Crossing the 17th parallel

We took the "slow" night train from Hanoi to Dong Ha. The railway system is wonderfully simple, the Reunification Express runs North-South from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. The slow trains are cheapest, but the are the slowest, they have last priority of all the trains so they have to pull over and wait while the fast trains pass them. They also make stops at smaller local stations whereas the faster trains connect the two major cities with few stops in between. But when you are travelling by night, these things are relatively unimportant.

Dong Ha is the first city we visited south of the 17th parallel, the line that once divided North and South Vietnam. We came to take a tour of the former Demilitarized Zone or DMZ (one of the most heavily armed locations during the war). We were greeted on the train platform by an old tour guide working for the "DMZ Cafe", dressed in a green military raincoat, who quickly whisked us away to the Cafe to book our tour. After putting our bags away in our room we paid 15$US each, put our helmets on, and hopped on motorbikes behind our two drivers.

My driver was the old guide that had met us at the train station. His name is Mr. Dien, he is 62 years old and after our first stop at "Charlie 2" Fire Base when he started to refer to the North Vietnamese as "the enemy" we realised the tour could be different from reading the captions at the Army Museum in Hanoi. Mr. Dien was on the payroll of the U.S Government serving as a Liaison Officer for communication between the American and South Vietnamese Armies. He mentioned briefly his 6 years in prison/re-education camp, saying that he was lucky to be alive. He was eligible for evacuation from Saigon, but at the time could not find his family who had arrived in Saigon before him. He and his family were left behind.

We did the standard DMZ tour, over 100km on motorbike, in the pouring rain and the cold of the winter rainy season of Central Vietnam. We walked along the 17th parallel, on the bridge over the Ben Hai River, we were shown B-52 bombs that were sitting outside a scrap metal factory waiting to be melted down, the National War Martyrs Cemetary and the remains of the two American Fire Bases, Charlie 1 and 2. The highlight of the tour are the incredible Vinh Moc Tunnels a network of underground tunnels built by Vietnamese villagers to hide from the continuous bombing. The tunnels have three levels, the lowest of which is 23m deep. Villagers lived underground on and off for over 5 years, educating their children, cooking their meals, even giving birth. At some times over 1000 people inhabited the tunnels. There is only one entry into the tunnels and there were five exits, each leading into the nearby ocean. Similar tunnels were constructed in nearby villages but none survived the bombing, some collapsing, killing everyone inside. The tunnels were also used by the North Vietnamese Army to send important supplie to their allies in the south. The tunnels are seen by the Vietnamese as an incredible testament to the hard work and courage of their people and are an amazing source of pride. They remain intact and unaltered over 30 years later.

At the end of our tour, the sad-faced Mr. Dien dropped us off at "his office", the DMZ Cafe, owned by his old friend Mr. Tinh, also a war veteran. He expressed proudly that back in the day he had a higher rank than Mr. Tinh, but now "the roles are reversed, and Mr. Tinh gets to do desk work while he is out in the field". Only a few moments on the tour did Mr. Dien show a glimpse of happiness, mainly when he was talking about his old supervisor "four star General Westmoreland, Westy" or when we stopped for lunch and he was able to put back four or five shots of snake whisky before we set off. We all have an idea of how war affects people's lives, but I can't help thinking its worse when you are on the losing side.

No comments: