Thursday, 7 November 2013

Fri 1st November - The Vinh Moc Tunnels and Hue

At 7 I rose, packed, and had a cold shower because the heating hadn't yet been switched on. Grabbed a coffee, strong thick and sweet as the Vietnamese like it, then said goodbyes to my friends and very nearly colleagues Mike and Dean. Then jumped in the mini-bus with ten others who were also getting a transfer down to Hue via a few of the interesting sites of the DeMilitarizedmZone - the DMZ.

The DMZ (as it is still called) was a no-man's land about 5km wide on either side of the Ben Hai river. It was established in Geneva in 1954 as the border between North & South Vietnams. Later it saw some of the bloodiest fighting and heaviest bombing of the American war.

A little way north of the river, our first stop was the Vinh Moc tunnels. What grabbed me first however was walking to the edge of the jungle and seeing, after a journey of some 10000km from London my first glimpse of the ocean, it took me by surprise, I hadn't expected the tunnels to be so close to the coast.
We followed our guide through a timber fortified entrance and down some very steep steps in a tunnel carved from hard clay. The ceiling was low, about 5'5" at a guess, and pretty tight to the shoulders, so us westerners had to stoop to get through. The electric lighting alleviated the claustrophobia slightly, though this was a recent feature and not available to the 90 or so local families who spent days at a time down here sheltering from sea and air launched missiles and bombs. Side passages and anterooms formed small living spaces for families, there's a long narrow meeting room where plans could be discussed, and film reels projected, it was also where children could be given school lessons. There was also a maternity room - seven children were born down here, some of whom still live in the village. These tunnels run along the coast and extend back inland for a total of 2km, the deepest of which get to 20m below the surface, so it's not surprising they withstood the bombing campaign that buried the poor occupants of shallower tunnels elsewhere in the country.
Some of the ordnance that rained down on the DMZ and the Vinh Moc area rendering it as barren and crater filled as the moon.
It's estimated that 30% of all bombs dropped during the American war failed to explode. Much of the weaponry was originally designed to detonate on impact with the factories and airports of Germany, and didn't respond as planned to the soft jungles and rice fields of Vietnam. And despite many years of clearing done by brave local teams of women with metal-detectors, there's still a vast number of unexploded bombs and anti-personnel mines out there waiting for unwitting farmers to plough-up or kids to play with.
It is reckoned that since the end of the war in '75 there have been 200,000 fatalities, (many of which have not been reported by their families because they were logging or hunting illegally when it happened). The Mines Advisory Group, MAG does regular work out here, training locals and performing controlled explosions, but it's clearly not quite enoughAll the photos below are of injuries caused by such accidents since the year 2000.

Back in the minibus we crossed the Ben Hai river, that used to bisect the country and was the focus for reunification celebrations in '75, two years after the Americans limped off the battlefield.

Around 1pm we were dropped at the Hue backpackers, I bought a beer and some rice and used their wifi to find my bearings. Turns out my place, the Jade Hotel, like most of the budget hotels and hostels here, was just around the corner, also on the east side of the Perfume River. I checked in for one night only and then went out to explore.

The main (some say only) draw to Hue is the Citadel. The town on the west side is surrounded by 10km of zigzagging fortifications, within which is the Imperial Enclosure, similar in purpose to Beijing's Forbidden City, and worth a visit despite most of the buildings being destroyed by the Americans.To get there from backpackerville you have to cross one of two bridges. I jumped on the back of a scooter and overpaid the driver 50k dong to get me there and then to get rid of him, instead of taking me on a tour of all the outlying temples and pagodas as he persistently suggested.

It was a pleasant enough way of whiling away an hour or two in another UNESCO heritage site, but without a good guide for historical interpretation, all I could do was try and take some pretty pictures as the sun went down among the ruins.
This is the flag tower at the front of the citadel, at 37m, it's the tallest in Vietnam, it's huge flag billowing in slow-motion in the evening's breeze. In '68 the North Vietnamese managed to occupy and to keep their flag up here for three weeks.

I walked back across the river, avoiding xeom scooter touts, stopped at a bar for a bia hoi and read a couple of chapters of Arthur C Clarke's 3001. There's not much nightlife going on in Hue, most of the bars were deserted before 10pm and I found myself back at the Jade planning the next days travel to Hoi An.

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