16. DMZ – a surprisingly emotional journey

21/12

I extended my stay in Hue by a day to take the opportunity to learn more about the Vietnam War, and heading to the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ). There are lots of tours on offer, as are independent ‘Easy Riders’. After checking several reviews I booked the full day trip with Hue Riders. The cost for the bike, driver / guide and all entrance fees was $49.

Around 8:30 I was picked up from my hotel by Hieu. As it was raining the first activity was to get bagged – in other words using rain cover for your upper body, trousers, and even shoes. I must say I looked even stranger than usual….but at least I would stay dry. For my camera bag I used a separate rain cover.
Soon enough we were on our way out of town, making myself as comfortable as possible at the back of the motorbike (which was slightly easier than on the back of a scooter). Heading north our first place to visit was the Truong Son cemetery, which took round an hour or so driving on a highway. And it was a rather large cemetery indeed. Sadly not every grave had a name on it, as either soldiers had no identification with them, or were too burned to be identified. Instead you could see a large number of un-named graves. Hieu provided some facts about the area and the cemetery itself, and explanations like that added a lot to the sights I have seen throughout the day.

After that we were back on the road (still on the busy Highway), to head further north. Thankfully the rain stopped a bit, but I kept my heavy rain cover on, as the weather didn’t look like to stay dry. Still, it felt weird to have all the plastic wrapped around me. Well, better than getting wet I guess…
The next stop was Quang Tri town. This town was part of the one of the longest battle during the Vietnam War. For a continuous 81 days and nights both the Vietkong fought the US and South Vietnamese soldiers, as both sides thought this to be a very important part to hold. Not a lot is still standing from that time, but the Long Hung church is still here as a relict from that battle, covered in lots of bullet holes. I think it is very difficult to understand what it was to be in that place during these 3 month.

So far the first two stops gave a good insight what happened in this area during the war, and it is different to actually be in these places rather than just reading or watching programmes about it.

Soon enough we arrived the next part of the tour when we crossed the Ben Hai river, which was the old border between North and South Vietnam. On the northern side is a war memorial and a little museum about the war. Before we walked around this area I was glad to be able to remove my rain cover. It felt a bit like gaining freedom for my movement. My bum was actually also happy to have a bit of a longer break – sitting on the back of bike, even on a bike bigger than a scooter, is still not the most comfortable place to be!!!

Before we headed to the museum we crossed the river again, this time via the little metal bridge, which is now painted in blue and yellow. The blue bit starts at the northern part and goes to the middle of the bridge, where the colour turns into yellow to indicate the southern part. The border was exactly in the middle of the bridge, clearly marked where the two colours meet. Obviously I couldn’t resist taken a picture of me where probably every tourist who has been here took a picture as well. I know – not very creative. But I think there are places where it is compulsory to get pictures taken, i.e. in front of the big tree at Tha Prom in Siem Reap, or the Trevi Fountain in Rome, well, and here on the bridge.
On the southern end of the bridge was a monument of a woman and a child – Hieu explained that it represent the family who were unable to see their husband and father on the other side. It was a reminder that the ordinary people suffer most when politicians are involved in power play. And it reminded me of the old wall in Berlin between West and East Germany.
Hieu also provided some further excellent information about the area, bringing everything to life. He pointed out the old speakers on both sides, which were used to send propaganda both ways.

Then it was time for the museum. Instead of guiding me through there, he let me wander around the small building alone – which I actually preferred as I like to take my time without being felt rushed. He answered any questions I had afterwards. The museum, despite being small, was very interesting; as it covered the story of the DMZ, with lots of pictures of the area after the constant bombardments of the US, weapons and items used by both sides, and some stories about the suffering from the locals. Whilst being aware that in any country such museums always has biased view, it was once again a reminder how badly the area was affected, and how the civilians suffered during the war. It is not a happy place, but I thought learning more about this area made my stay much more worthwhile for me.

