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up the Mekong
Assignment notes:
     Back in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), my assignment editor said the U.S. Navy was involved in a humanitarian effort of transporting sandbags up the MeKong River to flooded city of Chau Doc on the Vietnam/Cambodian border. 

"Get met the story and photos,"  he said, and left it at that.

     A few inquiring phone calls later and I was talking to Navy liaison who told me a shipment was leaving the next afternoon from a dock in Can Tho and gave me a rendezvous point and departure time.

     I tucked my tooth brush, some C-rations, cameras and film and  incidentals into my pack, slung it over one shoulder and caught a ride out to the airport.

     There, I managed to get on a flight the 80 miles south to Can Tho where highways 1 and 91 join in the busy town near the Mekong.

      I checked into billeting and the next morning, I met the sailors and we were all off up the Mekong  70 to 80 miles to Chau Doc where the Mekong River enters Vietnam.

     While, I'm sure I wrote about it in my story, today, I don't remember the proper designation for the kind of water craft it was. It looked a lot like the  World War II landing craft you see in the movie "Saving Private Ryan."

     Doing interviews with some of the crew of five the 75 mile or so river trip eventually became sometimes boring. 

     Boredom was occasionally broken by water craft tips like the crew teaching  me how to warm up my canned C-rations by placing them down below on the engine's exhaust manifold for a while.

     Monotony was also combated by a heightened fear and readiness when the craft entered areas of the river where the banks were narrow and we became easier targets for the enemy who could be waiting in ambush.

     But our crew was heavily armed and ready to return tons of fire at whoever fired at us, and by radio, we could have air support level any area that fired on us.

     In addition, with the river flooded, the old banks were gone and it would have been difficult for the enemy to slog through newly swamp land to reach a vantage point to shoot at us.

   It got so boring that at one point the crew started firing their grenade launcher's into the water and I got to fire a few rounds off myself.

    Some 2.600 miles up river, the Tibetains call this same flow Dza-chu. It rises in the Tanglha Range of eastern Tibet and flows southeast through Sikang and Yunnan provinces of China and through other countries before disappearing into the see at Vietnam. 

     We finally arrived in Chau Doc tied but OK late in the afternoon and I photographed a few shots of sandbags being unloaded and thanked the crew for the ride and story befor bidding them bid farewell. They were staying for a couple of days, and I had to get back to Saigon and file my stories and photos.

      Chau Doc is  a small city where 4,500 people lived in the 1940s and 75,000 in the 1990s. Then and now it serves as a major export point between Cambodia and Vietnam.

     Here the Vietnamese share their city with many 
 Cambodians, Chinese and Muslim Cham minorities.
      Nearly every three years, the Mekong suffers a major flood that closes schools and blocks highways and it was one of those years that we were bringing the sandbags.
     I walked through Chau Doc  for about an hour, photographed a helicopter medic heping a wounded South Vietnamese soldier from the chopper  across a flooded soccer  field.
    I was able to talk helicopter pilot into taking me up for a few minutes so I could get some aerial shots of the area.

   Then I went back to the river and found a PBR boat that was headed back down river and caught a ride.

     The quick and small Vietnam era version of a PT boat, the craft looked like a modern fiberglas ski boat but with a machine gun turret at the bow.

   It was just getting dark as we pulled back to Can Tho and I checked into billeting.

     It had been a busy and productive day for photographs.

    Next morning, I caught a ride to the airfield and before catching a ride back to Saigon, I photographed some Vietnamese prisoners who  had just been taken off a South Vietnamese helicopter.

     I never saw a copy of the stories or photos I filed before going out on so many other assignments so if any of the crew or any one else happens to have a copy in their scrapbook, I sure would like one. Thanks.

     Also, to learn more about Chau Doc, check out Thinh Le's Chau Doc website here. It is his hometown and clearly he knows it well.

up the Mekong


© 1999 Pat Christian
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