written by Todd DePastino

Map of Vietnam showing the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone

The Demilitarized Zone–the DMZ–stretched across the narrow waist of Vietnam, 30 km north of Hue City, cutting the country into two states along the 17th Parallel, much as the DMZ at the 38th Parallel does today in Korea.

It was never intended to be a national border. The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War between France and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces, called for two “temporary regroupment zones.” Like boxers going to their corners, the Viet Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North while the anti-Communists forged a new state in the South, eventually called the Republic of Vietnam.

The Accords scheduled national reunification elections in the summer of 1956. They never happened. The US-backed President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, made sure of that. So, in 1960, Communist insurgents and others in the South created the National Liberation Front, which Diem derided as “Viet Cong”–slang for “Vietnamese Communists.” They launched a war to overthrow the Diem government and begin some kind of reunification with the North.

The final collapse of the Saigon government on April 30, 1975, erased the DMZ and prompted the creation of a new state, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which remains the government today.

Three VBC tourists straddle the 17th Parallel in the DMZ

The “three amigas” and fun travelers straddle the 17th Parallel on the Hien Luong Bridge.

The Hien Luong Bridge is the most prominent icon of the former DMZ. It was blown up by the US in an attempt to stem crossings from the North. After reunification, the Vietnamese rebuilt it as a Bailey Bridge. We walked across, North to South, and took some fun pictures.

Old DMZ loud speakers from the Vietnam war on a tower

Old loud speakers from the war on the South side of the bridge.

During the war, the bridge was site of bizarre propaganda battles. Each side was forested with poles of huge loud speakers competing to drown out the other side with shouted slogans and songs. The South would repaint its half to emphasize its independence. The North would match it to deny any such assertion. Then, there was the “flag race” where competing flag poles tried to outdo each other in size and scale. The South targeted the North’s flag with airstrikes. The North assembled an small cadre of seamstresses to sew giant replacement flags each time.

A few miles north of the DMZ is Vinh Moc, a seaside village that few Americans have every heard of. We went there, not because of any great historic event that took place in Vinh Moc. Rather, the village is significant for the story it tells. It’s a story of tenacity in the face of enemy onslaught.

Occupying a strategic location close to the DMZ and across a narrow strait from Can Co Island, where the NVA kept some big guns, Vinh Moc became a target of US and South Vietnam’s bombing operations. The concern was that the villagers were supplying Can Co with food and munitions. The bombs were intended to drive the residents out and make their work more difficult.

VBC tourist and Army veteran, heads down the Vinh Moc tunnels

One of our travelers, an Army veteran, heads down the Vinh Moc tunnels.

The bombardment did the latter, for sure, but not the former. Instead of relocating, the residents dug into the limestone cliffs at the edge of town. They clawed the earth with hand tools over two years, creating a three-level labyrinth 2,000 meters long with entrances all around. Whole families lived there year-round, safe from the heaviest of bombs dropped.

Sculpture of a family hiding in the Vinh Moc tunnels

A mannequin family provides a vignette of tunnel life during the war.

The less claustrophobic among us took to the tunnels, making our way through the pitch-darkness and low ceilings of level two.

On our drive back south, we slowed down to check out the former site of Camp Evans, created in 1966 by the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, and taken over later by elements of the 1st Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division.

One of our traveler’s brothers served there for one hard year with the 1st Cav. He was a loving and dutiful brother, but that year changed him. He died shortly after return home, and the family never healed from the loss.

You can’t stop at the site, and you can’t take photos because it’s now occupied by the People’s Army of Vietnam. But we slowed down enough for our traveler to look at the place where a large piece of her brother was left behind.

Woman watches out a bus window as she goes by the former site of Camp Evans