My Vietnam Launch – The Demilitarise Zone – DMZ – 2018 Backpacking
From my last post I spent some enjoyable and reflection of days touring the city of Hue (Whey) and all the ancient and new tourism locations within a close proximity to my wonderful hotel, Holiday Hotel Diamond. Ms Anna, manager, had arranged for the wilderness tour of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) set out between the North Vietnamese (Viet-Cong, communist) & South Vietnamese during their civil war, 1st Nov 1955 – 30th April 1975. This war, primarily between North & South also included Cambodia, Laos and sometimes referred to as 2nd Indochina War. This blog contains a lot of photos, so enjoy these at your leisure.
The war basically started after Vietnam as a whole, ousted the French colonialists in 1954 and wanted to unite even further by coming a full communist country. This did not sit easy with conservative, freedom of speech and other freedoms mainly sought by the South Vietnam region, as Saigon was Vietnam’s capital at the time. The USA & other free allies joined in, while the North Communist base sought help from China & Russia therefore, the ugly clash, mass of life lost, chemical warfare, etc continued to a period up to 1973 where allies were forced to withdraw under world growing pressure and a war too difficult to win. North Vietnam, from 1973 to April 1975 made a full intrusion to take control which is present to today. Hanoi was their capital, but with Saigon being the main, more practical capital city it was proclaimed as Ho Chi Minh, named after the former Prime Minister of The Democratic Republic of Vietnam and later their 1st President until his death in 1969. Ho Chi Minh did his early education in Hue before escalating to a well-travelled man & then settling in France from 1917 for a few years & this is where he chose that adopted name when he used France’s defeat in WW11 to raise his mission against France’s insurgence into Vietnam. I was not aware his original name was Nguyen Sinh Cung and Ho Chi Minh means “He Who Enlightens”. After the Vietnam War it took till 1995 before Vietnam entered formal diplomatic relations with opposing countries.
Back to my day trek (full day) but I’ll explain later what a full day it turned out to be. The clear instruction was for me to wait in reception until the bus driver walked down the long laneway to take me to the 9-seater Mercedes touring vehicle where I felt everyone was not pleased sitting in a closed bus with the air-con & motor off for those good 10mins or so for me. I think I was right, me being the last to board … & we were packed in tight with our day bags, mine at my feet. LOL!!
We headed off through the city, basically in a Western direction, then a NW direction for some 2hrs plus … such a long & winding journey in parts but again, it’s an occasion to see the real countryside in this central Vietnam region. The terrain becomes more of mountain range status and we’re all hoping the vehicle, and us would make it through to the next stop, wherever that may be. Along the way, we saw varying authentic houses which is an eye-opener considering they appear to be on harder times than what buildings I saw back in Ninh Binh.
On our way we are directed to view the mountain to the right where you can just see something sticking out of the ridge at the top. Through the passenger’s ‘Chinese Whispers’ I managed to see what was on the ridge & it was a military site but no more information was revealed. After the tour, I managed to do some research & found the outpost to be called by the US troops as Rockpile Hill, some 230m high & 26klms west of Dong Ha. It was the main & basically the only area available to viewpoint the valleys below for US troops. The only way possible to get there was by a helicopter drop off, no landing and troops were based there a fortnight to a month at a time, and the platform area was quite small, some 25m2 and was manned by about 16 troops on a 24/7 operational basis. Can’t imagine how tough that would have been and a full-on reason to be real mates no matter what! Talk about social distancing .. NOT!!!
Finally!! We stopped; and my fellow passengers almost fell out over me with the anticipation of escape. It was like an explosion .. LOL! Our guide, a young Vietnamese lady, with great English, finally showed us her voice, she had been mostly silent the entire trip so we were left to do our own commentary at times on the ‘bus’. She was rushing around and talking to now spread out trekkers, so my on-site education became impossible and had to rely on my late-night research again to fill in the gaps.
We had arrived at the Cau Da Krong suspension bridge, the central point of the Da Krong relic- scenic area on National Hwy9, 50klms out from hwy 14A (Google Maps). Originally, there was an iron bridge the army used. On one side of the bridge there are the majestic mtns, the other, the valley of The Cau Da Krong River. In 1973-75 with the help of Cuba the iron bridge was replaced by this 100mlong x 6m wide suspension bridge. It is the first cable-stayed & Vietnam designed, built bridge. The bridge, at war time over this river, was hotly contested throughout the Vietnam War & was held by the opposing forces several times over. This bridge also opens the way to Laos & the mystical Ho Chi Minh trail, hence the added importance. In a future blog I will disclose the Australian & British funded cable bridges that will blow your mind spanning together over the vast Mekong Delta.
