The Rockpile is a high, isolated mount that was an important lookout point by the Americans during the war. It’s a quick stop along the road to the Khe Sanh Marine base — not much to see, looks like any other mountain, though there are still signs of the intense defoliation wrought on by Operation Ranch Hand, the US defoliation campaign. Also, the North Vietnamese barraged it continually throughout the war — along with neighbouring ridges, like Camp Fuller, it was a choice spot for heavy guns and snipers. The only practical way to get up to the top was by helicopter — it may not look like there was any place to land up there, and that is indeed the case: there was only enough room for a landing pad big enough for one wheel of the helicopter to touch down and hover while personnel were quickly transported on and off — a pretty precarious operation. The Rockpile is located along Route 9 at around km 27, heading from Dong Ha toward Khe Sanh. There’s no sign, so you’ll need a guide to point it out. It’s an obligatory stop on tours headed to Khe Sanh.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Dakrong Bridge
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a vital north-south supply route for the North Vietnamese during the war with America. It was never just one trail: there was actually a shifting network of multiple trails over a swath of land hundreds of kilometres wide, reaching deep into neighbouring Laos. The trails were the bete noire of American military strategists, but no matter what they did, troops and artillery were never able to completely cut off this supply route, and the North Vietnamese continued to use it, to good advantage, right up to the end of the war. It remains a testament to Vietnamese determination and ingenuity — that is, what little of it remains. The â€˜trailâ€™ tourists are shown has been paved since the war and converted into the Ho Chi Minh Highway, on the other side Dakrong Bridge. The bridge was the main access point to all the trails during the war, and was bombed and rebuilt repeatedly throughout the conflict. The current bridge was built in 1975. There’s nothing interesting to look at, but like the Rockpile, it’s on the way to the Khe Sanh Marine base, so everyone stops here to look anyway. Located about 41 kilometres from Dong Ha along Route 9 at the junction with Route 14 which leads 90km south to A Luoi.
Truong Son National Cemetery
This cemetery is comprised of about 10,300 graves containing the remains of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who died in defence of the Ho Chi Min Trail. It’s built on a the site of the former headquarters of the 559 Army Corps, which is named after the date it was established and the trail was opened, on May 9, 1959 — which also happens to be Ho Chi Minh’s birthday. They were charged with opening, maintaining and protecting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During the conflict, the North Vietnamese didnâ€™t have the resources to retrieve and transport bodies back to their home village, as they did in the south, so the Northern dead were often buried where they died, if they were buried at all. In the Vietnamese tradition, the soul of a body not buried properly will not be at rest, so after the war, as many of the remains as possible were retrieved and interred here — but only a fraction of the estimated hundreds of thousand who died were finally interred. The cemetery is divided into five major zones, each representing a region in Vietnam. The graves are laid out in concentric circles by province and hamlet — Vietnamese come to offer prayers for the dead, and even if they canâ€™t find the grave of the friend or relative they are looking for, they can at least offer their prayers among their neighbours. Worth visiting, if only to pay your respects. Truong Son is located on Route 15, about 5 km further north of Con Thien, down a wide, 50m path on the right. There is a big sign and it can be seen from the road.
The Khe Sanh Marine Base
In January 1968, the Viet Cong launched a devastating attack on this base as a diversion in preparation for the Tet Offensive. Americans held on for three months under heavy fire, but after Tet, withdrew back to Camp Carol — before they left, they ploughed everything that remained of their base into the ground. Most of it was dug up and scavenged for scrap by locals long before Vietnam opened its doors to tourism, so there’s very little left. There’s a red-dirt airfield upon which, it is said, nothing will grow to this day. But there’s actually nothing mysterious about that: the locals still use it regularly as a road to and from their fields.
There’s a small museum around which some military hardware is on display — a bunker, spent ordinance, two helicopters, and a crashed plane. The museum has a small, but surprisingly effective display of photos, dioramas, and artefacts from combatants on both sides of the war. The photos emphasise how the Americans left in a panic under fire, but if you talk to a Vietnam vet, they’ll give you a slightly different story about the strategic withdrawal of troops.
The dioramas depict some of the tribal people who spent the war carrying provisions and implements of modern warfare in simple bamboo baskets, fighting off whatever military they encountered with bows and arrows. Military historians point out that most tribal people actually fought against the North Vietnamese, but itâ€™s still definitely enough to tug at your heart a bit and make you think “My God. No wonder these people won the war.” There’s also a guest book full of testimonials from returning vets that makes for good reading.
The base is located just outside Khe Sanh Town. Approaching town from the south along highway 9, take a right at the first main intersection and the base is 2.5 km further up on the right. There’s a sign marking the entrance.
Con Thien Fire Base
This was the most important outpost along the famed McNamara Line, and the scene of the some of the heaviest combat of the war with America, receiving more artillery fire than any other single spot in the DMZ.
In September, 1967 it was shelled mercilessly by the North Vietnamese as a diversion leading up to the Tet offensive. It was manned by 3rd battalion, 9th Marine regiment. whose troops dubbed it The Meat Grinder. A 30-day assignment here was considered the most anyone could handle before starting to suffer from shell-shock.
Some of the North Vietnamese positions were as close and a kilometre and half away, and on one occasion they reportedly mounted a ground assault by dressing up as Marines — the ruse wasnâ€™t detected until they approached close enough for the Americans to see their black sneakers. One of the first things the NVA did after the American withdrawal was take Con Thien during the Easter Offensive in early April 1972.
There’s one intact bunker still remaining on the spot, accessible by road and a fifteen-minute walk. If you bring your imagination along, a visit gives a good sense of what it might have been like to be stationed here, and the strategic importance of the location. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there were a lot of fatalities in the area do to unexploded ordinance, but an NGO has since come in and gotten rid of the worst of it.
On our visit, however, there was an unexploded 79mm shell sitting innocently on a rock. Apparently, the area around the bunker is used by locals who plant rubber trees and they still find shells like this in the ground, which are presumably dead by now, but they still handle them carefully and put them where others can easily avoid them.
The site is reached by going 20 km west from Dong Ha on Route 9 and taking a right on Route 15 (considered a spur of the Ho Chi Minh Highway). Eight kilometres later, the entrance is on the right. There’s no sign marking the turn off, which is just a dirt path. It’s a 30 minute walk from there, though part of the trail is navigable on a motorbike if you know what you’re doing. A guide is highly recommended.
This was the largest fire-support base for the Marines, established on a hill with the elevation of 241 metres (the Vietnamese call it 241 Tan Lam). It was named after Captain Carol, the first American Marine to be killed in the area during the conflict, on a nearby ridge. In 1969 it was transferred from the Americans to the South Vietnamese Army and during the Easter Offensive in April, 1972, it was heavily shelled by the NVA. On the third day of the siege the commander of the 56th regiment of the South Vietnamese army, Lt. Col. Pham Van Dinh, surrendered his troops and 24 big guns to the north. Seeing the inevitable fall of the south on the horizon, he defected to the Northern Army and made radio broadcasts urging other southerners to do the same. Since his chief concern was to prevent the massive fatalities he knew would ensue were they to keep fighting, he is still regarded highly by the Vietnamese, irrespective of their loyalties during the war.
There is nothing left on the spot but a monument built by the government. There is a circular concrete foundation not far from it that some think may have been a gun placement, but others say it may have been built by the French.
The Camp is 27 km from Dong Ha. Along Highway 9, at 24 km, heading west from Dong Ha, there’s a weathered sign on the left for Cao Diem 241 Tam Lam. Turn left and continue to the monument at the top of the hill, three kilometres up the road.
Ben Hai River
The Ben Hai River is at the centre of the DMZ, the official dividing point between Vietnam’s north and south. Again, as elsewhere, there is precious little here left over from the war — a single bunker that was used as a defensive position against those attacking from the south. The old bridge that used to span the river remains, closed to all but foot traffic, and an elaborate, somewhat over-blown, monument has recently been completed.
