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DMZ, Khe Sanh, Hue

Dr. Bob McElvaine's 2010 Vietnam Journal


May 18, 2010

Dan survived another trip on a turboprop from Dien Bien Phu to Hanoi. We had a layover at the Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi, where the students enjoyed some semi-American food, including ice cream, which set us back only a few million dong. Then we flew on to Hue, where we were met by my good friend Phu, who has been our guide in central Vietnam on all three of my trips. The students took to him immediately. They were very impressed with the high rise Camellia Hotel in Hue and the city in general.

The next morning we set out early, after a great breakfast spread, for a very busy day of war sites in Quang Tri province, a major center of combat during the war. The effects of defoliants and bombs are still very evident. We stopped in the former DMZ and walked across the Bien Luong Bridge across the Ben Hai River, along the 17th Parallel, which used to mark the division between North and South Vietnam.

Then it was on to Cua Tung Beach and the nearby Vinh Moc tunnel complex, in which local people and North Vietnamese fighters lived for protection from American bombing. The students continued deep into the tunnels. I had seen the rooms on a previous trip and opted for the "light at the end of the tunnel" on a side tunnel. It took me out to the beach.

George inside the Vinh Moc tunnel complex

After the tunnels, we returned to the town of Dong Hoa for lunch and were amazed at the extraordinary meal we were served in the Dong Que, which appeared to be a little convenience stop. It was the best food we have had since Anh Tuyet in Hanoi, which is saying a great deal. One little sidelight: Dong Que has the first truly coed restroom I have encountered. It is new and modern, and has separate stalls for Nam and Nu, but all are in one large room, with the urinals in between them and the sinks across from the urinals.

In the afternoon, we journeyed up the famous Route 9, into the mountains, to the Khe Sanh combat base. Along the way, the bus had mechanical problems and we stopped along the Cam Lo River. A number of Montagnard (a generic French term meaning "people from the mountains") children of the Van Kieu people came out to interact with us.

Khe Sanh was a very heavy experience. It was my first time there. It had become a place that was assigned major importance by the American military in late 1967 and early 1968. There was fear that Khe Sanh could become the American Dien Bien Phu and North Vietnamese and Viet Cong kept the base under siege for several months. The exposed landing strip became one of the most dangerous places for Americans in Vietnam and a substantial number of Americans lost their lives at this remote, essentially worthless spot. It appears that the North Vietnamese were using Khe Sanh as a diversion to draw American forces away from Hue and other cities for the Tet Offensive. Once the siege ended, the Americans simply abandoned the base, which had been of no strategic importance in the first place.

Phu, our great guide, at Khe Sanh

It was very emotional for us to be in this place where so many Americans died needlessly. "The mood drastically changed from adventurous to silent and moody as we entered the area," Sharon Yoo wrote in her journal. "It was sad and made most of us angry to know that there were so many Americans soldiers killed at Khe Sanh." There were memorable comments in the guestbook from former Marines who had been in Khe Sanh during the siege. "Hell looks a lot different now," one wrote. There was a Vietnamese man there trying to sell us bullets and other artifacts, which was one thing; but he was also selling dog tags from American GIs. We all found this very disturbing and emotional.

I cannot possibly improve on what Kate Sundell wrote in her journal about her emotions while we were at Khe Sanh. It is a prose poem that should be published, and I'll quote it here at length:

Oh. Gracious.

Khe Sanh. Broken dog tags. Desolate earth. Beautiful mountains. Fingers pointing. We died here.

. . .

Maybe it's being across the world that the death of young soldiers - fighting for nothing, dying because you couldn't evade the draft; maybe it's the crusty earth and the dust that sticks to your lips - maybe it was the two men earning a living by selling dog tags.

Martin - Baptist ... Johnson - Methodist. The cross obviously blown from a rosary. Maybe it's the immense beauty of the country.

. . .

But no matter what I say, it boils down to walking in that museum and reading the captions. It was feeling the soft crunch of earth and seeing two people walking slowly, still searching for old mines. It was the empty, rotting tooth smile of a man who held a dog tag - blown to bits - offering it to me for 10 dollars, then 6, then only $3.50, to own the evidence of a Marine's death.

It was sick. It was beautiful. I never want to feel so incredibly ashamed, so empty and lost with sadness again.

Ashamed for even having a base. Ashamed for not realizing.

Empty b/c I tried to not feel - I tried to tell myself "shit happens."

And lost, b/c, at the end, turning back to see the mountains, I realized we haven't learned. We haven't changed. We invade, make a home, complain and cry when our men die for a minute and turn off the TV.

Our men died, and no one ever stopped them - no one ever made them turn around.

Johnson murdered his boys. . . .

Isn't that criminal?

Isn't that, as Fran says, "loony tunes"?

I hated Khe Sanh - I loved Khe Sanh.

I never want to forget how I felt there, but I hope I never have to recollect it after this. Does that make sense?

It certainly does - and it gives me great pride that one of our students could have those reactions and be able to present them in such a remarkable way. Not that Kate was alone in either respect; many of the other students expressed similar emotions and did so beautifully.

The Group at Khe Sanh

"On the way back," as Sharon noted in her journal, "we were not only tired, but silenced in memory of what happened at Khe Sanh." We stopped at a Van Kieu village on the way back to Hue and saw the stunning poverty in which these large families live.

That night, things turned less serious. We had a very good dinner at an Italian restaurant in Hue, La Carambole, including a fine bottle of French wine and an absolutely horrible bottle of Vietnamese wine. Then we went to a place called The DMZ, but it was too crowded, and we went on to a little bar called Why Not?

Today we toured Hue, focusing on the Citadel, a World Heritage site that was the seat of the Nguyen emperors from 1800 on. It is a huge, impressive complex that suffered heavy damage during the Tighting in the Tet Offensive. Then it was on to the Thien Mu Pagoda and a cruise on a dragon boat on the Perfume River. After lunch, we journeyed south, past the beautiful village of Lang Co and up the winding road to Hai Van Pass, which separates the Hue region from Da Nang. We explored the old French fortifications there, which were used by the Americans and South Vietnamese during the war.

After a drive-by of Da Nang, Phu's hometown, we proceeded on to what I like to call Sweet Home Hoi An.