Bridges come in all shape and sizes and most travellers never seem to realise the importance, nor the significance of bridges; but the common theme is to bring two sides together in a structural bond. Through this bond, much can be achieved and this bridge certainly signifies all of this even though, there is a stone engraved showing the date erected and with no huge showpiece monument to expose this importance to the masses, apart from the frequent viewing by bus loads of travellers. This isolated bridge certainly encapsulates this medium.
Below this bridge, the river Song Thach Han flows, from the Annamite Ranges to the Sth China Sea, East of Dong Ha, for some 150klms. There are hydro-electricity stations now along this river as it is mostly fast flowing too. Vietnam use every available resource when it’s available. Very little is wasted. The DMZ was based upon the 17th Parallel from a previous Geneva Accord after the French was decisively defeated in war by Vietnam in 1954, starting in 1946. The DMZ functioned from 1954-2nd July 1976 & spanned some 5klms each side of the Ben Hai River as a way of a geographic separation.
We cross this bridge & immediately turn left (West) for another 15klms or so and enter the village of Khe Sanh where this area showed some of the fiercest fighting in the war. Some 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped in this region. For those unaware, “Khe Sanh” is a very famous iconic song in Australia, sung by a top-ranking Aussie band, Cold Chisel. It was their first single in 1978, and remains today one of the best Vietnam War anthems of what can go wrong when Govts think they know best & a returning soldier is left to fend for himself. Don Walker, band member wrote this soldier tribute and what a small world it is when he lived just around the corner from me growing up in my hometown of Grafton. He is a little older than me. One of his many songs was about my hometown and is also an iconic Aussie song of country town living called “Flame Trees”. Both songs and more, can easily be found on Spotify & you will note the usual tones of lead singer, Jimmy Barnes. Enjoy!!! I played part of the Khe Sahn song in the presence of my trekking troupe but respected their privacy of course by only playing a few minutes. Some were amazed that such a song existed.
Khe Sanh is certainly a small village, but I note several shops, etc had Aussie titles, probably by the influences of the dedicated Cold Chisel song. The Aussie troops weren’t fighting or based here but a hundred or so kilometres to the South, so I think I’m right here. Again, our guide was limited in her speech but the focus was to explore the US War Base Memorial & grounds to our pleasure, excluding the airstrip below in the valley due to many unexploded bombs/ ammunitions, etc. This museum is central to the US Army base where all military objectives were devised and implemented. I managed to see various aircrafts, helicopters, bunkers even though the US violently de-commissioned this base when departing in 1975. Through the grass you can still find memorabilia however, there are always several villagers that totally hound you to buy their wares of medals, ribbons, etc. We were strictly told to not buy anything from them as they risk complete danger still sifting through the relics of the base & airstrip. The dangers are well recorded with many deaths & injuries doing this activity. In the Khe Sanh region conflict there were 26,000 US soldiers & 17,000 Allied Soldiers placed for battle so you can imagine the resources and equipment that was required for such operations. The Base Museum certainly shows you up front what logistics, weaponry and storage facilities were required in a military airbase and command centre. I found it thankful there was such equipment, intact storage and bunkers in place to further educate visitors in this tragic warfare. The varying types of bombs and their sizes were confronting though. Most Vietnam War museums, including this one, were funded by the US however, Vietnam has twisted much of the display to reinforce & elevate their opposition to the enemy at that time. Some of the facts displayed are a little ‘hazy’. I came across this several times however, I guess you have to expect that from the victor.
We were reluctantly pushed by our guide to return to our van to continue towards Vinh Moc to the East. There was still more to see and experience this base but we understand there is limited daylight available to fit everything in on this tour.
We head back to the Cau Da Krong bridge but keep driving past it & head East to the tunnels of Dia Dao vinh moc (Vinh Moc Tunnels) just out from the city of Vinh Moc (slightly North) for some 2hrs drive towards the ocean in the East. Upon our journey we cross the Ben Hai River and another newly constructed bridge and to our right we are told of the adjacent & much older Hien Luong bridge (1928) separating the North & South Vietnam. It was declared in 1986 a significant national historical site.
