share with your friends. About unexploded ordnance, there is still a lot in the country which is why we try to be as careful as possible. Old ordnance can be very unstable and go off easily, unfortunately many people still get injured or even die from tht each year in Vietnam and they still dig up both small and large items hidden in the ground. We try to be as careful as possible, especially considering that many of the places we visit are old bases where intense battles have taken place. Sticking to welll traveled trails is the baest way to stay safe. When that’s not possible, at least we try to keep our eyes open.
The website is far from ready, we will add more material over time as we continue to travel the country. If you have any questions, then contact us on the email address posted on the website.
Good article. I’ve been visiting all over the country from as far north as Hanoi, then the mountains of central Vietnam and way south of Saigon, for over 25 years now and over 30 trips, including the beaches. I’ve even been fortunate to have had lunch with the Vietnamese AmbassadorToday it is a beautiful country, with out a war and now many friends all over the country. These articles and pictures you have done are very good and I appreciate your work. Keep it up.
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Thank you for your kind words Curtis. It means a lot to get positive feedback on the website. Make sure to re-visit the site as I continuously add material, I have pictures and text from at least ten more war sites. It’s a bit heavy on the I Corps side now, I will add more on III Corps soon and hopefully be able to go more travel in IV Corps.