Around the DMZ
A friend recommended I visit the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that used to separate North and South Vietnam. The DMZ extended out 5 kilometers on either side of the Ben Hai River and ironically became one of the most heavily armed and bombed places during the course of war. To get there I hired 46 year Gwang to act as my guide and moped driver.
Much of the south-eastern land leading up to the DMZ has become a government sponsored rubber plantation. It wasn't the latex secreting trees that were the focus of our attention though. What Gwang wanted to show me was a sizable crater left by a bomb from B52. I'd seen many bomb craters before, in particular when I'd visited Laos the previous year. With exaggerated solemnity I told Gwang what I'd learned; courtesy of the Ho Chi Minh Trail's diversions through Laos, the American Air Force dropped the equivalent 2 tons of bombs for every man woman and child living in the country at the time. He wasn't impressed and in a spurt of patriotic one-upmanship countered by saying that 15 tons had been dropped for each Vietnamese person living in the DMZ at the time.
We crossed a new concrete bridge over the Ben Hai River and I stepped on North Vietnamese soil for the first time. By the side of the road, a sign ostentatiously announced that this had also been the beginning of one of the arms of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It generally only operated at night when American air superiority was less effective. Gwang motioned me to follow him toward a bend in the river where the remains of a blown up iron bridge still formed a shallow vee in the water,a testament to the accuracy of the daylight raids. The Viet Cong had rapidly built the bridge to ferry supplies south. It had been destroyed almost as quickly. As we stood examining the wrist thick suspension cables and misshapen girders that once supported it, a yellow mini-bus made a pit stop at the middle of the new bridge and a platoon of Viet Cong veterans in olive green uniforms stepped out to peer over the parapet. It is always an odd moment when you see the "other side" for the first time. I remember being in Eastern Europe many years ago when the iron curtain was still a reality. A friend I were hitchhiking by the side of the road when a Soviet helicopter flew by. A bright red star was painted on the side of its obese, unfamiliar body and the mingling of the chopping rotors and grinding Russian engine sounded like a foreign language. It was then that I realized just how indoctrinated I'd become in the "us and them" mentality. All the films and documentaries I'd seen about the "War in Vietnam" had dealt almost exclusively with the experiences of the Americans. On the bridge "the other side" filed back into their van and left.
I wanted to visit Truong Song National Cemetery, the last resting place of some 16,000 Viet Cong soldiers. Smaller military cemeteries, dating from the end of the war, can be found in most towns and honor only the soldiers who fought and died for the North, Truong Song was no exception. Those who fought and died for the South have never been honored and have no memorials.
Before entering the cemetery, Gwang and I stopped for a drink at a diner near the main gates. The yellow mini-bus had parked on the other side of the road and it's former occupants were perusing a display of cheap souvenirs. Feeding my curiosity, I sauntered toward them armed with a digital camera but was uncertain of the reception I'd receive. What would a white face mean to a group of people who'd spent their youth trying to kill an enemy that looked just like me? Coupled with that was the fact that they were about to pay their respects to comrades who had been killed by American bombs and ammunition. We eyed each other guardedly, trading occasional nods of recognition but not otherwise making real contact. I felt awkward. Back across the road a trio of veterans had taken up residence at the same table that Gwang and I had originally occupied. I wandered back for a chance to get up closer and more personal. After offering a hearty hello, and shaking hands all around, we ordered some beers and drank together. One of the veterans was a dapper fellow with a collection of prestigious medals pinned above his breast pockets. I wanted to ask him some searching questions but as my basic Vietnamese wasn't up to the task I thought about using Gwang as an translator. He was sitting between a couple of the veterans and obviously feeling very uncomfortable. Earlier he'd told me that his father had been a soldier for the South and after the war had spent two years in prison. I could tell he didn't want that coming out. Fortunately the veterans were in a hurry, they finished their glasses of beer in one gulp and left. About ten minutes later we saw them again. This time they were standing to attention in front of the Tomb of Unknown Soldier while one of their number laid a wreath. As we watched, they briskly made a final salute and then broke ranks to head back to the mini-bus.
I have always found the serried and standardized rows of military cemeteries disturbing; they are parade grounds in which all personality has been removed except for a few engraved lines detailing birth, death, name and rank. All of Truong Song's tombs were made of indentical orange and blue plinths with a stone at the head and a blue and white porcelain incense holder at the feet. The cemetery had been broken into different segments with each one being assigned the dead of a particular province. The exception was the one area dedicated to those who could not be identified. Their tombstones all read "chua biet ten" - "not yet know name". At one known grave site a couple of family members had come to pay their respects. They'd placed oranges, cigarettes and bundles of fake money on the slab then lit incense which they clamped between their palms as they knelt and offered prayers. With touching solemnity, one of them also added a burning stick of incense to all the surrounding graves.