This bridge is somewhat divided into 2 sections, painted in a different colour, each at 89 meters long from each end. Blue paint on the North side for 450 wooden planks & Yellow for 444 wooden planks on the Southern side. This temporary divide was supposed to last for 2 years and terminate after the unification general election, but it ended up lasting for 21years. On the North side is a monument depicting a unified Vietnam, along with its flagpole and a huge 9x12m flag. There is also other historical barracks to enforce the separation as well as a restored 500W tower speaker used by the North to ‘voice’ political messages and propaganda to the South. On the southern bank, there is the monument of “Desire for a Unified Country” with the image of young mother and her son looking North and waiting for her husband and other loved ones to arrive home.
This bridge was fiercely defended, mainly by The North Vietnamese where the Vinh Linh community and soldiers dug 18klms of war trenches & 48 anti-air emplacements. A now famous lady, Nguyen Thi Diem spent her night times over these war years mending the flag to keep morale high for the Viet Cong. She is remembered in a nearby monument engraved showing her tapestry work on the flag. The bridge was severely damaged during the war but was restored authentically where needed.
We now find we are travelling through farmland (cultivated & non-cultivated) & nearing our 2hr timeslot of travel in what seems the middle of nowhere. Without much fanfare our guide directs us to discreet landmarks of the Vinh Moc Tunnels, noting there are bomb craters everywhere you look. Obviously, we will not be walking off the dedicated tracks. The Vinh Moc tunnels, a much larger network than the Ho Chi Minh tunnels in the south were built between 1966-67 & used for 6years. The tunnels had 3 levels in parts, 12, 15 & 23m deep and have a continuous span of 2,200klms. It consisted of 13 entrances, & 7 exits to the sea. Everything the citizen & army population needed was provided in these tunnels; Kitchens, hospital, nursery where 17 babies were born, meeting rooms, school, sleeping qtrs, etc. The US suspected these tunnels existed but could never find the entrances or exits, hence the dropping of more bombs.
Vietnam has now placed restoration policies in preserving some sections of these tunnels. The main obvious preservation is the large angled concrete retainment wall spanning a kilometre or 2 along the beach to offset the erosion from the sea. Exiting the tunnel network at this seaside is indescribable as we fully soak up the sunshine, clean ocean air and the sense of overwhelming freedom. I notice we are all breathing rather heavily now & have beaming smiles. Some of us start ‘looking’ for the trail to take us back, but alas, the only way back is through the darkness again. Here we go!
In the Wet Season some areas of the tunnels flood so during the war other tributary tunnels were formed to continue operations. I believe the restorations will not cover such sections obviously. The tunnels are incredibly small & narrow and some of my trekkers really struggled handling this and fearing they would be stuck. I was smaller than most and I was struggling at times, especially when you had to climb down the stairs and ladders in the limited light or darkness. How did everyone handle this over the years? Claustrophobia & such thoughts really comes to the fore and I believe I’ve never suffered from such experiences before. My troupe commented frequently when the tunnels narrowed and their reactions were quite unnerving at times. I could only take photos in the main hallway tunnels that allowed a bit more room. At night, villagers would work the food farms like normal & return to the tunnels at daybreak, leaving nothing for the US soldiers to see. Incredible resilience by the people & tunnel engineering mastery to handle the bomb attacks as well. When you exit the tunnels, away from the ocean you can see the myriad of craters everywhere so there were no exaggerations as to the number of bombings that took place.
After surviving the unknown time (guessing some 40mins but obviously felt much longer) of slithering through the network of tunnels and celebrating the open spaces and much cleaner air walking to our van, we are all in awe of what we just experienced … how do you do this for years on end? Such resilience!
We are told we are on schedule and we only have the famous war cemetery to do on our way back to Hue, when “BANG”! We have stopped in the centre of the narrow road between fields. There is much confusion … and we are told to alight and stay along the roadside and not to venture into the fields (landmines, ammunition still prevalent). The driver is translated as saying it will take him a few minutes to fix. The fan belt had snapped! Low & behold he grabs a new one out of the rear compartment & does a joyous laugh. I spoke to my nearby companion stating … “I believe the fan belt was already on its way out .. & yet, they used the van for the 5hr travel”. He agreed & said “we’ll be here for ages”.
After a while my fellow travellers started asking the guide when can we get back to Hue. One traveller (Pete from England), had to catch a plane that night. He was starting to stress out. All of a sudden, our English-speaking guide suddenly lost her English language & Vietnamese then flowed. So frustrating & very annoying. We pleaded for a recovery vehicle or something to get us moving again but to no avail. Out of frustration a couple of us tried to help the driver who was now showing some arm bruising and heat burns from the motor. We could not get the belt to go onto the last pulley. Later, a scooter turns up from a young guy working on a nearby farm. He can’t help but Pete, to catch his plane shows him some Viet Dong to take him to the nearest town for a bus. My evening communication with Pete said he made the bus by 25mins and just made his plane. I now have burn marks on my arm helping the driver. Our crowd was getting very agitated & after this eternity of time, the guide then rings someone. The only words we get is “mechanic .. soon”.
