Legendary Vietnam

by Tony Pham, May 28, 2009 | Destinations: Vietnam / Indochina



A Journey through DMZ...

In 1954, the French colonialists were finally defeated by the Viet Minh at the famous battle at Dien Bien Phu. By then, America was paying 80% of the French war costs.

Under the terms of the Geneva Accords, Vietnam was temporarily divided along the 17th parallel, pending internationally-supervised nationwide elections, intended to re-unite the country in 1956.

The demarcation line ran along the Ben Hai River, with a strip of no-man's land, 5 km wide on each side, known as the De-militarised Zone, or DMZ. All Viet Minh troops and supporters were supposed to regroup north, while the defeated French troops were evacuated.

The "anti-communist" government of the southern Republic of Vietnam, headed by the US-supported Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to hold the reunification elections, knowing that President Ho Chi Minh would have won overwhelmingly.

This led to a further 20 years of war - the American War.
In reality, both sides of the DMZ were anything but de-militarised, and the border was easily circumvented. The Ho Chi Minh Trails to the west, and secret sea routes to the east, enabled the north to send supplies to the revolutionaries in the south, thus by-passing a string of American firebases overlooking the Ben Hai River.

Quang Tri and Quang Binh, the two provinces closest to the DMZ, were the most heavily bombed and saw the highest casualties, civilian and military, American and Vietnamese, during the American War.

Now, most bomb craters have been filled in, and there is a surprising green sea of rice, eucalyptus, acacia, pepper and rubber trees, but the terrible legacy of war still goes on:

US chemical weapons, such as Agent Orange, continue killing and affecting future generations with birth defects.

Unexploded bombs and landmines, lurking in the DMZ have, since 1975, caused many thousands of deaths and injuries, and continue to cause war casualties into the future.

The McNamara Line 

One of the more fantastical efforts to prevent infiltration southwards, was US Secretary of Defence, Robert S. McNamara's proposal for an ‘electronic fence' across the DMZ.

Known as "the McNamara Line", and running from the Vietnamese coast to the Mekong River, the idea was to use seismic and acoustic sensors to detect troop movements and pinpoint targets for bombing raids.

Though trials in 1967 met with some initial success, the costly plan was soon abandoned: the Vietnamese soon learnt how to ‘confuse' the sensors and deliberately remove them and trigger them safely away from their trails.

Nor could massive bombing by artillery and aircraft defeat the North Vietnamese, who finally stormed the DMZ in 1972 and pushed the border 20 km further south.

So much firepower was unleashed over this area, including napalm and herbicides, that for years nothing would grow in the impacted, chemical-laden soil.

There was even an American plan to use nuclear bombs to create an impenetrable radiation zone across the DMZ. Fortunately, this did not eventuate, but the total tonnage of conventional bombing was equivalent to many times the power of the atomic bomb dropped by the US on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.

Highway One - the "Street without joy" 

American troops were not the first to suffer heavy losses in this region. During the 1950's, French soldiers dubbed the stretch of Highway 1 north of Hue as "street without joy", after they came under constant attack from elusive Viet Minh units operating out of heavily fortified villages along the coast.

Quang Tri

In the 1972 Easter Offensive, revolutionary forces overran the whole area, liberating Quang Tri town (60 km north of Hue) from the South Vietnamese army (ARVN). They held it for months, while American B-52 bombers pounded the township and surrounding countryside with a tonnage of bombs equivalent to 8 Hiroshima nuclear bombs!

Eventually, it was retaken at huge cost to both sides, as well as civilians. The town was wiped off the map, and now little remains of the old Quang Tri Citadel, built in 1824 by king Minh Mang. The town of Trieu Hai has risen in its stead. The road and railway share a bridge over the Quang Tri River.

Dong Ha 

Dong Ha town - the most northerly main town in what used to be South Vietnam - took over as provincial capital when Quang Tri town ceased to exist. It is 13km north of Quang Tri town. As a former US Marine Command Post and then ARVN base, Dong Ha was also obliterated in 1972 but, unlike Quang Tri, it has bounced back, largely due to its location at the junction with Highway 9, which leads to Laos.

Doc Mieu Firebase

The American front line comprised a string of firebases set up on a long, low ridge of hills looking north across the DMZ and the featureless plain of the Ben Hai River.

