The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) was a buffer zone 5km either side of the Ben Hai river. It was put in place by the 1954 Geneva Convention as a demilitarised area along the border between Northern and Southern Vietnam. The area was subject to some of the most aggressive bombing during the Vietnam war whilst propaganda from both sides blared across the water from enormous loudspeakers.
Plenty of companies run tours to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from Hue but all of the key sites are practically on route from Phong Nha to Hue. We decided to kill two birds with one stone and take a bus transfer to Hue that included stops at these sites. As it turned out, we were the only ones on the bus so we ended up with a very comfortable and spacious private transfer for peanuts.
Our first stop was at the Vinh Moc tunnels. They were built between 1965 and 1967 to shelter people from the surrounding villagers during bombing raids. The bombing became so frequent that the tunnels became a permanent home with individual cubby type “rooms” for families, a school, kitchens, bathrooms, a hospital and even a maternity ward. The tour was swift but really interesting, the only downside was that James did have to bend over for 30 minutes as he was too tall to stand up straight.
It was easy imagine the hardship of the people sheltering there. An impression further reinforced by the number of bomb craters in the surrounding landscape.
The drive between stops was mostly through countryside, particularly rice paddies, which often had cordoned off areas filled with elaborate tombs. The Vietnamese build these incredibly ornate buildings to house their ancestors and more often than not they look more robust and certainly more expensive than their actual homes.
Our next stop was the Ben Hai Bridge where the north was officially divided from the south by the River Ben Hai. There is an interesting but one-sided museum on the north banks, the bridge and a monument to the Vietnamese who fell in the war. We had a guide as part of our package who gave us an enormous amount of information that you wouldn’t get just from wandering around the museum. He told us about families which were separated by the river and who, once crossing became strictly regulated, would stand on either side and wave to each other.
There is now one large Vietnamese flag flying high on the north bank of the river. During the war, the riverbank was lined with flags, the Vietnamese flag that we recognise today on the north and the South Vietnamese flag, which you will be hard pressed to find in anything but pictures from the era, along the south bank. Dotted along the river are the remnants of the structures which held the enormous loudspeakers that blared propaganda 24/7 for years.
The museum is on the north bank and the minibus left us there to walk across the bridge ourselves. Our guide left us at the foot of the bridge saying with an odd expression: “I am North Vietnamese, I will not cross to the south”. He is, of course, perfectly free to cross the bridge and we guessed that he was making a point for dramatic effect, but his tone was discomforting. We crossed the bridge. It’s just a bridge now.
The monument on the far side is a little odd but very imposing.
That brought the tour of the DMZ to a close. When you do a day trip there are some extra stops but from what we read, we hadn’t missed anything very much. It was definitely worthwhile as an “on the way” activity, we wouldn’t advise going out of your way to see it.
From here it was onwards to Hue where we planned to explore the Imperial City, a walled citadel and former Imperial Capital of Vietnam. We were in town for two nights so we had time for a few other bits, mostly eating. We were recommended a place called Madam Thu as a good starting point for sampling local delicacies. It’s extremely tourist friendly and the place was filled with backpackers and tour groups. The food is really very tasty. We tried several local delicacies including banh khoai (savoury shrimp pancake), banh beo (steamed rice cake topped with shrimp) and nem lui (pork on lemongrass skewers).
The next morning the shower fell off the wall and smashed in to pieces. The guesthouse staff were completely flustered when we came down to breakfast bearing a showerhead. We were soon installed in a new room and hurried out to visit the Imperial City “before it got too hot”. The citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s pretty easy to tell why even from the outside. The approach is really impressive, the huge walls are topped with an enormous flag and the whole place is surrounded by a moat.
We entered through the lovely Ngo Mon Gateway and then just let ourselves get lost among the beautiful remains. Large amounts of the citadel were damaged during the war but significant restoration efforts continue with what remains and the results are gorgeous. We particularly enjoyed the Truong San residence and the Dien Tho residence on the western side of the complex. These araes had been beautifully restored and were much quieter than other parts of the complex we wandered around, often it was just us.
The most spectacular architecture was often the gates to the different areas of the citadel. The colours and intricacies of the design were beautiful.
We thought the citadel was lovely and made Hue a worthwhile stop. We also ate well for every meal, including a much-needed hit of western food. Beyond that we found that the city itself had little to appeal to us, two nights was the ideal amount of time before moving on.
Just for fun we wanted to include this picture from our guesthouse, it is typical of the types of minor inconveniences that we have encountered everywhere we go in some way shape or form. We are absolutely delighted whenever a hotel provides us with a kettle, usually they fail to provide you with anything to actually drink a hot liquid from, but baby steps. In this particular instance we had a kettle but the cord was too short to plug it in to any of the sockets in the room, so we had to improvise.