Vietnam: 23~DMZ Tour part two
I returned in a very hot and sweaty state to the blessed air conditioning of the car and was whisked off to the Truong Son national cemetery. Here more than 10,000 NVA are buried. It has the uniformity and order of a military cemetery, neat rows split up into sections based on province, but without the grace and beauty of say Arlington or Tyne Cot. Each identical headstone has an incense holder and scattered around are temples for worshipping in.
We touched down briefly at the site of the Doc Mieu Firebase, an elevated area above the road and when I visited, pretty overgrown. Asided from the rusted tank, I’m not sure how much there is.
The final stop on this busy day was the Ben Hai River, a useful demarcation between north and south. During the Vietnam-American War, a demilitarised zone was instituted which spanned 5km either side of the river. Today just off Highway 1 on the north side is a museum and monument with huge Vietnamese flag; there’s another monument on the southern bank.
The main feature though is the Hien Luong bridge, aka Peace Bridge. Originally built by the French, in 1967 it was bombed and although rebuilt, ten years ago it underwent a restoration and was reopened to pedestrians. Walking along the bridge is well worth the stop alone, but I also really enjoyed the museum which contained many interesting photos (with captions translated into English).
I was then taken to my hotel for the night at a place called Cua Tung Beach at the mouth of the Ben Hai River. This was a small place with no foreigners, no English-speaking people*, no internet.
*The only snippets of Vietnamese I knew were hello, thank you, and a phrase from Platoon that my brother pressed upon me to use but was shall we say a tad inappropriate.
The room was adequate enough and had a proper toilet. I am quite the wuss when it comes to food, especially when nothing is in English and I don’t know what the meat is, so consequently I didn’t have dinner or breakfast. (That leftover protein bar still in my luggage came in handy, squished though it was.)
The coastline was quite rugged and beautiful.
The next morning they remembered to pick me up and we got underway again. A short distance away was the Vinh Moc tunnels. Here another guide showed me around.
Unlike other tunnel complexes used primarily for fighting, these tunnels were depended upon by the local villagers to live in. There are three levels, the deepest being 30m. This depth was beyond the reach of bombs and consequently no villagers lost their lives in this way while underground, making the tunnels a huge success. It’s amazing to think that they spent most of their time for several years down there. Very resilient people.
Given the tunnels were built essentially for the purpose of relocating the village, they were constructed a bit larger. Nevertheless, given my claustrophobic and arachnophobic tendencies, and my previous experiences at Cu Chi and Long Phuoc, it was with trepidation that I wandered over to the tunnel entry. However, once I had gestured what the word ‘spider’ meant she was quick to assure me that these tunnels were free of such monstrosities. So in I went.
We went down and popped out on the coastal side, then back in to almost where we started from. I survived!
It was time to head back to Hue now. Two more stops were made, the first at the Quang Tri Citadel. It was built in the 1820s, similar to but much smaller than the one in Hue. There is not much to see though as the city was virtually bombed to bits in 1972. Parts of the citadel have been restored and you can certainly get a feel for the structure of it.
The final brief stop was along a stretch of road called a few different things, but generally similar in meaning to ‘Highway of Horror’. Along here hundreds of civilians were killed trying to flee and today there are about 67 (I’m sure that’s what the guide said) cemeteries of varying sizes along the highway.
The tour was challenging to do but rewarding. I returned being able to visualise where these places actually were and see something of the terrain in which fighting occurred. While I expected to be able to see more at some sites than was possible, other stops unexpectedly made up for it. I saw memorials and other permanent reminders of destruction. I also saw something of how pockets of Vietnamese live following this massive part of their history, from coping as best they can in the back yards of battlefields through to leveraging the tourism that has since grown from it. I imagine that resentment may linger in some places by some people but I saw no evidence of this.
I was deposited back at my hotel and had the sense that I tipped the guide and driver less than they were expecting (I found tipping in Vietnam a frustrating experience). But now, back on my own schedule, I had half a day to go and explore the Imperial City.