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Vinh Moc TunnelsAbout 85km north of Hue, the so-called DMZ (or ‘demilitarized zone’), which separated North and South Vietnam from 1945 to 1975, was a 10km-wide no man’s land along the 17th Parallel at the Ben Hai River. Despite its name, the DMZ saw nonstop military action during the American War, as US dropped bombs and chemicals to impede progress of the North Vietnam’s ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ set up in the jungles to move troops south. In 1975, the area would have been bare – considering all the Agent Orange dropped to destroy the cover used by VC troops – but much vegetation has come back. But many landmines and unexploded bombs and plane wreckage lay in the grassy fields – some too dangerous to consider walking about, even 40 years later.

Other than the Vinh Moc Tunnels (see below), very few of the ‘sites’ here have a lot to see these days, but visiting the DMZ is an irresistible day-trip for those keen on learning more about the American War.

Group Bus Tour vs Private Tour?

Most people go to the DMZ on a butt-breaker of a FULL-DAY BUS TOUR (about US$10 incl breakfast) from Hue, and it’s not one of Vietnam’s most thought-out daytrips. The 12-hour trip – leaving at 6am – jets by some sites and stops briefly at others on a 360km whirlwind trip in a 45-seater bus.

A couple buses go a day; you’ll end up on one regardless who you sign up with in Hue. Itineraries flip-flop the same site itineraries, going up Hwy 1 to Dong Ha (70km north, about 90 minutes’ drive) to pick up the government-licensed guide and see the following: Hien Luong Bridge at the Ben Hai River (10 minutes’ stop), Doc Mieu Base (once part of US Secretary of State Robert McNamara’s elaborate ‘electronic wall’ south of the DMZ; drive-by), the popular Vinh Moc Tunnels (one hour), Rock Pile (a former US marines’ look-out; drive-by), Dakrong Bridge (ex-branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; stop for 15 minutes), Bru minority village (drive-by) and Khe Sanh Combat Base & Museum (site of a bloody, napalm-bombing battle in 1968; 45 minutes’ stop).

Adding on a couple meal stops, and that’s about eight or nine hours on the bus. The drive to Khe Sanh – en route to the Laos border via Hwy 9 – is a lovely ride, but it’s a lot of time for such a brief look, in my opinion. And as one guide said as the bus zipped past a site: ‘There’s not much to see here and locals will try to sell you things, so we won’t stop.’ Not the best tour in the world.

A far far better way to see the DMZ – and one only a trickle of visitors seem to be aware of – is by a PRIVATE TOUR led by South Vietnamese vets from either Hue’s Stop & Go Café or Dong Ha’s DMZ Café (see below). These crusty vets have personal knowledge of the day-to-day life during the war, and can tap into a side of things that get no voice in Vietnam. They also access two fascinating sites that the bus tour don’t reach (see below).

DMZ CAFÉ (tel 053-857-026; [email protected]; 88 Le Duan St, Hwy 1; Dong Ha town) Half/full day by motorbike US$12-15/25, by car US$80
STOP & GO CAFÉ (tel 054-3827-051; [email protected]; 25 Tran Cao Van St, Hue)
DMZ tours by motorbike/car are US$16/60 including guide **New address here; edited October 2008**

Seeing the DMZ on your own?

It’s difficult, and sometimes dangerous considering lingering land mines not yet cleared, to tour some sites on your own. But it’s possible – with directions given along the way – to reach the Truong Son National Cemetery and Vinh Moc Tunnels, two of the more substantial and interesting sites in the area. Even walk a few steps on the old ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail.’

Sites Not on Group Tour

The CON THIEN FIREBASE, home to battered concrete bunkers on a grassy hill surrounded by so much unfound metal, bombs, mines and bullets its unsafe to stray off the path. My guide described how flares were shot every 20 or 30 minutes all night, pointing to where he’d watch for moving VC troops in the surrounding valleys. Northern troops staged a clever diversion battle here to distract attention from preparations of the famed Tet Offensive in January 1968.

CemeteryAnother interesting stop is the TRUONG SON NATIONAL CEMETERY. Walking up the steps from the parking lot, you’ll pass heroic statues and reach the tombstones of nearly 11,000 North Vietnamese troops. The cemetery is divided into five zones: (from left to right, those for liet si martyr ‘master heroes,’ those from Hanoi (see the draping Vietnam flag), VC troops from the south; behind this arc are two more groups, of unknown soldiers and the wide area of soldiers from Nghe Tinh, Ho Chi Minh’s home province. The last group saw heavy casualties – about 75% of the Nghe Tinh troops in 1969 were killed in the area.

Some times you’ll see Agent Orange victims around – born well after the war’s end.

Vinh Moc Tunnels

The most popular DMZ site – and one easily reached by your own transport or on a private or group tour – is the over-2km-long Vinh Moc Tunnels (about 25km northeast of Dong Ha; the turnoff goes east from Hwy1 about 6km north of the Ben Hai River).

Unlike the more famous Cu Chi Tunnels north of Saigon, these tunnels are originals – and were mainly used by up to 600 villagers as an underground town safe from American bombs. The three-level ‘city’ had schools, hospitals, tiny nook-like ‘homes’ for up to four people, all of which can still be seen.

All but the most slightly claustrophobic visitors can probably handle a stooped walk through the maze-like sweaty tunnels – which are bigger than Cu Chi’s. Some turns get confusing, and some visitors follow escape tunnels to the nearby seashore, but finding their way out the exit – but it’s not too hard. There’s also a museum with photos and relics from the period.