Sunday, November 15, 2015

All along the DMZ...

On the backseat of the Easy Rider I left Hoi An and Da Nang behind me - again passing by the Marble Mountains, China Beach and the stunning Son Tra peninsula. With the wind in my face we rushed along these very memorable locations and drew closer to the mighty Annamese Cordillera, a green mountain range north of Da Nang.

The Annamese Cordillera, as seen from the northern beaches of Da Nang

Interestingly it's here at the Annamese Cordillera where Vietnam is split into two weather zones, north and south of the mountain range. During Winter (November to March) the weather north of the mountain range tends to be wet and cool, while south of it particularly stays warm and dry. The Hai Van Pass, that meanders over the Annamese Cordillera at this point, is therefore not only a geographical, but also a meteorological point of interest in Vietnam.

The Hai Van Pass
With my hired Easy Rider we were about to cross the Hai Van Pass (meaning Cloud Pass in Vietnamese), over a winding mountain road made famous by the legendary Top Gear episode which followed the same route. Back in the past this mountain pass was the only way to drive from Da Nang to Hue and was therefore quite infamous for having lots of traffic and even accidents. But since the Hai Van tunnel was built, most of the traffic nowadays goes underneath the mountains instead over the pass. Good thing for us that this gets rid of most heavy traffic on the scenic pass!

On the winding road of...

... the southern side of Hai Van Pass.

Due to the legendary Top Gear episode more and more tourists and backpackers take the same route when traveling in the same region. But while I was certainly not alone on my attempt to drive over the pass, it still remains the best way to travel between Da Nang and Hue. The view over the greenish-blue Bay of Da Nang is simply breathtaking - despite the increasing numbers of tourists.

During their colonial reign the French used to have a fort and a couple of distinctive bunkers up there. Cluttered with bullet holes and other marks from the dark past, these skeletons of concrete still watch over both sides of the pass and - of course - the formidable view over the sea.

Silent witnesses of bygone times
The French fortifications on Hai Van Pass

View outside of a bunker at the northern side of Hai Van Pass

It's quite understandable that the French, and appearantly also the Americans later, made good use of this important strategic landmark. With the pass in occupation it was possible to control one of the most significant supply routes from north to south.

On the not less spectacluar way down we merged together with the railway line of the «Reunification Express» and the infamous Highway 1. The terrain on the way to Hue was still impressive though!

Already on the other side of the pass. Note the bridge that connects the traffic of the Hai Van Tunnel to Highway 1.

On the way to Hue we also stopped by Suối Voi, meaning Elephant Springs in Vietnamese. Suối Voi is basically a semi-natural river bath resort extremely popular with the locals. In summer this place is pretty much packed with Vietnamese who want to cool themselves off in the refreshing river.

The Suối Voi river bath - a refreshing stopover before continuing your way to Hue!

After about a total drive of 2 and a half hours from Hoi An we finally arrived in Hue City, the former Imperial City of Vietnam. A place of great historical importance and distinctive architecture.

Just arrived in Hue City, I bid goodbye to my Easy Rider - a perfect way to travel around in Vietnam.

Hue's iconic Truong Tien bridge

Hue's Hotel Saigon Morin, the former university

Basically Hue City is still one of Vietnam's major touristic hotspots, but still worth a shot because of its cultural heritage. Between 1802 and 1945, it was the imperial capital of the so called Nguyen Dynasty, one of Vietnam's royal families that ruled over many parts in Vietnam. These royal empires were quite comparable with the Chinese dynasties in terms of principles, structure and traditions. But after the French colonialization of Vietnam things changed dramatically for the royal family. Especially after signing the Treaty of Hue in 1884 all powers have been de-facto passed to the French rulers. After World War II the royal family eventually lost all its importance.

Than Thai, one of the dynasty's latest emperors

Siamese elephants in front of the old palace, early 20th century

Nowadays it's possible to visit the old Citadel with the Royal Palace and the tombs of the latest emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. The palace in particular comes more close to the Chinese Forbidden City than any other monument world-wide. No wonder, since both countries share the same cultural backgrounds, traditions and in some parts even ethnicity. Again, a interesting link to the Chinese culture and history!

Similiar to Chiang Mai in Thailand, the Royal City of Hue...

... is surrounded by water canal.

One more time I rented a scooter and crossed a few bridges and fortified walls that isolated the ancient Royal City from outsiders. After paying the entrance fee you can walk around the ancient palace ground as freely as you please.

The iconic flag tower in front of the imperial city
One of the outer wall's entrances

The legendary gate to the Royal Palace, still undergoing renovations in July 2014

Inside the forbidden city...
... Chinese-influenced architecture was the norm.

Small pagodas and shrines...

... alongside royal residences ...

... are awaiting the visitors.

Despite the amazing architecture, I was surprised to see that many parts of the Imperial City were incomplete, damaged or missing. During my visit many building were still ongoing renovations funded from the government and the sometimes barred infrastructure made me thinking too.

Why's that? Once again let me explain...

During the Vietnam War both sides used to hold a ceasefire during the legendary Tet Holidays which usually take place between January and February, at the same time as the (lunar) Chinese New Year. For already centuries the Tet Holidays have been some kind like Christmas, Easter and New Year combined for the locals. It's also the time of year in which Vietnamese families gather together to commemorate their ancestors.

A typical local ritual to commemorate the ancestors during Tet

As back then both North and South Vietnam used to celebrate these important and even spiritual holidays, it was generally agreed between the VC, NVA and the Allied Forces to avoid combat activites during that period of the year.

So what has this to do with the damaged infrastructure in Hue's citadel?

On 30th of January 1968 though, while nobody expected battle activties during the Tet Holidays, the North Vietnamese Army in cooperation with local Vietcong forces launched a major and well-prepared surprise offensive in all places in South Vietnam. On that fateful day thousands of Communist troops stormed and occupied local government offices, embassies, police and army stations in all places over the country.

Cities and outposts that were attacked...

... by the VC and NVA forces during the Tet Offensive 1968.

It's needless to say that the American and South Vietnamese troops were totally surprised as they ignored related intelligence reports beforehand - nobody realistically thought that the Tet ceasefire really would have been violated.

Hue City particular on that day was flooded with thousands of VC and highly-trained NVA soldiers who managed to covertly sneak up from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In a couple of hours the communist forces managed to occupy several government and army buildings and particularly the whole Royal Palace.

The locally stationed U.S. Marines in Phu Bai and other bases surrouding Hue City immediately took action and counter-attacked the highly-motivated communist forces. The counter-offensive lead to the Battle of Hue, which counts to the fiercest ever fought in the whole war. For days, the NVA stood face-to-face against U.S. Marines in heavy house-to-house fighting, which was rather untypical for the Vietnamese war theatre.

This battle was made particularly famous by Stanley Kubrick's cult-movie Full Metal Jacket which gives the audience a quite authentic reflection of the nightmarish house-to-house fighting in Hue City.

Just like depicted in the movie, Hue City back then was almost completely pounded to rubble and debris during the recapture of the city. Historical sources claim that about 80% of the city were completely destroyed due to the fighting. Also the Royal Palace, which was fiercly held by the NVA, was not spared from the ravages of war. Not only the buildings inside the citadel were heavily damaged or destroyed, but also many cultural artifacts got lost, looted or stolen during the battle.

This is one of the several reasons why up to nowadays the palace and citadel is still in renovation and even reconstruction.

... inside the Royal Imperial City of Hue.

Some examples of destroyed buildings...

In the course of the Battle of Hue the Americans together with the ARVN eventually managed to destroy the invading NVA and VC forces. Also in every other major city in South Vietnam the communists suffered heavy losses and from a strategic view the Tet Offensive a complete failure for the VC and NVA. Over 2000 communist guerrillas in Hue alone were killed during the battle. But also especially the civilian population suffered tremendously. During the surprising takeover of the city the communists captured over 4000 pro-American civilians, government or army officials and executed them in various mass graves in the area around Hue - an almost forgotten, serious war crime committed by the Vietnamese Communist forces.

But from a political and propagandistic view the Tet Offensive was a success for the NVA and VC. It was especially from this very event on that the American public became extremely sceptic and negative about the American involvement in Vietnam. Suddenly the communist guerrillas weren't regarded anymore as lousy bush fighters, but as a serious and higly-motivated enemy that could pose a serious threat to the Allied Forces and the government of South Vietnam. Some political and historical analysts regarded therefore the Tet Offensive as the turning point in the long Vietnam War.
I guess not many foreign visitors are really aware of what exactly happened in Hue during the fateful days between January and February 1968...

Le Loi Street on the southern side of the Perfume River, back then in 1968 and today.

View on the southern side of the Perfume River with the mountains in the background.
The Napalm-scarred southern wall of the Citadel, notice the water canal in front.
The impressive Ngo Mon gate of the Imperial City - in war and peace times.

Truong Tien Bridge back then, which was partially blown up by the NVA to cut supply lines over the Perfume River.

But of course Hue offers much more than only the Citadel itself and some memories of the infamous battle.

Back then the Ngyuen Dynasty also used to have a colosseum called the Ho Quyen Arena , in which they used to let tigers fight against elephants. What nowadays is considered as crude cruelty to animals was back then kind of an live-action entertainment show for the royal family.

Not too many foreign visitors are aware that a little bit hidden away in Hue City...

... awful animal fights were performed.

... there's a ancient colosseum where years ago....

But it's nonetheless an impressive sight in terms of architecture and grandeur!

... the majestic Thien Mu pagoda towers into the sky.

A few kilometers down the Perfume River...

Overall it can be said that Hue City is definitely worth a visit for 2 or 3 days. The Citadel and the backpacker quarters in Phan Ngu Lao Street may be quite touristy after all, but there's still a lot to be discovered and explored for individual travelers. I also recommend to take a look at the bigger Royal Tombs a few kilometers outside the city.

So after a couple of days I continued my exciting way north. I walked to the local train Station of Hue, bought a really cheap ticket for the hard seat class and rode up to Quang Tri, also known as Dong Ha.

Riding up north...

... I took the hard seat class to Dong Ha, Quang Tri province.

The region around Dong Ha was back then infamous because its proximity to the Demilitarized Zone, short DMZ - the explosive border back then between North and South Vietnam. Like in Korea, shortly after the French were kicked out, Vietnam too was divided into a Communist northern state and into a pro-western state in the south. The border more or less aligned with the 17th parallael.

My Vietnam trip until Dong Ha

A contemporary map showing the former DMZ

The DMZ was heavily guarded from both sides and free movement of persons and border crossing from one state to another was simply impossible. Since it was the era of the Cold War, it was particularly here that the United States expected a military infiltration by the North Vietnamese.

Therefore the US Armed Forces laid an particular focus on this border triangle between Laos, North and South Vietnam where they could keep an eye on any infiltration forces coming from North. Almost next to the border the US Marines erected a significant combat base near a town called Khe Sanh - I will elaborate on that base later.

In Dong Ha I met with the former owner of the so called DMZ Café and legendary guide Mr. Thin. He is an actual war veteran which served at the end of the war as a young soldier and interpreter in the ARVN. Nowadays he organizes various private and personal tours along the former DMZ and knows the area as well as his own pockets.

With him I went to take a look at the back then official border crossing checkpoint of the DMZ which lies on the Ben Hai river.

A national monument on the southern side of Ben Hai river, commemorating the soldiers' awaiting wives and children

The original bridge - yellow belonged to the south, blue to the north
Another monument near the old DMZ

The monumental flag pole on the northern side of the river

Back then during the war the area around the actual DMZ was bombed by the USAF back to the stone age - not only north of the river it but also on South Vietnamese and Laotian territory. The following aerial footage made by American planes might be a good visualization how intesively bombed the area around the Ben Hai river was back then in the 60's. It's needless to say that American B-52s dropped thousands of tons of ordnance over these premises.

