Vietnam: 22~DMZ Tour part one
A priority of mine for the trip was to find some sites from the Vietnam-American War to get a feel for locations and landscapes. I had ticked a few things off already, the most significant being a partially successful trip out to where dad had been based with the main contingent of Kiwis and Aussies in South Vietnam. From Hue I was able to book a 1.5 day tour of the old demilitarised zone between the North and South. This wasn’t a directly relevant area for the New Zealanders but was extremely prominent for the US.
In the morning I met a new guide and driver. They thought it unusual (if not strange) that I was doing the tour, especially on my own, since the main takers are groups of veterans. Anyhow we got underway.
This is a map of the DMZ and shows many of the locations included on the tour.
It wasn’t a busy time of year for them but only the day before they had returned from taking some ex-Marines to their old haunts. One had given my guide a commemorative coin which was proudly shown to me.
I would see more evidence of these gentlemen later in the day.
We travelled north to Dong Ha city, in Quang Tri province. It is a poor region, not having the agricultural potential like most other areas. We stopped first at the shell of a school that was bombed in 1972 and stands today as it was left.
During the course of the day I realised that both the itinerary I had been sent and the other reference material from the internet were a bit out of date. The Ai Tu airfield for example is no longer a stop as the site is now a concrete factory. As an indicator of Vietnam’s development, that’s a good sign. But over time the remnants of battlefields are diminishing, and those that do remain (often in remote areas) often have limited access on account of the risk of unexploded ordnance.
In Dong Ha we hung a left on to Highway 9 toward Cam Lo.
We stopped at the site of Camp Carroll, a Marine Corps artillery base, which involved a short walk up from the road. A feature of this camp was íts huge 175mm gun capability and the only relics still evident (that the guide knew of at least) were the concrete pads that they had been sited on. I also saw a scrap of old sandbag cloth.
On we went to a place which offered a vista of the Rockpile, Razorback and there but obscured or distant, Mutter’s Ridge battlefield and Fire Support Base Fuller.
Highway 9 has been upgraded but signs of the old road were still around. I walked on a short section of it near part of the original Ho Chi Minh trail. This was an area inhabited by the Bru people with their distinctive stilt houses.
A bit further on Highway 14 branched off. The tour did not go down there but it’s where the likes of the A Shau Valley and Hamburger Hill are located.
Continuing west toward the Laos border, alongside a river that the guide said was often used to smuggle goods between Laos and Vietnam, we arrived in Khe Sanh village (he pronounced it as “Cashun”).
Very close by is the site of the old Marine Corps combat base and adjoining airfield. The Battle of Khe Sanh was one of the most famous (or infamous) of the war. I had expected much from this visit but it was anticlimactic as there didn’t seem to be anything authentically in situ. However, the climate for once was lovely and cool.
There is a small museum and some outdoor exhibits but you can no longer walk onto the airfield – or at least I wasn’t able to – due to the risk of nasty stuff still lurking. The runway is now just red clay stretching down behind the museum grounds. You can tell the area was very flat with hills in the distance but it is now quite vegetatious (don’t think that’s a word but I like it) so viewing was challenged.
I walked around the static displays. Around the back of the museum a local, who was obviously trying to avoid being seen by my guide, tried to sell me American dog tags.
Inside the museum one nice find was the visitor book entries by the ex-Marines my guide had taken through only a couple of days before.
We left Khe Sanh for the site of the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei. This was overrun in 1968 during the campaign which saw the eventual withdrawal of the US from Khe Sanh. One of the North Vietnamese Army tanks successful in the Battle of Lang Vei ís displayed on an elevated platform but there is nothing to see of the original camp.
This was the furthest west we would go. We made a welcome lunch stop at a hotel back in Khe Sanh where I was the only dining guest, save for a group of Buddhist monks from Saigon.
Back in Cam Lo we headed north on Highway 15 to the Con Thien Firebase. This turned out to be the highlight of the day.
The guide hadn’t been there for a while and had to look carefully for the turn-off. We left the driver with the car and set out on the 1km walk (rather, slog). The area was quite ‘vegetatious’ but there wasn’t much shade. It was hot, damn hot.
Con Thien was Marine Corps camp and prominent in the McNamara Line defensive barrier strategy. Its location was very strategic with the elevated part of the base affording panoramic views across the DMZ, Ben Hai River and into North Vietnam. One not-so-good aspect: it was within range of artillery from the North.
Some ways in, underneath rubber trees, were the remains of bunkers – very decimated but authentic sections of concrete and sandbags. There was other stuff worth seeing so we trudged on. I’m glad we did, though it did involve stopping at a local farm house to ask for directions!
There were a couple more sites to see before we reached the overnight stop just north of the Ben Hai River. I’ll finish the tour in the next post.