From Hué we took a “DMZ-tour” — DMZ meaning the so-called “demilitarized zone” along both sides of the former border between North and South Vietnam. Despite the name, this was actually one of the least “demilitarized” places in the world during the 1960s and 70s.
On our day tour we went by mini-bus to the Rockpile, Dakrong Bridge, Khe Sanh, Don Ha Town, Hien Long Bridge and tunnels of Vinh Mac.
To me, the most interesting thing about this day was the tour group: eleven backpackers of seven nationalities: Dutch, Danish, German, Norwegian, Italian, English and American.
Khe Sanh was the site of a major battle in 1968. I didn’t learn much about it while we were there, but I know from reading that the situation was similar to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In Dien Bien Phu a French army was entrenched down in a valley while Vietnamese forces bombarded them with mortar and artillery fire from the hills on all sides. In Khe Sanh it was an American Marine base that was down in the valley.
The difference was that in Dien Bien Phu the French eventually had to surrender, leading to the end of French rule in Indochina. At Khe Sanh after several months the American forces managed to relieve, evacuate and destroy the Marine base.
In 1995, twenty-seven years after the battle, there was no longer much to see at Khe Sanh besides people collecting scrap metal.
On our DMZ tour we also stopped at a village of the Bru ethnic minority.
The Bru are one of over forty ethnic minorities that live mainly in isolated mountainous regions of Vietnam.
In the 1960s the American army sent teams of “Special Forces” into these mountainous regions to recruit members of the ethnic minorities (known collectively to the French as Montagnards) to serve as mercenaries in the war against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Here in the former DMZ the Special Forces recruited hundreds of Bru tribesmen to fight on the side of the Americans in the Khe Sanh area. Numerous Bru mercenaries were killed or injured in the fighting.
In 1964 I had a brief look at two Montagnard mercenary bases further south at the towns of Bù Đốp and Bù Gia Mập, two Special Forces camps in the jungle by the Cambodian border, north of Phước Vĩnh.
On our DMZ tour in 1995 we also crossed the Ben Hai River on the 17th parallel, which for twenty years until reunification in 1975 was the border between North and South Vietnam.
Now it is possible to just drive across the Hien Luong Bridge without even slowing down, though on our tour we stopped briefly to look at the reunification monument at the north end of the bridge. This crossing reminded me of the once-impassable border between East and West Germany, where you now can also go right on through without stopping.
On the northern side of the former boundary, we went to have a quick look at the Vinh Moc Tunnels. Vinh Moc is a town in Quang Tri province where the first American bombs were dropped in North Vietnam. In June 1965, after the first heavy bombings, the people in Vinh Moc started digging shelters beneath their houses and then joined them together to create a web of tunnels, some of which still exist.
On the way back our mini-bus got stuck in the mud, so we all had to get out and push.
Thanks to my son Nick for the photos from 1995. I revised the text in 2017.