Sightseeing the former Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is revisiting an important chapter of Vietnam’s history. As the dividing line between North and South Vietnam, the area along the Ben Hai River saw some of the heaviest fighting of the entire war.
Sights in the DMZ are generally divided into two areas. Travelling north of Dong Ha along Highway 1 will take you across the boundary of the Ben Hai River/the 17th Parallel to the must-see Vinh Moc Tunnels. The east-west corridor of Route 9 takes you along the fire line of US Marine bases that saw intense bombardment, as well as across the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail. If you’re selective or you don’t linger too long, each section can be done in half a day, with a full day tour covering all of the significant sights.
Along Highway 1
Head north out of Dong Ha along Highway 1 towards Dong Hoi and after 24 kilometres you will reach the Ben Hai River. The river is hugely significant but for the average traveller, it is just a quick stop on the way to the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
In July 1954, the Geneva Conference decided on the Ben Hai River/the 17th Parallel as the temporary dividing line between North and South, with a five kilometre buffer on either side as a demilitarised zone until elections could take place. In theory, a president would be decided and the country reunited. In fact it was a giant step towards war.
There’s an enormous monument memorialising how families became separated, a museum of mostly black and white photos, replicas of the watchtowers and loud speakers used to blast propaganda at the other side, the house where the UN Observation Committee worked from 1954 to 1965 and a footbridge. The original bridge was destroyed in 1967 but it has been rebuilt, painted two different colours the way it was back then.
Northeast of the river on the coast, The Vinh Moc Tunnels are a testament to human perseverance. This is the must see of the DMZ. Secretly built between 1966 to 1967, the tunnels were used as bomb shelters for civilians. Three different levels were constructed – 12 metres, 15 metres and 23 metres deep – and during bombing raids, village life carried on underground. You can explore the tunnels by yourself or with a guide, but it is probably not for those who get claustrophobic.
You’ll have to head back to Dong Ha in order to tackle the next section. Highly recommended is a stop at the Mine Action Visitor Centre to learn about the province’s problem with unexploded ordnance (UXO) contamination. Find it at the Kids First Village off Ly Thuong Kiet Street, near the intersection with Hung Vuong; T: (053) 3567 338; email@example.com; landmines.org.vn. It’s open Mon-Fri 08:00-17:00, Sat-Sun by appointment only.
Along Route 9
Running just south of the DMZ corridor, Route 9 became the defensive line for the US Marines. The East-West corridor follows along the demilitarized zone. Its location on the northern edge of South Vietnam meant it was of strategic importance for the Americans to stop the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply lines (though the North Vietnamese simply skirted around into Laos and Cambodia). The misguided high-tech barrier plan the McNamara Line included bases Dong Ha, Con Thien and Khe Sanh Marine Base along the highway to overlook NVA infiltration routes. Control of the highway was necessary to move supplies to the bases.
The North pounded it with artillery, rocket and mortar rounds and it was the site of several intense and bloody battles that turned the US media and public against the war. The marines had several wry nicknames for the area, including “Leatherneck Square” and “the Dead Marine Zone”. The 1st Battalion 9th Marines earned themselves the name “The Walking Dead” for its high casualty and killed in action rate. There are also still signs of intense defoliation wrought by Agent Orange, herbicide used to expose the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
North off of Route 9 is Con Thien Firebase, the most important US Marine along the McNamara Line. Located just three kilometres south of the DMZ, Con Thien was the key to the defence system and it was the scene of some of the heaviest combat of the war, receiving more artillery fire than any other single spot in the DMZ.
Con Thien came to symbolise the failed military strategy to win a war of attrition against the NVA. Military maps called the rise in terrain “Nui Con Thien” or “Hill of Angels”, however Marines gave it names such as “Meat Grinder,” “Dodge City,” “hellhole,” and “time in the barrel” as in “like shooting fish in a barrel.” For three years, from 1966-1969, it was a living hell.
Because of their rules of engagement, the Americans could not cross the Ben Hai River and violate the northern half of the DMZ. As James P. Coan writes in Con Thien: The Hill of Angels: “The NVA knew they could emplace heavy artillery pieces north of the Ben Hai River and shell Allied firebases throughout northern Quang Tri Province without fear of ground attack. The Marines at Con Thien, Gio Linh, and other bases below the DMZ, always vulnerable to enemy shelling from the DMZ, became human pawns in a bloody, stalemated war of attrition created by our own government.”
In September 1967, the siege of Con Thien saw the base pounded mercilessly by artillery, rockets and mortar rounds. In only nine days, 3,000 artillery rounds hit the beleaguered base. Monsoon rains flooded trenches and bunkers with mud. Read about the harrowing experience in Coan’s book, which also includes clear maps of the area.
When the Americans withdrew ground troops, the Marines transferred the base to the South Vietnamese Army in 1969. It was only a matter of a few years before the base was surrendered to the North during the Easter Offensive, March 1972.
Now most of the land is used for rubber trees and there’s only one intact bunker remaining. A guide or doing your own reading will greatly enhance the experience. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there were a lot of fatalities in the area due to mines and unexploded ordinance, but many have since been removed. Still, do stick to the paths.
To reach Con Thien, on Highway 9 head west from Highway 1 in Dong Ha for 12 kilometres. Turn right (north) onto QL 15 for about eight kilometres. The entrance will be on your right, there’s no sign marking the turn off, which is just a dirt path. It’s a 30-minute walk from there, or the trail is navigable on a motorbike if you know what you’re doing. Again, a guide is highly recommended.
