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Hue and Ghosts of the DMZ

VIETNAM | Sunday, 24 February 2008 | Views [4120]

Rusted bomb casings at the former site of Khe Sanh Combat Base

Rusted bomb casings at the former site of Khe Sanh Combat Base

From Hanoi, I boarded the Reunification Express, the train that runs between Hanoi in the North and Saigon in the South. I was only going as far as Hue – a 13 hour overnight journey. Over these months I have discovered that no matter how comfortable they are, I simply cannot sleep in moving trains, buses or boats. While it was nice to stretch vertical, I arrived in Hue sleepless, and the cold I had caught in Hanoi had somehow stolen my voice over the course of the night. But I did see the sun for a few hours that afternoon – the first time I’d seen it in 10 days in Vietnam – so that cheered me up.

Hue is the old imperial city, and you can visit the historical site of the semi-restored Citadel (which was destroyed by both French and American forces during their respective wars with Vietnam). I enjoyed walking around the Citadel, an oasis of peace and green, looking at the gorgeous tile work of dragons, flowers, fish, and elaborate designs made from tiles, broken china, and sea shells. But once outside the walls of the historic site, it was back to trying to dodge the highly persistent cyclo drivers and motorcycle taxis. It seems that a foreigner walking is a major affront to them and they do their best to remedy the situation and convince you to hop aboard. For a small fee, of course.

Hue is just south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the line that divided North and South Vietnam and where some of the worst fighting and bombings of the Vietnam/American War took place. Hue itself suffered huge numbers of civilian fatalities in 1968 after the North Vietnamese troops captured the city in the Tet Offensive, and then again when the Americans and South Vietnamese fought to re-take the city. Roughly 13,000 civilians were killed in those months.

It’s hard to conceive of the loss of life that Vietnam has suffered in the past century.

Two million people starved to death in a famine after World War II ended. Two million people!

In fighting between 1946 and 1954, 35,000 French soldiers were killed, and Vietnamese casualties were much, much higher (though I don’t have the figures), not to mention civilian deaths and injuries.

In the 1968 Tet Offensive alone, the death toll was: 32,000 North Vietnamese; 1,000 Americans; and 2,000 South Vietnamese. And I'm not ever sure if these figures include civilians.

And these figures are just the tip of the iceberg.

When you think that each of these numbers represents a person who has a family, friends, and neighbors, the impact of these deaths is just massive, and reaches around the world.  This country has suffered immensely, and one has to have enormous respect for the people of this tiny country who have managed to kick out the Chinese, French, and the Americans, and completely re-build their country and economy.  They are tough and determined. 

While I was in Hue, I decided to take a day-long tour of the DMZ. I was ambivalent about it – it felt a bit voyeuristic and morbid, like war tourism. But I also felt that as an American, it was my responsibility to understand what the war did to this country. I didn’t want to be an American obsessed with an American-centric past, but nor did I want to ignore the role my country played in Vietnam.

I haven’t seen any of the famous Hollywood war movies, mostly because I have a very low tolerance for watching violence. But whether I liked it or not, I realized that before I came to Vietnam most of my associations were war-related. I heard “Tet” and thought “Tet Offensive,” even though my memory of the historical details was foggy. I heard “Hanoi” and “Hanoi Jane” popped into my head, the pejorative name for Jane Fonda. “Saigon” brought up “Miss Saigon.” It shows how little I (and probably most Americans) know about Vietnam as a country with an identity outside of the Vietnam War. It also shows how powerful the associations of the Vietnam War are in the context of American culture.

The tour took us along Route 1 and Route 9, through Dong Ha town, past the Rockpile, by the Ho Chi Minh Trail at Dakrong Bridge, past the site of Camp Carroll, and to Khe Sanh Combat base, then over the Ben Hai River, past cemeteries filled with row after row of North Vietnamese war dead, past Doc Mieu Base and to the Vinh Moc tunnels. Truly there's not much left to see, except massive bomb craters that pockmark the countryside. The ever-inventive Vietnamese farmers have turned some of them into fish ponds.

But at the time, the DMZ was one of the most heavily militarized zones in human history. The natural and human geography of the region has been utterly transformed by war. Our guide told us that before the war, the Central Highlands were all jungle and only ethnic minorities lived there. Between Agent Orange and heavy bombing, the region was largely deforested, and what stands today is all new growth. Now, most of the population is made up of Vietnamese re-settled from other regions, although some ethnic minorities still live there.

The former site of the US Khe Sanh combat base is now a coffee plantation. Khe Sanh is high in the hills and a cold mist swirled around us as we walked around the site which features some old US helicopters, tanks, bomb casings, and a small museum. It felt like a place that belongs to ghosts, and it was hard to imagine that exactly 40 years ago to the day there had been a massive siege underway. It was impossible to reconcile this quiet, peaceful and remote patch of land with one of the bloodiest battles of the war that claimed the lives of 500 Americans, 10,000 North Vietnamese, and countless civilians.

The siege began on January 21, 1968, and lasted 75 days. I was there on January 29, 2008. It was hard to imagine that this patch of land – like so many other patches of land all over the world – was a place that was so fiercely contested, a place where thousands of men suffered and died and killed, a place of great strategic and geopolitical importance to politicians thousands of miles away. At the end of the day, all these places are just patches of land.

The last stop of the day was at the Vinh Moc tunnels, on the North side of the DMZ, right on the coast. This was where an entire village – with the encouragement of the Viet Cong – dug themselves underground for protection against heavy bombing. They built three levels of elaborate tunnels, and sixty odd families lived underground. A school was set up and seventeen babies were born in the underground delivery room – and no one from the village was killed. Since these tunnels were used for living, it’s possible to actually stand up in them, unlike the famous Cu Chi Tunnels in South Vietnam, which were built for combat and are very small. We traipsed through the tunnels, and emerged on a deserted white sand beach, the waves of the South China Sea roaring in our ears, trying to imagine US naval warships on the horizon and the booming of guns and bombs.

Tags: dmz, history, hue, khe sanh, vietnam war, vinh moc

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