This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Khe Sanh. Shannon Brown talks to Shi Jang from Oriental Sky Travel to discuss the importance of tourism in the demilitarised zone (DMZ).
In 1962, the U.S. military established an Army Special Forces camp near the village, and in 1966, the marines built a base adjacent to the camp. The base featured an airstrip and sat on top of a plateau in the shadow of Dong Tri Mountain.
The base’s location was important, as it lay directly in path of Highway 9 and was meant to cut off Vietnamese movement to the north. In January 1968, roughly 20,000 troops from the People’s Army of Vietnam surrounded the 5,500 Marines at the base and the battle began.
The battle of Khe Sanh was marked by constant shellfire, depleted rations, hand-to-hand combat, muddy barracks and trenches, and bodies piling up. It was a complicated and bloody ordeal which lasted 77 days and claimed at least 6,500 lives.
Many casualties were the result of intense bombardment from the skies – 24,000 airstrikes dropped more than 100,000 tons of bombs on the area. Both sides claimed victory, with the Americans maintaining that they had suffered fewer casualties, and the People’s Army of Vietnam celebrating the abandonment of the base in July 1968 as a strategic victory.
Today, the Khe Sanh combat base is marked with a small museum, a metal surfaced airstrip, and some military hardware.
The museum has an emotional display of photos and artifacts from soldiers on both sides. Though most tourists skip the DMZ, there are some tour companies that pride themselves on providing itineraries in this significant region.
Shi Jang is a cyclist, adventurer, and avid traveller who founded Oriental Sky Travel in 2011. He specializes in personalised tours throughout Vietnam and has a particular passion for the DMZ.
Shi told me that it’s important to remember and talk about Khe Sanh. “It was one of the biggest battlefields in the American War. There are pieces of history here, and the Americans thought that Khe Sanh could be the second Dien Bien Phu.”
The American president at the time, Lyndon B. Johnson, demanded a guarantee that the base would be held at all costs. In his memoirs, General Westmoreland wrote that Khe Sanh was vital to hold for several reasons.
It not only blocked filtration from Laos and served as an airstrip to survey the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but was the western anchor for defenses south of the DMZ. Other historians claim that Westmoreland wanted to engage the Vietnamese army in a remote area far from populated civilian areas. The Americans did not want a repeat of the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, where the French were expelled after a century of occupation.
“When people visit the DMZ, they learn more about a special time in my country’s history. In July 1954, the country was divided and families and friends were separated. In this area, tourists can see the famous 17th parallel, learn more about the ‘underground city’ that is the Vinh Moc tunnel, meet veterans, and perhaps see how to love peace, not war.”
Shi also says that it’s important for Vietnamese citizens to visit these sites and learn about their history. “Many Vietnamese people have relatives and friends who died in this area and many of their names are still unknown. Traditionally, this makes it a good place to pay respect and pray for peace. The DMZ is a symbol of hope – although the country was divided for nearly 20 years, peace was established. It also serves as a place to remember the Vietnamese people who moved abroad during this difficult period and haven’t come back. The 17th parallel has become the bookmark of a generation.”
Many of the tourists who visit the area are veterans. Shi says he is lucky to have had the chance to tour with many vets in his last 12 years as a tour guide; Americans, Vietnamese, Australians, and Kiwis. He stated that the visits are always memorable.
“They almost always feel better after visiting the sites and meeting former ‘enemies’ who very quickly turn into good friends. There are hugs, handshakes, and rice wine (or green tea). And they stay in touch and keep up the relationship.”
If you decide to visit the DMZ this year, Shi recommends first stopping in Dong Ha city for a visit to Project RENEW, a local NGO that works to save people from unexploded mines and bombs. From there, move onto the Hien Luong Bridge on the Ben Hai River, and the exhibition house next to it.
You must see the Vinh Moc tunnels, the Truong Son National War Cemetery, the Khe Sanh Museum and Takon Airport, and the Dakrong Bridge. Tours can be organised by Jeep, motorbike, private sedan, or bicycle if the season is right.