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Remnants from the American War

We had an early start for our private tour which left at seven thirty, Stef in particular grateful for the extra time in bed as a dodgy tummy had kept him up for part of the night. Driving out of Hue we went past the Old Citadel, which we will visit tomorrow, the front of which for about two hundred metres had been turned into a large flower market in the run up to Tet. As well as the kumquat trees and peach blossom, there were pots of chrysanthemums, sunflowers, roses and displays of bonsai trees.

Today we visited locations associated with the American War in Vietnam. The background to the war was more complex that I had realised. It is wrapped up with the French leaving Vietnam after many years and the US supporting one side as they were concerned that Communism would spread throughout Asia. The country was divided into two zones North (communist) and South (republic) with a Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in between.

When the DMZ was established local people had three hundred days to decide if they wanted to move north to the Communist part of Vietnam or South to the democratic republic. Around a quarter of a million moved south but only about eighty thousand moved north. This was not because there were much fewer people with communist sympathies but because they stayed in the south as part of the Hanoi government’s wider plan to gain communist control over all of Vietnam.

The US move into Vietnam sparked the war which in Europe we know as the Vietnam War but which here is referred to as the American War in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese army were pushing southwards along an extensive network of supply routes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These routes were the focus of much military action by the US and their South Vietnamese allies as they tried to cut off this supply chain. The Hanoi government then used the communists who had stayed in the southern part of the country to form a second army, more commonly known as the Vietcong. They focussed on liberating parts of southern Vietnam from the US so the US effectively became trapped between two armies fighting for the communist cause.

From what we learned today it seems that this war was not operated on a large scale military operations basis. Rather the tactics seemed to be much more like guerrilla warfare. Where today there is a road network leading between many of the sites during the war this area was mainly jungle territory which the locals obviously knew well and were able to navigate easily. For the US troops it was a more difficult task and support for the war diminished as casualty figures increased until the US finally pulled out in 1975.

What was left behind was a trail of devastation and destruction. In the thirty years since the war much of the landscape has recovered and the first part of our journey was along roads lined with rice fields. Unlike in Hanoi and Halong Bay where the plants were just starting to grow, here the warmer climate had already produced green shoots a good few inches long. Everywhere we looked there was water, not lakes and streams like in Canada, but rice fields and irrigation ditches.

Our first stop was at the ruins of a small church just outside Quang Tri. The church itself was quite small and built in an even length cross shape with the altar on a slightly raised platform in the middle. The roof was totally gone as were the doors and windows and throughout you could see evidence of battle. It is built of concrete around a steel wire frame, seen easily where bombs and bullets have penetrated the concrete and left gaping holes in the walls. The whole place was riddled with bullet holes and looked as if it had come under pretty heavy fire.

From here we carried on up to Quang Tri a town that was virtually destroyed by the war. The old town citadel is just outside of the current town. A high brick wall encircles the citadel and is itself enclosed within a moat. Inside there are no buildings left, the town was almost totally destroyed during battles between north and south which saw control of the town switch hands several times. A small museum houses pictures from the war and outside are old Russian army trucks and a rocket launcher. In the middle of the citadel a monument to the war dead has been erected on a large mound. The grounds have now been turned over to local families to use as farmland and a couple of ladies were out and about tending their fields.

It was a strange sensation standing in the middle of what used to be a vibrant town and seeing nothing around you. Driving through the newer part of town most of the buildings looked new and in good condition but one, which looked like a school, was still in the bombed out state it must have been in for thirty years. We could not understand why it had not been demolished and rebuilt like everything else around us.

At Dong Ha we stopped to pick up Vu, our guide for the rest of the day. He was very knowledgeable about the war and the various different battles and skirmishes that had taken place in this area. It is a harrowing tale of man’s brutality to man. We covered sites on both Route 9 and Route 1, our first stop being close to the Rockpile. This is a large hill, hence the name, and was one of the places where US troops came for a spot of rest and relaxation. It was a beautiful location, set in a lush green valley full of rice fields and tropical palm like plants with a small stream running along the valley floor.

Our route then took us on to the Khe Sanh combat base. For the US it was a key site to try and block the Ho Chi Minh trail but the Vietnamese just took a detour and simply went into Laos before crossing back into Vietnam further south. Two other US bases nearby provided protection for Khe Sanh, one closer towards Laos and the other further back along route 9. The irony of this site though is that the hills all around it were occupied by the North Vietnamese Army. The US would flush out the NVA but then a few weeks later they would leave the hills and the NVA simply came back. This was a conscious tactic on the part of the NVA who kept the US troops occupied in this part of the country leaving them free to successfully bombard a range of cities in the Tet offensive of 1968.

