Every time we talked about going to Danang, that riff from “Good Morning Vietnam” ran through my mind. I mentioned it to someone in our group and they said, “I don’t think you should say that too loudly.”
Oh, come on, a Robin Williams joke offensive?
Still, it was a quiet ride out of Hue that morning as we headed south toward Danang along the coast. Perhaps it was the early morning? Perhaps it was more than a week of travel? Perhaps we were just pooped?
To get to Danang we had to pass over Hai Van Pass, a somewhat treacherous stretch of highway that switchbacked up the mountain, reminiscent of Highway 50 into Lake Tahoe. We could have taken the new tunnel, opened in the past year and built with lots of foreign money, but that meant no view and no stop at the top of the pass.
I was glad of one thing – I sat on the right side of the bus which meant, for the most part, I was closest to the hillside. Oh, I could see the view just fine. But perhaps it’s my job as a journalist or perhaps it’s my fear of heights – well, fear of falling from heights – but I kept picturing the bus careening down the hillside into the rock-strewn valleys. It made me think of the people who were on the C-5 that crashed during the babylift, how many died when their heads cracked against the ceiling when the plane hit the ground. I imagined our heads hitting the top of the bus as it came to a rest off the side of the road, hidden behind the trees, one tourist bus lost forever . . .
Yeah, maybe it’s my occupation.
The pass did have spectacular views of wide beaches, green mountains and blue seas. It was a bit hazy at the top, but you could see how magnificent it might have been during pristine days right after a rain, for example. Apparently, decades ago it was densely forested, but the Americans cut down most of the trees during the war. I tried to picture the soldiers then, climbing this pass on foot or by jeep. The roadway had been quite narrow before the war, but the Americans widened it to accommodate their vehicles. It’s still just wide enough for two vehicles.
We stopped at the top of the pass for the requisite climb-round the bunkers. A French fort initially stood at the top of the pass and both the Americans and South Vietnamese used these bunkers during the war.
My inner mountain goat came out during the visit. I’m not sure where the burst of energy came from, although perhaps it was my eager desire to get away from the souvenir hawkers who accosted us the second we started down the stairs of the bus and followed us around, literally nipping at our heels, for most of the time we were there. I just started speeding up the pathways to one bunker after another, higher and higher, leaving the hawkers behind.
I found a gravesite up there, past the bunkers, a decorated mausoleum of white cement and pink paint built on a steep side of the hill overlooking both the city of Hue to the north and the city of Danang to the south. I don’t know if this was a person of significance, whoever was in the casket, but they did have a great view.
The trip down the mountain took a matter of seconds, it seemed. One moment we were in the hills, the next pass along a peninsula with a lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other. The humidity went up as we drove down, a distinct climatic separation between north and south Vietnam.
Wide-open beaches greeted us. The sand was white and essentially deserted. As someone who grew up in Newport Beach fighting to get parking spaces on the Peninsula on days like this, it astounded me that no one was on the sand, much less in the water. People were around the town, school kids riding on their bicycles, women in shops. But no one at the beach.
Pretty strange. I had to wonder as we headed toward Danang what kept people from swimming. I never got an answer.