Continuing on QL15 past Con Thien is Truong Son National Cemetery, Vietnam’s largest war cemetery. It is comprised of about 10,300 graves of North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who died in defence of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There are 72 war cemeteries in Quang Tri province alone.
The cemetery is built on a the site of the former headquarters of the 559 Army Corps, which is named after May 9, 1959, the date it was established and the date the trail was opened, which also happens to be Ho Chi Minh’s birthday. They were charged with opening, maintaining and protecting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, called “Truong Son”, the name of the Annamite mountain range it followed.
During the conflict, the North Vietnamese didn’t have the resources to retrieve and transport bodies back to their home village so the Northern dead were often buried where they died if they were buried at all. In the Vietnamese tradition, the soul of a body not given proper burial and respects will not be at rest. After the war, as many of the remains as possible were retrieved and interred. But the 10,000 graves are only a fraction of the estimated hundreds of thousand who went missing in action.
The cemetery is divided into five major zones, each representing a region in Vietnam. The graves are laid out in concentric circles by province and hamlet – Vietnamese come to offer prayers for all the dead. It is worth visiting, if only to pay your respects. You can also visit the Highway 9 Cemetery – the second largest in the country is dedicated to all those who suffered and died along Highway 9, which runs parallel to the DMZ.
Truong Son is located on Route 15, about 19 kilometres north of Highway 9, five kilometres north of Con Thien Firebase. It’s down a wide, 50-metre path on the right; there is a big sign and it can be seen from the road. Highway 9 Cemetery is located directly on Highway 9, six kilometres west of Highway 1.
Continuing west on Route 9 you can see The Rockpile from the road on Highway 9 – travel west from Highway 1 in Dong Ha and stop at 28.5 kilometres. Unless you’ve seen photos of it before, you’ll likely need a guide to point it out to you. The Rockpile is a 230 metre high karst that was a US Marine observation post for Highway 9 and the DMZ. The infrastructure was built in 1966. 12 troops were stationed there with all supplies brought in by helicopter.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail (now highway QL14) intersects Highway 9 on the other side of the Dakrong Bridge. The bridge was the main access point to the network of trails during the war, and was bombed and rebuilt repeatedly throughout the conflict. The current bridge was built in 1974. There’s nothing interesting to look at, but like the Rockpile, it’s on the way to the Khe Sanh Marine base so everyone stops here.
Just 20 kilometres from the Lao border and situated on a plateau, remote and isolated Khe Sanh Marine Base is famous (and infamous) for the Battle of Khe Sanh, a devastating siege by the North Vietnamese Army that lasted for 77 days, one of the longest and deadliest of the war. Though considered a military victory, the intense global news coverage of the battle sharply turned public opinion against the war.
The site is now a big, bare field except for a small museum, a metal surfaced airstrip and military hardware on display including spent ordinance, a bunker, two American helicopters and a plane – these were all brought in from south Vietnam and were not remnants of Khe Sanh.
The A Shau Valley and Hamburger Hill are located in A Luoi, 90 kilometres south of the Dakrong Bridge on Highway 9 and 60 kilometres west of Hue. The Vietnam War sites in this area will only be of real interest to returning veterans or history buffs. It can be done as a full day trip from Hue, but visiting Hamburger Hill requires a guide and a permit.
Places are unmarked or little remains so for the average traveller, instead of visiting these war sites time may well be better spent reading about the war. The Crouching Beast: A United States Army Lieutenant’s Account of the Battle for Hamburger Hill, by Frank Boccia is a vivid firsthand narrative of his experience.
Since there are no travel companies based in A Luoi, guides and tours of Vietnam War sites should be arranged with DMZ specialists in Hue or Dong Ha. See our A Luoi guide for full details.
A guided tour is an informative and logistically smooth way to pack everything into a half-day or one-day trip.
We also think a tour by a former combatant or someone who survived the war can greatly enhance the experience, which is why we chose DMZ Tours with Mr Nguyen Thanh Duy, a Dong Ha local who lived through the war. When we booked the tour, we were clear that we wanted him personally as the guide but on the day of our tour, he came to greet us and passed us to one of his staff, another English-speaking guide. We were disappointed to say the least. The other guide was knowledgeable and her English was excellent, but she was not engaging and didn’t seem interested in the history she was delivering. It’s a pity, because in the brief 15 minutes we were with Mr Nguyen Thanh Duy, he was a great, lively storyteller who painted an amazing picture of what Dong Ha was like before the war. Another disappointing aspect was the lunch stop. Though we firmly insisted we wanted a cheap, cheerful local eat, we were taken to a joint catering for all the tours, where the driver and guide get to eat for free or get a commission while tourists pay triple the price for generic dishes. We asked to leave to eat somewhere not touristy but it became very awkward, so we just resigned ourselves. Considering the cost of the tour, it’s a detail that can be done better.
This company’s tours are done by private car. A one-day tour for one person starting and ending in Dong Ha, including driver, an English-speaking guide and entrance fees is US$90. For two people, it is US$5 more. If you want to end your trip in Hue, it is US$113.
Alternatively, Tam’s Cafe was highly recommended to us and their DMZ tours can be done by motorbike, US$32 for one person, US$60 for two. By private car it is US$40 per person. Mr Trung, a war veteran based in Hue, also does tours; he also comes recommended.
DMZ Tours with Nguyen Thanh Duy: 113 Le Loi St, Dong Ha; T: 091 4017 835; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.dmztours.net/
Tam’s Cafe: 211 Ba Trieu St; T: (090) 542 5912; email@example.com; tamscafe.jimdo.com.
Mr Trung Tours: 38 Tran Cao Van street, Hue; T: (090) 5376 140; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.facebook.com/MrTrungTours.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 7th March, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.