Photo: US tank at Khe Sanh.

Introduction

Quang Tri province is the location of the former demilitarized zone (DMZ), the temporary dividing line between North and South Vietnam. Ironically, the creation of this armistice corridor was a fateful step towards the Second Indochina War and within a few years the DMZ became ground zero for a series of intense, bloody battles. Dong Ha, the provincial capital, is the closest base for travellers who want to tour the DMZ.


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In the wake of France’s loss at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, at the Geneva Conference in July 1954, representatives from France, Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam made agreements that the French would withdraw their troops from northern Vietnam and the country would be temporarily divided in two until elections, at which time a president would be decided and the country reunited. The Ben Hai River was designated as the boundary, which runs along the 17th parallel to the Lao border, with a five-kilometre buffer extended on either side becoming the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The ceasefire was supposed to buy time for both sides to withdraw troops. Instead, it bought time for both sides to shore up their might and for outside governments to manoeuvre and interfere. Spoiler alert: the elections never happened.

Crossing the Dakrong Bridge.

Crossing the Dakrong Bridge.

Quang Tri saw some of the heaviest fighting and suffered the greatest concentration of firepower of the entire Vietnam War. Marines gave the DMZ the wry nickname “Dead Marine Zone.” Not surprising, Quang Tri is the province most highly contaminated with unexploded ordinances (UXO), with bombs still killing or maiming people every year. To learn more, a stop at the Mine Action Visitor Centre is highly recommended. It has informative displays about the issue. Find it at the Kids First Village off of Ly Thuong Kiet Street, near the intersection with Hung Vuong; T: (053) 3567 338; visitorcenter.quangtri@gmail.com; landmines.org.vn/visitor-center. It’s open Mon-Fri 08:00-17:00, Sat-Sun by appointment only.

By the end of the war, the entire province was razed. There is little left to see at most sites, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend time touring the DMZ. Doing your own reading or hiring a guide, especially someone who lived through the war, will greatly enhance your experience.
Permanently based at Khe Sanh.

Permanently based at Khe Sanh.

DMZ sites can generally be divided into two trips, both of which start in Dong Ha: those along north-south Highway 1 and those along east-west Highway 9, which intersects the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail. You’ll need at least half a day for each section, so a full-day tour will cover all. You’ll need another full day (plus a guide and permit) if you want to visit Dong Ap Bia aka Hamburger Hill in A Luoi; this one is really only of interest to returning Veterans or history buffs.

Highway 1 leading north, from Dong Ha to Dong Hoi or Phong Nha, crosses the Ben Hai River, which is more significant in meaning than rich in sight. There’s a small museum and large memorial but it’s mostly just a stop along the way to Vinh Moc Tunnels – if there is one thing to experience in the DMZ, it’s this. Unlike the well-known Cu Chi Tunnels, which were used by the Viet Cong for combat, the Vinh Moc Tunnels were deep bomb shelters predominantly for civilians. During bombing raids, village life carried on underground. The tunnels are an amazing achievement of human perseverance and survival. Note: it is not for the claustrophobic.
A close fit at Vinh Moc.

A close fit at Vinh Moc.

Returning back to Dong Ha and heading west along Highway 9 will take you along the “McNamara Line”. In Spring 1967, General Westmoreland ordered construction of a misguided high-tech barrier plan just south of the DMZ to prevent infiltration of South Vietnam by the North Vietnam Army (NVA). The barrier included electronic sensors, barbed wire, land mines and bases on high terrain along Highway 9 to overlook possible NVA routes and sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These outposts became the site of vicious battles, including Con Thien Firebase and Khe Sanh Marine Base, one of the longest and bloodiest single battle of the war. Of all the sites along this way, Khe Sanh Marine Base is the only one with “something to see” as it has a museum and a few artefacts.