The land around the Ben Hai River has now reverted to field and farm but even now the inhabitants live in continual danger of accidentally unearthing potentially fatal, unexploded ordnance. For some of them this ordnance provides supplemental income. The metal the Americans used to make their bombs was of a very high grade and empty casings fetch a seductively high price on the scrap metal market. During the periods between rice harvests, when the farmers are generally idle, the more daring of them venture out with metal detectors. Most of the time they'll just turn up shards of shrapnel but once in a while they'll find a good sized bomb. Some types of bomb are too risky to touch, especially those that contain white phosphorus, other types, bombs dropped by B52s, are considered the best. To render them safe and re-saleable they must screw off the nose and tail, remove the detonator and cut the right wires. Suffice to say, it's a risky venture. Should they succeed in not blowing themselves to bits, they also acquire the bomb's explosives which they can then use to dynamite fish.
Gwang took me to a scrap metal merchant's shop on the periphery of a village. In the middle of the main storeroom a green scale sat ready and waiting to weigh in the next treasure trove. Around it, hillocks of rusting shrapnel vied for space with piles of twisted iron. The split casing of a cluster bomb unit sat prominently displayed on one of them and, propped up against one wall, a half pyramid of defused bombs attested to the success of a few foolhardy individuals. I poked through the scrap trying to find the most interesting items. I found them sitting on the floor by the door, a pair of dirt brown mortar shells. Judging by their flattened noses they had been duds but it was obvious that no one had bothered trying to defuse them. It seemed a bit rash leaving them sitting by the entryway where anyone could stumble on them.
Our last port of call was going to be the Vinh Moc tunnel complex. To get there meant crossing the Ben Hai River again. This time we would cross at the point where the only bridge connecting North and South Vietnam used to be. The story goes that it was painted two colors; the Southern half being yellow and the Northern half Communist red. Like all bridges it had been destroyed during the hostilities and a new one built on the same spot once peace arrived. Splitting the country in two had had the undesired effect of dividing families. To show the pain it had caused, a large concrete statue of a distraught woman stood on the southern bank and looked with yearning toward the North.
The Vinh Moc Tunnels comprise two different systems, one for the military and other for civilians. They were dug over a period of two years along with an extensive warren of trenches as a defense against the severe American bombardment of the area. In two side by side pictures in the small museum, the "after image" showed the village of Vinh Moc with one single shell of a house left standing.
Flashlight in hand, we first descended into the military tunnel complex. From the entryway the tunnel descended rapidly and had been retrofitted with newer wood to keep it from collapsing in on itself. The wood ended abruptly to be replaced by earth walls, some of which had been coated with a stabilizing layer of concrete. Most of the tunnels tapered slightly toward the ceiling and were just high enough for a short man to stand up in. Moving deeper into the darkness the heat became oppressive and suffused with a cloying, earthy dampness. With quick steps Gwang lead me along the main passage, stopping now and then to point out the different branches and shine his light into niches where the soldiers had slept. The twists and turns had been so thoroughly disorienting that when we eventually rose to the surface again at the far end, I didn't have a clue where the original point of entry had been.
The civilian tunnels were much more extensive as they'd been designed to shelter upwards of 700 people. There were three levels, the lowest of which acted as a bomb shelter. Elongated holes had been burrowed into the earth along the length of the tunnels, each was only about a meter high by two or three meters deep and was meant to house an entire family. For effect, a quartet of plaster mannequins had been positioned in one of them: a mother, father and their two small child huddling together on their bamboo bed. The complex had been a virtual subterranean village, complete with a meeting area that doubled as a class room, wells, bathrooms, a maternity ward and a hospital. For the better part of four years the villagers had lived underground. It was too dangerous to farm the fields; instead supplies were secretly shipped in from the North. For light they used oil lamps whose acrid smoke can only have added to the discomfort. Air shafts and hidden doorways on to the sea gave the complex a limited form of ventilation but the long term deprivations had obviously been severe. The idea of spending four years living in these conditions made my skin crawl, especially when the beam of Gwang's flashlight happened upon a multi-legged creepy crawly the size of a Mars bar.