Following French defeat in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel, with expecation that national elections would follow.
This border followed the Ben Hai river, and a no-man’s land 5 kms on either side was demarked as a demilitarized zone.
The “democratic” Vietnamese government of the south was supported by the Americans, but the corrupt President Ngo Dinh Diem refused to hold elections – it was very likely Ho Ch Minh, the President of the communist north, would win.
Americans back the south
The “anti-communist” government of the southern Republic of Vietnam, headed by the US-supported Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to hold the reunification elections, knowing that President Ho Chi Minh would have won overwhelmingly. Thus 20 years of war followed
The two provinces nearest to the DMX, Quang Tri and Quang Binh, saw post of the military action and were the most heavily bombed. Today the rebuilt Vietnam shows little signs of the bitter conflict, but unexploded ordinance remains, as do the effects of chemicals, such as agent orange which was used to defoliate trees so communist supply routes could be seen.
During the 1960’s, the US Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, proposed putting and electric fence right across the DMZ, consisting of acoustic sensors as well and fixed military positions. The Vietnamese learned how to remove the sensors which actually fooled the Americans, and thus the shooting war, with heavy artillery pounding either side of the border, complimented by heavy bombing by American aircraft flying from bases in Thailand, Laos, south Vietnam and carrier fleets off the coast commenced in earnest.
The end of the DMZ
In 1972 the north stormed the whole border, and succeeded in pushing the Americans and South Vietnamese back another 20 kilometres south.
Today many of the sites of fighting have little remaining, sometimes a bunker or a Vietnamese memorial, and what was left by the Americans and latterly by the South Vietnamese army had been removed, except it is possible that unexploded ordinance survives so care must be taken.
However it is possible to tour the significant sites relatively easily from Hue, the former Imperial Capital of Vietnam, itself the site of a famous battle during the Tet (New Year) Offensive of 1968.
Some of the significant areas are:
This was an American base from which the coordination of air, sea and land attacks were made. It was also the first base to be captured following the NVA invasion of the south in Easter 1972. The closest base to the DMZ, it is now marked by an old tank accessible up a steep embankment. From the top you get a good view of the former DMZ zone and the Ben Hai River.
Ben Hai River.
This was the central line of the DMZ, which was 5 kms on either side. An old bailey bridge spans the river at Hien Luong, accessible to pedestrians which stands alongside a modern bridge. There is a statue to commemorate the diaspora of Vietnamese in 1954, when following the end of the first Vietnamese War, people were allowed to choose where they wanted to live, in the communist north or the capitalist south. Over 150,000 went north expecting that elections would be held for the whole country, and approximately 1,000,000 went south, mainly Catholics as the feared communist persecution..
Thien Fire Base ( The Meat Grinder)
This was the scene of very heavy fighting, in fact it received the most artillery fire of any base along the DMZ when the Americans held it, especially prior to the Tet Offensive. For troops stationed here, 30 days was regarded as the maximum posting before shell shock set in. The NVA positions were less that 2 kilometres away, and the base was subject to several infantry assaults. The base fell during the first days of the Easter offensive in 1972. There remains on bunker and unfortunately much unexploded ordinance.
Truong Son National Cemetery
Here lie the remains of 10,300 of those, military and civilians, who fell along the Ho Chi Minh trail. It lies on a former NVA army base. Only a few of those who died were ever recovered and accorded a proper burial.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Dakrong Bridge
The Dakrong Bridge was one of the access points to one of the trails – the Ho Chi Minh trails was actually many, constantly shifting, often due to bombing, with its network in North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Today tourists are shown the Ho Chi Minh highway as one of the trails.
Even though the Americans tried to cut the trails, it proved impossible
The Vietnamese tenaciously transported ammunition are other supplies along the trails throughout the war, on foot or with reinforced bikes. However, the majority of supplies to the south to support the North Vietnamese war effort came via Cambodia, where sea supplies were unloaded at Sihanoukville. By 1975 the 16,000 kms network was wide enough in places to take tanks.
Like the Americans , the French were subjected to constant attacks along the length of this road, and they called the stretch north of Hue the Road without Joy.
This town was taken by the NVA in the Easter Offensive if 1972, and although heavily bombed they held on for months. The whole countryside was turned into a moonscape and the town wiped off the map. What little remained was retaken and now the town of Trieu Hai is the populated area.
Very heavily bombed, this northern town, formerly a US marine command post and later a based for the South Vietnamese ( the ARVN) was totally obliterated in 1972.
Doc Mieu Firebase
Part of the McNamara Line, it’s advance position near the DMZ meant that it was a constant target for attacks
Con Thien Firebase
This was the largest American firebase with huge guns capable of firing far into North Vietnam. In early 1968 it was heavily shelled and then surrounded by the NVA, to which the Americans replied with 40,000 tonnes of various ordinance, bombs, shelling from warships and land positions. The base was retaken, but fell in 1972.
The Vinh Moc Tunnels
A must see for every visitor. It is located north of the DMZ .
To avoid bombing the villagers of Vinh Moc built a complex of tunnels starting in 1965 and finishing a year later. They are a mile long and housed 600 villagers for six years, and they contain sleeping quarters, hospitals with maternity units, kitchens and eating areas. They have remained unchanged since the war, but can be claustrophobic
The are part of a series of tunnels built in the area of Vinh Linh – in total 500 were constructed, many used as part of the Ho Chi Minh supply route and for shelter by soldiers as well as civilians..
A marine fire support base built in 1966, it was named for a marine captain killed early in the conflict. Heavily shelled in the offensive of 1972 when being held by the 56th Regiment of the ARVN, the colonel, Lt. Col. Pham Van Dinh, decided to surrender his whole regiment after three days, which he did, together with 24 large pieces of artillery. He did this to avoid casualties in an already lost war, as he explained in frequent broadcasts he made to South Vietnam from the north. He was already a hero in the south being famous for having replaced the South Vietnamese flag on the Hue citadel after the Tet offensive, so he actions came as a surprise to Saigon. Today he is regarded as a national hero.
A karst outcrop, 230 metres high on route 9 which was used as an observation post by Americans to direct fire into the north. Supplies and changes of garrison was accomplished by helicopter, which had to land resting one wheel on a rock, however, in 1968 the NVA managed to scale the outcrop and the post was abandoned.
A famous set of actions along this windswept plateau took place here. A fire base was set up to cover Highway 9 in 1966, and by 1967 the 6,000 man garrison found itself facing 40,000 NVA regulars. The base was immediately reinforced, including some 500 aircraft, and the world watched as the battle was prepared. The attack came in January 1968, with rocket and artillery barrage, which hit a huge ammunition dump within the perimetre. The base was surrounded, but the Americans were determined to break the seige, and dropped over 100,000 tonnes of bombs on the surrounding area, built the NVA held on and kept attacking.
Finally after some 70 days the siege was broken, costing over 500 American casualties. The NVA lost possibly 10,000. They pulled back, having successfully diverted American attention to the build up to the Tet offensive all over the south, which took place 10 days after the siege was started. Three months after the siege was lifted, the Americans abandoned the base – giving the anti – war movement in the USA great encourgment. The Vietnamese were left with a chemically contaminated moonscape full of unexploded ordinance.
Vietnam – America’s nightmare
The media attention, on Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive, shocked the American public into a realization that they had been lied to by politicians telling them that the war was under control. The anti-war movement was given a huge boost.
For more information of this and other sites in South East Asia please contact DTC Travel