Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)
Most of the bases and bunkers have long vanished, but this 5km strip of land on either side of the Ben Hai River is still known by its American War moniker: the DMZ. From 1954 to 1975 it acted as a buffer between the North and the South. Ironically, the DMZ became one of the most militarised areas in the world, forming what Time magazine called ‘a running sore’.
The area just south of the DMZ was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles in America’s first TV war, turning Quang Tri, The Rockpile, Khe Sanh, Lang Vay and Hamburger Hill into household names.
Fast forward several decades and there’s not much left to see. Most sites have been cleared, the land reforested or planted with rubber and coffee. Only Ben Hai, Vinh Moc and Khe Sanh have small museums. Unless you’re an American veteran or military buff, you might find it a little hard to appreciate the place – which is all the more reason to hire a knowledgeable guide.
(admission 20,000d; 7am-4.30pm) A highly impressive complex of tunnels, Vinh Moc is the remains of a coastal North Vietnamese village that literally went underground in response to unremitting American bombing. More than 90 families disappeared into three levels of tunnels running almost 2km in all, and continued to live and work while bombs rained down around them.
Most of the tunnels are open to visitors, and are kept in their original form (except for electric lights, a luxury the villagers certainly didn’t have).
An English-speaking guide will accompany you around the complex, pointing out the 12 entrances until you emerge at a glorious beach, facing the South China Sea. The museum has photos and relics of tunnel life, including a map of the tunnel network.
The turn-off to Vinh Moc from Hwy 1 is 6.5km north of the Ben Hai River in the village of Ho Xa. Follow this road east for 13km.
(museum 20,000d; museum 7am-5pm) The site of the most famous siege of the American War, the USA’s Khe Sanh Combat Base was never overrun, but saw the bloodiest battle of the war. About 500 Americans, 10,000 North Vietnamese troops and uncounted civilian bystanders died around this remote highland base. It’s eerily peaceful today, but in 1968 the hillsides trembled with the impact of 1000kg bombs, white phosphorus shells, napalm, mortars and endless artillery rounds, as desperate American forces sought to repel the NVA.
The 75-day siege of Khe Sanh began on 21 January 1968 with a small-scale assault on the base’s perimeter. As the marines and South Vietnamese rangers braced for a fullscale ground attack, Khe Sanh became the focus of global media attention. It was the cover story for both Newsweek and Life magazines, and made the front pages of countless newspapers around the world. During the next two months the base was subjected to continuous ground attacks and artillery fire, and US aircraft dropped 100,000 tonnes of explosives in its vicinity. But the expected attempt to overrun the base never came.
On 7 April 1968, after heavy fighting, US troops reopened Hwy 9 and linked up with the marines, ending the siege.
It now seems clear that the siege was an enormous diversion to draw US attention away from the South Vietnamese population centres in preparation for the Tet Offensive, which began a week after the siege started.
Today the site is occupied by a small museum, which contains some fascinating old photographs, plus a few reconstructed bunkers and American aircraft. Most of the area is now planted with coffee, and vendors offer high-grade local Arabica beans for sale at the entrance.
Khe Sanh is 3km north of the small town of Huong Hoa.
An evocative memorial to the legions of North Vietnamese soldiers who died along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this cemetery is a sobering sight. More than 10,000 graves dot these hillsides, each marked by a simple white tombstone headed by the inscription liet si (martyr). Many graves lie empty, simply bearing names, representing a fraction of Vietnam’s 300,000 soldiers missing in action.
Truong Son was used as a base by the May 1959 Army Corps from 1972 to 1975. The corps had the mission of constructing and maintaining the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The cemetery is not on most tour itineraries, and its isolated location and simple design give it a powerful dimension. It’s 27km northwest of Dong Ha; the turn-off from Hwy 1 is close to Doc Mieu.
(museum 20,000d; museum 7am-4.30pm) Once the border between North and South Vietnam, Ben Hai River’s southern bank now has a grandiose reunification monument, its stylised palm leaves oddly resembling missiles. Cua Tung Beach’s fine golden sands are just east of here. Ben Hai’s northern bank is dominated by a reconstructed flag tower and small museum full of war mementoes.
Ben Hai is 22km north of Dong Ha on Hwy 1.
Hamburger Hill (Ap Bia) was the site of a tumultuous battle in May 1969 between US forces and the NVA over a 900m-high mountain – resulting in over 600 North Vietnamese and 72 American deaths. Today you need a special permit (costing US$25 and only obtained in the town of Aluoi) and a guide to get a glimpse of the remaining trenches and bunkers.
