Vietnam Maps and the places on them...

(Or, how to find your way around in Vietnam when nothing looks the same after 40+ years.)

For those who want to find locations where they served in Vietnam, I suggest starting with the "Where We Were in Vietnam" book by Michael  P. Kelley. It was published in 2002, and is still available for $45 or less.

The book is also available electronically for Kindle readers, including downloadable readers for PC, iPod, Mac, etc. Go to http://www.amazon.com and search for "Where We Were in Vietnam." It costs $9.99. For those with a Nook reader from Barnes & Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com), you can also get the book electronically for your reader for $9.99. The huge advantage for getting it electronically is that you can do an electronic search for base names and other information. This is especially useful with the Kindle viewer on a PC you are using to work coordinates.

This book may also be available in libraries or Vet Centers. This book has thousands of grid coordinates (561 pages of them!) for almost every sort of fire support base, patrol base, airfield and landmark that was of any interest to the U.S. military. It also has information on ordering maps, an index of 1:50,000 tactical maps, and a glossary of acronyms and military terms.

This website has information on how to order 1:50,000 tactical maps of Vietnam from the war era: http://www.rjsmith.com/topo_map_info.html.

The following part of the same website has  links to scanned 1:50,000 military tactical maps of many "popular" areas in Vietnam:
http://www.rjsmith.com/topo_map.html#bigmaps

The 1:50,000 tactical maps are available from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), but you need to know specifically what you want. The maps cost $9 each plus an order handling fee. You can also get these maps from other sources, but they will probably be more expensive.

Note: The USGS store has PDF versions of some of the more popular L7014 maps. You can go to http://store.usgs.gov and click on "Advanced Search" in the left column. If you search for the map number in the format "L701463304" (Map series L7014 followed by 6330 followed by sheet number 4), or search for the specific name (such as "Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh), you should find the USGS listing for the map. Many of these listings have scans of the maps in PDF files that range in size from 6 to 9 megabytes.

Another source is Omni Resources: http://www.omnimap.com/catalog/int/vietnam.htm. I believe the "road map" I ordered from them is item 65-52916 in the second group down the page (Northern and Southern Vietnam Travel Maps). It had way more detail and many more roads than the "official" Vietnam road maps you can purchase in Vietnam.

You will need to find the MGRS (Military Grid Reference System) coordinates of the spots you want to find. Many of these are in Kelley's book. If you get the maps, you may find a few areas of interest, although only the larger base camps are typically shown on them. I believe you could probably find the locations with coordinates in a GPS without the maps, but having the tactical maps marked ahead of time with locations of interest makes it much easier.

The MGRS coordinates from the book look like this: XT 407-440 (the coordinates for Fire Support Base Schofield, located southwest of Dau Tieng). This is essentially the coordinate format for a single map sheet. The complete MGRS coordinate information can be found on the margin of each 1:50,000 map. In the case of FSB Schofield, it is 48P XT 407-440. On some maps of the 25th Division's area of operations, there are both "XT" and "XS" sections. Some version of this is what you need to plug into your GPS software (you may need to remove spaces and dashes -- check what your GPS shows as the format and follow it).

IMPORTANT NOTE: Make sure your GPS can handle the MGRS coordinates and the Indian-Thailand grid. This is what is used on the 1:50,000 tactical maps. If your GPS and its accompanying computer software won't handle these settings, you will be faced with some additional hurdles (perhaps insurmountable). The instruction manual for your GPS should have a listing of all the coordinate types and grids it will handle. You can find convertors for changing MGRS to latitude/longitude by searching the Internet. Be sure the software for the unit will allow you to input the coordinates in your computer and send them to the GPS receiver. If your unit won't allow this, you have lots of miserable inputting to do on a sub-par screen on your GPS receiver.

Before I left on the trip, I spent hours (probably DAYS...) finding the coordinates, marking the locations in red on black & white paper copies of the tactical maps. Our local FedEx/Kinkos made the copies for about $3 to $4 each (there are no copyright restrictions, but you may have to argue this with the clerk). The B&W copies were much easier to use because my red dots for the locations of interest really stood out. The original maps have a color overprint for various things such as jungle, rice fields, rubber plantations, etc., so they are quite busy to start with.

I entered all the MGRS coordinates into the Garmin MapSource software on my computer. (This is not a plug for any particular product, but it is what worked for me on our May 2009 trip.) I bought Garmin's World Map software to have better (but not especially good) road coverage in Vietnam. And keep in mind that many of the cow paths we knew way back when might now be a brand-new two-lane paved road, so they probably don't show up on either the maps or the GPS software. (Garmin has moved to new software called Base Camp. While I have used it for inputting other coordinates, I have not used it with MGRS. You are on your own here.)

Basically you start with the GPS in MGRS and Indian-Thailand grid to enter the coordinates, and then you switch the GPS to Latitude/Longitude and WGS-84 grid. Unfortunately I can't do a tutorial on how to do this for all the different types of GPS receivers on the market, but if you play around with it you should be able to figure it out. As a hint, it is much easier to use latitude and longitude coordinates in the decimal degrees format. Look for a menu choice under the coordinates section that looks like "dd.dddd" or similar. This is much easier than trying to put in degrees, then a space, then minutes, then a space, then seconds, but offers the same level of accuracy.

I also input the coordinates to Google Earth to get an aerial photo look at the terrain and surroundings, and then printed color images of various areas of interest.  I believe having the aerial images from Google Earth is extremely important -- we found a bridge on one aerial that didn't show on any map or the GPS. Taking the bridge saved us probably an hour or two of detouring.

I brought an inverter to Vietnam to plug into the 12-volt cigarette lighter in the van and give me 110-volt power for my netbook (small laptop) computer. I plugged the GPS into the netbook, and it fed the signal to Garmin's nRoute software. This gave me a moving map image on the computer screen as well as the GPS. I had the GPS set to show the location in MGRS coordinates on the map screen, which we could use to make a quick comparison to the 1:50,000 tactical map to see where we were. Unfortunately the nRoute software only ran on old Windows versions, and I don't know if it is available any longer. I have not used the Garmin Base Camp software enough to know if it supports a moving map based on the location it gets from your GPS.

Whenever we got close to the location of a fire support base, I counted down the MGRS coordinates aloud while Thi, our guide, watched the map and used his thumb to keep track of our position just like I did when I was the platoon leader's RTO in Vietnam in the 1960s. I only had to explain the MGRS system once to Thi, and he was off and running.

One caution: Because so much has changed in Vietnam in the 40 years since we were there, it was often quite difficult to determine where a base was located 40 years ago. We drove back and forth through the location of FSB Schofield several times before we realized where it was. Even though we were moving slowly in the van, it was too easy to look away from the GPS and try to find something that looked familiar. It is an eerie feeling to look around and sort of recognize the area, but not be able to find any sign of a base. The only bases that were easy to find were the ones now being actively used by the People's Army. The other factor that adds to the difficulty is that the two-letter, six-digit MGRS coordinates are only accurate to 100 meters on the ground.