*** this entry is long and just deals with the DMZ tour and may drag on, so beware! and our history’s not so good, so bare with it***
arriving to central vietnam, we entered the main hub of the ‘american war’ – as its called here – naturally, since it marked the border between north and south, hue, the city we stayed at, has a much older and richer history, mostly being part of a citadel constructed in 1806 by the emperor ly, later destroyed by the french, then rebuilt, only to be destroyed by the american, and then once again bandaged up.
a very cool site: old brick walls with castle like towers every hundred feet, surrounded by a moat of course. and the emperor himself gave this region the great food we get to eat today. he was so picky and cocky, he wanted 50 different dishes prepared by 50 different chefs and served to him by 50 different servants….quite a guy! but, citadel aside, this is where the american war tours begin…..
the DMZ tour takes you on a bus (12 hours in all, 6am to 6pm!) and drives an hour north of hue to the de-militarized zone which lies 5km south of the ben hai river and 5 km north of the river, from ocean to the laos border (about 65 km).
a little buff up on the history, the ben hai river served as the border between north and south vietnam after the elections failed to happen in the early 60′s (failed because the southern catholic ruler refused to hold an election with US aid pretty much because it was feared the communist leader ho chi minh would win). so, then during the ‘war’, the DMZ area was created to serve as a safe-hold for civilians who wanted to cross the border. of course, as ‘peace keepings’ usually never really mean peace, this ended up being the scene of the largest battles throughout the US involvement.
so, this tour takes you from the ocean almost to the laos border and back, stopping to look at old bases, stations, trails, tunnels, etc… that were significant in the war. unfortunately it was more of a driving tour than anything else, and the tour guide’s english was barely understandable. but still, here’s a run down of what we saw and experienced:
rock pile: a little more than a pile of rocks, this is a giant mountain, rather rocky, that served as the US helicopter pad as well as look out station. now, it looks like a beautiful green mountain in the midst of a valley, but during the war, it served as a vital tool for the US
hien luong bridge/ho chi minh trail: this was a little more vague for us because there was nothing in our LP book and we couldn’t understand the tour guide… but, the ho chi minh trail served as a path of the VC (charlie) and its supplies and weapons. now its pretty much all highway (the one which we were driving on) but we were shown pictures of the steep dirty trails that it served as in the past. the bridge itself we’re not too sure about, other than it was part of the trail and now a big fancy one was built in honor of it.
landscape: to us, the landscape was beautiful and green, but to the trained eye you would know that the land should be lush with jungles. in reality, the hills were rolling with green grass and shrubs, still tropical. but prior to the war, there were thick jungles with trees and canopies, which coincidentally served as good cover for ‘charlie’. so, the US not only bombed the place but sprayed herbicides everywhere, killing every plant around. and still today, the trees and many other species/plants haven’t returned.
khe sanh base: this was the mother-load. others may know it as ‘khe sanh hell’, the largest battle in all of the US occupation in vietnam. short story goes something like this (bare with it , some of you probablyly know more than we do) – US intelligence gets wind of charlie moving around in these distant mountains, south of the ben ai river border, only 20km east of the laos border. traditionally, these mountains are filled with local tribes who don’t know or care not much of what’s going on in the rest of their country, they live the simple life. with this new intelligence, president johnson and his top officers decide the US needs to establish a presence there. so, we go there, pretty much demolish the villages (not in a killing way, but just take over, ruining the traditional livelihoods…), create an airstrip and make our presence. in 1967, more movement was detected around the hills and the US predicted a major attack. after filling the place with marines, we were ready, or so we thought. as nothing seemed to be happening, supposedly, soldiers started wondering what the heck they were all doing in the middle of nowhere.
there was no real land to be conquered and no visible threat to them. but on january 21 1968, battle began as the US was then surrounded by charlie and local guerrillas. after the largest sum of american deaths in one battle, the US fled khe sanh on april 7th (not to mention how many villagers and civilians died). however and coincidently, on january 23rd (i think) the TET offensive went off, and the north vietnamese had attacked/taken over dozens of cities and towns (including saigon) in the south. a major ‘loss’ to the US. it turns out, the charlie that was around the mountains was a diversion to get all the attention up there and let charlie slip by US intelligence to accomplish the TET offensive. so, pretty much, the khe sanh battle was looked at as not necessary. soldiers then coined the phrase “in the middle of nowhere fighting for nothing.” nothing good came from the troops being stationed up there and from what we’ve read and seen it seems like both the soldiers and the US people saw khe sanh as a major if not stupid mistake on the US government’s part. sorry we can’t explain it better, just google it.
but what WE saw: now, a memorial museum on the site as well as old helicopters, bunkers, tanks, and bombs. the museum was breathtaking. filled with old photos and testimonies of locals and soldiers. and everything is actually pretty matter of fact. i think there’s a pretty general consensus that the US made some bad calls, but they’re not throwing it in your face here at all. it’s just amazing to see all this in person with your own eyes and look around you and see the stories come to life per se right in front of you. outside the museum were two american helicopters -huge!!! as well as an artillery gun, a tank, bombs…… the photos will show you…oh and even the remnants of the airstrip where nothing grows, though the rest of the landscape is all beautiful coffee plants. needless to say we left there with a whole new feeling.
vinh moc tunnels: now, north of the ben hai river border and on the coast, the local villagers took flee underground…for 6 years! 60 families took cover from all the bombing above and lived in a three tier tunnel maze reaching up to 23 m below the surface. and in this time, 17 babies were born, all which survived the war. there are also tunnels like this around ho chi minh city,much more complex but supposedly slightly smaller and more tourists so we got to venture down these, still ducking quite a bit. it was amazing to see the handy work amongst all this red clay. they used bamboo to support the tunnels and built wells, bathrooms, bomb shelters, a larger meeting room, and lots of stairs. if we thought about it too hard, you could get very claustrophobic down there as you’re walking with a tour of 20 people in these tiny tunnels. at least today they’ve wired them with electricity so that was at least comforting. overall the tour was eye-opening but our bumms were sore from sitting so much!
khe sanh: this (worded by the vietnamese) was the biggest ruse of the war – the vietnamese gave every appearance of threatening khe sang, surrounding the place with thousands of troops and shelling the base relentlessly. no serious attempt to seize the marice base ever occurred. the vietnamese purpose was to distract westmoreland’s attention fom their preparations for the real dein bein phu of the american war, the surprise nationwide offensive at tet, the lunar new year holiday, of january 1968, which broke the will of the johnson administration and the american public to continue to prosecute the conflict. the ruse succeeded.
a heartbreaking story overhead from a US vet: stationed in the beginning of the war, late 50′s i believe, they arrived to a village in central vietnam and was greeted by the local chief. he asked why they were here and who they were. he sensed trouble and told the soldiers that they walked and acted just like the vietnamese men that had just visited previously (charlie). when told they had came up from saigon, the chief said they had no idea what saigon was (just to prove how remote this part of the country was). they proceeded to tour around this village and others. they were ordered to recruit villagers. most did, but some didn’t. one in particular was a 16 year old boy. he began running away and one of his fellow soldiers was ordered to shoot. he did and killed him on the spot. the mother ran over and held him crying profusely. the general or colonal, whomever was in charge, was saying ‘why won’t she shut up damn it, gooks have no feelings, why is she crying like that’. a soldier replied, ‘we just shot and killed her son sir’. but the head honcho proceeded to swear and curse her tears…..