VIETNAM TRAVEL

 

Central Vietnam

Demilitarised Zone - Dong Ha - Lao Bao - Quang Tri - Hue - Around Hue - Suoi Voi Bach Ma National Park - Lang Co Beach - Hai Van Pass Tunnel
Ba Na Hill Station - Suoi Mo - Danang - Around Danang - Hoi An - Around Hoi An My Son - Tra Kieu - Tam Ky

DEMILITARISED ZONE (DMZ)

The Vietnam War (as the West knows it) shaped the culture of a whole generation throughout much of the world. The incredible output of films, TV shows and music relating to the war is testimony to that. While it may seem a little ghoulish, it's understandable that many tourists want to visit the names engraved in their consciousness - and not just the steady stream of Vets revisiting the places that changed their lives. From 1954 to 1975 the Ben Hai River served as the demarcation line between the Republic of Vietnam (RVN; South Vietnam) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV; North Vietnam). On cither side of the river was an area 5km wide that was known as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Ironically, as the conflict escalated, it became one of the most militarised zones in the world.
History
The idea of partitioning Vietnam had its origins in a series of agreements concluded between the USA. UK and the USSR at the Potsdam Conference, held in Berlin in July 1945. For logistical and political reasons, the Allies decided that the Japanese occupation forces to the south of the 16th Parallel would surrender to the British while those to the north would surrender to the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Chinese army led by Chiang Kaishek. This was despite the Viet Minh being in control of the country by September that year - Vietnam's first real taste of independence since 1887. In April 1954 at Geneva, Ho Chi Minh's government and the French agreed to an armistice; among the provisions was the creation of a demilitarised zone at the Ben Hai River. The agreement stated explicitly that the division of Vietnam into two zones was merely temporary and that the demarcation line did not constitute a political boundary. But when nationwide general elections planned for July 1956 were cancelled by the South who predicted a Viet Minh win, Vietnam found itself divided into two states with the Ben Hai River, which is almost exactly at the 17th Parallel, as their de facto border. During the American War, the area just south of the DMZ was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the conflict. Quang Tri, The Rockpile, Khe Sanh, Lang Vay and Hamburger Hill became household names in the USA as, year after year, TV pictures and casualty figures provided Americans with their evening dose of war. Since 1975,5000 people have been injured or killed in and around the DMZ by mines and ordnance left over from the war. Despite the risk, impoverished peasants still dig for chunks of leftover metal to sell as scrap, for which they are paid a pittance.
Orientation
The old DMZ extends from the coast westward to the Lao border; Hwy 9 runs basically parallel to the DMZ, about 10km south, and passes beside several US bases. The road leading southeast from the Dakrong Bridge on Hwy 9 goes to Aluoi and the Ashau Valley (site of the infamous Hamburger Hill).
Information
For an in-depth tour of the DMZ, it is best to link up with a good guide, both to fully appreciate the history and, critically, to physically find some of the sites. Many are unmarked, and it's easy to get lost in the labyrinth of dirt tracks. Day tours are most readily available in Hue and Dong Ha. Bookings can be made at almost any hotel or cafe in either town. There are only a few agencies running the tours, so no matter where you sign up you'll probably wind up as part of a group. Expect to pay around US$8 to US$15 for a day-long outing. Most of these tours have English-speaking guides, but some speak French. The main complaint about these bus tours is that they are extremely long and, as they cover quite a distance, there's more time spent driving than sightseeing. A car and guide from Hue may set you back around US$65. In Dong Ha you can't move for motor-cyclists offering tours on the back of their bikes. Many of the older guys speak excellent English as they once worked for the American military or fought alongside them. Unfortunately the one-time defenders of capitalism also demand extortionate fees - US$15 is fair for a day's tour.
