Posted by: rob | July 20, 2007

Visiting the DMZ

Visiting Vietnam’s DMZ, the supposed De-Militarised Zone between north and south Vietnam that suffered such carnage during the war, is a strange experience. Getting there is complex on your own, so you have to sign up for a “tour”. $10-12 gets you a 12 hour tour including guide and “breakfast”. There are almost as many “DMZ Tours” as there are “DMZ Cafes” in these parts. Most of the 12 hours is tedious but is interspersed with sobering, depressing, and at times hopeful experiences. It doesn’t help when you are suffering from Vietnam’s version of “Delhi Belly” many miles from the nearest filthy squat toilet.

I won’t go into details here but we visited an American airforce base at Khe Sanh, the actual river demarcating the DMZ, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the Vinh Moc tunnels. Vietnam is only 100km long wide at this point and we travelled from the sea to 15km from Laos. The tunnels were the most interesting – this is where a village of 300 people on the DMZ moved themselves underground for several years during the war and the village survives today (now above ground). Seventeen babies were born in the tunnels and many are still alive. The tunnels descend more than 23m underground and today you can just manage to squirm through the passages. The 5km either side of the DMZ is almost unacceptably beautiful, vast flat fields of vivid green rice paddies below fluffy white clouds.

Some of the tour plays like a farce. The tour guide, he was keen to tell us, was a boy during the war and watched some of his family die. He takes dramatic pauses between sentences and passengers lunge into the aisle of the bus to take photographs of the man with the story. Vietnam is 65% buddhist, 100% communist. He is “100% communist buddhist”. Just when you started to feel for the guy, he pulls out his mobile phone and plays aussie rocker Jimmy Barnes’ song “Khe Sanh” at high volume into the microphone. I’m not so sure about the communist claim either, as his strict “no windows open” even though the AC was broken appeared more of a fascist position. Mutiny was avoided when there was an passengers uprising that led to the compromise that windows could be open as long as we didn’t hang outside. The temperature drop from 40C to 36C was very welcome.

There wasn’t too much Anti-Americanism and not too much pro-Communist slant to anything as far as we could tell. Guys were selling dog tags that supposedly came from downed pilots but are almost certainly as fake as everything else in Vietnam. There were photos of Viet cong doctors healing American soldiers (shrapnel wounds in the backside) and photos of Americans retreating. Mostly though, you came away with the sinking feeling of the thousands of ordinary people who died in these parts for no good reason. Driving along the highway you see bomb craters and teams of workers still removing landmines from the area that continue to kill. There is not much left of American presence because the locals stripped all remaining machines for reselling scrap metal.

The first few photos below are mine and the next couple from Kim.

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dmz tour bus

family room in tunnels

– rob

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