With Mr. Tinh, my guide, I went to check out several other locations north of the Ben Ha River. Nowadays not much destruction can be seen at the first glance - the warm wind smoothly blows over the peaceful seaside and fishermen still go to work in their «coracles» - their bizarre bowl-shaped fishing boats.

A hot and sunny day on a seaside road somewhere north of the Ben Hai River.
One of Vietnam's typical «coracles», a very widespread type of local fishing boat.

But especially in the nearby villages hundreds if not thousands of North Vietnamese were killed by the intense American bombing over the complete course of war. If you look closely, there are many war memorials and grave sites to be found.

This used to be a civilian air shelter, which once collapsed during a US bombardment.

Another interesting location near the former DMZ are the Vinh Moc Tunnels. Similar to the Cu Chi Tunnels near Saigon (I wrote about them here), the Vinh Moc tunnels are nowadays a public museum. But unlike Cu Chi this one was way less touristic and commercially cannibalized during my visit - there were no shooting ranges, only very few tourists and a breathtaking seaside next to it.

The old village of Vinh Moc in 1964, before the tunnel era
A contemporary photo of the tunnel system
How trenches were dug back then

One of Vinh Moc's operating rooms back during the war

During the war this tunnel system was divided into a civilian and military wing and sheltered up to 60(!) families in the best case. Unlike Cu Chi the basic idea of these tunnels here were mainly to shelter the civilians from the nearby village of Vinh Moc from the ridicilously intense bombardments by the US and South Vietnamese Air Force. Between 1966 to 1972 this complex grew steadily and at some parts even went as deep as 30 meters!

Once again Mr. Tinh lead the way down to the tunnels...

Soon trenches start to pop up near the entrances

Bomb craters are to be found everywhere near the tunnels

Mr. Tinh standing in front the tunnel entrance

Some of the unexploded bombs dropped by the USAF

Oil lamps like this one used...

... to illuminate these pitch-black tunnels.

Mr. Tinh leading the way 25 meters under

A regular private corner for a whole local family!

At the end of one tunnel there was even...

... a water well to supply the system with drinking water.

... some additional emergency exits...

At several ends of the tunnel system...

... even provided a direct access to the nearby beach!
The Vinh Moc tunnels turned out to be an excellent alternative to the already over-crowding Cu Chi tunnels and are definitely worth a visit! It's not only a more authentic experience, but also in a more quiet and scenic environment.

At sone point we even saw some kind of raccoon running around in one of the tunnels - the attempts of Mr. Thin to catch that animal were (un)fortunately in vain. (ᗒᗜᗕ)՛̵̖

It was especially a good trip as well thanks to Mr. Tinh - he did a great job as a personal guide and I really want to express my gratitude once more to this good guy!

The next day another important historical landmark stood on our bucket list; a few kilometers west of Dong Ha, just next to the border to Laos, once stood the US marine combat base of Khe Sanh. Once more with Mr. Tinh I decided to visit the location coming on Highway 9.

The location of the former combat base in Khe Sanh

On the way west we first stumbled upon one of many war cemetaries in Vietnam. In «Nghĩa trang liệt sĩ Quốc Gia Đường 9», meaning as much as «National Martyrs Cemetery - Highway 9» over 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers remain buried - many of them unnamed and unidentified. These ten thousand souls were only a mere fraction of the over 1 million NVA and VC soldiers who were killed during the war.

The National Martyrs Cemetary at Highway 9 is...
... an impressive home to...

... over 10,000 graves of North Vietnamese soldiers and VC guerrillas.
During our visit a family from Northern Vietnam came to visit one of their deceased ancestor.

