Terrain, Climate & Wildlife
Oscar Company was stationed near the Khe Sanh Combat Base, with our HQ and 1st Plt. being in the HQ compound of the Hướng Hóa Sub-Sector in Quang Tri Province, in the military zone called
I Corps, in what was then the Republic of Vietnam.
Like much of Vietnam, Khe Sanh is very beautiful, and like many of us, I often thought that if there was not a war on, Vietnam would be an excellent place (other than the climate, which I found oppressive) for holiday resorts, and subsequent events have borne this out. Even the restrictive authoritarian regime has not stemmed the tide of tourism, some coming for the beauty of the land and others for the historic aspects, including a brisk trade in veteran tourism, and non-vets with a military interest, seeking to view the places history was made.
Some of my comrades have made the trip at least once, and others have been back several times. Some have set up or worked with agencies seeking to assist both our former allies (like the Bru) and even our former foes -- and of course, the many children born since the end of the war, many injured by ordnance left by both sides, or by chemical and other environmental damage done by substances like Agent Orange.
The mountains around the Khe Sanh area are somewhat cooler than the lowlands, due to their elevation and the fact that they were at that time heavily forested. (Military action and subsequent population increase in the years since, mainly from an influx of Vietnamese settlers into the region, have resulted in the deforestation of a substantial area.)
The dominant terrain feature is the limestone Annamite mountain range, locally called the Truong Son. This range was formed millions of years ago when the Kontum Massif impacted the shallow sea in the region now known as Laos. The chain is approximately 800 km (497 miles) long, approximately 50-300 kilometers (31-186 miles) wide, and approximately 500-2,500 meters (1640-8200 feet) high. There are some peaks In the vicinity of Khe San that are nearly 1828 meters (6000 ft.) .
This range features steep and mountainous terrain in the north and central parts with steep slopes on the eastern (Vietnamese) side and a relatively gentler slope on the western (Laotian) side, with dissected hills and rolling-to-hilly plateau in the south.
The rough terrain still makes travel extremely difficult. There are only a few viable passes through the mountains, such as the D'ai Lao at Lao Bao, to the west of the former combat base, an historic route for invading armies. This military access route, combined with the fact that Khe Sanh's status as a provincial sub-sector HQ made the town strategically and politically more important than it appeared.
Routes still generally follow rivers and streams. Among these is National Route 9 (for many years the only major road), which remains the principal route to and from the mountains to the coast. Part of this journey, from just west of Huong Hoa, formerly was made by water to the coast at Quang Tri, prior to the building of Hwy. 9.
Aerial Photo of Rt. 9 crossing the Rao Quan River southeast of Khe Sanh.
(Photo courtesy of Larry Larsen of SU # 5)
Aerial Photo of a waterfall on the Rao Quan
(Photo courtesy of Larry Larsen of SU # 5)
The roads, including Highway 9, were difficult to keep clear of mines and booby-traps during our time there, despite intensive clearing efforts by the engineers, due to the nature of the surrounding terrain.
There are monsoons in summer (May to October) from the southwest, and in winter (November to January) from the northeast.
Summer rainfall ranges from over 60 inches at lower elevations to more than 150 inches on the higher elevations and slopes.
For those who have never experienced one, a monsoon rain is something difficult to describe. The rain literally pours down, as though a bucket was upended, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. Nothing can dry out, and so you are generally soaked most of the time.
Even if you wear rain gear, you get wet, because the heat under the rubberized ponchos or rain suits causes you to sweat. In any case, many of us abandoned the rain gear, which was noisy, especially at night, and just wore our utilities (field service uniform) and our Marine utility "covers" (hats) or a "jungle hat" aka "bush hat" and we learned to endure the rain and chill of the mountains in winter.
This abundant rainfall supports a rain forest and local agriculture, including rice, rubber, and coffee plantations.
Higher elevations featured a primary rain forest, (tree height average approx. 80 ft.), which forms a top layer known as a canopy. Where primary rain forest has been cleared and left uncultivated, secondary rain forest develops. Below the top canopy are smaller trees (approx. 55 ft.). These trees are small and close together, with an abundance of ground growth including seedlings, saplings, orchids, liana vines, and other plant life. In some cases, lone encounters "triple canopy" jungle, which is dark, dense, and extremely difficult to traverse.
Little light penetrates the double canopy, (and even less in the triple canopy) and there is not much ground growth. In the dry season, travel is relatively easy, but much more difficult in the wet season, as the soil turns to slippery mud. (See CAC Oscar History for photos of a patrol through such jungle) Travel through the forested hills is difficult, often requiring the use of a machete.
Vietnam is rich in exotic flora and fauna, and Conservation International marks it 5th on its list of world conservation "hot spots." Its biodiversity is truly amazing, and includes: 11,400 species of plants ranging from perfumed orchids and rhododendrons to poisonous or annoying varieties like the high, sharp and tough elephant grass and liana vines (known as "wait-a-minute weeds" because they often tripped us or restrained our progress.
There are at least 11,217 species of animals, ranging from tiny lizards to the small and strange-looking pangolin, a small scaled mammal (sadly hunted almost to extinction for its scales, used in Asian medicine), to Asian elephants.
William ("Peanut") Pennock and Raymond ("Red") Strehlow of O-3 with a pangolin.(Photo courtesy of William Pennock)
Small Asian elephant passing by Oscar compound.
The humans may be its handlers.
There are 889 species of birds, and 310 species of mammals, including several varieties of the deer-like muntjacs, as well as the black bear and honey bear, tigers and leopards, and primates, including the snub-nosed monkey, gibbons, langurs and others, as well as bats, flying squirrels, turtles and otters.
There are 296 reptile species (including several varieties of highly poisonous snakes, such as the bamboo krait, cobra, sea snake, and other deadly species), as well as constrictor snakes (including two species of python), crocodiles, and lizards. There are also 2470 species of sea fish, 700 freshwater species, and 162 amphibian species. There are also more than 23,000 species of corals and many species of invertebrates.
New species and sub-species still being discovered. Almost 1000 new species were discovered between 1997 and 2007, but many areas remain unexplored which may provide still more previously unknown species.
Unfortunately, the long wars with the French and then the Americans (among others) vast areas of habitat were destroyed or poisoned, followed by rapid economic development, as a result of which, many variety of animals have become threatened, endangered or extinct like the Vietnamese Javan rhinoceros. Sadly, a study by the WWF reported that at least 10% of Vietnam’s rich diversity of wildlife is threatened with extinction.
While the protection of large animals is being addressed, and the government has taken steps to establish reserves and rehabilitate previously damaged areas, many species remain threatened or endangered, due to the money to be made in the animal parts trade for Asian medicine markets in China, Vietnam, and elsewhere in the region.
( Note: This site represents the result of many years of investigative work and research. I have tried to be as accurate throughout as possible, but there is no such thing as 100% perfect. In cases where I was not present, I have relied on the accounts of those who were present and / or official records, correspondence, statements from comrades, their friends and family, and other sources. Statements, quotes, poems, or any material other than my own reflect the views of those who made them. Neither this author nor this site assumes any responsibility for any errata made in good faith, nor for any of the views expressed other than my own. All the photos, documents, text, and other materials are copyright, and they belong solely to the authors, photographers, etc., who retain all rights to the materials. All material is copyright, and may not be used without express written permission of the owners or their heirs and assigns. All material used with the express permission of the owners, who are named where known. Unattributed material will be attributed when the owner contacts me. I receive no financial or material reward or incentives of any kind for any reviews or links on this site. They are posted because I have personal experience of them and / or their products, and think they are good quality and might be of interest to our readers. Your contact information will NEVER be used for solicitation by us, nor will it be traded, hired, lent, sold or otherwise distributed. You will only be contacted if you request it.)