WARNING
The war may be over, but death and injury still come easy in the old DMZ. At many of the places listed in this section there may be live mortar rounds, artillery projectiles and mines strewn about. Watch where you step and don't leave the marked paths. As tempted as you might be to collect souvenirs, never touch any left over ordnance. If the locals have not carted it off for scrap it means that even they are afraid to disturb a. White phosphorus shells - whose contents burn fiercely when exposed to air - are remarkably impervious to the effects of prolonged exposure and are likely to remain extremely dangerous for many more years. It's not just the DMZ that's affected. It's estimated that as much as 20% of Vietnam remains uncleared, with more than three million mines and 350,000 to 800,000 tonnes of unexpioded ordnance (UXO). This represents a staggering 46 tonnes of UXO per sq km or 280kg per person. Between 1975 and 2000 it resulted in the deaths of 38,849 people and 65,852 injuries nationwide. Around 1200 to 3000 people are injured every year. The People's Army is responsible for most ongoing mine clearance, but they're joined by a number of foreign NGOs. One of the most active is the Mines Advisory Group (www.mag.org.uk). Details on how to donate to the cause are available on its website.
Military Sites off Highway 1A
VINH MOC TUNNELS
The incredible tunnels of Vinh Moc (admission 15,000d; Time 7am-4.30pm) are a monument to the perseverance of the North Vietnamese. The 2.8km of tunnels, all of which can be visited, are the real thing and unadulterated for viewing by tourists, unlike the tunnels at Cu Chi. Vinh Moc's underground passageways are larger and taller than those at Cu Chi, which makes for an easier and slightly less claustrophobic visit. There are lights installed inside the tunnels, but you may also want to bring a torch (flashlight). There's an interesting museum on site, housing photos and relics of tunnel life. Outside, American bomb casings are dotted around everywhere, as are the craters that they created. A visit to the tunnels can be combined with bathing at the beaches that extend for many kilometres to the north and south. The turn-off to Vinh Moc from Hwy 1A is 6.5km north of the Ben Hai River in the village of Ho Xa. Follow this road east for 13km.
CUA TUNG BEACH
This long, secluded stretch of sand, where Vietnam's last emperor, Bao Dai, used to holiday, is just north of the mouth of the Ben Hai. There are beaches on the southern side of the Ben Hai River as well. Every bit of land in the area not levelled for planting is pockmarked with big bomb craters. There are no buses to Cua Tung Beach, which can be reached by turning east off Hwy 1A at a point 1.2km north of the Ben Hai River. Cua Tung Beach is about 7km south of Vinh Moc via the dirt road that runs along the coast.
DOC MEEU BASE
Doc Mieu Base, next to Hwy 1A on a low slope 8km south of the Ben Hai River, was once part of an elaborate electronic system (McNamara’s Wall. named after the US Secretary of Defense between 1961 and 1968) in tended to prevent infiltration across the DMZ. Today it is a lunar landscape of bunkers, craters, shrapnel and live mortar rounds. Bits of cloth and decaying military boots are strewn about on the red earth. This devastation was created not only by the bombs, but also by scrap-metal hunters, who found excavations at this site particularly rewarding.
GOING UNDERGROUND
In 1966 the USA began a massive aerial and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam. Just north of the DMZ, the villagers of Vinh Moc found themselves living in one of the most heavily bombed and shelled strips of land on the planet. Small family shelters could not withstand this onslaught and villagers either fled or began tunnelling by hand into the red-clay earth. The Viet Cong (VC) found it useful to have a base here and encouraged the villagers to stay, After 18 months of work, during which the excavated earth was camouflaged to prevent its detection from the air, an enormous complex was established underground. Civilians were employed in the digging and were accommodated in new underground homes. Whole families lived here and 17 babies were born in the underground delivery room. Later, the civilians and VC were joined by North Vietnamese soldiers, whose mission was to keep communications and supply lines to nearby Con Co Island open. Other villages north of the DMZ also built tunnel systems, but none was as elaborate as Vinh Moc. The poorly constructed tunnels of Vinh Quang village (at the mouth of the Ben Hai River) collapsed after repeated bombing, killing everyone inside. The tunnel network at Vinh Moc remains essentially as it looked in 1966, though some of the 12 entrances - seven of which open onto the palm-lined beach - have been retimbered and others have become overgrown. The tunnels were built on three levels ranging from 12m to 23m below the crest of the bluff. US warships stationed off the coast consistently bombarded the tunnels, but the only ordnance that posed a real threat was the feared 'drilling bomb'. Only once did such a bomb score a direct hit, but it failed to explode and no-one was injured; the inhabitants adapted the bomb hole for use as an air shaft. Occasionally the mouths of the tunnel complex that faced the sea were struck by naval gunfire.