There’s a rudimentary visitor centre (with a map and information in English) at the base of the hill, from where a 6km trail leads up the mountain. Bring water and be sure to stick to the main trail.
Hamburger Hill is 8km northwest of Aluoi, about 6km off Hwy 14. It’s less than 2km from the Laos border. Security is tight around here and you’re sure to get your permits inspected by border guards.
Only one bunker remains of the US Marine Corps base that used to cover the three small hills here. In September 1967 Con Thien was besieged by the NVA, provoking a US response of 4000 bombing sorties. Today the region (though cleared of mines) is still studded with unexploded ordnance – stick to the paths.
Con Thien Firebase is 15km west of Hwy 1 and 8km south of Truong Son National Cemetery.
Camp Carroll was named after a Marine Corps captain who was killed while trying to seize a nearby ridge. Its colossal cannons were used to shell targets as far away as Khe Sanh (though these days there isn’t much to see except a Vietnamese memorial marker). The turn-off to Camp Carroll is 10km west of Cam Lo; it’s 3km from Hwy 9.
Visible from Hwy 9, this 230m-high karst outcrop once had a US Marine Corps lookout on top and a base for American long-range artillery nearby. You’ll need a guide to point out the hill to you. The Rockpile is 29km west of Dong Ha on Hwy 9.
Crossing the Dakrong River 13km east of the Khe Sanh bus station, this bridge was rebuilt in 2001 and bears a marker hailing its importance as a conduit for the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Millions of tonnes of ordnance were dropped on Vietnam during the American War – it’s estimated that about a third did not explode. Death and injury still happen most days. At many places there’s still a chance of encountering live mortar rounds, artillery projectiles and mines. Watch where you step and don’t leave the marked paths. Never touch any leftover ordnance.
It’s not just the DMZ that’s affected. It’s estimated that as much as 20% of Vietnam remains uncleared, with more than 3.5 million mines and 350,000 to 800,000 tonnes of unexploded ordnance (UXO). In the one-year period between 2012 and 2013 the NGO Mines Advisory Group estimated it cleared 185,639 sq metres of battle-affected areas, removed and destroyed 16,035 unexploded ordnance items and 2188 cluster bombs.
Between 1975 and 2007 unexploded ordnance resulted in 105,000 injuries and over 45,000 deaths. Every year hundreds die and are injured – a disproportionate number of them children or from the ethnic minority groups.
The People’s Army is responsible for most ongoing mine clearance. It’s joined by foreign NGOs such as the Mines Advisory Group (www.maginternational.org) and Clear Path International (www.clearpathinternational.org), whose efforts are well worth supporting.
Dong Ha has an excellent new Mine Action Visitor Centre. Drop by if you’re in the area.
Virtually everyone explores the DMZ on a tour. Standard tours are cheap (US$10 to US$15 for a day trip) and can be arranged by any hotel or cafe in Hue or Dong Ha. No matter where you sign up you’ll probably wind up as part of a large group. Most take in The Rockpile, Khe Sanh, Vinh Moc and Doc Mieu and leave Hue at 7am, returning by about 5pm. If you’re travelling from Hue bear in mind the distances covered, around 300km, and that much more time is spent driving than sightseeing.
A more meaningful experience, particularly for American veterans, is to see the DMZ independently. Reckon on US$100 or so per day for a car and expert guide.
In 1966 the USA began a massive aerial and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam. Just north of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the villagers of Vinh Moc found themselves living in one of the most heavily bombed and shelled strips of land on the planet. Small family shelters could not withstand this onslaught and villagers either fled or began tunnelling by hand and with simple tools into the red-clay earth.
The Viet Cong (VC) found it useful to have a base here and encouraged the villagers to stay. After 18 months of tunnelling, an enormous complex was established, creating new homes on three levels from 12m to 23m below ground, plus meeting rooms and even a maternity unit (17 babies were born underground). Whole families lived here, their longest stay lasting 10 days and 10 nights. Later, the civilians and VC were joined by North Vietnamese soldiers, whose mission was to keep communication and supply lines to nearby Con Co Island open.
Other villages north of the DMZ also built tunnel systems, but none was as elaborate as Vinh Moc. The poorly constructed tunnels of Vinh Quang village (at the mouth of the Ben Hai River) collapsed after repeated bombing, killing everyone inside.
US warships stationed off the coast consistently bombarded the Vinh Moc tunnels (craters are still visible), and occasionally the tunnel mouths that faced the sea were struck by naval gunfire. The only ordnance that posed a real threat was the ‘drilling bomb’. It scored a direct hit once but failed to explode, and no one was injured; the inhabitants adapted the bomb hole for use as an air shaft.