Another hour added on, with still no success on the belt, a man on a scooter arrives speaking Vietnamese and smiling. He is carrying some hand tools and quickly talks to the driver & much head nodding followed. With just a few minutes we are all thanking him and almost hugging him, for he had the belt on in about 7mins flat! Why couldn’t the guide make that call earlier .. so unnecessary to cause this drama. All up, we were on that roadside for 2hrs 50mins & it was now getting closer to dusk. We all boarded the van & I started searching my backpack for treating my arm burns & grease cover. Yay! Even though it was getting late everyone was agreed to doing a quick visit to the war cemetery with what daylight was available & before the cemetery gates are locked …. our agreed visit was largely out of respect of Vietnam’s fallen heroes and in respect of the hardship of those that lived in those tunnels. We allied ourselves to also toughen up!
Not far away was the Truong Son National Cemetery, in Ben Tat Hill, the largest war cemetery in Vietnam. Some 10,263 Vietnamese graves (soldiers & civilians) and far too many unnamed with just a single white cross and they also represent the 330,000 Vietnamese still listed as missing. Time prevented us from venturing too far from the entrance as the volunteers were getting ready to close the cemetery. The sheer volume of viewing the graves well into the distance was quite confronting. The cemetery is in 5 zones and covers some 40ha. Such human travesty.
The ride home to Hue took ages (105klm journey) despite most of us having a power sleep as darkness evolved out from our windows. Everyone was hungry & thirsty; most had eaten their stock supplies back on the roadside out of sheer boredom. Again, guess who was the last to reach their hotel? Yes, me again!! I graciously thanked the driver & hurried down the laneway to my hotel so I could decant my daypack and head off to a restaurant or whatever is still open. The hotel clock ‘yelled’ out to me 8.15pm!!! Reception was overwhelmed with relief that I had arrived. They had been checking with the tour office to no avail on when I would return. When I told them of my roadside adventures and sequences of events they were not impressed and stated they will ring through their displeasure to them tomorrow morning. I thanked them for their concern and politely excused myself to hurry up to my room and head out for food & a beverage or 2 or 3 or 4!!!
With food & liquid into my stomach & a welcomed hot shower I slept well into the next morning. That certainly was a full day tour! Ms Anna greeted me as usual with huge smiles & then the deepest of apologies for such trauma yesterday. She took the tour drama personally, as the hotel had recommended using this tour company. I stated, all was good & every day is an experience in travelling. Some good, some bad .. but it is better when you have freedom. She smiled again & took me to my breakfast table. I always attempt to eat with someone to share conversation with but everyone had already left for their respective day’s outing.
My goal for today was to take in the local sites in the city and to hopefully send a fax to my bank back in Australia and complete the ongoing crap I had with them since I was in Sihanoukville in Cambodia many, many weeks prior. After several tries, my fax still wasn’t received in Australia but was able to leave a message with the relevant bank department. The transmission fault was confirmed to be my bank & not the Post Office. The lady who served me in the post office laughed at me stating “who uses faxes nowadays”. I had to openly agree. I felt so embarrassed, as my bank is the largest in Australia .. & I’m using an antiquated fax that they will only deal with internationally. I also sent the fax doc to my daughter vie email; in the hope she could provide this to the bank for action on my behalf. After much frustration I managed to spend a little time in the city’s Ho Chi Minh Museum nearby. It seems every large city has one of these museums and each one has its own unique exhibition but nothing here to really attract my camera apart from the recognisable Ho Chi Minh and the plaque behind him depicting the symbols of some of Hue’s icons. Venturing back to my hotel I met up with a few cool roosters in a park. That’s something you don’t often see & this relieved me of my frustrations & I began to see the city’s other wonders in my slow walk around.
I’ll end this blog here, so stay safe, happy & hopefully enjoy the photos and kick this COVID-19 & the more vile vaccines back into history. Stay tuned for my next blog on my travels to the beautiful ancient city of Hoi An.
Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy for 2022 and for it to be a far better year for all. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.
I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be more of the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.
Live life to the most and a quote that I truly love is from Eckhart Tolle ..
“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”