BEN HAI RIVER
Twenty-two kilometres north of Dong Ha, Hwy 1A crosses the Ben Hai River, once the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam. Check out the old wartime bridge until 1967, when it was bombed by the Americans, the northern half of the bridge that stood on this site was painted red, while the southern half was yellow. Following the signing of the Paris cease-fire agreements
in 1973, the present bridge and the two flag towers were built.
TRUONG SON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Truong Son National Cemetery is a sobering memorial to the tens of thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers who were killed in the Truong Son Mountain Range along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Row after row of white tombstones stretch across the hillsides. The cemetery is maintained by disabled war veterans. The soldiers are buried in five zones according to the part of Vietnam they came from, and each zone is further subdivided into provinces. The gravestones of five colonels and seven decorated heroes, including one woman, are in a separate area. Each headstone bears the inscription 'Liet Si', which means martyr. The remains of soldiers interred here were originally buried near the spot where they were killed and were brought here after reunification. Many graves are empty, simply bearing the names of a small number of Vietnam's 300,000 MIAs. The site where the cemetery now stands was used as a base by the May 1959 Army Corps from 1972 to 1975. Named after the date on which they were founded, they had the mission of constructing and maintaining a supply line to the South - the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail. On the hilltop above the sculpture garden is a three-sided stele with inscriptions paying tribute to this corps and outlining their history. The road to Truong Son National Cemetery intersects Hwy 1A 13km north of Dong Ha and 9km south of the Ben Hai River; the distance from the highway to the cemetery is 17km. A rocky path that is passable by motorbike links Cam Lo (on Hwy 9) with Truong Son National Cemetery (18km). This track passes rubber plantations and also the homes of Bru (Van Kieu) people, who cultivate, among many other crops, black pepper.
CON THIEN FIREBASE
In September 1967 North Vietnamese forces, backed by long-range artillery and rockets, crossed the DMZ and besieged the US Marine Corps base of Con Thien, which was established as part of McNamara's Wall in an attempt to stop infiltrations across the DMZ. The USA responded with 4000 bombing sorties (including 800 by B-52s), during which more than 40,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on the North Vietnamese forces around Con Thien, transforming the gently sloping brush-covered hills into a smoking moonscape of craters and ash. The siege was lifted, but the battle had accomplished its real purpose: to divert US attention from South Vietnam's cities in preparation for the 'let Offensive. The area around the base is still considered too dangerous, even for scrap-metal hunters, to approach. Con Thien Firebase is 10km west of Hwy IA and 7km south of Truong Son National Cemetery along the road that links the highway with the cemetery. Concrete bunkers mark the spot a few hundred metres to the south of the road where the base once stood.
Military Sites on Highway 9
The legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail - the main artery of supplies for the North's war effort-was not one path but many, leading through the jungles of the country's mountainous western spine. In an effort to cut the line near the border, the Americans established a series of bases along Hwy 9, including (from west to east) Lang Vay, Khe Sanh, Ca Lu (now called Dakrong Town), The Rockpile, Camp Carroll, Cam Lo, Dong Ha, Gio Linh and Cua Viet. Ultimately their efforts were unsuccessful.
