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Mark's World Tour 2007-08

Day 157: The DMZ Motorbike Tour

VIETNAM | Thursday, 10 April 2008 | Views [1633]

Thursday 10th April

I was up and out of the hotel by 07.30, had breakfast and was picked up by Mr Dien, bang on time at 08.00. He looked the right age – about 60 – so I felt he was at least closer to the genuine article than the guy who had offered to take me on the tour the night before. He seemed like a nice guy, enthusiastic and happy to share as much information as he could get across in his reasonably good English. We set off on his bike, making our way towards the 'Ho Chi Minh Trail', a path that stretched hundreds of kilometres from the north of Vietnam to the south, a network that crossed into parts of Laos and Cambodia, and which served as a vital supply route for the Viet Cong during the war.

We stopped first at a rubber tree forest and saw a massive crater that had been created by a bomb dropped from a B-52 bomber. It left a hole with a diameter of what looked to me like about 40 feet. Most of the craters that scarred the land during the war – and there were tens of thousands of them – have been covered over in the intervening years as farmers and land owners tried to salvage what they could from the wreckage. Pictures on display in the War Remnants Museum in Saigon illustrate the sheer scale of destruction; aerial shots show paddy fields pockmarked with craters, massive 'footprints' which outlined the flight path of the planes as they carpet-bombed a targeted area.

We moved further on to a former US Army base called Con Thien Fire Base (a.k.a. Charlie #2, or 'Hill of Angels'). Nothing remains to indicate its past except for a solitary concrete bunker. Mr Dien showed me the fields that had once been completely cleared of vegetation and upon which a small-scale military town was built over an area of about thirty six square kilometres and was home to thousands of troops.

Mr Dien had been a liaison officer and translator for the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), working alongside the US military in the conflict with the North Vietnamese . He told me that his role was to help in the interrogation of captured North Vietnamese soldiers; he would collect information from ARVN spies who were infiltrating VC units and create reports based on this information; he also accompanied high-ranking US Army officials to serve as their interpreter. At least, this is what he told me. He said that the soldiers of the ARVN had very good relationships with the American GIs because they met on the common ground of being soldiers.

After the Con Thien Fire Base, we drove to a part of the former 'Ho Chi Minh Trail' beside the Ben Hai River. Here, the outline of a former bridge, built using money donated by the Cuban government in the 1960s, could be seen, the rubble on either side of the river showing its former location. It was bombed and destroyed by American planes, and it is a reminder of the involvement of other countries and how the war was played out in the broader context of the Cold War.

It was a very warm day and we stopped for a drink and a chat outside the Tuong Son National Cemetary. Mr Dien told me about his life in Vietnam today, and how there was still a serious divide between the north and the south, and tensions between those who belong to the Communist Party and the vast majority who don't (people who just want to get on with their lives and stay out of politics altogether as there little toleration of political opposition in Vietnam).

After our break, we took a walk about the cemetary where predominantly regular North Vietnamese Army troops who had died in the war were buried. It wasn't a huge cemetary from what I could see. Mr Dien told me that any South Vietnamese soldiers who had died and been buried before the end of the war had to be exhumed by their families from cemetaries like this and buried again on private plots of land in their own villages. The North Vietnamese obviously didn't feel that those on the other side of the conflict who had died – soldiers, just like them – deserved the respect that their own received.

We then visited the Hien Luong Bridge, which is located on the 17th Parallel, the line of longitude which demarked the border between North and South Vietnam (and which was established at the Geneva Convention in 1954). Again, there was nothing there to indicate that this area witnessed some of the bloddiest combat of the whole war.

We drove on towards the coast and a lovely breeze hit us as soon as we saw the sea appear in front of us. We stopped for lunch at a cafe overlooking the sea at Cua Tung Beach, and had some squid and noodle soup (which was a lot nicer than it sounded to me at the time!). We had another good chat about daily life for a soldier during the war, and I asked him about the depiction of the war in the many Hollywood movies that people – myself included – quote ad nauseam. He told me that these movies were generally bullshit, but I failed to properly grasp the reason why because I didn't understand some of what he was saying. It was interesting to hear his views, but I still took it all with a pinch of salt as I had come to the conclusion that all of the information conveyed regarding the war, no matter which side it comes from, is going to be biased to a degree.

After lunch, we moved on to the Vinh Moc Tunnels, a smaller network of tunnels compared to those at Cu Chi, but probably more impressive and definitely less crowded. In fact, we turned up when the tunnels were closed for lunch, but Mr Dien had a word with the staff there and we got in straight away. The tunnels were much taller than the ones at Cu Chi, and I only needed to slouch slightly as we passed through. There are three levels to the tunnels, each one with an opening onto the sea from where the local villagers – themselves the inhabitants of the tunnels – could run supplies (including guns and ammuition) from a nearby island that was accessible using the fishing boats on which they normally made a living. It was another example of the ingenuity of the VC and probably the most interesting part of the tour – there was actually something to see here!

I was quite happy when Mr Dien told me we were making our way back to Dong Ha. I was feeling tired and had had enough of sitting on the back of the motorbike. We stopped at one final place of interest – the Docmieu Fire Base (a.k.a. Charlie #1) – but there was nothing to see here apart from an old sign at the entrance to an overgrown field. There was no way we were going to move any further than that as the field and the area surrounding it were littered with thousands of mines, planted by the US Army during the war to protect the base, the land remaining untouched to this day apart from the weeds that have taken over. So, this land was still off limits, a very dangerous legacy of the war.

We arrived back in Dong Ha shortly after 15.00, and I chatted for a bit more to Mr Dien as I waited for the bus to pick me up and bring me back to Hué. It had been good to talk to him, but I could never be sure whether he was telling me fact or fiction, but I guess most of it was fairly accurate. It had been a good day out and worth the money and the effort to get there.

I got on the bus and felt very tired, snoozing a lot of the way back to Hué. Once we arrived at about 17.00, I got off the bus and found a good room at the 'Bing Duong' guesthouse. I lay back on the bed and watched the replay of the United-Roma Champions League game that had been played the night before, enjoying the relaxation more than the match which was fairly dull, United winning 1-0.

I went for some food around the corner from the guesthouse, had some really good grilled fish at the 'Xuan Trang Cafe' and was talked into booking a motorbike tour of the area surrounding Hué the following morning. I wasn't overly keen on doing another tour having done a ful day on a motorbike around the DMZ but I was assured that a 08.00 start would mean I could be finished by lunchtime. I had been recommended this trip from a few others, and it would be a pity not to see the area, so I decided to go for it. Not long after, I was back at the hotel room, watched some TV and went to sleep.


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