The DeMiltarized Zone


It seemed like I was going to get my own row and be nice and comfy, but the busses here drive around town until they fill it up. After 45 minutes of roaming the streets, our "bus" (which is actually a van), was filled to capacity (or so I thought), and was on its' way to Dong Ha. I thought 16 people (four per small row) was plenty, but every twenty minutes or so, the bus matron would slide open the door, shout in Viet and more people came running to our bus. She would cram their cargo under our feet and pack them on the van. Our total reached 22 people, one motorbike, nine mosquitos (at least), and who knows how many bags of rice and boxes of who-knows-what.

Then some scheister tried to make me pay a baggage fee. With paid ticket in hand, I held my ground. He laughed and tried to make like he was joking. Ha Ha. Not Amused.

AND I had to pee!!!!!

I won't discuss how the gas station attendant tried to set me up with his sister, as I still don't quite understand what that was all about. BUT... We made it to Dong Ha: the most God-forsaken town in Vietnam. Think of an Asian Blythe. Dong Ha is basically a stop-over town for heading to Laos, or my purpose--an individualized DMZ tour.

I have been fighting a cough and congestion (a result of all the air-conditioning), so I spent the afternoon in my room watching the only English channel offering. I watched Terminator Salvation, Lethal Weapon I and Hannah Montana the Movie. Miley is right... It IS all about The Climb.

I had the most amazing tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) today. The DMZ is the area at the nineteenth parallel that separated the two Vietnams. It was the fiercest battlezone during the war. I hired a car, driver and guide named Tam to take me to major stopping points in the DMZ.

Tam was a teenager during the war and had some insights to help me understand things I could not understand otherwise. For one thing, I kept referring to the North and the South during the war. According to Tam, this is a very American concept. From his perspective, there was the invader and the people who wanted the invader out--be it the French after WWII, then the Americans, whomever. This makes sense to me. The Vietnamese people didn't understand communism, many couldn't even read. They understood that the communists got the French out.

Tam said the French were brutal to the Vietnamese people. Rapes, torture, murder--scenes like My Lai were the norm. On the contrary, he felt the U.S. soldiers believed they were here to help the Viet people, especially the Marines in the North who never killed civilians. The atrocities in My Lai were an exception to the rule, but a real indication of how war dehumanizes people. There was, however, more brutality in the South where the South Vietnamese, Korean and American armies feared Viet Cong and often killed civilians because they didn't know who was who.

Civilians just want normalcy. They don't want to see their families killed or their way of life destroyed. Invading soldiers have a military objective, often overlooking the needs of the inhabitants. This was a lethal combination in Vietnam. Additionally, the soldiers just wanted to go home. It was their governments who waged war.

My guide lived through his village, Mai Xa Chanh, becoming a military base. While escaping to a safer location, he stepped on a grenade pin and lost half of his foot. This disqualified him from serving in the army. His younger sister, however, joined a female guerilla group.

During the first half of our day, we drove up highway 9 and made four important stops. The first was "The Rockpile", a 230-meter high lookout base for U.S. long-range artillery.

The next two stops were parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply line allowing VC in the South to receive weapons and equipment from the North. I learned there were three phases of the trail. The first was during the 50s and early 60s. The second began in 1965 when the first U.S. platoon landed, to 1973 when the Americans withdrew. The third phase was after 1973.

Our last stop along hwy 9 was Khe Sanh, a marine base where the bloodiest battle of the war took place. The siege of Khe Sanh was actually a smoke screen to distract the U.S. military while the North Vietnamese Army prepped for the Tet Offensive.

We then stopped for lunch and I had my first taste of wild mountain goat. It was pretty good--A lot like beef. It was a heck-of-a-lot better than the "veggie" soup which was basically hot water with plant leaves.

After lunch, we drove on through to Highway 1 along the eastern coast of Vietnam. I visited the Truong Son National Cemetary with over 10,000 graves of North Vietnamese soldiers who died along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Seeing so many graves really shows the reality of war, regardless of who rests there. And to my delight, I once again had a butterfly escort.

We drove by Doc Mieu, a former base that supported the MacNamara Line, and over the Ben Hai bridge that connects North and South Vietnam. There wasn't much to see there, mostly just the history of the locations.

Our final stop was the Vinh Moc Tunnels. These were pretty cool. The village of Vinh Moc was bombed so frequently, the villagers moved underground. These tunnels differed from Cu Chi in that the people were not using the tunnels for fighting against the Americans, they actually lived underground for survival. The tunnels and trenches that connected them were pretty large and quite elaborate. I enjoyed exploring them.

On the drive back, Tam gave me some more insights into post-war Vietnam, including the re-education camps for the South Vietnamese Army and life under communism. He felt their economic system was not a good one, but had improved since 1986 when the free-market system and private ownership came to Vietnam. He also spoke about his views on the American soldiers and how they were treated poorly and unfairly upon their return to America. Many U.S. vets have returned to Vietnam to heal deep-seeded personal wounds, which Tam encourages.

I'm so glad I met Tam. He gave me a lot of things to think about and some new perspectives to digest.

Source: Travelblog



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