The Central Highlands and the US-Vietnam War

Posted 21st September 2013 by David McGuinness

My flight into Pleiku went without a hitch, and I stepped off into a cooler world. At 600m above sea level the temperature was noticeably lower though not quite sweater weather. I met my guide for the next few days, Minh, and my driver, Anh, and we headed South on highway 19 to the scene of a famous, ultimately unsuccessful, siege on a US camp by the Viet Cong, called Plei Me. We drove through lush tropical vegetation as well as tea, rubber and pepper plantations past a humble hill they called Dragon Mountain. As soon as we stopped the car and started to walk through towards the field where the battle took place we were followed by five local boys of about 16. It was Saturday and we were the best entertainment they were likely to get it seemed. Minh stopped after about ten metres and dug an M16 bullet out of the red soil, then another one five metres later. Then a shell. The ground was full of shrapnel and bullets. Over 70,000 tons of ammunition fell on Vietnam every month across almost 20 years in the war with the US, and most of it still lives in the earth.

As Minh explained the history of the battle, and how the Viet Cong supply lines went through Cambodia that mostly women carried supplies of food, weapons and ammunition, often weighing between 80 and 120kg for long distances (whereas the US used helicopters and planes to do drops), the local boys pointed out a hole in the ground. The hole had apparently been caused by a bomb that US soldiers had buried for safekeeping that had exploded about a month previously. Most of the larger bombs have been removed by now, by using machines to detect them, but smaller ones were too numerous and too small to remove so are often detonated by farmers. Poor people often try to recoup the contents and sell them, and our boys (being boys) would often make their own fireworks from old bombs they would find. We passed an unexploded M18 shell lodged in a tree. Minh brought me to the site of a US medical camp, and we saw various pieces of equipment, a tap, a section of pipe, another bullet. We drove back to Pleiku through the rain.

The following morning I met a group of American veterans of the war, the only others staying in the cottages where I stayed. They were men who suffered from PTSD and had come back to make some sort of peace with their past. They were returning to the scene of battles, to their former camps, places they still had photos of, places they had seen horrific things and where they had lost friends. They had also come to meet some of the men they had shot at, and had shot at them. The ones that are still here, like themselves. They were all profoundly moved by their experiences and spoke with great respect of the men they had met, both former allies and former enemies, and the warmth, acceptance and comradeship that they had felt with them all. They embraced many a former enemy, and you could visibly see the healing effect it had had on them. It was very moving to hear them speak of it.

They were travelling with an organisation called Soldiers Heart who help soldiers, and family of soldiers come to terms with their post-war lives, by visiting the places they needed to get some form of closure from. From Vietnam to Korea, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some day maybe Syria. While the experience of meeting these men was thoroughly uplifting, that thought was depressing. I still found it hard to reconcile the images on TV with the warm, gentle country I last visited less than four years ago. Time to move on. Vietnam certainly has. As Howard, one of the veterans put it, “the oriental mindset is different, they know how to let go. They also haven’t been fighting wars ever since.”

Check out our tours with these unique experiences below

Prefer to do a tailor-made itinerary where you can choose your unique experiences and build your perfect trip? Click here to contact us today.

Hidden Vietnam


Historic cities, beautiful landscapes and pagodas

£2,495 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
14 days

Hidden Indochina

Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos

Capture the true essence and diversity of Indochina

£4,195 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
21 days

Flavours of Vietnam

Culture | Culinary

Discover Vietnam's wonderful food culture

£2,095 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
14 days
Call us on:020 7183 6371

Trip Finder


Or search directly from our list of tours: