A war zone, once

Tam Toa Church

I've spent the better part of this week writing about Dong Hoi, Dong Ha and the DMZ, which means I've spent the better part of this week getting a crash course in the Vietnam War/American War in Vietnam/the Second Indochina War/the quagmire that the war in Iraq is constantly being compared to.

(We're calling it the American War in the guidebook.)

All you really need to know is this:
  • Dong Hoi is the town immediately north of the DMZ that got pretty much shelled to bits by American bombing because it was the town immediately north of the DMZ (and hence used as a main staging area by the North).
  • Dong Ha is the town immediately south of the DMZ that also got pretty much levelled thanks to its proximity to the border.
  • The DMZ is the demilitarised zone that used to be a highly militarised area pockmarked with US bases, but almost everything was stripped by the Americans when they left or picked apart by successive militaries or people scrounging for scrap metal.
In short, none of these towns look very much like what war veterans remember, and a layman would have to really use his/her imagination to get something out of seeing these places. Not that I'm saying one shouldn't visit or respect the memory of what happened there --- just don't expect it to look like a scene out of a Vietnam War movie.

The airstrip at Khe Sanh today

But let me backtrack a little first. Dong Hoi wasn't a DMZ stop. We were there to visit the Phong Nha Caves --- very nice, despite the crazy lighting scheme inside and the pouring rain outside. The only unnerving thing was feeling a mild wave of claustrophobia while we were inside the cave, even with Deanna for company. I never used to get that way.

We stumbled on other cool stuff in Dong Hoi, but for that you'll have to wait for the book. Onward to Dong Ha and the DMZ, to see grassy patches where men and their weapons once slugged it out in battles that became the stuff of legend. Seeing all the sites in one day means they all sort of blurred into one another. It's only in the writing that I've now finally sorted out a lot of the details, and thank goodness for friends who just happen to be military buffs. I now know what "Leathernecks" are and I'm replacing all references to "McNamara's Wall" with "McNamara's Line" (it just sounds better).

On a more sobering note: I didn't think too much about unexploded ordnance while I was in the DMZ, even though I pretty much followed in the footsteps of our guide, but yes, there's still heaps of it around (see Mines Advisory Group and Clear Path International for some updates) and this is one place where you're better off sticking to the beaten path.

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