After the longer stay at the old border we were back on the road – and while I enjoyed the rain cover free time I was in the bags again, as it started to rain again – the sky remained grey.  Initially we continued driving along the highway, but soon turned off and were on a smaller road, passing some little villages, and soon we were driving along the coast. It continued to rain, and some partsof the road were covered in water, so I had to raise my feet from time to time to avoid a foot shower. The scenery along the road was nice, especially the coastal part, but I was glad when we arrived at the place I was looking forward to and the main reason to do the tour: the Vinh Moc Tunnel.

This tunnel complex was built by the village nearby to provide shelter from the US bombs, as they didn’t want to leave their homes.

After the entrance (as it was included in my tour I actually don’t know how much the fee was) you find the usual sights of tourist attractions: stalls offering various things like water, little snacks and of course souvenirs.
But passing the stalls you are soon following a little path, heading into an area covered with trees, and here you could see the first signs of the tunnels – entrances, some little openings for ventilation, and posts for the guards who observed the sky to raise the alarms as soon planes approached. The place had a tranquil feel with the trees, and the waves from the nearby coast the only noise. It is hard to imagine what it was like here 40 years ago.
We stopped briefly at the little museum, were information about the construction of the tunnels, pictures, items from the tunnels as well as an anti-aircraft gun were exhibited. I think it is not a bad idea to visit the museum first to get some initial information.
While I was at the museum a local man came in as well, waving at me and two other tourists. He was limping, and you realised quickly that he was not just physically disabled. He was very friendly, smiled at us and was shaking our hands. When he saw the camera he pointed the big map, and posed in front of it – waiting for us to take a few pictures. He actually didn’t want any money for that, but just see the pictures on the screen. He was just laughing when he saw the picture of himself, and happily waved goodbye when we left the museum.

Hieu explained then outside who the man was. I was aware that 17 children were born inside the tunnels during the war – and he was one of them, and helps cleaning the museum now.  He cannot speak, or hear, and he reminded me more of a child than a grown up man. But this is not surprising if you imagine born and raised in a dark tunnel, while bombs are constantly dropped on top of your refugee. It actually makes you think about your environment even more….

Then it was time to climb down into the darkness. Unlike the Cu Chi tunnels near HCMC, the Vinh Moc tunnels were not enlarged for tourist. The main reason was that it was not as narrow built, as the purpose was to provide a refugee for the villagers, and not military use. It was till only 0,9m to 1,3m wide, and 1,6 – 1,90m high.
Along the path there were little rooms for the families to rest. And when I say rooms I mean little openings into the wall, maybe a metre high tops, and maybe 2m deep. This was all the space a family of four had. Overall 96 of these rooms exists inside the tunnels. In addition the complex housed toilets (holes in the ground), wells, kitchen, meeting rooms, health station, and even a maternity room. In that room they had some figurines there showing the birth of one of the children. It really was difficult to imagine that while bombs were dropping with the aim to kill anyone in that area a cry of a newborn baby was suddenly filling the tunnels – proof of a new life entering the world. You can read about these things in books, but being here makes it feel real, and gives you shivers (and I am really not a very emotional person).
All these were not only on one level. No, the tunnel system was spread over three levels, connect by a number of stairwells. From the top entrance it went down 23m to the third level. Considering it was pitch dark, it was a rather interesting experience to walk further down. In some instances you had to watch the floor to avoid stepping into some waterholes to prevent wet feet, or avoiding slipping. I must admit I saw a few people at the entrance walking in without a guide. But I am not really sure they went to all the little areas, as you could easily get lost here, and could easily missed some new areas.

Arriving on the bottom level there were some openings to walk out of the tunnel, and you were suddenly standing in front of the sea. The entrances were well camouflaged with trees, and it was difficult to spot them – unless you stood in front of them. The near access to the sea gave them the opportunity for fishing during the breaks of bomb raids, and getting some fresh air. It must have been a relief to head out here for some fresh air, and hear the relaxing sound of waves, rather the frightening noise from bombs.. It was another proof how well planned the whole complex was. And how really impressive it is.

