Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – Vietnam – December 2014

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The Demilitarized Zone or DMZ caught my interest right away.  Being a buffer point between North and South Vietnam during the war, it was also a location that saw a lot of military action.  When we were in Dong Hoi, we started looking at our options to visit.  The option from our hotel varied depending on whether you had a group of 2 people or 5 people getting cheaper with more people.  There was also the option that we go on motorcycles with drivers which sounded like the best option to me.  Unfortunately, not included in our price was the bus to Dong Ha where the tour takes place.  So we got to thinking… why don’t we just go to Dong Ha and book a tour there and cut out the middle man?

Our Hotel booked busses from Dong Hoi to Dong Ha for 100,000vnd or to Hue for 150,000vnd.  The public bus to Hue was 85,000vnd but the hotel service would pick us up from our hotel and take us directly to our new hotel in Hue.  When we inquired at the bus station about Dong Ha, the lady kept shaking her head and saying “Hue”.  So much for that idea.  Not knowing how much a taxi would cost from wherever the bus station in Hue is to our hotel, we agree to spend the extra 130,000vnd and take the convenient trip to our hotel in Hue.  Our bus picks us up then goes back to the bus station where we wait for a couple locals to hop in.  The bus stops at the halfway point in Dong Ha… where the bus ticket lady said we couldn’t be dropped off.. wtf?  Dong Ha was also pouring rain.  I couldn’t help but think I was glad we didn’t book a motorcycle tour today.  4ish hours after leaving Dong Hoi, we arrive in Hue.

From Hue we start checking out DMZ tours.  A backpacker hostel was offering the tour for 430,000vnd.  Our hotel offered the same tour for 368,000vnd.  There are only 3 tour groups that run the DMZ tour and since it’s off season, they rotate so only 1 or 2 tours will run depending on demand.  The tour picks us up at 7am so we have a very early morning.  A group of 20 of us on the bus and it’s 2 hours back to Dong Ha on the bus to pick up our guide.

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Our guide is a local who lived through the war as a teenager.  He also lived in a village that was burnt down by the Americans.  His stories really focused on how smart his father was as he managed to camouflage the house so it wouldn’t be burnt down like all of his neighbours.  He also buried a large amount of rice so it wouldn’t get destroyed and they were able to return to it later.

We started our drive down HWY 9 where we saw a couple different American base locations as well as one that has been turned into a museum.  The museum was cool and old bunkers were left all around the grounds.

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American Planes

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A Helicopter

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Some old tanks

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And a cool base with a trench system to other bunkers

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We also visited the original Ho Chi Minh Trail (which is now paved) that was over 800km of paths used by the Vietcong to transfer weapons and food supplies to south Vietnam.  The trail ran through Laos and Cambodia where American ground troops were not allowed to go.  An “out of bounds” area so as not to create conflict with neighbouring countries. 

We then head back to Dong Ha to the same place we picked up our guide to eat lunch.  Typical overpriced food that lacked flavor and creativity.  I start to wonder if the Vietnamese have over sensitive taste buds and that’s why they make their food as flavorless as possible. Our meals seem to be the same whether we pay 25,000vnd or 200,000vnd.  The flavor is just bland and boring.  Very big shift after coming from Thailand where the pride themselves with flavourful food. Don’t mind my whining, I’ve been spoiled growing up in a multicultural city near Vancouver where we get the best of every cuisine whether it be Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, or Italian. 

Back to the tour.

Now we head north up HWY 1 where we pass the 2 flags on either side of the Ban River that separated Vietnam into the North and South. We are headed straight to the highlight of the tour.  The Vinh Moc Tunnels.  They are a tunnel system that was used by North Vietnamese villagers and Vietcong to hide from the USA bombing.  As we walk towards the entrance that we will go in, we walk past a bunch of bomb craters as the Americans bombed this area regularly.  They built an elaborate tunnel system with 3 tiers going as deep as 23m underground with 13 different entrances on different levels. 

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These tunnels are genius.  They had family rooms for sleeping

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A hospital room where 17 babies were born

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A big meeting area that would host 40-60 people for meetings

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And a bomb shelter that we couldn’t visit because there has been too much rain lately so it’s flooded and slippery. 

They built entrances facing the ocean and at the top of the hill so that the sea breeze would run through and give them fresh air. The tunnels are quite low and narrow for someone like me but they were just right for the Vietnamese people as our guide walked with ease as the rest of us ducked and walked slowly.    

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I could have just as easily just come here on the tour and been thrilled with what I got for my money.  Being here opens my eyes as to why they were so effective in the war. 

Our final stop is a cemetery dedicated to the North Vietnamese who died during the war.  The words translating to “Acknowledge Merit & Bravery” (according to our Guide) on a large monument.

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A 2 hour drive back to Hue just in time for dinner. 

My final thoughts about the tour are conflicted.  Though I enjoyed myself, I was disappointed to be in a large group on a bus where our guide spoke into a microphone.  Many times I missed what was being said due to traffic noise or the rattling of our shitty window.  Also with a group of 20, it’s hard the get personal time with the guide and we had a girl that hogged him with basic questions about the war that she probably should have researched on her own ahead of time so she could understand what our guide was talking about. 

If I were to do it again, I would spend the extra money to take a small group and private guide.  The sights alone are nothing to get excited about, it’s the stories that come with them.  A private guide can give you everything you want to know and you don’t feel bad asking him to repeat something if you miss it the first time around.  The tour: Do it.  But pay a bit extra and go with a small group. 

After 4 days of rain and avoiding outdoors in Hue, he are heading south to Hoi An for the Full Moon Festival!    

    

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