Coffee, Tea & The DMZ in One Day

Our whole day “DMZ” tour started in Hue on the wrong day. Maybe because I misplaced my shopping money the day before that I did not pay attention to the date we booked our tour for. Our receipt indicated we are supposed to go on the tour on Aug. 16 but we were at the front of the tour operator’s office, bright and early. Thankfully, the Vietnamese people can make anything happen and in less than 5 minutes, we were on the van to our first destination.

The Rockpile

The Rockpile Mountain along Highway 9.

The first destination was the rock pile. It is actually The Rock Pile Mountain or Thon Khe Tri. It is an unordinary karst formation that is similar to many mountains you will see all over Vietnam. If you are just a passing-by tourist, you will see the mountain as it is — a rock pile. But, the mountain served as an important lookout point for the American troops during the Vietnam War (also called American War by the Vietnamese). The mountain is along the crucial Highway 9 in the former demilitarized zone (DMZ) and is now near some quarry operations. Building a lookout on top of Rockpile was a logical military strategy for the Americans because, from the Rockpile view point, many areas of Highway 9 and the DMZ can be seen. Our tour guide, however, said this strategy proved ill-thought of because getting to and from the Rockpile is difficult. The Americans used helicopters and the American soldiers stationed at the lookout were young, inexperienced, and afraid of the dead silence.

Khe Sanh Military Base

Dak Rong Bridge, the start of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The HCM is now a super highway connecting the province of Quang Nih to the city of Ho Chi Minh.

We drove along Highway 9 until Khe Sanh military base some 38.2 kilometers away. The weather in Hue when we promptly left at 7:30 in the morning was warm and sunny. In Khe Sanh, it was cold and raining hard. Some 40 minutes more and we would have ended up in Laos. Highway 9 was a good road, and, except for the occasional tour vans (not many on a Wednesday), only locals were using the road. Along the way, we slowed down to look at locals’ houses and stopped at Dak Rong Bridge and the start of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. With major developments in infrastructure since the end of the war, it was difficult for me to imagine that this area was a no-man’s land.

In Khe Sanh I learned what the tour guide referred to as “dead silence.” It was raining, it was cold. Khe Sanh is on top of a mountain that is surrounded by mountains. I imagined what it felt like when it was dark there, and I started the shiver. We ordered two cups of coffee, made with beans harvested right there. Khe Sahn has transformed itself into a prime coffee farm location and the military base was surrounded by coffee, among other plants (e.g. turmeric). The woman cannot speak English but her kindness radiated through her. We were left alone at the receptionist area because most of our tour companions were at the museum or taking pictures of the abandoned military planes and trucks. I was still shivering that the woman offered me fresh tea, even showing me how she does it. Just take some fresh leaves, crumble it with your hands, and steep in hot water.

Vinh Moc Tunnels

We traversed Highway 9 again back to Dong Ha for lunch. Lunch was not included in the 440,000VND (994.00Php) but our stopover had ample choices at affordable prices (60,000VND for a vegetable dish and a can of Coke). I was not really hungry as we packed Spam sandwiches (how fitting for a tour of the former American military bases) as snacks. I was also anxious to go to the Vinh Moc tunnels.

The Vinh Moc Tunnels are the foremost reason why we stopped by the city of Hue during our Vietnam trip. Joel’s only request for this trip was the Cu Chi tunnels but I read that the Cu Chi tunnels were already made for tourists and that Vinh Moc was the closest to the real deal tunnels a tourist can visit in Vietnam. So, we were on our way there. The tunnels turned out to be another hour away from Dong Ha. Despite the almost burning sensation of my butt, I found the small roads to Vinh Moc a pleasant scene. On both sides of the roads were farms, some big, some small. Very typical of Vietnam where no land is wasted. The last stretch of road nearing Vinh Moc was my favorite because it was a narrow road, just fit for one small car, and both sides flanked by short trees. It was a scenic ride.

The area surrounding the tunnels were, pleasantly, almost empty, except for a couple of other tourists who were being led by a senior tour group, probably a war veteran. The museum near the beach could need more light and some dusting, but I did get the point. It was a war. Vietnam won, but it was a war that should not have happened, because America should not have something to do with Vietnam. Vietnam won, but they suffered more than American’s loss. When the time for the group to go to the tunnels, I chickened out. I ran all the way to the area where the vendors were and waited for the group to come back. Joel, of course, was ecstatic to be there and went with the group. This is what he came for anyway.

Unknown Soldiers and Women at War

The DMZ tour took us one whole day, but we were back in Hue at about 4:30 in the afternoon. After the Vinh Moc tunnels, we dropped by a few minutes at a military cemetery, and from there it was non-stop to Hue. I thought it was a good day for a background on the Vietnam War but the tour was not enough to answer many questions. There are many books written about the Vietnam War, but mostly from the outsiders’ point of view. Very few are written from the Vietnamese point of view. Frankly, I refuse to read any books written by an outsider (American, et al.) about the Vietnam War because I firmly believe America should have left Vietnam alone.Vietnam was none of America’s business. I was able to read Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers: John Foster, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, which had a chapter dedicated to the America’s foreign policy relating to the Vietnam War. You can also supplement the DMZ tour with war museum tours all over Vietnam, but of course, the museums would be presented in accordance to Vietnam’s point of view.

My political opinions aside, what strike me the most about the tour was the guide’s declaration that despite the country bouncing back, there are still many hurts left unsaid, wounds that are still painful. When you ride along Highway 9 and along the small roads to Vinh Moc, you can see hardworking people living ordinary lives — no big mansions, no flashy cars — after all, Vietnam is still a communist country. But I also saw that the people we interacted with did not mention the war, did not share their experience of the war. Instead they sold to tourists, like us, the remnants of the American’s side of the war.

It was also during this tour that I fully appreciated the role of women during the war. From the huge poster of the armed female soldier, to our female tour guide, a veteran tour guide of 25 years, and the female coffee seller in Khe Sanh, who was older and probably experienced the war herself, was resilient and warm towards strangers (a stranger who is considered a “little brown American”). Women are most often overlooked in their contribution to nation-building, more so in armed struggles. But not in Vietnam. While through and through a Communist country, Vietnam has highlighted that it is no country without its women.

The Lowdown

Where to buy tickets for the DMZ tour? Ask your hotel, hostel, or host. We bought our tickets from a small shop near the east gate of the Imperial Citadel. The DMZ tour costs 440,000VND but she gave us a discount of 40,000VND each. I think the tours in Hue are regulated because our AirBnB host gave us the same tour brochure and rate.

Credits to Joel Lopez for the photos.

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