It was then time for lunch at a little place opposite the ticket booth. While the food was nice, it was a time I will hardly ever forget. I was sitting with Hieu and another driver on a table outside, when the local I met in the museum, came along, and looked at the motorbikes. He then walked to our table, and by opening his hand he was asking for some money. I usually do not give any money, but this time I gave him the change I had in my pockets.  It really was just 30,000 Dong ($1,50). But his face was still lighten up, a massive smile appeared, and after happily nodding, he run away home – but it was more like jumping away like children who got a present. It is very difficult to explain, but seeing his face, and the sudden happiness for receiving $1,50 nearly made me cry. It made me think of how lucky I am that I never had to experience war, that I was not born in dark tunnels while bombs were dropped on top of me, that I am healthy, and lucky enough to travel to these amazing places. As it was just a few days prior to Christmas, and this experience was my Christmas present. This man will probably never know it, but for me it was a privilege to meet him. I really cannot explain why this time, as I have seen poverty and worked with street children before, but it just did

After this experience it was then time to leave Vinh Moc. Instead of travelling back the same route, Hieu took me along a road that followed the coast for a while. Having the sea and the beaches and cliffs on your left, and rice fields and villages on your right was another great way to experience the beauty of the country. In one town we stopped next to a beach, which must be quite popular with locals in the summer, as there were quite a few stalls along the beach (all closed though). While I enjoyed the nice salty air, watching the rough sea, I only saw some children playing on the beach, and one man checking that his boat is secured on the beach. Obviously, the usual spectacle started, with the children nearby coming towards me, waving, shouting hello of Sin Chau, and wanting to get picture taken so they can see themselves on the screen. It was a difficult to leave after a while. Throughout my trip I loved the welcoming smiles I got from most locals, and how friendly they are. It was a nice 30 minute break on the beach. And seeing the surroundings I am sure it must be a lovely place to spend some time when the weather is sunny.

After the break we headed then slowly back to Hue – but it was anything but a boring ride. I have seen everything that is typical for Vietnam for me, little villages, temples, people waving, rice fields, lakes and rivers with little fishing boats, palm trees. It was just beautiful. We only stopped over two hours longer on a massive bridge, and when I mentioned that the area was beautiful, Hieu was slightly upset with me that I didn’t ask to stop to take pictures. Well – there were enough opportunities, but for some reason I didn’t ask (was it to avoid to cause any inconvenience? It would be silly as I hired him as a guide – which he pointed out to me). But then again, you sometimes can just enjoy a beautiful area perfectly without a camera, so I wasn’t upset. And the view from the bridge at least offered some nice views.

From that stop it was just 45 minutes to Hue. Hieu asked me if I wanted to take my shoe cover on, but I thought the rain was not that heavy, and I wouldn’t need it. Well – always listen to the experienced guide. Suddenly the heaven opened and it was pouring down. And not just from the top, of course not. Some parts of the street were covered in water, so obviously water came from the ground into my shoes as well. When we finally arrived at my hotel in the darkness of the evening I had a lake in my shoes. These were fast drying hiking shoes – but they were so wet (and without the use of a heater) they werestill wet 3 days later!!!). So I was glad to be back to get into dry cloth (the rain cover provided by Hieu  were otherwise great, my jumper was nearly dry.

The whole trip was amazing experience. I learned a lot about the war in that region, saw quite a bit of the impact it had on that region, and once again I was able to enjoy the beauty of Vietnam from the back of a bike. Hieu from Hue Riders (the owner) was very friendly, explained a lot, and was a very safe driver – you can clearly see how experienced he is. At one point on the highway he drove off the street and waited when a lorry took over another. There was still lots of space, so I was surprised why we stopped. I realised it 10 seconds later, when a bus overtook both trucks – and there was no more space left on the road. So it is important that you have an experienced driver for that route. Therefore I would highly recommend Hieu and hsi Hue Riders (http://www.huerider.org/index.html)

The highlight was obviously Vinh Moc. I never seen anything like that before, and can only recommend heading there. Meeting the guy who was born there was for me surprisingly very emotional (as I had nothing to do the war unlike the locals or tourists from the US or Australia had family or friends fighting in that country). That meeting made the trip even more special. If you have a spare day in Hue, I would say do not miss a one day DMZ trip.

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