The Ben Hai River traverses the northern reaches of Quang Tri province, marking Vietnam's 17th parallel, which was used as the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam in 1954. The demarcation was intended as a temporary line between the north and south until the elections, to be held in 1956 would reunify the country.
The elections never took place and Quang Tri saw some of the heaviest fighting in all of Vietnam. By the end of the war, the entire province had been more or less flattened and most of the population had been evacuated. Both Quang Tri town and Dong Ha were totally destroyed -- not a building was left standing in either town, and of the 3,000+ villages that once were dotted over the province, eleven remained.
Given this history, the main "attraction" in Quang Tri province is the legacy of this extreme violence. While many choose to visit the DMZ on an organised tour out of Hue, there is no reason why you can't use Dong Ha as a base instead -- there's no shortage of motorcycle-borne guides and you'll most likely avoid the more packaged feel of the trips out of Hue.
Most tours (regardless of starting point) will cover the remnants of the US base at Khe Sanh, the large military cemetery, Camp Carroll and the Rockpile, though individual itineraries can vary a little. North of the Ben Hai River are the Vinh Moc tunnels, similar to the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon, but far more interesting, less circus-like and a far tighter fit.
At first glance Dong Ha, the capital of Quang Tri Province, appears to be little more than another drab roadside town, and during the rainy season it could easily be mistaken for being amongst the most miserable places on earth.
However, once you get off the main road and go wandering, as with most Vietnamese towns it can be quite enchanting, as you can easily return to the attractive life of rural Vietnam.
There are only two reasons to come here: the first is that Dong Ha is just south of the DMZ, and constitutes an ideal staging area for an independent exploration of 'The Zone.' During the Vietnam War, this town along with the erstwhile provincial capital Quang Tri (now located to the south of Dong Ha), were totally destroyed. Today few choose to stay here, instead opting for the far more traveller-friendly Hue, but if you plan on spending a lot of time exploring the DMZ, then staying in Dong Ha could be a good idea.
The second reason is that it's the departure point for all transport to Lao Bao, and the only town legally sanctioned by the Vietnamese government to offer international bus tickets to cities in Laos.
All you're likely to see of Dong Ha is the nasty bit along Highway 1 -- the road changes name to Le Duan on its way through town. Like many transit points, the denizens here are primed to pounce on passers-by, whether they are hawking tours, meals or banana fritters.
If you need to make any purchases, or just get away from the zoo, head up Le Van Huu to where it meets up with Highway 9 on as it passes through Dong Ha. A short way up you'll find Hung Vuong, which is really Dong Ha's main street. There's no accommodation, but there are plenty of shops selling DVDs, shoes, clothing, etc. The cafes here offer a mellow alternative as well.
Banking can be done along Le Duan (Highway 1). The Incom Bank is on the west side of the road, just south of Le Van Huu. They charge 1.25% on the full amount per transaction for traveller's cheques. Save money by going to the Vietcom Bank across the street -- no commission on dollars for dong. You'll find a 24-hour ATM here, and another BIDV bank ATM just to the north in front of the Hieu Giang Hotel.
Decent internet cafes can be found along Le Duan -- the most convenient place is right across the street from the bus station, but it's not the cheapest. The main post office is nearby, long distance phone services are available.
If you show up in Dong Ha planning to take a DMZ tour, be sure to check out our feature story on doing a tour to the DMZ. The most reliable company in town seems to be Sepon Travel, but the DMZ Cafe remains popular, and you may luck out and find an independent guide who gives a good tour.
Incom Bank: Le Duan. Hours: Weekdays 08:00 to 11:30 and 13:30 to 17:30
Internet: 17 Le Duan, Dong Ha. T: (053) 857 177. Hours: 07:00 to 23:00. 6,000 VND per hour
Post Office: 183 Le Duan, Dong Ha. T: (053) 856 192. F: (053) 557 421
Sepon Travel: 189 Le Duan, Dong Ha. T: (053) 855 288, 289, (0905) 140 600. F: (053) 552 688. vusepon @ yahoo.com
By Don Morgan