The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing

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First published 30th January, 2008

The war between Vietnam and America is, thankfully, long over but the struggle goes on between would-be tourists and would-be guides in Vietnam's demilitarized zone. Happily, the only casualties these days take the form of disappointment and a depleted wallet. If you read our companion feature, Doing the DMZ from Hue you'll know how we feel about the cheapie tours out of Hue. Our strong advice: spend some time and a little more money on a small-group, private tour with a good guide. This is easier said than done, so here are some rules of engagement.


Unless you've got a chopper, Hue and Dong Hoi are almost two hours from the closest DMZ site. But they're both considerably more pleasant places to stay than the ideal staging area -- Dong Ha. Unfortunately, the sites are so spread out, if you want to see everything, it will take 12 hours from start to finish not including travel time to and from Dong Ha. So, if you've got the time and the funds, and you want to see everything, plan on a multi-day trip with at least an overnight in Dong Ha or Khe Sanh, or just base yourself in Dong Ha.

Do not wander haplessly and ill-prepared into the DMZ. Do a bit of research. Decide what interests you and what doesn't. Remember that solid intelligence does not come from Hollywood movies. Case in point: Hamburger Hill is 160 km from Dong Ha, requires a four hour hike once you get there, you need a permit to visit it, and there's nothing there.

A good guide can make or break a DMZ tour. Take some time to get to know your guide before you commit to a tour, and judge whether or not you really want to spend an entire day with him. The guides that are the keenest to rope you in and get you on a tour are generally the least well-informed. The best guides take more effort to find, and when you find them, they don't give you the hard sell.

Dong Ha has started renting out motorbikes again. Trips to the Vinh Moc Tunnels, Con Thien, the Thruong Son Cemetery, as well as a trip up Highway 9 to Khe Sanh can all be undertaken without a guide.

Alternately, a multi-day rental from Hue or Dong Hoi can make for a good loop and allow more flexibility. Even if you hire a guide to show you the sites, having your own transport will enable you to head back on your own and see more of the country.

The Vinh Moc Tunnels are over 40km from Dong Ha, and a round trip will require at least two hours of drive time. Khe Sanh is just under 70km from Dong Ha, requiring at least three hours, round trip, just for the drive. Reaching Dong Ha from either Dong Hoi or Hue requires three to four hours, round trip. This adds up to a whole lot of time on the road, and leaves precious little time to check out other sites -- many one-day tours out of Hue skip Camp Carol, Doc Mieu, Con Thien and the Truong Son Cemetary for this reason, and they still take 12 hours from start to finish.

The sites you can productively visit on your own are:
Khe Sanh -- there's a decent museum on the site that provides adequate info, and some war debris.
The Vinh Moc Tunnels -- a good museum, and the tunnels are the highlight of the tour.
The Dakrong Bridge -- easy to spot on the way to and from Khe Sanh, and it requires very little explanation.
The Truong Son Cemetery -- easy to visit on your own, or in conjunction with Con Thien.
The Ben Hai Bridge -- hard to miss as you head along Highway 1 between Dong Ha and the turn-off for the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
So, if you're going without a guide, choose from among the above sites.

The Rockpile is along Highway 9 on the way to Khe Sanh, but without a guide, you won't know where the hell it is.

The sites we don't recommend visiting without a guide are:
Camp Carol -- there's very little to see, and without a guide, you'll want to skip it.
Doc Mieu -- worth seeing, but hard to find, and unexploded ordinance makes it dangerous to visit on your own.
Con Thien -- hard to find, and you'll definitely need a guide to know what you're looking at.

If you visit all three of the sites above from Dong Ha in one day, budget four hours for it. If you're touring on your own, you can hire a guide just for this section.

The itineraries below are designed for those touring the sites independently with a rented motorbike or vehicle and returning to where they came from -- using Dong Hoi, Hue or Dong Ha as a base. Please note that we don't recommend Camp Carol, Con Thien or Doc Mieu without a guide, and there's little chance of spotting The Rockpile without one. Even those travelling without a guide should hire one in Dong Ha if they intend to visit these sites. The following information should also be useful to those arranging a private tour with a guide to accompany them throughout.

1-day, 8 to 10 hours
Head south on Highway 1, stopping at the Vinh Moc tunnels and the Ben Hai Bridge. After lunch, visit Doc Mieu, Con Thien and the Truong Son Cemetary. Visit Camp Carol, time and interest permitting. Return to Dong Hoi.

2-days
Head south, stopping at the Vinh Moc tunnels and the Ben Hai Bridge. After lunch, visit Doc Mieu Con Thien, and the Truong Son Cemetary. Head north via Route 9, check out Camp Carol (optional) and The Rock Pile and The Dakrong Bridge en route to Khe Sanh. Overnight in Khe Sanh or return to Dong Ha and spend the night there. If you go without a guide, postpone Doc Mieu and Con Thien until the morning of the second day, and find a guide to show you those spots before you head back to Dong Hoi.


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1-day, 10 to 12 hours
Get an early start heading north on Highway 1 to Dong Ha. Visit Con Thien, Doc Mieu, and the Truong Son Cemetary before lunch. After lunch, either Vinh Moc or Khe Sanh. Return to Hue.

2-3 days
Head west on Highway 29 and then north on Highway 14 just to enjoy the beautiful countryside. It's about 66km to A Luoi -- you can overnight there or press on 100km to Khe Sanh, sleep there, and visit the base in the morning. Next, head east on Highway 9, visiting the Dakrong Bridge and, if you have a guide, the Rockpile, along the way to Dong Ha. Once there, Camp Carol, Con Thien, and the Truong Son Cemetary. Then dedicate an afternoon or morning to Doc Mieu, the Ben Hai Bridge, and the Vinh Moc Tunnels. It will take at least three hours to get back to Hue from the tunnels.

1-day, 8 to 12 hours
You can just barely do everything in one day, even from Dong Ha. Go easy on yourself -- definitely see the Vinh Moc Tunnels, then tour the local sites: Doc Mieu, Con Thien, the Truong Son Cemetary, and perhaps Camp Carol. The trip up Highway 9 to Khe Sanh and back should be a low priority and will add at least four hours to the day.

2-day
This is the best way to see everything. Budget half a day for the trip up Route 9 to Khe Sanh, half a day for the Vinh Moc Tunnels and half a day for all the other sites.

That's it, people. Pack it up, and move out.



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