In September 2010 I went back to Australia for a while after spending months travelling in the US, Europe and Asia. My return was to catch up with family and friends, do some travel there and a few months of contract work to boost the coffers, then I had planned to move to the US. But with the economy still in the gutter I thought, what the hell, I am going to Vietnam and Laos for 2 months (via Singapore)! So I put the relocation off for a while and headed to S.E. Asia. I wrote a number of travel emails from that trip and I thought it would be fun to revisit them with some additional info and photos. The following blog is Part 7 of that journey (DMZ – Central Vietnam).
November 24th, 2010
This one is more for the history buffs, but if you are not interested you can read about my minor scuffle with some local Dong Ha lads! Otherwise please read on about my journey into the former DMZ of Vietnam that once separated North from South (established in 1954 after the French left Indochina) until towards the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
From the city of Hue I headed 1.5 hours north to Dong Ha the dusty capital of Quan Tri Province. Only reason to come here is to tour the former DMZ area. You can do 6am to 6pm bus tours from Hue, but a huge amount of that time is spent driving there and back and they spend little time in each place and miss many others I wanted to see. So I decided to spend a couple of nights in Dong Ha and arrange things from there myself.
My first step was to arrange a motorbike and guide who knew something about the area and could speak fluent English (and wasn’t one of the usual sleaze bag motorbike riders around town – I trust most of them about as far as I can throw them! “HELLO! Cheap price…you want girl/massage?” etc. etc.). Many of these guys work for the local version of the “Mafia” (I encountered many such fellows in Hanoi aswell). Luckily for me I found a tour agency and an excellent guide Mr. Tam (pronounced “Toom”) – he was a teenager during the Vietnam War from a nearby village (which no longer exists). The original Dong Ha was totally destroyed during the war – he had an old US Army map from that period – many villages on the map were listed as destroyed!
DMZ Day 1:
On day 1 I wanted to go to the sites off Highway 1A which heads North. This involved a ride along phase 3 of the Ho Chi Minh trail and across the famed (and failed) “MacNamara Line” (named after then US Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara) which was made up of electronic systems and physical barriers built between 1966 and 1968 (at a cost of $1 billion plus per yer) to detect and prevent incursions across the DMZ lines by Viet Cong/North Vietnam Army (VC/NVA) forces. The barrier was cleared of forest to at least 500 metres wide and consisted of 20,000 air dropped listening devices combined with over 500,000,000 land mines of various types and nastiness! It was intended to cross the entire span of South Vietnam’s northern border, but the 1968 Tet Offensive and associated battles (the offensive involved a vast number of surprise attacks by the VC/NVA in cities and towns across South Vietnam) meant many of the bases forming the steel to this line were abandoned on the Western border and this spelt the end of the line as a defensive strategy.
I visited numerous sites on this day including:
1. Con Thien Firebase (now a peaceful rubber plantation). It was the Northwest anchor of the “McNamara Line” to prevent the NVA from crossing the DMZ and was manned by the US Marine Corps. Only 3km from North Vietnam, fierce fighting broke out here between 1967-1968. The base was constantly shelled by artillery and during a siege on the base in late 1967 it became known as “The Meat Grinder” to the Marines (thousands from both sides died or were wounded there – the NVA suffered the most deaths). In late 1968 US tactics had changed to more mobile operations and the firebase was closed;
2. Truong Son National Cemetery is Vietnam’s national war cemetery. It was a very sombre place with 10,000 graves and various monuments and temples to the fallen NVA troops who helped build and defend the Ho Chi Minh trail and are forever interred there. Mr. Tam and I burnt incense sticks as a tribute to the fallen.
The location of the cemetery was also a former base of the 1959 May Army Corps who were responsible for building and maintaining the Ho Chi Minh trail. There were a number of monuments to these troops but an interesting highlight was a massive bunker built here in 1972. A tree had fallen over the entrance so I got through that and entered the wet darkness of the bunker. Immediately upon lighting my torch I realised I was not alone….bats! I could hear them (and possibly rats) but it was still too dark to see well in there, so I didn’t realise how close they were when I was exploring the bunker until I looked at my photos later on and had a big bat appear smack bang in the middle of a photo!
3. Doc Miu Base was a key part of the “McNamara Line” but is now only marked with a smashed M-41 tank and a small monument. Nearby though in Doc Miu itself is a significant Communist Victory Monument.
4. Ben Hai River was the original DMZ border crossing between the North and South. Today the site is marked with a huge flag tower and a small museum. They have rebuilt the Hien Luong bridge across the river, it was destroyed by the US in 1970 (it used to be painted red on the North half and yellow on the South half). Similar to the Korean DMZ they had large loud speakers on each side of the river to blast each other with propaganda!
