Platoon

Trip Start Feb 16, 2010
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Trip End Mar 09, 2010


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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Saturday, February 27, 2010

It was rise and shine at 530am for a 6am bus pickup to Dongha which is up north. The minibus was packed with other locals and travellers making their way to Laos Border. The remaining group of 6 continued to our first stop - the Vinh Moc Tunnels approx. 5km north of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

Vinh Moc Tunnels
The Vinh Moc tunnels are a network of approx 104 tunnels that stretch 200km in distance and 25m at the deepest underground. Prior before we entered, we visited a small museum on the history of Vinh Moc tunnels. We also met one of the 17 children born in the tunnels. Tragically, all of them grew up to be mute and deaf, and suffer a mental disability - due to the spending the first 6 years of their lives in the tunnels while the Americans heavily bombarded Vinh Moc villages. It was the heaviest bombed site in Vietnam during the American war (as the locals call it). It averaged about 40 tonnes of bombs dropped per head in this region.

We bent our backs and with only 3 torches, we went straight in. It was a really cramped space, very damp and depressing. We saw small pockets of caves for sleeping quarters, medical units and even teaching spaces allocated for the children. There were booby traps along the passageways, should the American GIs managed to enter the tunnels. The biggest space was the military meeting room where I can comfortably stand up straight with my head touching the ceiling. It was pitch black except where at intervals an electric lamp is located. During the war, it was only candles and kerosene lamps. The Americans would only stop bombing the region at night because the nights were their R & R. It was the only time, the Viet Congs would surface to stretch their legs and for fresh air.

Vinh Moc tunnels were particularly strategic to the Viet Congs as they could bring supplies of weapons, ammo and food to Con Co Island out at the sea and flanked the Americans (also out at sea) to South Vietnam. We left Vinh Moc Tunnels with dirt on our arms and heads but also with heavy hearts on learning what the Viet congs had gone through.

This was definitely one of the highlights of this vietnam trip - to set foot on DMZ. Our guide - called Hue, a very intense and serious guy, did a fantastic job of giving us a vietnamese perspective of the American war, the reunification of Vietnam and the current political system. We couldnt have a better a guide even when we struggled to understand his english. Hue did not learn about the American war from schools or books but from tales and experiences as told by his grandfather and local community. Through his solemn stories, we were truly gripped by the tragic history that shaped Vietnam today.

Ben Hai River
Crossing Ben Hai River on Hien Luong Bridge, we headed back to Dongha and towards Laos border for our next stop - Khe Sanh Combat base, 20 km east of Laos border.
The Ben Hai River served as a demarcation line between North communist Vietnam and South capitalist Vietnam. The Demilitarised Zone was 5 km north and south of Ben Hai River that stretches to Laos. Under the treaty, no living, fighting and military bases were allowed in the DMZ. However outside of the DMZ, it was one of the world's heaviest buildup of military forces during the war. It was pointed out to us that the total weight of bombs used by the Americans outweighted the total weight of all bombs used in the entire World War II. On the North vietnam side of Hien Luong bridge, a massive stack of monitor speakers still stand. It was used to blast communist propaganda to the south when the American left the war for South Vietnam to defend alone.

Thousands fled for their lives when North Vietnam won the civil war. Many were massacred or sent to minimum 3 years of "re-education" camps ie labour/torture camps. South vietnamese properties were seized and redistributed to the north vietnamese. Many south vietnameses resettled to rural country and not allowed to return to Saigon, later named Ho Chi Minh City. Those who secretly returned to the city, did so illegally, many were doctors, teachers and professionals, now earn a living doing labour work. Those who fought against the North were also hunted down through a list of names compiled by the north viet secret police who also went on to target their children and grandchildren.

Khe Sanh Combat Base
2.5 hours drive from Dongha, we arrived at Khe Sanh Combat Base, now a war museum.. Khe Sanh is just 20 km east of Laos Border. The battle at Khe Sanh was of great significance and was also one of the bloodiest in the region. The Americans bombed this region so badly that after 35 years, little vegetation are able to grow on the hills. The top is still as bare as I can see. Because of the DMZ, the Viet Congs established anetwork of trails called the Ho Chi Minh trail, through the jungles of Laos and Cambodia, supplying weapons, ammo and food to prepare attacks on the south.

Hue's grandfather (who was a south vietnamese by birth but joined the Viet Congs to avoid persecution) spent 2 years trailing the jungles on foot, living on roots and jungle vegetations. Many viet congs died of malaria. In 1968, the Viet Congs attacked Khe Sanh military base - a diversion drawing majority of American troops to Khe Sanh and south DMZ for defence. Little did the Americans know, one week later on lunar new year's eve, through the network of Ho Chi Minh Trails, the viet congs launched the famous Tet Offensive on all south vietnamese towns vacant of US military and decisively won the war years later.

The famous battles and bloodshed at Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hills...were publicised on US media. Interestingly from the US perspective, the belief was held that the Viet Cong diversion was the Tet Offensive, not Khe Sanh. At the Khe Sanh museum, photos of shell shocked and dying US troops were hung with captions like "American soldiers in panic. What were they thinking?, "US soldiers abandoning Khe Sanh in panic"..etc


On our way way to Hue, we stopped to visit the Dakrong minority. During the war, the Dakrong minority helped Ho Chi Minh in advising on local terrain and jungle survival when creating the Ho Chi Minh trail network. The communist government now reward them with free education, water and power. However they are still poor and the women slogs out in the fields but the men stay home and watch tv. The elder children care for the younger ones. The entire village of 2500 also renamed their family name Ho in honour of Ho Chi Minh.

For another 3 hours on the road back to Hue, our driver consistently gave us a taste of how the locals drive - recklessly. It was like a test of dare with all oncoming traffic. Most drivers were also signaling to oncoming drivers if there were traffic police along the way. Hue explained that each time someone gets pulled over for traffic offences, drivers would bribe the police between US$30 - 60 when handling over their licenses. The exact amount depends on how corrupt the policemen faces are. The locals have a knack for that. They only have 3 points, so they would rather bribe.

Back in Hue, I settled for a hotpot dinner which was fabulous. Ventured to the touristy side of Hue near the river and saw a french couple I met on the train. So we had beers and chatted abit. Heading back to hotel, decided to have a supper of duck vermicelli soup before retiring to room soaked in sweat and full of American war tales.
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