SE Asia: PART IX

With Max’s interest oriented towards more recent history and mine towards older, we each headed off in different directions on our last full day in Hue…
DMZ by Max

Saturday, February 19, 2016

The DMZ is an hour’s bus ride north of Hue. After driving around the city picking up 25 or so fellow travelers we drove north, stopping to meet our tour guide in the town of Dong Ho in Quang Tri province. This is the northernmost province in the former South Vietnam, hence an area of intense conflict and fighting during the “American” war.

A very simplified history of the conflict from a Vietnamese/North Vietnamese viewpoint: the French occupied areas of Vietnam starting in the mid 1800s. During the Versailles Peace Talks after WWI a young Viet citizen now known as Ho Chi Minh and others pleaded unsuccessfully with the world powers for more autonomy from the French, whom they saw as exploiting their resources and over-taxing the country. Within a couple decades Ho formed a guerrilla movement, known as the Viet Minh, which had considerable military success against the Vichy French and Japanese occupiers during WWII (the U.S. secretly provided training and support to the Viet Minh). After WWII Ho Chi Minh repeatedly petitioned President Truman asking for autonomy from the French and a unified Vietnam, without reply. After a tumultuous decade, and with the help of China and the USSR, the Viet Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Geneva Convention of 1954 awarded the land north of the Ben Hai River to the Viets, led by the Ho Chi Minh and the Communists. The land south of the river went to the French, with a Catholic president named Diem. A 10 km wide demilitarized zone separated the two sides. Country-wide elections designed to re-unify the country were to take place after two years.

Vietnam quickly became the epicenter of what had become a greater world conflict between the U.S. and the USSR. Realizing that Ho Chi Minh would likely win the country-wide elections,, and fearing countries falling like dominoes to Communism, the U.S. prevented the 1956 elections. The division of the country forced Vietnamese to take sides, with some supporting the north or south, and others simply supporting reunification. In our very brief time in the country we met folks with pro-north sentiment, and others in the south who are outspoken in their hatred of the ‘corrupt communists’. No wonder the conflict gradually escalated to war.

Our tour guide wasted little time demonstrating where her sympathies lay. She grew up in Quang Tri province just south of the DMZ, which she said was ‘liberated’ in 1972 after military successes by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). After liberation the province was a wasteland of bomb craters and unexploded ordinance, having seen 15 million tons of bombs dropped.

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Our first stop was “The Rockpile”, the tallest mountain in the area, accessible only by helicopter. The Americans established observation posts and a radio station here. Later in the war, the Rockpile was surrounded by the NVA, re-supply became difficult, and it was abandoned.

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This area of Vietnam is inhabited by an indigenous tribe called the Bru Van Kieu, which came over from Laos about 1,000 years ago. They maintain ancient  traditional ways, and are ‘poor but happy’ according to our guide.

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The NVA had soldiers and sympathizer throughout the country. To move men and material to the south, they set up 5 North-South supply routes and 21 East-West connecting routes, which collectively became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One of the 5 North-South routes started at the Dakrong River and ran all the way to Saigon. A cairn marks the start of this supply route.

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Khe Sanh, a large hilltop near the Laos border, became an important and symbolic stronghold for the Americans. President Johnson and General Westmoreland decided to make it fortress-like, and believed it to be impregnable. However, the Bru Van Kieu living in the surrounding area supported Ho Chi Minh, and provided significant local support for the Viet Minh troops; this was to become a significant problem for the Americans.

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With the approach of the Tet holiday in 1968, and believing the NVA to be faring poorly, the South Vietnamese army sent home many of its soldiers. The NVA waited for a stretch of stormy, rainy weather, when U.S. Planes and weaponry would be less effective, and launched attacks throughout the country. The strength of the attacks surprised the Americans, and gave lie to the perception back home that the U.S. was winning the war. Khe Sanh became isolated, and the US commenced an extensive bombing campaign, dropping over 100,000 tons of bombs to try to save it. And while they held out for a time, the U.S. abandoned the air base in July 1968 – the first major loss of territory to the enemy in the war. Historians argue, and the NVA General Giap agrees, that the real value of attacking Khe Sanh was to draw American attention away from the main target of the Tet offensive: the populated areas in the south.

The extensive, indiscriminate bombing of civilians, both at Khe Sanh and in many other times and places during the war, helped drive otherwise neutral non-participants to the Communists, according to our guide. This was a common refrain we have heard before, not only in Vietnam but in Cambodia and Laos as well.

Reading about the war, I was surprised to learn that tactical nuclear weapons were urged by at least one American General (John McConnell) in order to save Khe Sanh. From WikiPedia: “A secret memorandum reported by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, sent to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson on 19 February 1968, was declassified in 2005. It reveals the nuclear matter being excluded because of terrain peculiarity inside South Vietnam that reduces the effect of tactical nuclear weapons.” One wonders what the results of the war might have been had General Lewis Walt, the Marine commander of I Corps, prevailed. Walt argued heatedly that “the real target of the American effort should be the pacification and protection of the population, not chasing NVA and the VC in the hinterlands.”

From Khe Sanh we drove over the Ben Hai River, the dividing line between north and south. The original bridge (though often repaired) still stands, along with a Palm leaf themed reunification memorial. Celebrations are held here every April 30 to mark reunification.

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The northern part of the DMZ became an area heavily bombed by the U.S. They believed the villagers were supplying food and armaments to an NVA garrison, which in turn was hindering American bombing runs on Hanoi. Not wanting to leave their land and with no place to go even if they did, the local population went underground – building tunnels and living spaces 12 meters underground. When this proved susceptible to bombs, they dug deeper –  to 15 meters and finally to 23 meters underground. 70 families lived in these tunnels over a period of 6 years, and 17 children were born in the tunnels. Unable to grow their own food, they were supported by outsiders.

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Our final stop was one of the many cemeteries that line the coastal road south from the DMZ. Extensive heavy fighting occurred along this road, earning it the nickname “Highway of Horrors.” A majority of the graves in many of the cemeteries remain unmarked, tombs of the unknown.

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We have been told repeatedly not to miss the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which presents the war from the Vietnamese point of view, documenting their hardship and suffering, not least from Agent Orange. We are braced for a sobering experience.

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