The Song Thu Bon

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Going Back to Vietnam, by Capt. Bill Pike, Photography by Jim Raycroft (continued)

The Hue National School

The Song Thu Bon

The Best Guys To Go With

Vietnam Battlefield Tours (VBT) is a nonprofit tour company consisting of highly experienced tour guides who are expert in leading veterans and their family members, active-duty military, historians, educators, students, and documentary-film crews to the battlefields of Southeast Asia. VBT’s combat-veteran founders created the all-volunteer organization as a way to help people return to places that are very important to them via reasonably priced, high-quality, professionally staffed experiences. All tours are customized to the individual client’s needs.

Vietnam Battlefield Tours, 877-231-9277; www.vietnambattlefieldtours.com

After flying into a strikingly modern Da Nang International Airport, Raycroft and I linked up with our interpreter, a former Vietnamese soldier, Nguyen Tan Phuoc, and our driver Huynh Anh Tuan. We’d already connected with our in-country logistics guy Bill Stilwagen—he’d joined us in Los Angeles for the flight across the Pacific. Stilwagen was a former U.S. Marine corporal, a combat infantryman like myself who’d served in Quang Tri Province around the same time as Raycroft and I. In addition, he was a highly experienced “bush guide” for San Antonio-based Vietnam Battlefield Tours (see “The Best Guys To Go With,”), the nonprofit company that had coordinated travel, hotel, and meal arrangements for the whole trip. Not only had Stilwagen been guiding veterans’ groups around Vietnam for more than 18 years, he was, handily enough, a boat guy, with a background in commercial boatbuilding.

After exchanging a raft of pleasantries, we all took a short ride south in a Mercedes Benz van, and spent the first night in Vietnam at a little riverside hotel in Hoi An, a picturesque old town on the Song Thu Bon, a river with considerable urban development and a military facility at its mouth. Our hotel was called the Vinh Hung Emerald Resort and it had Texas-grade air-conditioning and some truly snooze-worthy beds.

I was up early the next morning, nevertheless. And when we boarded a Yanmar-diesel-powered sampan behind the hotel at 8 o’clock, the first thing I did was haul out a black-and-white photo of a PBR and show it to our skipper Dang Tri, an exercise I’d repeat many times over the ensuing eight days.

“He’s sorry,” translated Phuoc. “He thinks we will not find one.”

This did not surprise me. The skipper was a relative youngster—maybe in his mid-30s—and having come of age well after Vietnam’s communist takeover, there was little chance he’d ever seen a PBR, in an operational state or otherwise. So, through Phuoc, I suggested we get going anyway.

Stilwagen seconded the motion while unfolding an old topographic map on his lap. For a few anticipatory moments, Raycroft, Phuoc, and I leaned over his shoulder, studying the sinuous shape of the Song Thu Bon. “We’ll check out the port first,” Stilwagen said, pointing with an index finger, “And then we’ll proceed west into the boonies.”

The skyline of Da Nang

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