Ravaged Lands

Touring the DMZ

After a night of pool at a tacky tourist bar in Hue, we set off shortly after sunrise for a tour of the DMZ. It was a rigorous twelve hours of high-speed sightseeing and a lot of time spent weaving through the mountains in a minibus, but it was the only way to get to where we wanted to go: the tunnels at Vinh Moc.

Our first stop was Dong Ha, a bathroom break, a dusty bustling town north of Hue whose only apparent tourist draw is that it is about seventy kilometres closer to the DMZ than Hue. Here was a little slice of the hectic development we'd seen in Hanoi: a man with a scooter laden with cut bamboo stopping to piss on the side of an electronics store.

The Rock Pile, the next stop, was an American observation post during the war. It stands alone in a wide valley with an excellent view of the ridges all around. Where once there were numerous bunkers, now only a lonely Vietnamese flag stood as a speck on the peak.

We arrived at the Khe Sanh base around midday. The heat was oppresssive, a limp breeze swirled dust across the red soil of the former airstrip. Aside from the collection of abandoned U.S armour and helicopters, not much was left from the war. You would not know that this had been the site of such fierce fighting, if not for the hawkers selling bullets and medals dug from the grounds. Much of the site is now a coffee plantation, the plateau providing cleared ground for agriculture. The surrounding area, the valley immediately around the base, was heavily mined and is still in the process of being cleared. One of the hawkers told me that ninety-five people were killed by mines in 1989 alone, but that the base area itself was relatively safe and was an early focal point for redevelopment. They say that the coffee beans owe their richness to the blood of the thousands who died fighting over this dusty patch of land.

On our way back to Dong Ha for lunch we pulled over to the side of the road to take pictures of a "minority village." It was kind of creepy. The guide had made much ado about us visiting this "minority village" but really what it consisted of was a bunch of tourists taking photos of a house on stilts while a family stared back. No real explanation of who these people were, just five minutes of gawking then back on the bus. Given the number of DMZ tours I had seen advertised, I imagine that villages like these must see a daily procession of camera lenses.

At lunch we sat with a couple from Singapore. Older, they talked about their memories of the war, how he had been eighteen and fulfilling his military service, how his duties had seen him watching over the influx of refugees from south Vietnam. It was interesting to hear a regional perspective on the conflict, that the rest of southeast Asia had been holding its breath, only being able to guess where the march of the Communists would end.

We rode back into the DMZ, past battered swaths of land still recovering from the effects of bombardment and Agent Orange. Huge rubber plantations have sprung up, their uniform young trunks in perfect rows sweeping over the hills. Flat plains of rice fields stretched out on either side of the highway, dotted with shrines to the dead. The graves were clustered like villages, perhaps even where whole villages once stood. The clouds gathered to choke out the sun. We left the main road, weaving through villages, dodging cattle that foraged in the ditches. The leaves of banana plants brushed the side of the bus as we swerved to avoid traffic on the single lane track. There were a couple of close calls where I felt the soft shoulder dip a little before the driver jerked us back onto the tarmac. Thoroughly tossed about, we pulled to a halt at the end of a dirt road at the site of Vinh Moc.

The village of Vinh Moc was devastated by aerial bombardment, so the villagers constructed an elaborate network of tunnels to shelter themselves. The tunnels ran deep into the thick clay, with exits built into the cliff walls on the nearby beach to receive supplies from the North. Sixty people lived in the tunnels at any one time.

We were led on a circuit underground, stooping more and more to avoid smashing our heads. We saw the entrance to the even deeper tunnels used as a bomb shelter, one smooth sloped hole to enter and another narrow vent to exit. The only place I could stand remotely upright was in the central "meeting chamber," a room that was apparently big enough to accomodate all inhabitants at once. It was hard to imagine it packed with dozens of people, the psychological toll of being forced into cramped quarters underground. I can see why Vinh Moc has become a symbolic pillar of the narrative of enurance that underscores the Vietnamese ethos. We scurried out into the light again, onto the beach, before being ushered back to our bus for the long ride back along the coast to Hue.