The museum had some interesting displays and photos of the period when the DMZ crossing still existed between the two countries. The statues were impressive inluding a great one of Ho Chi Minh with an very elaborate background.
My favourite statue in the museum though was one of a captured US pilot who had seen better days! His captors are very stern looking.
On the old South Vietnam side of the Ben Hai River was a really impressive Reunification Monument.
5. Vinh Moc tunnels – After heavy bombardments in 1965 the local villagers built these tunnels on 3 levels along the coast upto 23 metres deep, with numerous entrances, many of which were out to the beach. An entire village of 90 families lived in these tunnels for two and a half years. Apparently 17 babies were born in the tunnels which were equipped with medical and maternity facilities, along with a school and meeting rooms.
I could almost stand straight in the tunnels and some areas were open and much larger, but not very wide. When I came out of the tunnels I had muddy clay on my day pack and shoulders. The area was surrounded with bomb craters. The US absolutely pounded this area from the air and sea!
There is very little to do in Dong Ha at night, I went for a walk looking for an internet cafe, got hassled by the usual motorbike riders, but then something new……walked past a young group of guys (6 or 7 of them), they started with the usual “hello, hello…” but then started saying “money, money, money” in a joking way. I told them no of course.
Later I walked past them again on my way back towards my hotel…same crap, but this time they got a bit more forceful and grabbed at me and went for my wallet….not a good idea! Normally I wouldn’t get involved, but had little choice as I was surrounded, I grabbed one by the arm and put a wrist lock on him, then stepped towards the others…little turds all backed off and that was the end of it.
I don’t know how serious they were, but I think they will have second thoughts next time they try this on some other tourist! Didn’t report it to the police as that would just be a big hassle for me….probably all corrupt anyway.
DMZ Day 2:
On day 2 I went to the DMZ sites off Highway 9. Mr. Tam and I rode that motorbike over 70km one way and were close to the Laos border. I was well and truly over the motorbike experience after 2 days of rough roads etc! These sites included:
1. Camp Carroll a former US Marine base that used to fire off massive 175mm guns into the surrounding mountains.
There is not much at Camp Carroll now, just a concrete platform and an overgrown memorial to the victory over the South Vietnamese battalion that surrendered there in 1972;
2. “The Rockpile” a rocky mountain that the US Marines used to have an observation post on top of. The only way to get them there was by landing a helicopter on the top – pretty treacherous when windy apparently!;
3. Khe Xom (a historic relic) that crossed over part of the old Ho Chi Minh trail;
4. Dakrong Bridge that also crossed over part of the old Ho Chi Minh trail (phase 3);
5. Khe Sanh Combat Base the legendary base which now has some recreated bunkers, old artillery, a smashed M41 tank, a captured US Bell UH-1 Huey and Boeing Ch-47 Chinook helicopter; and some smashed pieces of helicopters and aircraft. Along the back of the base is Tacon Air Field – a dusty red earth strip that was once the main air link for the base. The NVA laid Khe Sanh to siege in the 1968 during the Tet offensive. The US Marines never lost a battle and they were not going to let it happen here, after fierce fighting they eventually beat off the NVA. A hell of a fight and ultimately all for nothing, the base was abandoned a month later! It still confuses me why the Aussie band Cold Chisel wrote such a classic a song about this place? Australian soldiers were not based there?
I had a frustrating time at this former base. There were some locals there selling Communist medals and badges dug up from the battlefield. I collect Communist mementos so I negotiated a price and purchased something off one of them. Then for the rest of the time I was there the other guy followed me and hassled me the whole time to buy something off him too. Unfortunately he was selling almost exactly the same thing as the other guy so there was no point (a familiar them throughout S.E. Asia!). Anyway it was really hot, this guy was really annoying and eventually heated words were exchanged……the funny thing is we both laughed and shook hands afterwards….I still didn’t buy anything though!
In the nearby town of Khe Sanh is a significant Communist Victory Monument.
6. Then it was onto Lang Vei Special Forces Camp which is relatively close to the Laos border. The base is long gone and now there is only a monument with a Soviet era PT-76 tank.
This site commemorates the first battle the NVA used tanks against the US in 1968 and it was a bloodbath. Over 300 men on the US side and up to 500 NVA were gone for ever in just one day (50% of the US special forces and nearly 80% of the South Vietnamese and minority tribesmen fighting there were killed). Some lucky survivors made it out to Khe Sanh. Ironically most of the NVA tanks were destroyed by the US forces.
From Lang Vei it was an extremely long motorbike ride back to Dong Ha. Poor old Mr. Tam said he was going to rest for a couple of days! Tomorrow I head back South to Hue for a couple of days before flying way South to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).