While much of Vietnam has moved on from its war-torn past, for people living close to the former Demilitarised Zone it is inescapable. Words and photos by Nick Ross
Most travel in Vietnam has a connection to the country’s scenery, its multicultural heritage or its reconstructed future. Unless, that is, you visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in Quang Tri, an area that still lives in the shadow of war.
The province’s fate was sealed at the Geneva Accords in 1954, when Vietnam was divided in two at the 17th Parallel. The line roughly followed the course of the Ben Hai River just north of Quang Tri, and to ensure a buffer between north and south, a 5km Demilitarised Zone was created along the border. The goal was to temporarily split the country into two areas — the north, governed by the Viet Minh with Ho Chi Minh as its figurehead, and the south, headed by former emperor Bao Dai and later Ngo Dinh Diem. The agreement aimed to pave the way for elections in July 1956 to unify the country. Yet the US and Southern Vietnam didn’t sign the accords and the elections never took place.
What started in Southern Vietnam in the late 1950s as localised rebellion against brutal, systemic corruption and land reform — the Diemist government brought back the landlord and serf system of pre-World War II Vietnam — soon escalated into war. By the mid-1960s, the DMZ found itself at the centre of a conflict between North and South. The location of a number of US military bases, the area became a principle battleground in the 1968 Tet Offensive, while the citadel of Quang Tri was razed in two separate battles in 1971 and 1972. The province finally fell to North Vietnamese forces in March 1975.
A Personal Insight
I’ve visited Quang Tri twice. First with Project Renew, an NGO working with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to remove unexploded ordnance (UXO) and help educate and support local people affected by UXO and the aftermath of war. That was in 2012. This year I passed through on a motorbike trip.
On both occasions I’ve been struck by how heavily war looms in the background of people’s everyday lives, even though the area has been at peace for more than 40 years.
I’ve been on a mining mission, I’ve visited a woman whose husband was killed by UXO and another man in hospital who lost his forearm to an exploding cluster bomb. I’ve met people so poor that to provide for their families they search out UXO which they then dismantle and sell for scrap in order to survive. I’ve met amputees who make their living out of farming mushrooms, and I’ve seen where villagers just north of the DMZ lived to avoid wartime bombing.
I’ve also visited the former US naval base in Ta Con, just outside Khe Sanh. According to mine clearance professionals I’ve met in Quang Tri, while Laos may be the most heavily bombed country per capita of population in the world, Quang Tri is the most heavily bombed area on this planet. As I’ve been told numerous times: “A thousand years and we still won’t have cleared it all up.”
There is a magnificence and a resilience to Quang Tri, to the area north and south of the former DMZ, yet there is also a story of deep poverty and suffering, a story of people affected by past events beyond their control. Talk of the devastation of war is a cliché, but here it’s a reality even four decades on.
If you are searching for a sense of how the war ravaged this country, then visit the DMZ. What you’ll find is not always pleasant, but it will open your eyes. My first trip opened my eyes so wide I dreamt about the place for weeks. My most vivid memory is of a field just north of Quang Tri.
“They say there’s over 1,000 people buried in there,” said my guide, shaking his head. “No-one will farm on it.”
Where to Visit
Most visitors pass through Quang Tri on a day trip from Hue or via the bus from Hue to Phong Nha. Do so and you’ll only touch the surface. So it's best to spend two or three days exploring. There’s good, cheap accommodation in the main city, Dong Ha, and Khe Sanh, a town close to the border with Laos.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail
The most remote road trip in Vietnam is along the section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Khe Sanh to the next big town up, Phong Nha, over 200km to the north. You’ll need at least six hours to complete the trip — this is a place of mountain pass after mountain pass — and you’ll need extra gasoline for the road. But it’s worth every moment of winding, hairpin-bend roads. The views are spectacular.
Khe Sanh Combat Base
The focal point of the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968, the former US combat base known locally as Ta Con is located 3km outside of town along the Ho Chi Minh Trail heading north. Featuring a museum, the former airstrip, abandoned US planes, helicopters and tanks, and a rebuilt bunker system, the base is a reminder of the military might the US Army once poured into Vietnam. Eventually abandoned in April 1971, by 1973 the Vietnamese Communists were using the airstrip for courier flights into the south.
Lao Bao Prison
About 11km from Khe Sanh and right on the Laotian border is the town of Lao Bao. The remains of Lao Bao Prison are a reminder of the brutality with which the French ruled Indochina during their 100-plus years as the colonial power. Built in 1908 and once one of the five major prisons in the region, the solitary confinement area for ‘dangerous’ political prisoners still stands, though much of the rest has been destroyed. In the centre of the building is a tree with thorns on its bark; inmates who fell afoul of the authorities would be made to climb this tree as a form of punishment.
Bru-Van Kieu Village
Located next to Dak Rong Bridge at the junction of Highway 9 and Highway 14, this village represents a failed attempt by the local tourism department and an international NGO to bring tourism to one of the region’s ethnic minorities, the Bru-Van Kieu. It’s still worth a visit. The wooden stilt houses — satellite dishes intact — are interesting to view and the people are friendly, in particular the kids who will still say hello and smile. Unfortunately, the mudbaths from the nearby hot springs are out of order — the pools that were built as part of the tourism drive are now cracked and empty.
The Mine Action Visitor Centre
To get a real sense of how the war affected the area and the issues faced by those trying to clear up UXO, a trip to the Mine Action Visitor Centre in the main city, Dong Ha, is a must. Providing a backdrop to the various battles that were fought around the DMZ, the centre explains the process of searching out UXO, shows decommissioned ordinance and even has a display of the various replacement limbs people affected by exploding ordnance have had to use.
Vinh Moc Tunnels
Probably the most visited destination in the area, the Vinh Moc tunnels once acted as shelter to the villagers of Son Trung and Son Ha, two villages just north of the 17th Parallel. Believing the villagers to be providing food and armaments to the North Vietnamese garrison on the nearby island of Con Co, American forces subjected the area to intense bombing. Not having anywhere else to go, the villagers went underground. Construction started in 1966, and within a few years the whole village and around 60 families had moved 30m below the surface. Throughout the war, not one person living in the tunnels lost their life. Today the network of underground passages is open to tourists. Unlike the tunnels in Cu Chi, these ones can be walked through in comfort.
Long Hung Church
Located just outside the former citadel of Quang Tri, Long Hung Church, built in 1955, is famous for its destroyed façade and bullet-riddled walls. In mid-1972 the Vietnamese Communists took the church as a key position as they tried to defend the Citadel of Quang Tri, which they had wrested off ARVN, the army of Southern Vietnam. Part of the Easter Offensive of 1972, the stand-off ended up as a siege which lasted for 81 days until the communists ended up ceding the citadel and most of the province back to their enemy.
Regular flights ply the route from Hue to Hanoi and Hue to Ho Chi Minh City. The main city of Quang Tri, Dong Ha, is about two hours’ drive north of Hue. Alternatively, the Reunification Express stops at Dong Ha Station. Dong Ha is also a key starting point on the bus journey from Central Vietnam to Savannakhet in Laos.