LANG VAY SPECIAL FORCES CAMP
In February 1968 Lang Vay Special Forces Camp was attacked and overrun by North Vietnamese infantry backed by nine tanks. Ten of the 24 Americans at the base were killed, along with 316 South Vietnamese, Bru and Mon-tagnard (term meaning highlanders, used to refer to the ethnic minorities) defenders. All that's left of the dog bone-shaped camp are the overgrown remains of numerous concrete bunkers, and a rusty tank memorial. The base is on a ridge southwest of Hwy 9, between Khe Sanh bus station (9.2km) and Lao Bao (7.3km). Many of the inhabitants are of the Bru tribe who moved here from the surrounding hills. You'll notice their different clothing, with women wearing sarong-like skirts, and woven baskets taking the place of plastic bags. About the only reason for staying here is if you're planning to hit the road to Laos the next morning. The Huong Hoa (Khe Sanh) Guesthouse (Tell: 053-880 740; 64 Khe Sanh; r 120,000d;) offers private bathrooms and hot water. The bus .station is on Hwy 9, about 600m towards the Lao frontier from the triangular intersection where the road to Khe Sanh Combat Base branches off. Buses to Dong Ha (15,000d, 11/2 hours) and Lao Bao (10,000d, one hour) depart regularly. Change at Dong Ha for all other destinations.
KHE SANH COMBAT BASE
The site of the most famous siege - and one of the most controversial battles-of the American War, Khe Sanh Combat Base (admission 30,000d; Time 7am-4.30pm) sits silently on a barren plateau, surrounded by vegetation-covered hills that are often obscured by mist and fog. It is hard to imagine as you stand in this peaceful, verdant land that in early 1968 the bloodiest battle of the war took place here. About 500 Americans (the official figure of 205 was arrived at by statistical sleight of hand), 10,000 North Vietnamese troops and uncounted civilian bystanders died amid the din of machine guns and the fiery explosions of 1000kg bombs, white-phosphorus shells, napalm, mortars and artillery rounds of all sorts.
The site includes the recent addition of a small memorial museum. A couple of bunkers have been recreated and some photos and other memorabilia are on show. Behind the main site, the outline of the airfield remains distinct - to this day nothing will grow on it. Some of the comments in the visitors' book, especially those written by visiting war veterans, can make for emotional reading. A MIA team still visits the area regularly to search for the bodies of Americans who disappeared during the fierce battles in the surrounding hills. Most remains they find are Vietnamese.
Getting There & Away
To get to Khe Sanh Combat Base from Huong Hoa bus station, Lead 600m towards Dong Ha then turn northwest at the triangular intersection; there's a small sign. The base is 2.5km further, 500m off the right-hand (east) .side of the road.
DAKRONG BRIDGE
Crossing the Dakrong River 13km east of the Khe Sanh bus station, Dakrong Bridge was rebuilt in 2001. The road to Aluoi that heads southeast from the bridge passes bv the stilted homes of the Bru people and was once a branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
ALUOI
On Hwy 14 - a route synonymous with the Ho Chi Minh Trail - is Aluoi, approximately 65km southeast of Dakrong Bridge and 60km southwest of Hue. There are several waterfalls and cascades in the surrounding area. Tribes living in this mountainous area include the Ba Co, Ba Hy, Ca Tu and Taoi. US Army Special Forces bases in Aluoi and Ashau were overrun and abandoned in 1966; the area then became an important centre for supplies com¬ing down the Trail.
Among the better-known military sites around Aluoi are landing zones Cunningham, Erskine and Razor, as well as Hill 1175 (west of the valley) and Hill 521 (in Laos). Further south, in the Ashau Valley, is Hamburger HilI (Apbia Mountain). In May 1969 US forces on a search-and-destroy operation near the Lao border fought in one of the fiercest battles of the war. In less than a week of fighting, 241 US soldiers died at Hamburger Hill - a fact that was very well publicised in the US media. A month later, after the US forces withdrew from the area to continue operations else where, the hill was reoccupied by the North Vietnamese Army.
THE ROCKPILE

Back on Hwy 9, this 230m-high pile of rocks once had a US Marine Corps lookout on top and a base for American long-range artillery nearby. Today there isn't much left of The Rockpile and you will probably need a guide to point it out to you. It's 26km west of Dong Ha on Hwy 9.
