Apr 14 2008


Published by at 12:17 pm under Hanoi,Hoi An,Vietnam

The overnight bus from Hanoi south to Hoi An ain’t a thing of beauty. On the plus side, it actually contains beds, which is a first for us on any overnight bus experience. But on the other hand, the proximity of the beds in the rear of the bus forces unwanted stranger spooning, the potholed roads ensure that half your night is spent airborne, the driver incessantly honks the loudest horn in the universe the entire night, and there is only a six-hour respite from blaring Vietnamese karaoke on the speaker system. When the karaoke resumed around 5:00am, Brittany got mad enough to climb down from her bunk, clamber over the tightly-packed rows of prostrate passengers, and make it to the front of the bus to ask the driver to please turn the karaoke off, at least until sunrise. He deemed her request worthy of no more attention than a shoo-ing hand gesture, which has been an impressively bottomless source of daily anger for her ever since.

When the bus stopped for breakfast several hours north of Hoi An at 7:00am, we stumbled out of our cots confused, sleepless, and smelling of other people’s B.O. Neither of us wanted the bus to take this meal break: having given up on the hope of sleep on the bus, we were both eager to simply get to Hoi An, and collapse at the first guesthouse we found. So when a local tourguide approached us at our breakfast table, proposing that we abandon our ride and sign up with him for a day tour of the nearby war-time de-militarized zone (DMZ), I’m not sure why we considered this a good idea. It could have been the book of reviews from satisfied customers he excitedly showed us, but I think it was probably his promise to deliver us the rest of the way to Hoi An in a minivan.

We soon learned that there was much more to our new guide than his attractive possession of karakoke-free transportation. His name was Hoa, and as a teenager, he fought for the South in what the Vietnamese know as the American War. He was excited to discover that we are Americans (weird, this never excited anyone in the North…), and he happily informed us that during the war, the American soldiers gave him the nickname, “Jimmy.” Hoa’s expectant eyes revealed that we, too, should now call him Jimmy. And so we did. I should also mention that our status as Americans earned us other special privileges, such as the admonition, “Hurry up, Yankee!” every time we lingered behind in the same way our predecessors must have. Also, we were treated to an informative audio presentation of every English-language swear word Jimmy learned from the Americans. American soldiers know a LOT of swear words. And now so do all the small children visiting the DMZ that day, whose horrified parents doubtfully banked on their educational field trip including such vocabulary supplements as “M*****f***ing son of a b****!!!” But I digress.

Our DMZ tour consisted of several minivan stops. The first was at an unmarked field, and while our driver stayed with the car, Jimmy led us down an equally unmarked path. We weren’t even out of sight of the minivan when he stopped us to point out some sort of ammunition shell overgrown by weeds. It was eerie at first to juse see it sitting there by the path, but we’d soon get used to the fact that stuff like this has, in so many places, simply never been cleaned up. And just like in eastern Laos, so much of it is dangerous unexploded ordnance. Yes, we stuck closely to the defined path after that. A path disconcertingly flanked on one side by innumerable identical trees in mathematically precise rows. I couldn’t make sense of this forest’s precision until Jimmy explained these were all rubber trees, planted to re-forest an area decimated by Agent Orange and napalm. This answered my question, but did nothing for the disconcerting feeling.

Old southern bunker (Vietnam DMZ)The reason Jimmy brought us to this field, and the reason we’d so quickly spotted old ammunition, was because this was a battlefield where Jimmy had fought years ago. He brought us to a bunker where he’d beem stationed, and invited us to climb on it as we much as we wanted. “Climb on it” hadn’t really been my first thought upon seeing the bunker, but since these are possibly Brittany’s three favorite words (that, or “More. Nutella. Now.”) it worked out nicely. It was here also that Jimmy showed us his battle scars: two bullet wounds on his legs, and a gash atop his skull from shrapnel. You could really say three bullet wounds on his legs, since one bullet left an entrance AND exit hole. Jimmy concluded this presentation with the declaration that he is an unlucky man. I suggested that, since he is still here, he is actually a very lucky man. Jimmy looked like he pondered this thought for a moment, but it could have just been gas.

Soldier Cemetary (Vietnam DMZ)Back to the minivan, and on to our next stop: a cemetary for fallen soldiers. Specifically, fallen Northern soldiers, because the cemetaries are indeed separated. The particular cemetary we visited was dedicated primarily to young soldiers, aged 16-18, and was home to far more rows of small white headstones than we managed to see in one visit. Just as the overwhelming numbers began to sink in, Jimmy told us that this cemetary was one of 72 in this area alone, a testament to the catastrophic death toll absorbed by the north Vietnamese. During our visit, many faithful visitors came to light sticks of incense at the headstones of friends and family members, and to pray at the large central monument to the Unknown Soldier.

Our third stop was a short drive away: the 17th Parallel. The selection of the 17th Parallel as the North-South division makes a lot of sense after seeing it in person, because it’s actually a river. Not much room for confusion there. More confusing is the title of “DMZ”, which is something of a misnomer in Vietnam. While it is true that several kilometers on both sides of the 17th Parallel were left neutral when the North and South divided, the title of “de-militarized” meant absolutely nothing once war broke out. The north Vietnamese poured over the 17th Parallel with no hesitation, and some of the fiercest fighting of the war happened on this contested soil. But during the pre-war years, the DMZ represented an ucompromising division. Once the designation of a 17th Parallel was agreed upon, the two Vietnamese governments gave the people of Vietnam a grace period and an ultimatum: pick your side, and make sure you’re on it two months from now. So for two months, the bridge over the river at the 17th Parallel was a walkway for people leaving home, friends, and family to get to the side they wanted, or felt they needed, to be on. After that time, the bridge was closed to all traffic, armed guards were posted on both sides, and the people of Vietnam were officially separated.

