Sometimes when I travel I go out of my way to visit places that some would say have a limited tourist appeal. My visit to Khe Sanh during my recent Vietnam cycle trip was just such a stop. If you research Khe Sanh as a tourist destination you will find mentions of a commemorative statue, an abandoned airfield, and little else. And that is about the truth of it. Little else. Yet, for all of that it was one of the must see points on my cycling plan when I was making it. So why then was Khe Sanh such an important stop for me? It is because of it’s place in history and the near mythic aura that the name has developed for me over the many years since I first learned of the small hilltop town and the brutal epic battle that was fought there in early 1968, the Battle of Khe Sanh. The battle began on January 21 as a distraction for the impending Tet Offensive, a widespread series of coordinated surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam that began just a week later, and raged as one of the most violent and bloody battles of the war for the next 77 days. In the war, Khe Sanh mattered enough for thousands of men to be injured and die for it. Thus, as a historian, it mattered to me.
I began the 75 k ride to Khe Sanh out of Dong Ha the day after I finished riding what I called the Hello Highway. I was up, washed, and fed by 6:40 and after a little reading, on the road by 7. The sky was a perfect crystal blue and the early morning temperature provided an omen of what was to come as I climbed from the coast into the hills of the interior. It was going to be hot.
About an hour out of town I replenished my food stores at a small road side market. As I was packing my purchase of grapes, oranges, and apples into my bags, the vendor whom I had bought from started trying to sell me a watermelon. I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not. It looked like a beautifully ripe and delicious watermelon, but where exactly was I going to carry the monstrous thing on my bike? In my best attempt at miming, I demonstrated for her and her neighbors the difficulty that such a burden would pose. We all laughed at my wild and erratic gesticulating which ended when the vendor finally just shook her head and waved me away. At which we all laughed again. I then prepared my bike, said a genuine thank you and goodbye which was warmly received and returned in kind.
The morning was an enjoyable ride that gradually transformed from a flat ride to one with intermittent climbs, to one that had more than intermittent climbs, and the uphill’s became more intense as I got deeper into the country’s interior. By mid morning the temperatures had risen into the high 20’s with not so much as a draft of wind for relief. By mid day they were pushing into the low 30’s. I made several stops along the way, mostly to grab a photo or two, or to say hello to some local people. But sometimes, it was just to feel what was around me. As I ventured ever closer to Khe Sanh I began to look at the hills and valleys around me and wonder what terrors they and the people living in their shadow may have seen. In times of quiet I could almost hear the cries of horror and pain, the screams, the wailing, and the gnashing of teeth.
The final 15 kilometers into Khe Sanh is, with a few short exceptions, entirely uphill and much of it steep. The last 8 kilometers are easily the most difficult, nearly one complete and steep ascent, especially difficult in temperatures now pushing near the mid thirties under a cloudless sky. As I ventured further and further up the home stretch I began to see signs of deforestation on several of the surrounding hilltops, scar tissue remaining from the intense bombing of the area during the siege. During Operation Niagara, the American bombing campaign in support of the besieged cavalrymen who defended the base at Khe Sanh, over 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped. Add to this the uncountable numbers of heavy caliber shells, mortars, and rockets fired and it’s a wonder that anything ever grew there again. A testament to the resilience of nature I guess.
By this time the 33-degree heat began to feel unbearable. I was in the midst of a very long and very steep climb and I began to feel a little over heated. At just the moment I needed it most my route began running parallel to a small creek. I dismounted and like a long guilted penitent I dropped heavily to my knees, straddling the sacred stream, and dipped my head full in. Absolution. I know that I have had showers much colder than the tepid water that flowed in that stream, but given the intense heat that my head had been absorbing for the past hours it damn near shocked me it felt so cold. I stayed submerged until the necessity of breathing bade me rise. I took a moment to catch my breath and then proceeded to splash large helpings of the blessed water over me. I felt like a man who had just stumbled upon an oasis after wandering lost in the desert with the scabbards of death following closely in his wake. Hmmm. Okay that last bit is taking it too far, but it was really, really good!
From my dip in the creek it was less than an hour until I checked into the room that would be home for the evening. I knew I was where I needed to be when I passed the war monument that I had seen during my online research. After checking in I quickly gathered the requisite directional information and headed off in pursuit of the Marine Base of Khe Sanh. It was only a few kilometers down the road and it didn’t take long before I found myself at the site of the most intense fighting of the Vietnam War. Shortly after paying the modest entrance fee I found myself walking in the footsteps of history, and almost immediately, swarmed by the future. As often happens, I caught the attention of nearby children and they soon flocked to me with their parents in tow to use their few words of English and say hello. After the requisite photo session, they headed on their way and I on mine. And then my camera battery died. And I had no spare. Dumb rookie mistake.
As a rule, I pack the battery in my camera plus two fully charged spares. In my haste to get on the road from my hotel I left those spares in a bag at my room. Arse! I managed to coax a few photos out before the camera keeled over dead. Double arse!! But in one respect, the camera dying was the best thing that happened. Removed now from my duty of taking photos, I was free to roam the grounds at my leisure and soak in the atmosphere. And that atmosphere was incredible. The sense of history palpable. Here I was walking upon the runway at Khe Sanh, deregulated bombers and helicopters precisely placed for effect, looking out at the hills and valleys above and below. It was quiet and cooling in the twilight of the scorching day as the big, hard sun began to set in the west below the towering range of mountains about 25 kilometers distant that mark the border with Laos. The serenity I felt was in stark contrast to the nightmare that so many men lived through in this very place nearly 50 years ago. I walked the runway, occasionally kicking at the red dirt beneath my feet, once bending to scrape a handful of it. As I held that red earth in my hand, shaking it, sifting it, as if looking for long buried treasure, I looked out at a towering spire in the haze shrouded distance. I tried my best to feel what so many must have felt in that time and realized that it was as useless a venture as asking the many that perished upon that plain to rise from their resting place and tell me of their passing, who they were, and what momentary fancy of the gods conspired to place them there at the very moment that a factory crafted piece of metal droned namelessly through the night air to make its acquaintance with one of their vital organs and erase their life force from the tablet of humanity upon which we are all inscribed. I dug my hand once more into the hard unforgiving earth and cried just a little as I thought of the frailty of life and how much of this precious gift was spilled upon this hard scrabble plain. Such a goddamned shame.
I shook myself free of the sadness of my thoughts and shifted them instead to the indomitable spirit of man and the will that we all possess to carry on. I pondered this as I rode into the setting sun toward my lodging. I thought of all of those, who for a variety of different reasons believed that, upon these grounds, they were fighting for freedom and liberty. And I thought to myself, if I am living in the freedom so many fought for, then I owe it to them to be free. And thus I stood from my saddle, and I cast off a layer of long worn shackles. And I rode.