Monday, August 9, 2010

Vietnam Demilitarized Zone aka My Day With a Vietnamese Veteran

After a day spent on a bus then a dinner accompanied by a few drinks (and some rowdy Danish guys), I was impressed by my ability to wake up sans alarm clock this morning and still make it downstairs to the lobby before my arranged pick-up came to take me away.

However, I'm slightly less impressed with my choice of dress for the day. I should have anticipated hiking through the woods and fields on a DMZ tour, but I guess the typical idea of an effortless tour stuck with me. I certainly preferred what I got, I just wish I had dressed for it.

Instead, I wore a dress and flip flops. The only lucky part about my attire was that the dress lets water runoff more than it does soak it in and it dries quickly at that. Yes, this came in handy.

The big point I want to make here is that it simply didn't feel like a tour. It was a small van with the driver, the tour guide (a Vietnamese vet who fought along side the Americans in the DMZ during what they now call the 'American War') me and six other backpackers. It was actually a neat little group we had. 

Our vet had tons of interesting stories and you could even read his reactions to all the places we went to. 

He took us first to the Horrible Highway Memorial which marks a terrible massacre of an entire village.

After that we went to Long Hung Church, of which all that's left is the skeleton of the building after a bombardment during which the Americans took refuge inside.

Then we went on a trek through the forest and bush to get to the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to see the last remaining bunker from the base that used to be in the DMZ.

I seem to remember the guide saying something along the lines of: "There's still lots of landmines out around here so don't go too far off the trail. Don't worry though, I've been out here a million times." 

Somehow that's still not as comforting as I would have hoped.

In the forest on the way to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. 
Apparently these trees weren't here back then.

The last remaining bunker in the DMZ.

A view from inside the bunker.

And this is when I realized Vietnam is actually quite gorgeous. That's Laos way out in the distance. Check out those clouds. 

A memorial for the North Vietnamese at the cemetery.

Our guide told us that the North Vietnamese soldiers had no dog-tags or identification while they were fighting, especially since many of them operated incognito. So when they found North Vietnamese soldiers they were often buried in mass graves. 

There is now a cemetery in the DMZ with unmarked graves which are merely identified by how far they were able to infiltrate the south. If the managed to get all the way to Saigon, then they were buried in the section of the cemetery labeled Saigon. 

So many headstones with no names.

This was an incredibly sobering experience at the cemetery during which we all walked around not really sure how to feel — North Vietnamese headstones, we fought with the South... What do you feel here exactly? 

Afterward we grabbed some food. It was actually a typically Vietnamese experience in which six people order Pho and I ordered a rice stir-fry. That's seven orders of food. Somehow we ended up with two bowls of Pho and five plates of stir-fry. I could have managed how they simply swapped and and got one Pho and six rice, but where the heck did they come up with the five and two mixture?

Of course, we just accepted it as a typically Vietnamese thing to do and ate our food. Luckily, I still got my stir-fry.

Then we headed over to Vinh Moc to see the Vinh Moc Tunnels. These are similar to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels near Saigon, except these were used strictly as living quarters and supply and not for combat. The three levels are placed 12, 15 and 23 meters below ground and many of the passage ways feed directly into the beach where they could garner supplies from boats coming from China or the North.

Our guide standing in the middle of a bomb crater which is probably a good 7 meters deep at it's deepest point. Good thing those levels at 12 meters deep at the least.

I could stand upright in the tunnels but only barely.

Of course the fact that I could stand didn't really alleviate the fact that I was feeling pretty claustrophobic and I was absolutely terrified of losing my group and getting lost in the hundreds of tunnels that are down there.
It was an absolutely incredible tour though and I highly recommend to anyone who ever goes to Hue to make sure they get a veteran guide for a trip to the DMZ. The fact that he had been there during the fighting was evident in his speech, the sheer amount of knowledge he had on the subject and in his attitude. 

There were moments when he was very obviously affected by the particular place we were standing or a particular anecdote he was telling us. It made the experience that much more memorable, informative and personal.

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