Traveling to Vietnam, to Honor a Friend

And another one bites the dust
But why can I not conquer love?
And I might’ve got to be with one
Why not fight this war without weapons?

-Sia, Elastic Heart

Journey to Dong Ha, in the Long Shadow of “The American War”

More than half a century ago, at the age of 18, a dear friend of mine traveled to Vietnam to spend more than a year fighting on the DMZ.

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Pathway to what used to be Con Thien Firebase in Vietnam. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

To say the journey transformed him sounds trite. To call it transformational travel at all is offensive, really. Because when you walk foreign lands knowing that you may not return home, watching while others die and knowing that you may become one of the buried, it changes everything.

You look at life differently. You look at yourself differently. Even something as innate as breathing becomes different, more precious than you could have ever imagined.

I know this, because I’ve had the honor of hearing some of my friend’s stories. They are incomplete–blurry snapshots that peek out from under his memories from time to time, often without warning. He pulls them gingerly from the vault of his mind, holds them out for me to see.

The transformational influence of travel is undeniable. But that transformation often comes at a high, personal price.

Last summer, during the rainy season, my nephew and I traveled to Vietnam.

A large part of that journey was the intention of going there to honor my friend. I have so much respect and admiration for him, and for who he is as a person. I wanted to do something–anything–to show how much all that he has given, and all that he is, means to me. To all of us whom he has knowingly or unknowingly helped in some way. And there are many of us.

When I asked if there were something I could do for him while in Vietnam, he declined. He said if there were something to do, he’d need to go back to do it himself.

You did not break me
I’m still fighting for peace

My nephew and I decided to travel to Dong Ha, a little town in Vietnam near the DMZ.

Traveling by train to Dong Ha

We took an overnight train from Hanoi, in a cabin that slept four. I smashed a bug scurrying up the wall just above my pillow, leaving a trail of black. Two weary travelers stumbled in, climbed into the bunks above us, and went immediately to sleep.

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Our sleeper on the overnight train from Hanoi to Dong Ha, Vietnam. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

With conversation no longer an option, I sat on the thin mattress of the lower bunk, sipped a lukewarm Bia Ha Noi beer and watched Vietnam go by out our window–the soup stands, the shuttered stores, the dim lights of ramshackle homes, the conical hats gliding in and out of view, and the occasional, speeding, overloaded motorbike.

I listened to music, staring out the window, head swaying back and forth with the rattle of the train, a lump steadily building in my throat. We were drawing closer to the heart of where my friend had served in Vietnam.

I’m like a rubber band until you pull too hard
But I may snap when I move close
But you won’t see me fall apart
‘Cause I’ve got an elastic heart

There are times in travel when a journey builds its own soundtrack, gleaning new meaning from songs you’ve heard many times. From songs you once understood to mean something entirely different. “Elastic Heart” by Sia played in my earbuds, a song I’d always thought was about overcoming heartbreak. Suddenly, it became so much more, speaking to the journey of survival in the wake of trauma.

In the haunting lilt and arc of her voice, in the watery impressionist painting through which we sped, my heart broke for my friend.

Every story he’d ever told me, every moment his voice cracked in remembrance, every long pause and swallow he’d take before pressing on the bruise of the hardest, dearest memories, I’d unknowingly packed and carried on the journey. An emotional sherpa. And now it was time to unpack. The scale of it was immense.

The Legacy of Con Thien Firebase

Con Thien Firebase is far off the tourist track, even for those interested in visiting sites of the Vietnam War. You can easily get to the Vinh Moc or Cu Chi tunnels, underground warrens where people hid on both sides of the DMZ. 

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Entrance to the Vinh Moc tunnels. Photo by Charish Badzinski.
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My nephew walks through a narrow passageway in the Vinh Moc tunnels. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

You can check out the winners’ spin on the war, at a small museum on the DMZ. You can walk the reconstructed bridge or the edge of the Bến Hải River and reflect. You can learn about the lingering effects of unexploded ordinance (UXO) at a museum in Dong Ha, and the valuable work they’re doing to clear land so that children who go out to the fields to play don’t come home with a limb missing.

As a visitor, you can relatively easily get to all of these sites related to the Vietnam War. But Con Thien Firebase? Only a few Vietnam Veterans go there. Veterans of “The American War,” as they call it in Vietnam.

It was at Con Thien Firebase that my friend spent many of the 393 days he served in Vietnam.

One night, his platoon was overrun.

And I will stay up through the night
Let’s be clear, I won’t close my eyes
And I know that I can survive
I walked through fire to save my life

And I want it, I want my life so bad
And I’m doing everything I can
Then another one bites the dust
It’s hard to lose a chosen one

When dawn broke, the ground was littered with the bodies of more than eighty of his brothers in arms.

He was one of just three survivors.

Though he never spoke of it to me, I’d heard that he’d taken a bullet in his leg during the battle. I suspect he never talks about it because he knows on a deep level he was one of the lucky ones. He’d seen too much to feel sorry for himself, ever.

Arriving in Dong Ha

It was a wet, pewter day when we arrived in Dong Ha. A break in the rain lasted just long enough for us to catch motorbike taxis to a place my outdated Lonely Planet guidebook indicated would have a guest house by now, and an owner who could arrange tours of the DMZ with a local Vietnam Veteran. A short, slippery spin through town and we were soon there, at Tam’s Cafe.

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Tam’s Cafe in Dong Ha also provides affordable overnight lodging. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

With a significant language barrier to bridge, we pointed at menu items to order lunch and contemplated our next move. We hadn’t made reservations, and didn’t see any signs of a guest house.