CAMP CARROLL
Established in 1966, Camp Carroll was named after a Marine Corps captain who was killed while trying to seize a nearby ridge. The gargantuan 175m cannons at Camp Carroll were used to shell targets as far away as Khe Sanh. In 1972 the South Vietnamese commander of the camp. Lieutenant Colonel Ton That Dinh, surrendered and joined the North Vietnamese Army. These days there is not that much to see at Camp Carroll, except for a Vietnamese memorial marker, a few overgrown trenches and the remains of their timber roofs. Bits of military hardware and rusty shell casings can still be found. The concrete bunkers were destroyed by local people seeking to extract the steel reinforcing rods to sell as scrap. Concrete chunks from the bunkers were hauled off for use in construction The area around Camp Carroll now be-longs to State Pepper Enterprises. On the road in, you'll see pepper plants trained so that they climb up the trunks of jackfruit trees. There are also rubber plantations nearby. The turn-off to Camp Carroll is 10km west of Cam Lo and 23km northeast of Dakrong Bridge. The base is 3km from Hwy 9.

THE FIGHT FOR NOWHERE
Despite opposition from marine corps brass, the small US Army Special Forces (Green Beret) base at Khe Sanh, built to recruit and train local Montagnards, was turned into a marines' stronghold in late 1966. In April 1967 there began a series of 'hill fights' between US forces and the well-dug-in North Vietnamese infantry, who held the hills 8km to the northwest. In only a few weeks, 155 marines and thousands of North Vietnamese were killed. In late 1967 American intelligence detected the movement into the hills around Khe Sanh of tens of thousands of North Vietnamese regulars, armed with mortars, rockets and artillery. General Westmorland became convinced chat the North Vietnamese were planning another Dien Bien Phu (the decisive battle in the Franco-Viet Minh War in 1954). This analogy was foolhardy, given American firepower and the proximity of Khe Sanh to supply lines and other US bases. President Johnson himself became obsessed by the spectre of 'Din Bin Foo', as he famously referred to it. To follow the course of the battle, he had a sand-table model of the Khe Sanh plateau constructed in the White House situation room and took the unprecedented step of requiring a written guarantee from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Khe Sanh could be held. Westmoreland, determined to avoid another Dien Bien Phu at all costs, assembled an armada of 5000 planes and helicopters and increased the number of troops at Khe Sanh to 6000. He even ordered his staff to study the feasibility of using tactical nuclear weapons. The 75-day siege of Khe Sanh began on 21 January 1968 with a small-scale assault on the base perimeter. As the marines and the South Vietnamese Rangers braced for a full-scale ground attack, Khe Sanh became the focus of global media attention. It was the cover story for both Newsweek and Life magazines, and appeared on the front pages of countless newspapers around the world. During the next two months the base was subject to continuous ground attacks and artillery fire, US aircraft dropped 100,000 tonnes of explosives on the immediate vicinity of Khe Sanh Combat Base. The expected attempt to overrun the base never came and, on 7 April 1968 after heavy fighting, US troops reopened Hwy 9 and linked up with the marines to end the siege. It now seems clear that the siege was merely an enormous diversion intended to draw US forces and the attention of their commanders away from the South Vietnamese population centres in preparation for the Tet Offensive, which began a week after the siege started. However, at the time, Westmoreland considered the entire Tet Offensive to be a 'diversionary effort' to distract attention from Khe Sanh. After Westmoreland's tour of duty in Vietnam ended in July 1968, US forces in the area were redeployed. Policy had been reassessed and holding Khe Sanh, for which so many men had died, was deemed unnecessary. After everything at Khe Sanh was buried, trucked out or blown up (nothing recognisable that could be used in a North Vietnamese propaganda film was to remain), US forces upped and left Khe Sanh Combat Base under a curtain of secrecy. The American command had finally realised what a marine officer had expressed long before: 'When you're at Khe Sanh, you're not really anywhere. You could lose it and you really haven't lost a damn thing.'