With the death of General Vo Nguyen Giap last Friday, Vietnam lost one of its most celebrated and revered figures of the 20th century. The mastermind behind the victory at Dien Bien Phu and said to be central to the planning of the Tet Offensive against the Americans in 1968, General Giap was very much a national hero. Back in May I ventured to the province of Quang Tri, and deep into the mountain valleys of the border region with Laos. Quang Tri is home to several major battle sites from the war with America, one of them, the Khe Sanh combat base, was the scene of one of the war’s most pivotal battles.
20th century landmark
It doesn’t take much to get me to agree to a 12 hour round trip to visit an old war site. Since I was a toddler I have been interested in anything that may be considered historical. From Norman castles to Mughal forts, I have spent a good chunk of my life exploring the crumbling ruins of past empires and hedonistic leaders. This infatuation has extended to battlefields and over the years I have ticked off quite a few underwhelming fields that once upon a time were scenes of abject horror and destruction.
If you have even a passing interest in the 20th century, then Vietnam’s war with America will surely be one of those landmark events that punctuate your understanding of the century. The impact it had on the world is felt to this day, both politically and culturally. Within Vietnam it is sometimes hard to remember that you are strolling around the streets of a one-time war zone. The ponds in the countryside don’t initially jump out as bomb craters, and the pot-marked walls in cities like Hue could very well be caused by a lack of investment rather than an M-16 or Kalashnikov.
Outside of the Cu Chi Tunnels, Hanoi Hilton and the B-52 wreckage in Hun Tiep Lake in Hanoi, I have visited very few of the famous war sites. A trip to the DMZ (de-militarized zone) north of Hue had been on the cards for quite some time, I just needed to convince someone to come along. With my girlfriend in tow, off I went on what I hoped would be a day fit for a history anorak. What we in fact found was one of the most beautiful valleys I have driven through in Vietnam – and plenty of anorak moments to boot.
Travelling north from Hue you have first to negotiate the urban jungle that is Quang Tri City. Get through that and the real jungle is just around the corner. The mountains of central Vietnam are stunning. Towering bamboo, sheer rock faces, meandering rivers and stilted villages straddle the boarder of Laos. It takes around 4 hours or so (driving at a leisurely pace and with plenty of stops) to reach Khe Sanh from Hue. As you begin the drive through the valleys it is hard to remember that the reason to come all this way is to see an old battle site. The villages and views at every turn are jaw droppingly beautiful and reason enough to explore the area, regardless of any historical interest.
Khe Sanh sits on a small plateau surrounded by hills and jungle. A rather pretty location – the site today is an underwhelming place. A few scattered tanks and US aircraft sit on what is now a peanut farm, quiet reminders of what went on 45 years previously. This is not the time for an impromptu history lesson (a quick Google search should do the trick) but it is remarkable that there is not more fuss made here. A monument in the nearby town, and a small visitor’s centre, are the only hint that this was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the war.
Reality of war
Like every battle field, Khe Sanh is a poignant place to be and well worth a visit if you are inclined to military history in anyway. For me the real interest in heading all this way is to see the landscape – both in a historical and a modern sense. Everywhere you look there seems to be a waving kid, and beautiful villages clinging to the hillsides. This is a tough place – jungle that you can barely see into covers every surface that isn’t being farmed, and most hillsides seem to be almost vertical. Khe Sanh was initially built as a staging post from which to launch attacks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran just inside the Laos border. Seeing the landscape up close does a lot more to bring home the reality of the war, than the burnt out tanks and helicopters at the base. What it must have been like to haul equipment hundreds of miles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail can barely be imagined, and the culture shock for GI’s arriving in this jungle landscape must have been overwhelming.
So when you are in Hue, take my advice and head for the hills – you will get the most picturesque and insightful history lesson you could possibly imagine.
Buffalo Tours offer 1 day trips to the DMZ and Khe Sanh. You will also visit the Vinh Moc Tunnels and other war sites. If you are interested in exploring the region more just ask one of our team at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit our website.