While remnants and stories about the Vietnam War are present all over Vietnam, I had not actively tried to learn more about it during my first seven weeks in the country. So I decided to use the transfer from Hue to the Phong Nha (aka the caves places) for a history lesson and booked a tour of the DMZ Vietnam, the DeMilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam after 1954.
The bus picks me up at 7, and we spend another half hour going around town to collect a total of 12 passengers before we leave Hue due Northwest along the coast.
In Dong Ha, we pick up our guide for the day, Ngoc. She is a fashionable woman in her 40s with a large-brimmed straw hat and a microphone attached to her ear.
From Dong Ha, we follow the AH16 towards Khe Sanh.
The first stop is a big rock covered with vegetation and topped with an antenna. This is the Rockpile, a listening post that the US used to intercept communications in the communist North of Vietnam. We can only look at it from the road as there is no footpath. In fact, the US army would helicopter in the crew manning the post, leave them on top of the rock for two weeks and then helicopter in the new crew. The panic that ensued from not knowing what was happening in the forest around them was one of the reasons the US Army started using Agent Orange.
Most of the vegetation in the DMZ was destroyed by the herbicide, which not only instantly defoliates the trees but kills all plants, and remains in the soil for decades. To this day, children are born with deformations and mental disabilities that can be traced back to their families living in an area affected by Agent Orange. International organizations have stepped up and are removing the worst affected soil.
In 2017, none of the areas sprayed are entirely bare of plant life, but the difference between this landscape and what I’ll see later up North in Phong Nha is remarkable.
Our next stop is Cau Dakrong Bridge, which is a recent build in the path of one of the Ho Chi Minh Trails. These Ho Chi Minh Trails, named after the leader of North Vietnam and father of the modern country, were used in the Vietnam War to bring information, supplies, and soldiers into South Vietnam. They lead through dense jungle and mountains, often barely visible to the uninformed eye. Men and women would have to walk for weeks, sleeping during the day and moving during the night. And just as malaria and the tropical conditions affected the US army and their allies, so did they affect the Vietnamese themselves, who, living in the big cities and by the coast, were often just as unaccustomed to the conditions.
On the outskirts of Khe Sanh, our minibus breaks down. The engine sputters when we halt our journey for Ngoc to drop off some papers. Then it stops.
I use the break to hunt down some sugar cane juice while other passengers acquire a bunch of bananas to share among all of us.
Our young driver finds a mechanic who fixes the engine, and 20 minutes later we move on, now holding our breath at every steep incline and every stop.
Khe Sanh Combat Base is located on the northern outskirts of Khe Sanh town on Ho Chi Minh Highway. We have 40 minutes to explore what is now a monument.
A stilted 1980s-style building holds an exhibition about Khe Sanh air force base and the 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh, which ended with the US Army for the first time ever abandoning an army base because of enemy pressure. The museum takes a turn from the serious to the grotesque when I discover photo captions like “US Marines shutting themselves in bunkers for fear of their own shadows.” Legend-building and propaganda are still hard at work here, and unnecessary as the surroundings and the result of the battle speak for themselves.
Outside, the museum, aircraft wreckage, bombs, and shells form a small sculpture garden we wander through to get to the airfield.
Within a mountainous region covered with dense vegetation, this area was one of the few spots that are flat and big enough for military planes to land and take off from. A significant portion of the airfield has been reclaimed by farmers and turned into maize fields. Only at the far end, a few planes left behind by the Americans remain as a testament to the might of the Viet Cong – the Vietnamese army.
In the shade of a large green plane, we find a local couple doing a wedding photoshoot. When we approach, they make way for us and move to a field of grass in a grove next to the runway.
On the way back to Dong Ha, we stop in a village. “Ethnic minority,” Ngoc explains. But I don’t fancy taking photos of the few women and half-naked children standing by the road, none of which is wearing traditional garb or giving off the impression they’d be happy to be part of a living museum.
Outside Dong Ha, the minibus engine is starting to stutter again. So we stop at a war cemetery, where most of us explore the rows and rows of uniform graves, many without names. One of the passengers has outed himself as a car mechanic from Germany, so he lends the driver a hand in finding a more permanent solution to our engine troubles.
We pass the Hien Luong Bridge over Ben Hai river (also known as DMZ Bridge), with its blue and its yellow side still an impressive witness to the arbitrary separation of the country just South of the 17th degree. Ever so often, people would be allowed to meet on the bridge: husband and wife, mother and daughter, separated by a line drawn by politicians far away.
Lunch is served in a Dong Ha restaurant. I’ve never paid so much for such a lousy noodle soup.
After lunch, we head further North to Vinh Moc, a village by the coast. Ngoc hands us over to another guide who will take us through the tunnels. The local community hewed them into the rock and lived here during the worst bombardments of the US and allied forces. I had heard about the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City and am nervous to go down. But the worry is unfounded: on three levels, the tunnels are all about 1m wide and high enough for me to walk comfortably. Only moving between the levels is a small adventure.
After about 20 minutes we reach an exit. Unbeknownst to us, we have walked from what looked like a bamboo forest to the beach. But instead of walking back to the entrance overground, we head back down, past small nooks in the tunnels that served as nurseries, hospitals, kitchens, or even toilets.
At 4 in the afternoon, the minibus drops me in Dong Ha. I’ll take the bus from here to Phong Nha, while everybody else goes back to Hue. It was a memorable introduction to the realities of war: Nobody ever wins, and the most vulnerable have to bear most of the consequences.