Crossing the 17th Parallel Bridge (Vietnam DMZ)Today, the bridge that once served as the only (closed) connection between North and South has been overshadowed by a much larger, modern version, better equipped to handle today’s large volume of automobile traffic. But the old bridge is still there, and open once more to pedestrian crossings. We walked with Jimmy across the bridge to a small museum that doesn’t seem to get any visitors, and we pondered a huge stone monument on the southern side of the river. The centerpiece of the monument is a statue of a woman with her small child, staring across the bridge and into the northern distance. Jimmy explained that she is the wife of a soldier who left his family to cross into the North before the bridge was shut down, and she is now forever waiting for her husband to return.

Visiting the 17th Parallel set Jimmy off on an angry tirade about the stupidity of his government. Between creative strings of English-language swearing, he conveyed the fact that the southern Vietnamese (like him) are still being punished by the government for being on the wrong side of battle. As a father, his most passionate example is that public school is free to the Vietnamese… in the north. For those unfortunate enough to live in the south, the government provides no such service. Health care is free only to northerners as well, and all these services are funded by the higher taxes levied upon the South. I asked Jimmy if he could just simply move to the North to begin taking advantage of these opportunities, and he informed me that even if he did move, the government would still know exactly where he came from, and continue to saddle him with the burdens of a southerner. Jimmy lamented that the reality of modern Vietnam, still divided in so many ways, is never what Uncle Ho wanted for his people.

Our final stop of the afternoon allowed us to check out something I’d really wanted to see ever since arriving in this country: Viet Cong underground tunnels. Well, it did and it didn’t. I had been specifically imaging the tiny hidden tunnels that Viet Cong guerrillas had used to sneak behind enemy lines and pop up, as if from nowhere, in the middle of dense jungle. Those sort of tunnels turn out to be more prevalent down closer to Saigon (NO ONE calls it Ho Chi Minh City) and I hear they are open for tourists to try and squeeze through. The tunnels we visited here in the DMZ, though, were not used for tactical warfare, but to house a hidden village of northerners! They were living too close to the border for comfort, and knew that if the southerners were to find them, it’d be lights-out. So they did exactly what any reasonable group of people would do in this sort of difficult situation: become mole people.

How some north Vietnamese lived underground (Vietnam DMZ)When I say “become mole people,” I mean it. The residents of this village carved out an extensive multi-tiered underground labyrinth by the ocean shore, outfitting it with all of the accommodations they would need to live healthy, well-adjusted, mole people lives. Ducking low, we followed Jimmy through a hidden entrance, down a dark set of stairs carved into the rock, and into the unlit world of the underground village. Beneath the earth, we visited rooms designated as family living spaces, a communal laundry room, a maternity room, and an underground well dug to ensure that the residents of this village would have to leave the safety of its confines as rarely as possible. The villagers had even cut additional staircases descending to levels many meters deeper into the earth, allowing them to put as much rock as possible between themselves and the surface in the all-too-frequent event of overhead bombing. We went down to the first two levels, but only stared down (with the help of flashlights) at the bomb shelter that composed the third, and deepest, level of the maze. I ultimately emerged from the underground complex with the realization that I’m maybe a little more claustrophobic than I’d reckoned, and with a new-found respect for the unbreakable will of the Vietnamese people. I mean, I have substantial doubts they could even get WI-FI under there. How did they blog?? I shudder to think.

Officially finished with our tour, the minivan hit the road, as promised, to take us the last few hours to Hoi An. Except somehow we ended up getting dropped off in the city of Hue, which is still a couple of hours north of Hoi An. We quickly checked out our guidebook’s entry on Hue, and found the author insisting that Hue is worth visiting for its ancient citadel with riverside pagodas. But we were tired from getting no sleep on the karaoke bus, and too grumpy to care about pagodas or citadels, so we closed that book and went to sleep. Which is why I have nothing at all to say about the city of Hue; in fact, I already barely remember being there. I worried at the time that I might later regret missing out on seeing Hue, but as it turns out, I don’t. Ha! It’s always nice when things work out. I DO know something about Hoi An, the tailoring capital of SE Asia, but that story will wait, as stories so often do, for next time.

NEXT: Hoi An: Hello, you buy someting? »



5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Run DMZ”

  1. Hans Molemanon 14 Apr 2008 at 12:54 pm

    did the life size figurine people in the tunnels look like moleman from the simpsons?

  2. hhhhmmmmon 14 Apr 2008 at 2:43 pm

    one could only wonder …


  3. Laurieon 14 Apr 2008 at 7:37 pm

    I can’t help but think about prairie dogs and wack-a-mole.

  4. Jodieon 15 Apr 2008 at 7:58 am

    I love this post . . . very interesting!!! Keep em comin.

  5. Abbyon 15 Apr 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Me gusta Jimmy’s flashlight.

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