The Vietnam War was one of the defining events of the second half or the twentieth century. No matter where you live in the world, you're bound to be aware of the impact that conflict had on culture and society. No matter what you believe, that belief has been inevitably shaped by the lessons learned, and not learned, as well as the lives lost, and the lives forever changed by that one, singular event.
No surprise, then, that many a tourist ventures to travel in Vietnam seeking to better understand that pivotal juncture in modern history.
As did we. While staying in Hue, we decided to do what most travellers would do, and booked a US$9, one-day tour of the DMZ. A day rife with the promise of penetrating insight, emotional drama, and coming to terms with a complicated past.
DMZ tours out of Hue begin at 06:00. At least, that's when they tell you to get up and start waiting for the bus to arrive. If you're at the end of the route, it may show up as late as 07:00. We were picked up at 06:15 and were driven around Hue for 45 minutes picking up other tourists until the bus was full to bursting.
We then drove to Dong Ha. That took two more hours. We saw absolutely, positively nothing DMZ-related on the way. We arrived in Dong Ha and stopped for breakfast at the Mekong Hotel. Breakfast was unexceptional, but complimentary, so we ate our bread and cheese without complaint. After an half an hour, back in the bus, and the tour was finally under way.
We headed out to the Khe Sanh Marine Base. A half-hour later, four hours after our 'call time,' we finally saw something -- a big rock -- The Rockpile. Our guide explained that it was an important and strategic lookout post during the war. Of course, now it's just a very big rock. We stopped for ten minutes there, so we could take pictures. Of the very big rock.
Back on the bus, we toiled uphill for a bit more. The air-con was turned off to add power to the engine, so we were sweltering. Our next stop: the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We stopped at the entrance to a bridge on the water. On the other side, we were informed, was the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was paved now, and was the Ho Chi Minh Highway. We took pictures of the bridge. Some people walked across the bridge to look at the macadam road where the Ho Chi Minh Trail used to be. After ten minutes, back on the bus.
At about 11:00 we arrived at the former site of the US base at Khe Sanh. On exhibit were a crashed airplane, two crashed helicopters, a collection of heavy artillery shells, a big gun, and a bunker. At the centre of this display, a small museum. It featured a small exhibit of pictures, emphasizing how the Americans fled in panic from Khe Sanh, some small artefacts left behind by American and Vietnamese soldiers and some recovered weaponry. There was also diorama depicting the tribal peoples' contribution to the effort, ferrying modern weaponry and supplies to needy troops on the front lines, using ancient technologies like thatched bamboo baskets, and defending themselves with bows and arrows. This was actually kind of interesting. We got a little choked up looking at the exhibit. Then, back on the bus.
We returned to the Mekong Hotel, arriving at 12:15, for lunch. It was not included in the price of the tour. It took a long time for everyone to be served, and the food was mediocre when it came. Smart travellers skipped it altogether and found a noodle stand nearby. At 13:00, we departed for the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
On the way, we crossed the Ben Hai River. The river is important because it is the dividing line between north and south Vietnam. But now, it's just a river. All that remained of whatever fortifications had been employed during the war was a single bunker on the north side. Also, there was a monument under construction, a memorial to the war, surrounded by bulldozers busy at work.
And then back on the bus. An hour later, finally, the Vinh Moc Tunnels. As we entered the grounds leading up to the tunnel we realised, despite running a gauntlet of aggressive hawkers trying to ply us with overpriced bottles of water, that after eight hours spent mostly on the bus and in the Mekong Hotel cafeteria, we had finally come to the one place worth visiting on the DMZ tour.
The Vinh Moc tunnels are an amazing achievement of human toil and engineering. With little else at their disposal but cunning and determination, the Vietnamese had constructed the tunnels to provide shelter from regular bombings by American planes. During the war, people lived in here, men and women fell in love, got married, and had babies here, children were educated in the dark narrow passageways, and wounded soldiers were cared for and nurtured back to health. Looking at the tunnels, it was easy to understand why this small, beleaguered nation could take on the greatest military power on the planet and win.
And then back on the bus for the long, tedious ride back to Hue. To paraphrase, like war itself, our DMZ tour was marked by long periods of mindless boredom punctuated by brief moments of emotional intensity. But by the time we returned to Hue at 18:00, twelve hours from the start of our journey, we couldn't help but think: there's gotta be a better way to tour the DMZ.
And, indeed, there is.
The DMZ can be toured by car or motorbike. You can do this on your own, or with a guide. A car-tour out of Hue will cost about US$70 a day, but if you can afford it, it will give you the ability to pick and choose what sights you want to see, and control how long you want to hang around at a given site.
The best option is to go to Dong Ha first, which is the best launching-off point for tours of the DMZ. You'll spend six of the twelve hours you spend on the group tour just driving here and back, so it makes a lot of sense to just show up here on your own. This works best if you plan to hire a driver for a motorcycle tour. You can drive around on your own, but no one in Dong Ha rents motorbikes anymore. They say this is for safety reason, but it also conveniently forces tourists to use a guide. If you want to tour the DMZ by motorbike on your own, you'll have to drive it in from either Dong Hoi or Hue.
In either case, we recommend that you stop in at the DMZ Cafe in Dong Ha and speak to Mr. Tinh. He's got all the information and contacts you'll need to put together your own DMZ tour according to what interests you, and he can hook you up with a guide if you like -- we met some good ones on our visit, but it makes sense to spend some time talking to the guide first to get a sense of how well he speaks English and how knowledgeable he is about the sites. Prices are negotiable, but the average day-long tour seems to be going for about US$15 per person these days.
Doing the tour on your own will cost a bit more and may entail an overnight in Dong Ha, but it's definitely worth the time and expense.
88 Le Duan St, Dong Ha
T: (053) 857 026;(09) 13 427 401
By Don Morgan
Last updated on 21st May, 2015.