It's especially noteworthy that the Vietnamese culture always laid special values on burying the dead and stands out due to indeed special traditions. In Vietnam, and in many parts of China too, it's for example a normal habit to burn paper money or other symbolic things made out of paper in front of their ancestors' graves. The local word is that like this the deceased spirits receive the burnt things like money, clothes or even stuff like cars and houses in their afterlife. It's also common to lay food, drinks and even cigarettes on a person's grave.

What especially amazed me was that one visiting family on that day tried to communicate with the spirit of their dead ancestor! They did so by asking him open questions and flipping a coin afterwards. Whether the spritit means «Yes» or «No» as answer depended on which side the coin landed... This was definitely one of the strangest and most bizarre experiences I've made to this day!

After this indeed spooky event we continued our way to Khe Sanh. The terrain got ineed more mountainous and green, the proximity to wild Laos was more than predictable.

On Highway 9 from Dong Ha to Khe Sanh...

... we met some indeed memorable companions.

The ruins of an old French bridge

One of the simple houses of the local ethnic minorities

Driving on Highway 9 coming from Dong Ha, we could see a distinctive limestone mountain on our right. It was none other than the iconic Rockpile, a 240 meters high limestone formation which used to be a small obervation post and artillery base of the US Marines.

Rockpile back then and today - note that the Yanks even used to have a complete heliport on it!

Another couple of kilometers west we were definitely approaching the town of Khe Sanh which almost 50 years ago wasn't as peaceful as it is nowadays.

Now first let me elaborate on the former combat base. The Khe Sanh Combat Base (short KSCB) was built there in 1962 in order to monitor and engage North Vietnamese troops movement in the border triangle between Laos, North and South Vietnam. It was located near the Laotian border where the so called Ho Chi Minh Trail meandered through the dense jungles and mountains - a sophisticated network of supply routes which the NVA used to infiltrate weapons and troops into South Vietnam, since penetrating the DMZ directly was not an option for the communists. I've written about the trail back then in one of my Laos reports.

The proximity of Khe Sanh base to the trail

Khe Sanh Combat base during the Vietnam War

Some analysts back then in the 60's feared that the combat base in Khe Sanh could share the same fate as the French in Dien Bien Phu a few years before. During the iconic Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the Communist Vietminh devastated the French Foreign Legion stationed in that lone valley in Northern Vietnam. That battle ultimately lead to France's withdrawal from Colonial Indochina and lead to the founding of North and South Vietnam.

Ironically enough, it was generally known that the North Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp, who was the chief of strategy during Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and also for the campaign against the US and South Vietnam, also wanted to grab Khe Sanh in the 60's. It's therefore undestandable that a certain tension among the stationed US marines and military personnel was well-founded. The base could have been easily isolated and encircled in case the North Vietnamese would have gained the upper hand...

General Giáp, the mastermind behind Dien Bien Phu

North Vietnamese troops crossing the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Well, to make it short, the first real skirmishes between the US Marines and the NVA in the hills around the Khe Sanh Combat base started in 1967, but all signs indicated that a bigger battle was yet to come. In 1968, the same year the above-mentioned first Tet Offensive occured, the moment had come: Two divisions of North Vietnamese managed to sneak up and started to siege the combat base with simple ground troops and comparatively light equipment. For months the North Vietnamese continiously harassed the US marines by irregular mortar and sapper attacks - they even dared to shoot at the oncoming planes with heavy machineguns. In Laos some North Vietnamese artillery batteries of higher caliber regularly fired shells on the base. At some points the NVA soldiers even sneaked up as close as several hundred meters away from the base and dug themselves into foxholes and trenches.

A typical squad of NVA infantrymen

A typical air-supply by an C-130 in Khe Sanh

At this point of time in 1968 the Americans could only rely on aerial support, since the North Vietnamese tried to cut off all upply lines on the ground coming from Highway 9. Day in and out C-130 «Hercules» aircraft flew in food and ammo and evacuated wounded soldiers.
One of Khe Sanh's most iconic photos: An exploding US ammo depot

One of the «Hercules» cargo planes that crashed on the airstrip of Khe Sanh
However, as answer to the siege the American High Command decided to conduct massive aerial bombing campaigns all around the Khe Sanh base and the nearby Ho Chi Minh Trail, to avoid further enemy troop build-ups. Almost 100,000 tons of bombs and ordnance were dropped around the outskirts of Khe Sanh, sometimes a few hundred meters away from the actual base.

