The 17th Parallel revisited (part 1)

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An American visits the DMZ and does not know whether to marvel at the people there or be saddened


Hoa (R), a tour guide from Tam's Café in Dong Ha, talks with an American tourist at the site of a former US military base near the DMZ on a tour of the area. Photo by Josh Tribe

Thirteen years ago I was traveling southbound on a night bus from Hanoi. The driver was a madman and it was the best bus journey I’d ever been on. Things only got better when we stopped for breakfast in Dong Ha. 

As my British, Kiwi, Danish and Aussie companions ate undisturbed, a boy who looked about 12, approached me: “Hello Sir where you from? I am Mister Hung how can I help you? May I talk to you for one minute about taking motorcycle tour of DMZ tomorrow?”

He rambled on in this vein, shooting off rapid fire run-ons in a devilish, silver-tongued broken English I found irresistible… I wasn’t quite sure I believed him, he was such a fast-talker and all, so much charisma packed into a prepubescent frame.

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But infinitely entertained, I listened carefully as Mr. Hung explained to me that he knew that I wanted to see the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); that the tour was best done by motorcycle; and that it was impossible to book a motorcycle DMZ tour from Hue, which turned out to be true. These were the days before the informal institutionalization of Easy Rider tours.

“After you see I am right and there no motorcycle tour DMZ from Hue—YOU talk to your friends—YOU make them go with you to small bus station four or five kilometers outside Hue Town—7:00 a.m. you must be there, 7:30 maximum—you will take local minivan back here, to Dong Ha—I will have motorcycle driver for all of you, men who fight in Vietnam War, you know, some time in Vietnam History they call American War, you know?—So, do I have your word?—that you will be back tomorrow, with your friends, for breakfast here and then all-day tour of DMZ, 17th Parallel, Ben Hai River, Khe Sanh military base, US tank in the back of house, minefield but no problem you just must be very careful!—so you come back tomorrow, yes? You give me your word?!?”

I did and me and my four newfound gringo cohorts stumbled out of the minivan that’d been packed like a sardine can the next morning bright and early in Dong Ha, where sure enough, Mr. Hung came whizzing by on a motorbike proclaiming, “I KNOW YOU COME! I KNOW YOU KEEP YOUR WORD, HA!—KEEP WALKING, DRIVER FOR ALL YOU COME ONE MINUTE.” And one minute later we were all riding pillion, en route to a true red-letter day in the life of a traveler. 

That day in the former DMZ erected a castle of memories, none more vivid than that half-destroyed US tank, transformed into a clothesline, situated in a residential backyard, unmoved since the war.

The tour was everything Mr. Hung had promised and more. Our guide, whose name now escapes me, possessed war wounds on his shins and ribcage; he had an endearing propensity to curse as freely and frequently as a Quentin Tarantino character; he wore a pair of Ray Ban wayfarers given to him by a US GI in 1967...

He told us to “Step where I step only” as we traversed a field known to still be littered with unexploded ordnances (UXOs); the Vinh Moc Tunnels (!!) (on which I’ll expound in a moment). The day ended over beers with our guides, sundown at a red dirt roadside shack on the old Ho Chi Minh Trail itself. 

Yes, a red-letter, golden-star day. My most poignant remembrance is the eloquence with which our leader distilled his feelings about the war. He had fought alongside the Americans, of whom he spoke highly; eruditely, he disparaged US Presidents Johnson and Nixon, deploring their nonstop bombing campaigns, the massive deforestation and the apocalyptic consequences of Agent Orange, expressing the flipside to the glibness with which Robert Duvall, with all the poignant whimsical gall only Hollywood could muster, spits out his famous line about loving the “smell of napalm in the morning,” calling it the smell of “victory.” 

It’s a great film, “Apocalypse Now,” don’t get me wrong—the point is, and what I took away from my first full-length trip through Vietnam, was how amazingly lucky I was, how unbelievably easy it’d been to catch a glimpse of how somebody unlucky enough to have experienced the smell of napalm in the morning felt about the sorrows of war 30 some-odd years later...

Our tour leader, one of the original Easy Riders, grimaced and said little of his time in the reeducation camp, and with a tear in his eye, at one of the 72 North Vietnamese Army cemeteries scattered throughout in Quang Tri Province, he expressed his gratitude that the forces of Uncle Ho had prevailed, that his country was united and not split in half like Korea, quite aptly comparing the Ben Hai River Bridge to the Berlin Wall...

Last month I returned to the central coast with the hopes of recreating the DMZ tour set up for me by Mr. Hung, who turned out to be 15, back in 2001. Now there are of course endless Easy Rider options available from Hue.  But the distance between Hue and the DMZ dramatically raises the price of such tours, making me all the more determined to see if it was still possible to take the tour from Dong Ha.

With foreknowledge of its futility, I tried to track down old Mr. Hung online. My travel companion, a more adept Internet-searcher, found Tam’s Café, which turned out to be an NGO, and the only institution operating DMZ tours out of Dong Ha (tamscafe.jimdo.com/dmz-tours/). I called Mr. Tam from Hue who, like Mr. Hung a lifetime earlier, walked me through the steps of getting to Dong Ha via minivan.

At Tam’s Café we were set up with Mr. Hoa as our guide. It was nippy in central Vietnam that week, so we opted to take the tour by car. The same magical tour transfigured into a slightly different form. Mr. Hoa was a live-wire of information, which he disseminated articulately, animatedly, all the while seeming a bit petrified of disappointing.

A small, well laid out museum dedicated to the bountiful presence of leftover UXOs, now exists; as does one located just north of the bridge that once divide Vietnam into North and South.  Mr. Hoa, a native of Quang Tri Province, painted an intimate portrait of what life was like once Vietnam was split in two by the Geneva Agreements, for what at the time, was supposed to be just two years. Families torn apart, pregnant wives forced to say farewell to husbands destined not to return for far longer than two years. There’s an incredible granite monument to these maternal martyrs.

But for me, it’s the Vinh Moc Tunnels that remain the most mind-blowing. Built to escape the constant barrage of B52 bombs, the people of Vinh Moc lived underground for more than six years, babies born there destined not to see the light of day till their seventh birthday. Everyone on Earth knows of Anne Frank in her attic; how many know what Quang Tri Province went through?

Walking through those hallowed corridors (wider than those of Cu Chi), these claustrophobic clay hallways of courageous perseverance incarnate: viewing the maternity room, the film room, the hatch everyone jumped down to get to the deeper bomb shelter within the greater labyrinthine bunker, built with the ingenuity inherent in the best of the human spirit, the life instinct rising up, or in this case burrowing beneath, the death instinct, in all its ingenuity, raining down genocidal hellfire from the skies, carpet bombing the peasant population of rice farmers.

Walking out of one of the seaside exits, you could almost see the faint image of yesteryear’s Vinh Moc villagers, fishing and splashing jubilantly in the East Sea, the day hard rain finally stopped a-fallin’. 

By Josh Tribe* 

* The writer is an American expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.

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