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Delicious, satisfying pho at Tam’s Cafe in Dong Ha, Vietnam. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

But bolstered and warmed by a belly full of pho, I started the conversation, and found there was indeed a guest room available with two beds, and yes, they could arrange for a customized tour of the DMZ and Con Thien Firebase for us.

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Our room at Tam’s Cafe. Clean and comfy. And great food just downstairs. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Via phone, our guide warned that the path to Con Thien Firebase might be impassible. Soaked in the season’s deluge, the ubiquitous red clay had become impossibly slippery. He encouraged us to scrap the plan.

Tears welled in my eyes. We’d come so far, and now it seemed we’d come up short. My nephew vowed it would happen, even if he had to go it alone. We had something small, but very important, to do.

I couldn’t help but think that on the cusp of 18, if he’d been born half a century earlier, he might have walked alongside my friend at Con Thien.

Trekking to Con Thien Firebase, and Beyond

It had rained the whole day of our arrival in Dong Ha. But the next day the sun won out, and the ground quickly and mercifully dried enough for us to make our way.

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Our guide, whose name sounds like the city of Hue (I’m not sure of the spelling of his name), wipes sweat from his brow as we hike to Con Thien Firebase and the lone, remaining bunker there. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Our guide, a veteran of the war himself, wasn’t even entirely sure where to find Con Thien, or what is left of it, that is. Today only a single bunker stands. With the help of a GPS, he was able to locate the site a couple of kilometers in from a road, on what is now a rubber tree plantation. UXO still hide underground, they say, so veering off the narrow footpath is not recommended.

With Vietnam’s summer heat and humidity at full tilt, we began the hike.

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The site of the former Con Thien Firebase is now a rubber tree plantation. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Along the way our guide uncovered sandbags, which he knew my friend would recognize.

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A sandbag that was exposed after the previous day’s rain. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

He found a disintegrating MRE wrapper, noting that after the rains, items long buried under the clay would rise up and be revealed.

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An old MRE wrapper at Con Thien Firebase. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

The lone, remaining bunker was largely obscured by the thick brush.

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Cattle roamed the area, napping in the sun, chewing on greens.

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Our guide pointed out carvings in the concrete bunker wall, where service members had etched their hometowns.

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Look closely, you can see the word California is etched in the concrete wall of the remaining bunker at Con Thien Firebase. Service members sometimes carved their home states or towns in the concrete. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

That day, our guide also took us to the DMZ and Doc Mieu, the closest American base to the DMZ, which he said my friend would no doubt know. It, too, had been taken over by jungle.

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Our guide, also a veteran of the Vietnam War who fought alongside Americans, stops at Doc Mieu Firebase. Photo by Charish Badzinski.
DMZ map
This is the route we took on our tour of Con Thien Firebase, Doc Mieu, the Vinh Moc tunnels and the DMZ in Vietnam. 

Continuing the Journey

In the weeks following our visit to Con Thien Firebase and the DMZ, my friend celebrated his 70th birthday. I wrote his name in the serene white sands of An Bang Beach, on the shores of the South China Sea, knowing the tide would come in and erase it. Knowing that once erased, a part of him would still be here, perhaps forever.

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An Bang beach on the South China Sea, near Hoi An, Vietnam, where I wrote a happy birthday message to my friend for his 70th birthday. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

There are infinite ways a person can change after a traumatic journey.

Some get lost in themselves, in their own personal prison.

Others transfer the pain they cannot reconcile onto others.

And some dig still deeper–beneath the surface of their pain, excavating to the taproot, where they find in the lush, unfathomable depths, a seed of compassion that is just beginning to sprout. And they let it. And as it grows, it blooms in gratitude. It changes the course of their life, driving them to give back to others. Perhaps because they cannot ease the suffering behind their own eyes, they instead ease the suffering they see in the world.

I don’t know how you get there. But that is the journey my friend has taken through his trauma. He has examined his past, and throughout the long journey of healing his own wounds he has found the strength to transform the world for the better. Quietly. He does it so frequently that many people will never know their lives are better because of the work of his hands and his heart.

So humble is he, it would be unthinkable to name him in this story, though many who read it might recognize the fingerprints of his kindness.

And he has helped and inspired me, personally, more than he may ever know.

I wanted to do something for him, to show him how much he means to me, and to others. But in the end, I could only bring him the most humble of gifts. If he could not yet get to Vietnam himself to commune with and lay to rest the unsilent voices, then I would bring Vietnam to him.

So I brought it to him in three small vials.

Brown clay from Doc Mieu.

Black soil from the southern shoreline of the Bến Hải River, on the DMZ.

And sticky, red clay from the entrance to the lone, remaining bunker at Con Thien Firebase.

You did not break me
(You did not break me, no, no)
I’m still fighting for peace

The great cruelty of life is that we can never travel someone else’s path for them. No matter how much we love them.

But maybe if we try to walk in one another’s footsteps, we can begin in the smallest of increments to heal one another. To heal from even the rockiest of pathways that have rendered us broken, bloodied and scarred. To heal from the journeys in life that have left us, and our elastic hearts, stretched beyond what we thought would be our breaking point.

Maybe knowing that we never walk alone is enough. Even if it takes fifty years for our travel companions to join us.

Well I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart
But your blade it might be too sharp
I’m like a rubber band until you pull too hard
But I may snap when I move close
But you won’t see me fall apart
‘Cause I’ve got an elastic heart


Charish Badzinski

Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning features, food and travel writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, providing powerful storytelling to her clients.

Posts on the Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World travel blog are never sponsored and have no affiliate links, so you know you will get an honest review, every time.

Find Charish on Twitter: @rollrbaggoddess and on Instagram at @rollerbaggoddess. You can also read more about Charish Badzinski’s professional experience in marketing, public relations and writing.

Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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