There are a few sights in and around the DMZ itself. Northwest of Dong Ha on Highway 15 are Con Thien Firebase and the Truong Son Cemetery, both notable wartime locations, while directly north of Dong Ha are another firebase and the Vinh Moc Tunnels, the latter being the most worthwhile sight in the whole area.
Con Thien Firebase
Roughly 12km out of Cam Lo, you pass the site of Con Thien Firebase. Again, there’s precious little left to see, beyond a view north to what were once NVA positions, chillingly close on the opposite bank of the Ben Hai River. The largest American installation along the DMZ, Con Thien FireBase was first established by the Special Forces (Green Berets) and then handed over to the Marines in 1966, whose big guns could reach from here far into North Vietnam. In the lead-up to the 1968 Tet Offensive, as part of the NVA’s diversionary attacks, the base became the target of prolonged shelling, followed by an infantry assault during which it was briefly surrounded. The Americans replied with everything in their arsenal, including long-range strafing from gunships in the South China Sea and carpet-bombing by B-52s. The North Vietnamese were forced to withdraw temporarily, but then completely overran the base in the summer of 1972.
Truong Son Cemetery
Truong Son War Martyr Cemetery is dedicated to the estimated twenty-five thousand men and women who died on the Truong Son Trail, better known in the West as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A total of 10,036 graves lie in the fourteen-hectare cemetery among whispering glades of evergreen trees. Arranged in five geographical regions, the graves are subdivided according to native province, and centred round memorial houses listing every name and grave number in the sector. Each headstone announces liet si (“martyr”), together with as many details as are known: name, date and place of birth, date of enrolment, rank and the date they died.
Doc Mieu Firebase
The American front line comprised a string of firebases set up on a long, low ridge of hills looking north across the DMZ and the featureless plain of the Ben Hai River. Although there’s nothing much to see now, you pass the site of one of these, Doc Mieu Firebase to the east of Highway 1 about 14km north of Dong Ha. Before the NVA overran Doc Mieu in 1972, the base played a pivotal role in the South’s defence. From here American guns shelled seaborne infiltration routes and, for a while, this was the command post for the “McNamara Line”, calling in airstrikes from Da Nang to pound targets – both real and faked – along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Hien Luong Bridge
Just beyond Doc Mieu, Highway 1 drops down into the DMZ, running between paddy fields to the Ben Hai River, which lies virtually on the Seventeenth Parallel. You will see two bridges, the newly built one, which is open to traffic, and the unused Hien Luong Bridge that runs parallel to it. Until it was destroyed in 1967, the original Hien Luong Bridge was painted half red and half yellow as a vivid reminder that this was a physical and ideological boundary separating the two Vietnams. The reconstructed iron-girder bridge officially re-opened in 1975 as a symbol of reunification, and for many years represented an important psychological barrier between north and south.
The Vinh Moc tunnels
An amazing complex of tunnels where over a thousand people sheltered, sometimes for weeks on end, during the worst American bombardments. A section of the Vinh Moc tunnels has been restored and opened to visitors as a powerful tribute to the villagers’ courage and tenacity, with a small museum at the entrance providing background information.
The history of the tunnels
The history of the tunnels
When American bombing raids north of the DMZ intensified in 1966 the inhabitants of Vinh Linh District began digging down into the red laterite soils, excavating more than fifty tunnels over the next two years. Although they were also used by North Vietnamese soldiers, the tunnels were primarily built to shelter a largely civilian population who worked the supply route from the Con Co Islands lying 28km offshore. Five tunnels belonged to Vinh Moc, a village located right on the coast where for two years 250 people dug more than 2km of tunnel, which housed all six hundred villagers over varying periods from early 1967 until 1969, when half decamped north to the relative safety of Nghe An Province. The tunnels were constructed on three levels at 10, 15 and 20–23m deep (though nowadays you can’t visit the lowest level) with good ventilation, freshwater wells and, eventually, a generator and lights. The underground village was also equipped with a school, clinics and a maternity room where seventeen children were born. Each family was allocated a tiny cavern, the four-person space being barely larger than a single bed. They were only able to emerge at night and lack of fresh air and sunlight was a major problem, especially for young children who would sit in the tunnel mouths whenever possible. In 1972, the villagers of Vinh Moc were finally able to abandon their underground existence and rebuild their homes, rejoined by relatives from Nghe An a year later.