Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone

vietnamese demilitarized zone

Most of the bases and bunkers have long vanished, but this 5km strip of land on either side of the Ben Hai River is still known by its American War moniker: the DMZ. From 1954 to 1975 it acted as a buffer between the North and the South. Ironically, the DMZ became one of the most militarised areas in the world, forming what Time magazine called ‘a running sore’.

The area just south of the DMZ was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles in America’s first TV war, turning Quang Tri, the Rockpile, Khe Sanh, Lang Vay and Hamburger Hill into household names.

Fast forward several decades and there’s not much left to see. Most sites have been cleared, the land reforested or planted with rubber and coffee. Only Ben Hai, Vinh Moc and Khe Sanh have small museums. Unless you’re a veteran, or military buff, you might find it a little hard to appreciate the place – which is all the more reason to hire a knowledgeable guide or include them to your Vietnam tour packages

Vietnamese Demilitarized zone

Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone

Vinh Moc Tunnels

A highly impressive complex of tunnels, Vinh Moc is the remains of a coastal North Vietnamese village that literally went underground in response to unremitting American bombing. More than 90 families disappeared into three levels of tunnels running for almost 2km, and continued to live and work while bombs rained down around them. Most of the tunnels are open to visitors and are kept in their original form (except for electric lights, a recent addition).

An English-speaking guide will accompany you around the complex, pointing out the 12 entrances until you emerge at a glorious beach, facing the South China Sea. The museum has photos and relics of tunnel life, including a map of the tunnel network. The Vinh Moc tunnels are often compared to the Cu Chi tunnels, which are more cramped and humid and were intended for soldiers, not civilians.

The turn-off to Vinh Moc from Hwy 1 is 6.5km north of the Ben Hai River in the village of Ho Xa. Follow this road east for 13km.

Hamburger Hill

Hamburger Hill (Ap Bia) was the site of a tumultuous battle in May 1969 between US forces and the NVA over a 900m-high mountain – resulting in over 600 North Vietnamese and 72 American deaths. Today you need a special permit (US$25 and only obtained in the town of Aluoi) and a guide to see the remaining trenches and bunkers. Hamburger Hill is 8km northwest of Aluoi, about 6km off Hwy 14, and less than 2km from Laos.

There’s a rudimentary visitor centre (with a map and information in English) at the base of the hill, from where a 6km trail leads up the mountain. Bring water and be sure to stick to the main trail. Security is tight around here and you’re sure to get your permits inspected by border guards.

Battle site of Rockpile

Visible from Hwy 9, this 230m-high karst outcrop once had a US Marine Corps lookout on top and a base for American long-range artillery nearby. The Rockpile is 29km west of Dong Ha on Hwy 9.

Khe Sanh Combat Base

The site of the most famous siege of the American War, the USA’s Khe Sanh Combat Base was never overrun, but saw the bloodiest battle of the war. About 500 Americans, 10,000 North Vietnamese troops and uncounted civilian bystanders died around this remote highland base. It’s eerily peaceful today, but in 1968 the hillsides trembled with the impact of 1000kg bombs, white phosphorus shells, napalm, mortars and endless artillery rounds, as desperate American forces sought to repel the NVA.

The 75-day siege of Khe Sanh began on 21 January 1968 with a small-scale assault on the base’s perimeter. As the marines and South Vietnamese rangers braced for a fullscale ground attack, Khe Sanh became the focus of global media attention. It was the cover story for both Newsweek and Life magazines, and made the front pages of countless newspapers around the world. During the next two months the base was subjected to continuous ground attacks and artillery fire, and US aircraft dropped 100,000 tonnes of explosives in its vicinity. But the expected attempt to overrun the base never came. On 7 April 1968, after heavy fighting, US troops reopened Hwy 9 and linked up with the marines, ending the siege.

It now seems clear that the siege was an enormous diversion to draw US attention away from the South Vietnamese population centres in preparation for the Tet Offensive, which began a week after the siege started.

Today the site is occupied by a small museum, which contains some fascinating old photographs, plus a few reconstructed bunkers and American aircraft. Most of the area is now planted with coffee, and vendors offer high-grade local Arabica beans for sale at the entrance. Khe Sanh is 3km north of the small town of Huong Hoa.

Ben Hai River

Once the border between North and South Vietnam, Ben Hai River’s southern bank now has a grandiose reunification monument, its stylised palm leaves oddly resembling missiles. Cua Tung Beach’s fine golden sands are just east of here. Ben Hai’s northern bank is dominated by a reconstructed flag tower and small museum full of war mementoes. Ben Hai is 22km north of Dong Ha on Hwy 1.

Truong Son National cemetery and war site

An evocative memorial to the legions of North Vietnamese soldiers who died along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this cemetery is a sobering sight. More than 10,000 graves dot these hillsides, each marked by a simple white tombstone headed by the inscription liet si (martyr). Many graves lie empty, simply bearing names, representing a fraction of Vietnam’s 300,000 soldiers missing in action. It’s 27km northwest of Dong Ha; the turn-off from Hwy 1 is close to Doc Mieu.