To Walter Pearson, the journey from his home in Binh Long along National Route 13 to Ho Chi Minh City is one long drive down history lane.
On the drive from home to Ho Chi Minh City, I hardly have to think because it is all so familiar. Instead, I reflect. Invariably, as I pass each landmark, I am drawn into the rich history of this apparently mundane road.
I leave the dirt track from home and turn onto National Route 13. Soon, I am cruising at 60kph or so, leaving behind Binh Long — or as it was once known An Loc, the site of a major battle in 1972 that almost completely destroyed the town.
Before I know it, I am at Lai Khe, the one-time site of a huge American base and airstrip. There are still some bunkers from the base left in the village. The units that were here were part of the US Army 1st Division, called ‘the Big Red One’.
From 1965 to 1970, the Big Red One was responsible for the area astride Route 13. In late 1965 they battled with the Vietnamese forces at Bau Bang just north of their base at Lai Khe. I see the monument the Vietnamese built to the battle at a crossroads as I scoot by. During its time in Vietnam, the division lost 6,146 killed in action, with 16,019 wounded.
Soon after Lai Khe, I reach Ben Cat. It was here that in the early 1960s the Diem regime built a number of strategic hamlets. These were fortress-like villages built to house the local population to “protect” them from the liberation forces.
But the program was undermined from the inside by a double agent named Thao who had been appointed to run it. It was also attacked from outside by the resistance forces who mobilised the masses to destroy the much hated hamlets.
Ben Cat was also one of the northern points on the Iron Triangle, an area to the east of the Saigon River, so-called because it was a stronghold of the resistance forces.
Ben Cat fighters brag they were the first in the region to build tunnels to fight the French in 1946. The say cadres from Cu Chi went up to Ben Cat to get tips from the tunnel builders.
As I slip past the tollbooth at Middle Creek north of Thu Dau Mot, I see the Chinese cemetery on the other side of the road. I once had the luck to call in while the local management committee was re-painting the Temple in the cemetery. They told me there are four Chinese “ethnic groups” in the area. They have been there for generations and came from Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian and one other area whose name I did not recognise. The committee members are all “ethnic Chinese” but they don’t speak Chinese, although we were able to have a chat about the characters on the posts and walls.
Sometimes, on my way to town I have to go to the province capital of Dong Xoai, about 50km to the east of home. Dong Xoai was the site of a major victory in 1965 when the resistance forces destroyed a battle group from the Saigon Regime. There is an unusual monument there because it shows the name of a famous general, Hoang Cam, and is one of the few monuments that actually name a personality in the resistance forces.
I follow a road from Dong Xoai across a plateau about 100 metres above sea level and into an area of rubber plantations in eastern Binh Duong province. The road comes out into a vast, mostly empty expanse where high-rise buildings grow out of a matrix of guttered roads, the skeleton of the new Thu Dau Mot City.
Back on Route 13 the enormous Binh Duong transmission tower dominates the high ground. A lot of these places called “Thu” were once places where taxes were collected. The name of the person who ran the post was usually attached to the word “Thu”, hence Thu Thiem and Thu Duc.
I cross the creek next to the new Happiness Hospital for Women with its plastic surgery ads on billboards outside. I am about to enter the city. Drivers claim this is where the rain starts. I have done this trip countless times and in the wet season I think they are right.
Somewhere over my left shoulder is Di An, once the headquarters of the US Army 1st Division. Now it is the home of the Vietnamese 4th Army, whose founding general was Hoang Cam, the man whose name is inscribed on the Dong Xoai monument.
The Bitexco Tower sits on the skyline in front of me. My trip is almost over. My mind is still alive with stories I have been reflecting on. But my wits are concentrating on the traffic in the thanh pho.
Walter Pearson is an Australian expat, tour guide, former journalist and war veteran. He lives with his family in the small town of Binh Long.