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Walking Through History in Vietnam’s DMZ

Published 22 June 2016

Christopher Atkinson

Once a no-go area that separated a nation and its people for over two decades, Vietnam’s Demilitarized Zone is a fascinating footnote in history often overlooked by travellers. 

After the Geneva Conference and the collapse of French Indochina in 1954, Vietnam was split in half along the 17th parallel, creating a dividing line between two ideologically opposed nations known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). During the lengthy Vietnam War that followed, the communist North and the US-supported South fought relentlessly, bringing the country to its knees. Today, the remnants of this controversial conflict are still visible across the region, from bomb-crater ridden fields to the redundant C-130 Hercules aircraft that now sits deserted on Khe Sanh Combat Base. 

To learn more about this heavily fortified strip of land and the role it played in shaping modern Vietnam, I went on one of Hue’s infamous Demilitarized Zone tours.

© Christopher Atkinson

A road to the past

Leaving Hue in the rear view mirror, we drove along Route 1, a famous highway that was heavily bombed during the Vietnam conflict. After driving for thirty minutes past bucolic farming scenes, we stopped along a mountain pass at what looked to us like a huge, green, rocky mound. We learned that this was once a US Army lookout post and motor position used to bomb North Vietnamese soldiers. The idyllic countryside was quickly turning into a dark land. 

© Christopher Atkinson

Following this, we continued driving towards the Laotian border where we stopped once more. We admired the shallow river flowing past as we were told that this was where thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers (Viet Minh), lorries, weapons and resources crossed into South Vietnam every night. This secret night-time jungle highway was called the Ho Chi Minh Trail and effectively allowed the North Vietnamese to bypass the Demilitarized Zone, disappearing into villages in the south and attacking the Americans under the cover of darkness. I reflected for a short time on this logistical masterpiece before returning to the minibus.

© Christopher Atkinson

On the battlefield

Back on the road, our guide took us towards Khe Sanh Combat Base, whose name you may recognise from Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. This was the site of a pivotal American aerial bombing campaign which dropped over 1,300 tons of bombs on Vietnamese positions and villages, causing heavy losses on both sides. American lives were taken by Vietnamese determination and belief in their fight. This battle lasted for just over six months, ending with the Americans firstly destroying the base facilities, and then retreating from the combat base by helicopter and planes to avoid the approaching North Vietnamese Army. 

On this part of the tour, we walked through trenches, sandbag bomb shelters and gun emplacements used by the US Marines; touched and climbed on tanks that were destroyed or captured by the North Vietnamese Army; walked the infamous airstrip where many quick getaways were made; and came within touching distance of fatal bombs left over from the conflict. As I ran through the trenches I felt like I was on the film set of We Were Soldiers or Platoon, but this is the real thing; this is where people fought, lived and died.

© Christopher Atkinson

Down the Vinh Moc Tunnels

The minibus rumbled down a road framed by dense foliage before pulling into a small village. As we got out and looked at the traditional villages houses, we could hear the sound of the rolling waves from the South China Sea breaking in the distance.

Walking down a path, we were surrounded by big craters, scars left from American bombs. Then I saw signs of what I had come to visit; a cramped staircase descending into the earth. I couldn’t help but wonder how the village populace and the guerrilla soldiers stationed here managed to take shelter in this subterranean sanctuary.

My heart began to pound at the prospect of the claustrophobic and unnerving experience ahead. Delving deeper underground, I followed the path into the bunker complex. Being six feet tall, I was almost crawling through certain parts of the tunnels which were evidently made for the smaller Asian physique. Using our phones as torches, we carried onwards. At regular intervals our tour guide would stop and shout “be careful of the traps on the left” or “the pits on the right”. These were of course the remains of the booby traps made by the Viet Minh in case any Americans made it into the complex. It was at this point I realised how basic yet innovative the North Vietnamese effort was.

© Christopher Atkinson

At the deepest point of the complex I found myself in a small room of what was once the command centre for campaigns and skirmishes in the surrounding area – something that I had only read about in books, yet here I was, standing in it. Not only did the Vietnamese villagers have an underground command centre, beyond the door to the left was a small hospital, to the right a kitchen. The hospital is little more than a pitch black room with a small gathering of bamboo beds, but to the Viet Minh this was a lifesaving facility where doctors and surgeons battled to treat wounded soldiers and civilians. The kitchen was just as essential as the hospital, feeding the community and soldiers when they were under aerial bombardment from above, sometimes for hours or days on end.

Finally we started to turn corners and walked uphill to a set of mud stairs. We were back on the surface. Our view stretched across the bay and towards the sea; the perfect outlook post.

© Christopher Atkinson

A grave without a name

We drove back to Hue in silence, thinking about those who had to use the Vinh Moc Tunnels to survive, but our journey was not over yet. Weary with history fatigue, my eyes were met with a harrowing sight. It was a war cemetery absent of names. Each gravestone held the same name for a different life lost, “The Unknown Soldier”. These were bodies of victims of war who could not be recognised. Many of the elder generations who have lost family members to this conflict do not know where their loved ones lie so pick one grave of an Unknown Soldier to call their own and make a shrine to the lost. This was one of the most touching things I saw during my time in Vietnam.

Despite having a history degree, I came away more enlightened and more educated than before I went to the DMZ. This tour brought to life not only the physical and psychological aspects of the Vietnamese War, but also brought a human aspect to a conflict which has since become glorified through film and music alike. 


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