8km south of the Ben Hai River and just off Highway 1, is this former American base, once part of ‘the McNamara Line'. It has been extensively picked over by scrap-metal collectors, and recently by American veteran groups searching for MIAs (missing in actions). Most of the remains unearthed in recent years have been those of Vietnamese.

Con Thien Firebase

This was America's largest firebase, first established by the Special Forces (Green Berets), and then handed over to the Marines in 1966. From here, their big guns could reach far into North Vietnam.

In the lead up to the 1968 Tet Offensive, as part of the diversionary attacks, the base became the target of prolonged shelling, followed by an infantry assault, during which it was briefly surrounded.

The Americans replied with everything in their arsenal, including long-range strafing from gunships in the East Sea, and carpet-bombing by B-52s. More than 40,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped around Con Thien, transforming the hills into a smoking moonscape. The revolutionaries were forced to withdraw temporarily, but then completely overran the base in the summer of 1972.

Hien Luong Bridge

15 km north of Dong Ha, Highway 1 drops down into the DMZ, running between paddy fields to the Ben Hai River, which lies virtually on the 17th parallel.

The original Hien Luong Bridge was destroyed by American bombing in 1967. At the time, it was painted ½ red and ½ yellow, a vivid reminder that this was a physical and ideological boundary separating the two zones of Viet Nam.

The present old iron-girder bridge was reconstructed in 1973, and officially re-opened in 1975 as a symbol of reunification. The current new bridge opened around 1999. The railway does not share the same bridge as Highway One.

Where Highway 1 crosses the Ben Hai River, there is a statue recording the dates of the temporary division in 1954, and the eventual reunification in 1975, and this famous quote from Ho Chi Minh:

"Vietnam is one country; the Vietnamese are one people. Rivers may dry up, and mountains may erode away, but nothing can change this truth." (Ho Chi Minh).

Vinh Moc tunnels

About 16 kms from Highway 1, you can visit an amazing complex of tunnels, where over a thousand people sheltered, sometimes for weeks on end, during the worst American bombardments.

When American bombing raids north of the DMZ intensified in 1966, the inhabitants of Vinh Linh district began digging down into the red laterite soils, excavating more than 50 tunnels over the next two years.

Although they were also used by northern soldiers, the tunnels were primarily built to shelter a largely civilian population who worked the supply route from the Con Co Islands offshore.

Five tunnels belonged to Vinh Moc, a village located right on the coast. For two years, 250 people dug more than 2km of tunnel, which housed all 600 villagers over varying periods from early 1967 until 1969, when ½ decamped north to the relative safety of Nghe An Province.

The tunnels were constructed on three levels at 10, 15 and 20-23m deep, with good ventilation, freshwater wells and, eventually, a generator and lights. The underground village was also equipped with school, clinics, and a maternity room where 17 children were born. Each family was allocated a tiny cavern, barely larger than a single bed. These tunnels were built taller than the Cu Chi Tunnels.

In 1972, the villagers of Vinh Moc could finally abandon their underground existence and rebuild their homes, rejoined by relatives from Nghe An one year later.

Truong Son National Cemetery

This is the largest soldier's cemetery in the DMZ area, dedicated to the estimated 25,000 men, women and children who died on the Truong Son Trail, better known in the west as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

There are more than 10,000 graves in the 16-hectare cemetery, arranged in 5 geographical regions, subdivided according to native province, and centred around memorial houses listing every name and grave number in the sector. Another 10,000 bodies were never recovered, but they are commemorated here as if they were.

Each headstone announces liet si (martyr), together with as many details as are known: name, date and place of birth, date of enrolment, rank, and the date they died.

By 1975, there were about 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers Missing-in-Action - many open graves await them throughout the country, in case their remains are found.

Camp Carroll 

Established in 1966, this US Marine base was named after Captain Carroll who died retaking Hills 400 and 484. It is now a pepper farm. The camp is famous for the actions of the South Vietnamese commander of the camp, Lieutenant Pham Van Dinh, who in 1972 changed sides and joined the North Vietnamese Army. Some guidebooks claim that he is now a high-ranking official in Hue, but according to ‘Vietnam by rail', in fact he works as a driver for Sinh Café!

The Rockpile

This 230 metre high limestone outcrop served as a US observation post for directing artillery to targets across the DMZ and into Laos. American troops, ammunition, Budweiser and even prostitutes had to be delivered in by helicopter. The sheer walls of the apparently unassailable position were eventually scaled by the revolutionary commandoes, and the post was abandoned after 1968.

