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DMZ (THE DEMILITARIZED ZONE)

 

DMZ overview Dong Hoi - Phong Nha Dong Ha
Skeleton of a church Bridge over Ben Hai River Truong Son National Cemetery
Vinh Moc tunnels Dakrong Bridge Hochiminh Trail
Hill Tribe Villages Khe Sanh Combat base A Luoi
Lao Bao The Rockpile

 

Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

Dien bien phu From 1954 until the defeat of the Americans in 1975, Ben Hai river marked the division of Vietnam. 5km either side of the river was declared a DMZ - a stark contrast to what really took place in this region. In fact, the surrounding region experienced some of the heaviest fighting during the Vietnam War. Some areas, such as Vinh Moc were termed Free Fire Zones, allowing a virtual free for all without fear of future repercussions and everything was designated a target. As a result of this heavy fighting, there is still heaps live ordnance lying around. There have been some casualties as unexploded bombs blow up when farmers are working on their lands nearby or children run up in a play. Khe Sanh, in particular, was immortalized during and after the conflict. Now when you catch the train or bus from anywhere South of Dong Hoi to the DMZ, bomb damage and craters are still evident in paddies, beside the railway tracks and beside the roads and bridges. As you get closer to Dong Ha you will notice huge eucalyptus groves, themselves a legacy of the war. These areas were completely devastated either by relentless shelling or defoliation during the war and were eventually replanted with eucalyptus trees, chosen for their durability and speedy maturity. Nowadays, these areas are currently among the most visited sites for those who opt for Vietnam tours and enjoy Vietnam holidays.

Dong Hoi - Phong Nha

Dong hoiDong Hoi is the closest town from where you can visit the impressive Phong Nha Cave. Although there is little else to see in the area, there are some nice beaches that can be visited on the other side of the river.

The main attraction of Dong Hoi is a trip to the Phong Nha Cave. This spectacular cave was used by the Northern Vietnamese as a field hospital during the war and it has the scars to prove it. The front face is pockmarked from attempts to lob bombs into the entrance by US helicopters, in the hope of collapsing the entrance. Fortunately their attempts were all unsuccessful as the cave makes for a fascinating visit.

Phong nhaPhong Nha cave is explored mainly by boat, though there are a couple of raised areas where your guide will walk you around and explain the various points of interest. The cave was not officially surveyed until 1990, however, the cave walls show evidence of it being a popular place to visit for quite some time.

The tour consists of a boat trip to the cave entrance taking around 45 minutes, then an hour drifting through the cave guided by a couple of gas lanterns. It is an eerie feeling as all you can hear is the gas lanterns hissing away, and the water dripping as you slowly drift from chamber to chamber.

The cave is over 7km long but the tour only visits the first 800m or so. There have been some enterprising travelers who have managed to bargain a few more hundred meters for the guide, and it is apparently well worth the expense.

Dong Ha

dong haAt first glance Dong Ha, the chief town of Quang Tri Province, appears to be little more than another drab roadside town, and during the rainy season it could almost be mistaken for the most miserable place on earth. However, once you get off the main road and go wandering it is quite enchanting, and you can return very quickly to the attractive life of rural Vietnam. Dong ha is the most central town to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the tunnels of Vinh Moc, and because of this, during the Vietnam War the UIS built many military bases around the town.

Skeleton of a church

In between Hue and Dong Ha is a dilapidated Catholic Church that was the site of a fierce and bloody battle between American troops and the Viet Cong. The Americans had sought refugee within the church walls, but this was to no avail. The Church has been left standing in its bullet ridden state as a reminder of the war, and to this day retains an eerie feeling within the sanctuary. 

Bridge over Ben Hai River

ben hai brigdeBen Hai River was the original demarcation point between North and South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975 and is crossed by the Hien Luong Bridge. The bridge was once symbolically painted in red on the north side and yellow on the southern end, but this ended with the destruction of the bridge during the Vietnam War. In 1973 two flagpoles were constructed, one at each side of the bridge, but the southern one fell over during a storm and was never repaired. On the north side of the Ben Hai rover there is a memorial and an awful lot of water buffaloes, along with a scenic view down the Ben Hai river.

Truong Son National Cemetery

Truong son cemeteryThe cemetery is situated 17 km south of the Ben Hai River and is so large it can only be described as impressive. Not so impressive is the deaths that created a need of such a place. The endless rows of white tombstones are a memorial to the tens of thousands of NVA (Northern Vietnam Army) soldiers and other military personnel killed in and around the Truong Son Mountains.

 

 


Vinh Moc tunnels

Vinh mocThe Vinh Moc tunnels are situated 19 km north of the Ben Hai river. Faced with incessant bombing by US and ARVN forces, in what was termed a free fire zone, the villagers at Vinh Moc were faced with three options. One was to leave their homes and livelihood, two was to stay in their homes and probably be killed, or three was to start digging. They took the third option and embarked on an excavation project, taking 18 months to complete, that would eventually relocate the entire village underground. Similar tunnels were attempted at nearby villages, who were also in the free fire zone, however they were not of the same standard. At Vinh Quang, as a result of bombing by US forces, the tunnels collapsed, killing all inside. The US forces were never able to replicated their efforts at Vinh Moc with only one of the most feared drilling bombs hitting the target without exploding. These bombs drill into the earth until they hit a pocket of air making them explode. The resourceful villagers used the hole created by the bomb as an air vent.

Unlike the tunnels at Cu Chi that were made for fighting in, these tunnels were designed to be lived in. This, the tunnels are considerably larger, though a foreigner will still find some of the corners quite tight and the roof low in places. There are 3 levels of tunnels with the lowest going to a depth of 30m, 12 entrances with 7 opening up to the ocean, and in total the tunnels cover over 2 square km. The living quarters often consisted of a family having to squeeze into a chamber with dimensions around two by one and a half meters dug out form the main corridor. Some of the chambers are reasonably spacious such as the meeting widens slightly allowing a considerable number of people to congregate to hold meetings or listen to concerts. During the war time, most of the children, women and elderly never saw daylight, only rarely being allowed to leave the tunnels under the cover of night and 17 children were born underground.

The tunnels you will be taken through have been partially restored and reinforced so do not worry about them collapsing, though spare a thought for those who sat in these tunnels as the bombs rained down. It was the very claylike consistency of the soil in the area of Vinh Moc which allowed these tunnels to be made, so do not try it at home. In periods of heavy rain, the lower tunnels may be flooded with the higher tunnels filling with puddles and the stairs getting slippery. Make sure you take a torch with you.

Next to the tunnels is a museum with an emotional display of memorabilia. Take special note of the before and after photos of Vinh Moc and the stories about the Suicide Squads. These volunteers were responsible for ferrying supplies out to the offshore Con Co islands whilst under the constant risk of being spotted and killed by US helicopters specially stationed to sever those supply lines.

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