The monument depicts a southern Vietnamese woman and her child, standing, gazing north, with a palm tree in back of them. The palm symbolises Southern Vietnam, and her gaze memorialises the plight of many Southern Vietnamese women whose husbands crossed to the north during a ten month period of amnesty in 1954, after the signing of the Geneva Accord partitioning the country. About 150,000 southerners decided to go north, thinking there would soon be free elections and the country would be united. But the elections never came, and many of the men, separated from their families, eventually remarried. During the same period, about one million North Vietnamese, mostly Catholics fearing persecution, crossed over to he south.
The Ben Hai river is located along route 120 km north of Dong Ha and 60 km south of Dong Hoi.
The Vinh Moc Tunnels
This is the only spot commonly visited north of the DMZ, but unlike the attractions to the south, itâ€™s genuinely fascinating and unequivocally worth seeing. The Vinh Moc tunnels are an amazing achievement of human toil and engineering.
With little else at their disposal but cunning and determination, the Vietnamese had constructed the tunnels to provide shelter from regular bombings by American planes. The tunnels were build between 1965 and 1966 — dirt was dispersed under cover of night to avoid detection by the enemy. But the Americans figured out where it was anyway, and itâ€™s estimated that seven tons of bombs per person living in the tunnels were dropped in the area. Obviously, they failed.
The network of over a mile of tunnels goes down as much as 20 metres in some places, and housed about 300 Vietnamese for six years during the war. They didn’t have to live down under 24/7, but they spent enough time down here to need areas for sleeping quarters, schools, kitchens, maternity wards, and even movie theatres. There’s a small museum with good displays and information that should be visited as an overview before entering the tunnels. The tunnels have not been altered or modernised in any way, so you’ll actually be seeing the real thing. Some of the caverns have been spruced up with dioramas depicting their use, but this turns out to be a welcome addition, adding to the vividness of the tunnel experience.
For the vast majority of travellers, we’re going to recommend they skip everything else and head straight here.
Warning to claustrophobics — yep, thisâ€™ll be tough — two people had to turn back on our visit. Part of the problem was having a long line of people clogging the tunnels in front and in back of them. Try to wait until the rest of the tour is done and go through with a guide and/or a non-claustrophobic friend. That way, when the tunnels start collapsing, as they inevitably will, and snakes start coming out of the walls, as they always do, youâ€™ll have a fighting chance to get out of there alive.
From the Ben Hai river, head one km further north, make a right on the newly-built main road running which jogs east and then heads north along Cua Tung beach. Continue 15 km and take a right, the tunnels are 3 km further on, near the water. There are no signs until you actually reach the tunnel.
This was an important outpost along the McNamara Line. It’s only about 6 or 7 kilometres from the South China Sea, and about half a mile south of the DMZ, so it was here that ANGLICO — the Air and Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, coordinated fire from the ground, air and sea. It was the first fire-base captured during the Easter Offensive in March, 1972.
The base is 14 km north of Dong Ha along Highway 1. The base is accessed by climbing up a very steep embankment to where a tank has been placed next to an old monument that is now almost illegible. An overgrown path continues past it to the concrete bunkers, which have been partially dug into several rises. Many tours begin here since you can climb up on the top of the bunkers and see most of the DMZ and the sites you are about to visit elsewhere. Unexploded ordinance is still a big problem, so it’s recommended that you not visit on your own and stay on the path. It’s incredibly difficult to find, so you’ll need a guide anyway.
The A Sau Valley and Hamburger Hill
There are a number of spots in the area that were significant during the war and may have a familiar ring to some visitors — you may even find a map marking some landing zones with names like Razorback and Cunningham, and some hills named with numbers. Tempting, but there’s nothing there any more. Even the most ambitious tour companies donâ€™t really recommend a visit, unless you’re a returning Vet. This goes double for Hamburger Hill, which many tourists want to visit because of the movie. Some maps place it to the south of highway 29 in the Asau Valley, but all our sources say it is to the nort of A Luoi. A permit is needed to visit it, and it’s only reachable on foot, from somewhere along Route 14. Its a two-hour walk each way, and it’s not recommended in the rainy season. Some of the hills and landing zones are easier to access, but there are no signs, so you must hire a guide. Vets and others who served in Vietnam during the war can try contacting Huong Giang Tourist 17 Le Loi, Hue T: (054) 832-220 (www.huonggiangtourist.com), or Sepon Travel in Dong Ha.