The Dakrong Bridge . . . built in 1975-76 with Cuban assistance, and was once a branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Khe Sanh

This windswept plateau was the site of a pivotal battle in the American War. The battle of Khe Sanh was important because it attracted worldwide media attention and, along with the simultaneous Tet Offensive, demonstrated the futility of America's efforts to contain their enemy.

In 1962, a US Special Forces team arrived in Khe Sanh town, to recruit and train local Bru minority people in counterinsurgency. Four years later, the first batch of Marines was sent in, and Khe Sanh was turned into a major firebase near Laos, to secure Highway 9, and to harass troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Serious skirmishes around Khe Sanh began in early 1967, and intelligence reports indicated a massive build-up of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops in late 1967, possibly as many as 40,000, facing 6000 Marines, together with a few hundred South Vietnamese troops and Bru. The US reacted with a huge build-up of equipment at Khe Sanh, including over 500 planes.

Both the Western media and American generals were soon presenting the confrontation as a crucial test of America's credibility, and drawing parallels with Dien Bien Phu. As President Johnston famously remarked, he didn't want "any damn Dinbinfoo".

The NVA attack came in the early hours of January 21, 1968 when rockets rained down on the base, striking an ammunition dump, gasoline tanks and stores of tear gas. There followed a seemingly endless, nerve-grinding NVA artillery barrage, interspersed with costly US infantry assaults into the surrounding hills.

President Johnson and General Westmoreland became obsessed with the idea of Dien Bien Phu, and decided to break the siege at all costs.

In an operation code-named ‘Niagara', US General Westmoreland called in the air battalions to silence the enemy guns and break the siege, by unleashing the most intense bombing raids of the war. In nine weeks, nearly 100,000 tonnes of bombs pounded the area round the clock, averaging one air strike every five minutes, backed up by napalm and defoliants.

Unbelievably, the NVA were so well dug in and camouflaged that they not only withstood the onslaught but also continued to return fire, despite horrendous casualties, estimated at 10,000. On the US side, at least 500 troops died at Khe Sanh (although official figured record only 248 American deaths, of which 43 occurred in a single helicopter accident), before a relief column broke through in early April, 70-odd days after the siege had begun.

But there was never an attempt by revolutionary forces to over-run the base - they gradually pulled back, and melted away, having successfully diverted American resources away from southern cities prior to the Tet Offensive, which was launched ten days after the siege of Khe Sanh began.

Three months later, the Americans also quietly withdrew, and abandoned the whole camp, leaving a plateau that resembled a lunar landscape, contaminated for years to come with chemicals and explosives.

The media attention, on Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive, shocked the American public into a realization that they had been lied to by politicians telling them that the war was under control. The anti-war movement was given a huge boost.

Today, the area around Khe Sanh is one where vegetation still won't grow. The town of Khe Sanh is now officially renamed Huang Hoa.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail

At the end of its ‘working life', the Ho Chi Minh Trail had grown from a rough assemblage of animal tracks and jungle paths to become a highly effective logistical network, stretching from near Vinh, north of the DMZ, to Tay Ninh and Cu Chi near Saigon.

Initially, it took up to 6 months to walk the trail from north to south, most of the time travelling at night, while carrying rations of salt, medicines and equipment. In four years, one man, Nguyen Viet Sinh, is reputed to have carried more than 50 tonnes, and covered 40,000 km, equivalent to walking around the world!

By 1975, the extensive and complicated trail systems totalled some 16,000 km - wide enough to take tanks and heavy trucks, and could be driven in just one week. It was protected by sophisticated anti-aircraft emplacements, and supported by regular service stations (fuel and maintenance depots, ammunition dumps, food stores and hospitals), often located underground or in caves, and all connected by field telephone. Eventually, there was even an oil pipeline system to take fuel south from Vinh to a depot at Loc Ninh.
All this involved hundreds of thousands of men and women in maintenance work, as engineers, gunners and medical staff, while as many as 50,000 Youth Volunteers repaired bridges and filled in bomb craters under cover of darkness.

The trail was conceived in early 1959, when General Giap ordered the newly-created Logistical Group 559 to reconnoitre a safe route for a supply line to the revolutionaries in the south. (559 refers to Ho Chi Minh's birthday in 1959).

