Dong Ha, 18th March
18.03.2009 - 18.03.2009 29 °C
It's 6 am and our city block lies flooded and dormant from the aftermath of a tropical rainstorm last night. Temperatures hover around the high twenties - humidity so thick you can cut it with a knife. Still half asleep we stagger aboard a dilapidated coach bus which from first appearances has been in service a few decades too long. Another 30 minutes of cross-country driving follows as we pick up more, more, and even more fellow farang and their packs from their hotel safe havens. Soaked with rain and dressed in military fatique, a young man marches past, a M60 machine-gun swung casually over his left shoulder - bizarre! The city is stirring - let the DMZ (demilitarized zone) tour begin!
Then a 2 hour long uneventful journey as we make our way to Dong Ha, an equally unremarkable town pitched near the South shore of the Ben Hai River - the defacto demarcation line that, like present day Korea, once separated North from South. Drawn roughly across the 17th parallel following a stalemate between the Ho Chi Minh-controlled government and the french colonial forces, this segment of Vietnam soon turned into the focal point of a drawn out conflict. Special Forces Base Camp Carrol, Con Thien Fire-base, Lang Vay, Hamburger Hill, Khe San and Cunningham; familiar household names linger the landscape. Most of them clustered within the 20 km radius along McNamara's defense wall, extending east to west, to prevent infiltration from the North.
Our tour, like any other organized trip here, always to be taken with a generous sense of humor, speeds along Highway 1 to Doc Mieu base-camp. Faded photos and pigeon English provide narration as we warp into time. Not sure what to expect from all this. The enormous amount of American firepower that went in (40,000 tonne of explosives where dropped around Con Thien base alone in Sept '67) suggests visions of the Armageddon apocalypse - a sparse wasteland pockmarked with bomb-craters, half-destroyed bunkers and pill boxes, trenches overgrown with weeds and leftover shell casings. Mmm, perhaps a canny and morbid fascination for the darker side of mankind's savagery?
But there's none of this at all. As we tread nearer, hedges of lush foliage greet us from which eludes a grand granite statue iron curtain style. Three pacing guerrilla's with their guns ready at the draw frozen timelessly in stone. We're left to wonder what it represents but assume it celebrates the endless dedication, sacrifice and patriotism for the motherland. A fairly safe assumption we figure as there are legions of statues which celebrate communist victory all over the country. One will be forgiven to think there are two sides to any story. But in Vietnam, this (South Vietnamese) side of the story remains predominantly expressed through the many mass graves that have been bulldozed and war cemeteries that have long since fallen into disrepair, willful neglect from a regime that prides itself with reunification. However, as of yet there are no tours taking us there.
Driving across the Ben Hai River, the abundance of lush foliage, rubber plantations and ever green rice paddies seems to suggest that people may have moved on from their fiery past four decades ago. The occasional bomb craters, barren depressions several feet deep on which nothing grows even today, break up the endless green of the paddy fields. Thatched houses have been built around them and crater lakes provide a means of living, functioning as fish hatcheries.
Visibly few tangible links remain between the past and present. Yet dig deeper and one might stumble upon remnants of scrap-metal. A thriving and lucrative, but equally dangerous trade in metal scraps from mines, projectiles and other assorted unexploded ordinance continues. And with six million unexploded projectiles remaining in the ground, and a fifth of Vietnam's surface area affected, it's a trade that's set to continue for a wee while.
The nearby Vinh Moc tunnels are something else altogether. An incredible underground network of passageways spanning around 28 km with tiny chambers providing necessities of life; including an underground nursery where 17 odd babies were delivered. We're lead around by a munty little tunnel rat and as such are not exactly convinced that we'll see the light of day again. The musty smell of damp clay fills the air and sure enough we eventually unearth at the beach on the other side.
Other places we visit require a bit more imagination. Such as the "rock pile" which aside from the Marine lookout once perched on top is exactly that; a piece of bare rock. Or take the Dakrong suspension bridge which crosses a famous branch of the formerly and now tar-sealed Ho Chi Minh trail.
Then our final and perhaps most famous stop - Khe San combat base solemnly awaits on a high hill plateau which tapers off to deep forested valleys below. A small museum, re-enacted bunkers and rusty military hardware don't do away from the hazy atmosphere and tranquility that surrounds this small outcrop.
A peaceful vibe reinforced by a multitude of chirping birds and neatly manicured hedges that line the various pavements to helicopters and anti-aircraft apparel. It's hard to comprehend that 200 American soldiers and another 10,000 North Vietnamese died on this spot amid a blaze of saturation bombing, machine-gun fire and exploding mortar rounds - perhaps the bloodiest and fiercest battle of the conflict.
It blows proportions so it's hard to get a handle on such things. With mixed impressions I stare back at my reflection from the Chinook helicopter window which radiates in the glow of the afternoon sun. Evidently, the local Vietnamese have long since moved on - maybe we should too...