Although the Marines were not exactly losing against the peristent yet comparatively poorly-supplied NVA, in July 1968 the siege ended and the stationed US Marines were evacuated by airlift - the combat base was abandoned and left to the communists. Yet both sides up to today claim victory. The North Vietnamese cheered because they were able to eventually capture the area - and the Americans patted themselves on the back because they always held their lines during the actual siege and successfully destroyed a large number of NVA troops.

To many historians it's still a puzzle what the North Vietnamese exactly tried to achieve in Khe Sanh. Some historians and former military officials believe that the whole focus on the Khe Sanh Combat base was simplya ruse to distract the Americans from other theatres of war in Vietnam. The same sources also claim that if the North Vietnamese indeed wanted a second Dien Bien Phu, they could have easily done so...

Up to today it's not 100%ly clear how many soldiers died during the siege, especially concerning the NVA troops. It's believed that between 1,000 to 5,000 North Vietnamese were killed during the siege, some figures are significantly higher. There's only left to say that many souls got lost forever somewhere on those spooky hills around Khe Sanh...

However let's go back to the present.

Just as we arrived we were welcomed by a small and formal museum, which very briefly explains the situation back then and exhibits some war-torn stuff. Of course it's worth mentioning that the historical explanations in the museum are quite biased and pro-communist, but it was still quite an acceptable display.

The tiny museum in front of the former airstrip - note the Huey chopper in the background.
... displayed inside.
Some captured US armory was...

Interestingly there were a lot of...

... guestbook entries made by UMSC or Army veterans.

As the US Marines officially abandoned the base in July 1968, they also destroyed any infrastructure they could not airlift out of the region. This means that every original bunker or cottage was blown up or disassembled before the Marines left the combat base in July 5th.

That's why any buildungs and bunkers which are now standing on the former combat base are simply reconstructions for educational and museum-related purposes. Let's take a look at them.

A CH-47 «Chinook» chopper, the heavy-duty working animal of the US Air Force back then.
One of the original sandbag bunkers back then - and a nowadays replica on the right.
The inside of a typical bunker. Note that rainfall and rats back then didn't really add to comfort.
Unlike the current concrete trenches, the real ones back then were all dug by hand into the reddish soil.
Nowadays not much is left from the original runway. The small control tower of nowadays is a replica too.
But the distinctive backgrond scenery leaves no doubt that this place was once home to thousands of Marines.
M47 tanks then - nowadays rusting away. It's not really clear if these wrecks were moved to here afterwards.

To my big surprise the museum caretakers even managed to move a complete C-130 cargo plane to this place for display. I'd say this rarely captured aircraft marks pretty much the climax of the museum.

Once these C-130 planes stood for the only possiblity of providing the sieged base with supplies.

Nowadays it's a silent reminder of one of the fiercest battles in the Vietnam War.
And herewith ended the exciting trip along the former DMZ. Of course there were lots of other historical sites to witness as well, such as Camp Lang Vei or the iconic Hamburger Hill, but I decided that this was enough to continue my way north.

The current location of the former Khe Sanh Combat Base might be quite boring and unspectacular for visitors who aren't aware of the historical events that took place here. Furthermore it's quite a inconvenient trip to undertake to Khe Sanh and most tourists come here with tours coming directly from Hue. There is also the fact there are some persistent and annoying hawkers who will try to sell you fake war memorabilia such as dog tags or rusty medals.

But if you have an idea how intense the battles around Khe Sanh actually were and how much pain and efforts the Marines and especially the NVA grunts endured, then you'll begin to look at the place from a completely different perspective.

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