All that now remains visible of the base is located at a small museum on part of the old grounds. Outside the museum are some of the gun placements, odd bits of bomb and other weaponry, a crashed plane and two US army helicopters. Running behind the museum grounds is the old runway. There only seem to be western tourists here and an enterprising local tries to cash in by selling off old medals and dog tags that have presumably been collected from dead or “missing” servicemen. It was a pretty morbid display of bits and pieces.

What surprised me was that all of the information Vu was giving us seemed geared towards Americans wanting to know how badly they had been hit in the war. The casualty rate was low compared to the total deaths of local people. In Vietnam alone ten percent of the national population of forty million were killed, more than half of these being civilian casualties.

We stopped briefly on the way back to view a bridge donated by Fidel Castro. It spans a gorge with a river running below but there was not much else to say for the bridge. Here we ha dour first real experience of begging in Vietnam. A small group of boys followed us as we walked out onto the bridge and then back again to our car. Their clothes were ragged and had seen better days and they all looked like they would benefit greatly from a bath. Although they were persistent in following us they were polite and we had no trouble with them.

Another quick break gave us a look down onto a Bru tribal village. There were about forty or so houses in the village but the people here have few creature comforts and rely on the government to provide basic food and supplies. Somehow though the village men still manage to find money for alcohol, a common curse for poor villages in this part of the world and South America. The women of the Bru villages have a tough lot in life. Their husbands do not work so it is down to the women to do everything to feed and clothe the household. Husbands can take more than one wife and often do so that the family workload is split between a few people.

After a stop in DongHa for lunch we carried on further north driving through the DMZ itself. It was set at the seventeenth parallel and reaches for about five kilometres either side of the Ben Hai river. At the river the remains still stand of the old check point for crossing the border. The bridges are all new, although built in the style of the originals, but the control buildings were the originals (I think). On the south bank of the river the skyline is dominated by a large statue of a woman set against a backdrop of oversized coconut tree leaves. The story goes that a husband crossed over to the communist north during the three hundred day open period, telling his wife he would be back after the elections had been held. With no elections he became stranded in the north for eighteen years where he remarried and had a family. The statue is symbolic of his original wife’s wait for her husband’s return. Coconuts only grow in the south of Vietnam so the use of coconut leaves in the statue was also symbolic.

Tunnels of Vinh Moc, a whole village underground

Our final stop on the tour was at a small fishing village called Vinh Moc. This was an important supply base sending shipments of food and ammunition out to Can Co Island, a key staging point on the water based Ho Chi Minh Trail. As such, it was also a prime target for the US and South Vietnamese armies. The elderly and children of the village escaped the bombing raids and moved further up the coast but four hundred young people remained in the village which was obliterated by the war.

To survive, they excavated an underground network of tunnels which became their home for five years. It took them eighteen months to complete and in total the tunnel network stretched for about 1800m. Today only a few of the tunnels are safe enough to be accessed but we were able to see some at each of the three different levels they created. The first level is about twelve metres below ground and is really a series of access routes. The second level, fifteen metres below ground, was where most people lived. There were small cubicles dug into the rock literally a couple of metres long, about a metre wide and less than two metres high. The third level, twenty three metres below ground, was used for storing food, medicines, ammunition and everything they needed to survive and supply the trail.

It was pretty hot and humid in the tunnels, especially down at the third level. There were thirteen different entrances (of which seven faced the sea) and two ventilation shafts through which fresh supplies of air could enter and work their way around the network. These were also used to house key facilities for the underground village. Near one was a hospital and near another maternity room. Seventeen babies were born in the tunnels. One large room on the second level, which could seat about twenty people, was used for meetings, weddings or other celebrations. One tunnel which we did not go into was a deep bomb shelter that the villagers used when the tunnels were being bombarded.

Along the edge of the tunnel floors there was a small gulley to enable rainwater to run down and out rather than flooding the paths. There were a couple of fresh water wells but only one hole in the ground toilet for all four hundred people. The stench from such a high number of people living in such cramped conditions must have been quite horrific, all the worse for people who by nature were fishermen used to the open seas. Needless to say it was not a great environment to live in and the villagers had to contend with high levels of sickness on top of the threat of bomb fire.

It was a long day with a lot of time spent in the car travelling from one site to the next. We were both really glad that we had chosen not to go on the tour bus as we had caught up with them fairly early on in the morning. We were feeling pretty flat about the sites we had seen until we got to the tunnels which were definitely the highlight of the day. At the tunnels we also got to see a lot more than the tour groups did, another bonus.