Our next whistle-stop tour was to Hue, but how were we to get there? A bus leaves at 4 am. Urgh, too early! Spending time digging around the internet, I came across a tour, taking us from Phong Nha to Hue via a visit to Vinh Moc tunnels and the Demilitarized Zone. Perfect.
We were picked up from our hotel at 7 am (that’s more like it). There on the bus was Marie and Paco for Switzerland who we chatted to on our adventure tour the previous day. We chatted for a little while, but I think all four of us were feeling tired, and one by one, we all nodded off.
There were only another couple and a guy from France on the bus with us.
Past paddy fields and rolling hills we eventually came to Quang Tri Province and the tunnel complex at Vinh Moc. I was a bit concerned as our driver spoke no English and the tour did state there would be an English speaking guide. After a short, while our guide arrived – Phew! As we were walking around, I asked him where he was from. His family came from South Vietnam and his father fought with the Americans against North Vietnam.
We entered a small museum and learnt that the American army focused on this area, releasing 9,000 tons of bombs as they were trying to prevent the villagers from supplying food and arms to Con Co Island. This island was used as a base for North Vietnamese forces and hindered the American bombers reaching Hanoi. Altogether, between 1964 and 1972, the Americans dropped 668,876 bombs.
To protect themselves, the villagers’ started to dig tunnels 10 m deep that they could live in, but the American bombs were able to infiltrate these. They dug deeper with simple hand tools through the limestone rock and finally excavated nearly 2,000 m, moving the village to live at three different levels, the deepest being 23 m underground.
Our guide then took us down into the labyrinth of tunnels. There are 13 entrances in total, six in the hillside and seven to the South China sea. Light bulbs gave us some much-needed light; I wonder what the residents used. Each of the 60 families living here had a small area of about 2m x 1.5m off of the tunnel to sleep, and there were kitchens, meeting areas, school and even a maternity area for the 17 babies born during this time.
The tunnels saved the villagers lives, only one bomb directly hit the area, but this failed to explode, and the hole it made was used as a ventilation shaft.
Our next stop was at the Demilitarized Zone, and we crossed the road to the Ben Hai Museum. A young lady greeted us and spoke a little English. She explained that the Americans set up the DMZ. Really? I had already read a bit about this area. Now, I am no expert, but I am sure it was from the International Geneva Conference in 1954 where the French government and the Viet Minh agreed on the split of South and North Vietnam. There was even a document in the exhibition case from the Conference here. I think the guide needs to do some more research and get her facts right.
The museum had many large photos of soldiers, flags on both sides, a poignant one of the reunion of two elderly ladies and the devastation of deaths and injuries since the war from the numerous undetonated explosives of the area.
When will we learn? Why do we fight our brothers and sisters, killing so many innocent people?
This no-mans-land ran along Ben Hai River for most of its length to the Laos border and described as being at the 17th parallel. As Tim pointed out, it’s mainly in the 16th with only a small portion of the zone at the eastern end being in the 17th. Despite troops from both sides being barred from this area, it is said via intelligence that over 40,000 soldiers were here. As Douglass Macarthur said, “Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.”