Crossing the border to Laos
Dong Ha is 80 kilometres from the Lao Bao/Dansavanh border between Vietnam and Laos. It is open to foreigners and a popular crossing. The Lao visa on arrival is available (but you will need a visa in advance or a special letter if entering Vietnam). For the Lao visa, come prepared with USD and a passport photo. The border is open daily from 07:00 to 21:00. Dong Ha, the gateway city, is 80 kilometres from the border.
Get a snack before the bus.

Get a snack before the bus.

Local buses to Lao Bao depart Dong Ha’s south bus station at least every 30 minutes and cost 70,000 dong. Keep in mind that the goal of this bus seems to be to make passengers as uncomfortable and frustrated as possible. The bus picks up/drops off goods along the way before finally delivering you to the station 500 metres shy of the border. You’ll be accosted by xe om to take you the rest of the way; count on parting with 10,000 dong for the lift.

For assistance with bus tickets or private transfers to Lao Bao, a highly recommended option is to book with Tam’s Cafe at 211 Ba Trieu Street. They charge 500,000 dong for a motorbike to the border. Tam’s Cafe is also the best option for booking you on through buses to destinations in Laos such as Savannakhet, Pakse and Vientiane.

These buses originate from Hue or Da Nang and Dong Ha isn’t a regular stop, so your pick-up has to be coordinated with the bus company (and sometimes that requires speaking in Vietnamese, Lao or Chinese). The bus is only available every other day – it usually departs Hue to Laos on the odd days, returns to Hue on even days – but this sometimes changes so it needs to be checked. The price through Tam’s includes transfer from your hotel to Tam’s Cafe, then Tam’s Cafe to the pick-up point. Travel times are best case scenario.

Savannakhet: Departs at 10:00. Costs 420,000 dong and takes 7 hours.
Pakse: Departs at 09:00, 11:00. Costs 650,000 dong and takes 10 hours.

Beware…
While respectable companies will transfer you to the legitimate through bus to Savannakhet, others will put you on a crowded 12-passenger van and make you change transport again at the border, at which point things get confusing and turns out, that ticket doesn’t get you all the way there and people end up having to repay for the last portion of their ticket.

The tickets offered at Tam’s Cafe and Sepon Travel in Dong Ha (see below) are on the legitimate through-bus. In Hue, The Sinh Tourist will also give you the real deal. Keep in mind, if you’re departing on an even numbered day, it is not likely legit. Also if it’s cheaper than the price we’ve listed, it’s another red flag. If you can’t wait for the next international bus, you can do to the local bus to the border and sort out the rest of your Lao journey from there. It’s all dodgy local buses and you are at their mercy.

Tam’s Cafe: 211 Ba Trieu St; T: (090) 542 5912; tamscafe@gmail.com; tamscafe.jimdo.com.
Sepon Travel: 181 Ly Thuong Kiet St; T: (053) 3555 289; sepontour@yahoo.com.

Orientation
Dong Ha is built around main arterial Highway 1 and it has as much charm as an overgrown truck stop. It is a bleak, uninspiring spot but the accommodation we listed is fine for a night. Dong Ha really is the most convenient place to either start or end your DMZ tour, though most tours are able to pick up/drop off in Hue, adding a 1.5 to 2 hour drive one-way. Likewise, you can finish your tour in Dong Ha in time to catch the overnight train.

Dong Ha is sprawling. A large town hall/square on Hung Vuong serves as a central focal point while accommodation is concentrated along soulless Highway 1, which becomes Le Duan Street when it passes through town.

There’s a department/grocery store attached at the rear of Muong Thanh Grand Quang Tri Hotel. Given Dong Ha’s proximity to the Lao border, you may also notice “Lao-Thai” shops selling Thailand-made products, which are seen as better quality than Vietnam manufactured stuff. Here you can restock on health, beauty and snack supplies.

ATMs can be found along Highway 1, as well as around the town square on Hung Vuong Street.

For travel agencies, the mentioned above Tam’s Cafe is extremely helpful for advice, transportation arrangements and more.


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