Political cadres blazed the trail, followed in 1964 by the first deployment of 10,000 regular troops, and culminating in the trek south of 150,000 men in preparation for the 1968 Tet Offensive.

It was a logistical feat that rivalled Dien Bien Phu, in both scale and determination.

For much of the way, the trail ran through Laos and Cambodia, sometimes on paths forged during the war against the French, sometimes along riverbeds, and always through the most difficult, mountainous terrain, plagued with leeches, snakes, malaria and dysentery.

The people on the trail had to contend with almost constant bombing. By early 1965, aerial bombardment had begun in earnest, using napalm and defoliants, as well as conventional bombs, to be joined later by carpet-bombing B-52s.

Every day in the spring of 1965, the US Air Force flew an estimated 300 bombing raids over the trail, and in eight years dropped over two million tonnes of bombs, mostly over Laos, in a futile effort to cut the flow.

Later, they experimented with seismic and acoustic sensors to relay bombing co-ordinates, but supplies continued to roll south.

What American ‘intelligence' did not know at the time was that the Ho Chi Minh Trail was also a vital diversionary tactic, to distract America from the main supply route by sea. (They discovered this in 1970, after the American-supported coup brought Lon Nol to power, and allowed American military action in Cambodia).

While thousands of American troops and resources were tied up in the DMZ, and trying to cut the Trail, in fact 80% of the military supplies from the north which reached the south was actually transported by sea, and unloaded at the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville.

Nevertheless, the Ho Chi Minh Trail is a symbol to the Vietnamese of both their victory, and their sacrifice.

Former battle sites and American bases

Chu Lai. 100 km south of Danang. The 23rd Infantry Division was stationed here. This division was involved in the My Lai Massacre on March 16 1968. My Lai - Danang is 132 km

Phu Bai. 25 km South of Hue. The 3rd Marine Division and the 101st airborne division were stationed here. Camp Eagle is situated here. The clients will need to be accompanied by a policeman to visit the battle sites here. Allow $ 15 for his fee.

Quy Son. About 40 km west of Danang. The 7th Marine division and the 5th Marines Regiment were stationed here. It is also possible to visit LZ Ross here.

Khe Sanh Hill 881 north and south are at Khe Sanh combat base. One of the bloodiest battles of the war took place here. It is about 64 km from Dong Ha. Also on the drive between Khe Sanh and Dong Ha are Cam Lo, Dong Ha airfield, Con Tien Firebase, Lang Vei, The Rockpile (Special Forces camp) Hamburger Hill and Camp Carrol.

Vinh Moc The Vinh Moc Tunnels situated about 7 km north of the Ben Hai River and 13 km from highway one (60 km from Dong Ha). Allow $ 15 for the local guide to visit the tunnels.

An Hoa An Hoa is 85 km South West of Danang and was the main battle site of 7th Marine Regiment with NVA/VC from 1965 up to 1970. Just 4 km North East of An Hoa is Arizona Territory, the big battle between the US Marines and the 36th Regiment of the 308 Division on June 7, 1968. This was also the Marine 3rd Division Headquarters NorthWest LZ Baldy. LZ Baldy is North of Hawk Hill, south of An Hoa.

Dai Loc Hills 37 & 65 are at Dai Loc district in Quang Nam province (formerly Thung Duc district) and 45 km South West of Danang. Hills 37 & 65 are the bases of the U.S. Marine Corps. Dai Loc area is also the big battle sites between Marine and NVA from 1965 till 1971 such as Liberty Bridge (Giao Thuy Bridge) and Arizona dessert.

Quang Tri Another of the bloodiest battles of Vietnam, was here and situated 80 km North of Hue. The 3rd Marine Division deployed its Units along 17th Parallel on route 9 at Seabee and Cua Viet. Dong Ha was logistic center of the Marine Force. Well known bases such as Lang Vei, a green beret special force base, Khe Sanh combat base, Con Thien firebase, Mc.Namara electronic line. Doc Mieu Base, Marine Leatherneck Square. You can visit the above places with a Vietnamese police or a local guide & the fee for his accompany is about 15USD/1day.

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Hue - Khe Sanh: 150km
Hue - Dong Ha: 90km
Hue - Quang Tri: 50km
Danang - Dong Ha: 200 km
Dong Ha- Vinh Moc Tunnels: 60km
Dong Ha - Darkrong: 55km
Dong Ha - HCM Trail: 60km
Dong Ha - Ben Hai River: 35 km

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