View of a crashed helicopter
Asia,  Blog,  Travelogue,  Vietnam

DMZ

All is quiet on the DMZ now. The bases and bunkers are no longer there. The country is one. And the area is a major tourist attraction.
View of Ben Hai river
View of the Ben Hai river when driving

However, it wasn’t always so. When the world’s powers convened in Geneva to try and sort out the mess the French had got themselves into in Indochina, Vietnam was split in half along the 17th parallel. A strip of land, running about 5kms on either side of the Ben Hai river separated a nation and its people. During the ensuing Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese and US-supported South fought ruthlessly, trying to gain an advantage over the other. In the process, it left scores dead, with civilians as collateral damage on both sides of the border.

Helicopter left behind at Khe Sanh Combat Base
Helicopter at Khe Sanh Combat Base
The Rockpile

Depending on which of the tours you opt for, often, it is the first stop. It’s exactly what its name suggests – a pile of rocks in the middle of a flat field, with cliffs on all sides. If you are planning to trek all the way up, give up on that thought. It is inaccessible by foot. The only way you can see it is from the road.

View of the Rockpile
View of the Rockpile

Today, it is just a regular mountain today. However, during the Vietnam War, it played a major role. While its strategic importance is open to interpretation, its location brought several advantages. It acted as a listening post for the US marines, which they would pass on to the Elliot Combat Base at the foot of the Rockpile.

Its proximity to route 9 was also an advantage. Running parallel along the DMZ from Donga Ha on to Khe Sanh before becoming a dirt track as it crossed into Laos, it helped the troops stationed to stave off any attack from the North Vietnamese army.

The summit could also be easily defended. In fact, lots of marines were more than happy to be posted here, as their chances of making it through their tour was higher.

Route 9 near the DMZ
Route 9 near the DMZ
Cau Dakrong Bridge

The bridge was built as recently as 1974. While it has no relevance to the Vietnam War, it acts as a marker point for the Ho Chi Minh trail.

It’s the same trail that the North Vietnamese used to transport troops, munition supplies and even tanks to its fighters deep in the south.

Cau Dakrong Bridge
Cau Dakrong Bridge

However, there never was a single trail. Depending on the ground situation, the North Vietnamese would constantly keep changing their route, across 100s of kilometers, just in case the Americans caught on. Each time they did, and carpet-bombed the area, the North Vietnamese would simply chart another trail down south. In fact, there are parts of the trail that passed through Laos too, which worked out badly for them.

Crossroad along the 17th Parallel
The crossroad along the 17th Parallel
Hien Luong Bridge

The bridge, over Ben Hai river, is located on the 17th Parallel. It was what divided North and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

While the original bridge was destroyed, an exact replica has been constructed and placed as close to the original location. And while the country is now united, it is still a physical reminder of a time when it wasn’t.

Hien Luong bridge that connected North with South Vietnam
Hien Luong bridge that connected North with South Vietnam

During the height of the war, it was divided right down to the middle in two different colours –blue for South and yellow for the North. As an aside, the blue was earlier red on the original bridge. This was also the point where divided families, separated by a line, could meet.

While I couldn’t cross over to the northern side (they weren’t allowing anybody that day), you can clearly see a memorial, negotiating hall, watch towers, speakers and other relics from the time. While some are from those times, the rest have all be reconstructed to give it an authentic look and feel.

View of the memorial and negotiating hall
View of the memorial and negotiating hall
Khe Sanh Combat Base

It’s the site of one of the most famous sieges during the Vietnam War. For 75 days, starting on the 21st of January 1968, the North Vietnamese continuously assaulted the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

View of the museum with a helicopter from inside a bunker at Khe Sanh Combat Base
View of the museum with a helicopter from inside a bunker at Khe Sanh Combat Base

The Americans, bracing for a full-scale attack, bombed the area around the camp, with 1,000 kg bombs, white phosphorus shells, napalm, mortars and artillery rounds. In the process, around 500 Americans, 10,000 North Vietnamese and countless civilians lost their lives.

However, the expected onslaught never came. Finally, on the 7th of April 1968, after heavy fighting, the troops managed to retake route 9 and linked up with the marines to end the siege.

A tank left behind at Khe Sanh Combat Base
A tank left behind at Khe Sanh Combat Base

On hindsight, it seems that it was a deliberate ploy by the North Vietnamese to divert attention from the South Vietnamese population areas in preparation for the Tet offensive, which began a week after the siege started.

When you visit the site today, there is a small museum with historical photographs, a few reconstructed bunkers, several aircrafts, tanks and artillery left behind.

Uniform and photographs on show at the Khe Sanh Combat Base museum
Uniform and photographs on show at the Khe Sanh Combat Base museum
Information you can use

The only major city close by is Dong Ha, along the coast on highway 1. However, it is easily accessible from Hue and Danang.

Check with local travel agents at Hue for a day trip. Costs vary anywhere between USD 10 – 15 per person if you are going on a package tour in a bus. If you hire a private car, while it is a lot more expensive, it still allows you the liberty of of going where the buses can’t. I would advise this option. For rates, ask at the travel agency itself.

Expect to be out the full day, with your pick-up at around 6am and drop off around 5 or 6pm that same day.

Stilt home which is common in this area
A stilt home common to the region

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