THE CENTRAL COAST || DEMILITARIZED ZONE DMZ
During the American War, Quang Tri and Quang Binh, the two provinces either side of the DMZ, were the most heavily bombed and saw the highest casualties – civilian and military, American and Vietnamese. Names made infamous in 1960s’ and 1970s’ America have been perpetuated in countless films and memoirs: Con Thien, the Rockpile, Hamburger Hill and Khe Sanh. For some people the DMZ will be what draws them to Vietnam, the end of a long and difficult pilgrimage; for others it will be a bleak, sometimes beautiful, place where there’s nothing particular to see but where it’s hard not to respond to the sense of enormous desolation.
North of the DMZ is one of the region’s main attractions – the tunnels of Vinh Moc, where villages created deep underground during the American War have been preserved. The area’s other points of interest lie south of the Ben Hai River, and while it’s not possible to cover everything in a day, the most interesting of the places described here are included on organized tours from Hué. Alternatively, it’s possible to use Dong Ha as a base or cover a more limited selection of sights on the drive north. If you have limited time then the Vinh Moc tunnels should be high on your list, along with a drive up Highway 9 to Khe Sanh, both for the scenery en route and the sobering battleground itself. Note that, although you can now visit the DMZ without a local guide, this is not recommended as most sites are unmarked and, more importantly, the guides – arranged in Dong Ha – know which paths are safe; local farmers are still occasionally killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in this area.
The battle of Khe Sanh
The battle of Khe Sanh was important not because of its immediate outcome, but because it attracted worldwide media attention and, along with the simultaneous Tet Offensive, demonstrated the futility of America’s efforts to contain their enemy. In 1962 an American Special Forces team arrived in Khe Sanh Town to train local Bru minority people in counter-insurgency, and then four years later the first batch of Marines was sent in to establish a forward base near Laos, to secure Highway 9 and to harass troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Skirmishes around Khe Sanh increased as intelligence reports indicated a massive build-up of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops in late 1967, possibly as many as forty thousand, facing six thousand Marines together with a few hundred South Vietnamese and Bru. Both the Western media and American generals were soon presenting the confrontation as a crucial test of America’s credibility in South Vietnam and drawing parallels with Dien Bien Phu. As US President Johnson famously remarked, he didn’t want “any damn Dinbinfoo”.
The NVA attack came in the early hours of January 21, 1968; rockets raining in on the base added to the terror and confusion by striking an ammunition dump, gasoline tanks and stores of tear gas. There followed a seemingly endless, nerve-grinding NVA artillery barrage, when hundreds of shells fell on the base each day, interspersed with costly US infantry assaults into the surrounding hills. In an operation code-named “Niagara” General Westmoreland called in the air battalions to silence the enemy guns and break the siege by unleashing the most intense bombing raids of the war: in nine weeks nearly a hundred thousand tonnes of bombs pounded the area round the clock, averaging one airstrike every five minutes, backed up by napalm and defoliants. Unbelievably the NVA were so well dug in and camouflaged that they not only withstood the onslaught but continued to return fire, despite horrendous casualties, estimated at ten thousand. On the US side around five hundred troops died at Khe Sanh (although official figures record only 248 American deaths, of which 43 occurred in a single helicopter accident), before a relief column broke through in early April, seventy-odd days after the siege had begun. NVA forces gradually pulled back and by the middle of March had all but gone, having successfully diverted American resources away from southern cities prior to the Tet Offensive. Three months later the Americans also quietly withdrew, leaving a plateau that resembled a lunar landscape, contaminated for years to come with chemicals and explosives; even the trees left standing were worthless because so much shrapnel was lodged in the timber.
The history of the DMZ
Under the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, Vietnam was split in two along the Seventeenth Parallel, pending elections intended to reunite the country. The demarcation line ran along the Ben Hai River and was sealed by a strip of no-man’s-land 5km wide on each side known as the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. All Communist troops and supporters were supposed to regroup north in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, leaving the southern Republic of Vietnam to non-Communists and various shades of opposition. When the elections failed to take place, the river became the de facto border until 1975.
In reality both sides of the DMZ were anything but demilitarized after 1965, and anyway the border was easily circumvented – by the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the west and sea routes to the east – enabling the North Vietnamese to bypass a string of American fire bases overlooking the river. One of the more fantastical efforts to prevent Communist infiltration southwards was US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s proposal for an electronic fence from the Vietnamese coast to the Mekong River, made up of seismic and acoustic sensors that would detect troop movements and pinpoint targets for bombing raids. Though trials in 1967 met with some initial success, the “McNamara Line” was soon abandoned: sensors were confused by animals, especially elephants, and could be triggered deliberately by the tape-recorded sound of vehicle engines or troops on the march.
Nor could massive, conventional bombing by artillery and aircraft contain the North Vietnamese, who finally stormed the DMZ in 1972 and pushed the border 20km further south. Exceptionally bitter fighting in the territory south of the Ben Hai River (I Corps Military Region) claimed more American lives in the five years leading up to 1972 than any other battle zone in Vietnam. Figures for North Vietnamese losses during that period are not known, but it’s estimated that up to thirty percent of ordnance dropped in the DMZ failed to detonate on impact and that these have, since 1975, been responsible for up to ten thousand deaths and injuries. So much fire power was unleashed over this area, including napalm and herbicides, that for years nothing would grow in the impacted, chemical-laden soil, but the region’s low, rolling hills are now almost entirely reforested with a green sea of pine, eucalyptus, coffee and acacia.