A trip to Vietnam is not complete until seeing some of the museums dedicated to the Vietnam War and for those seeking just a bit more and a tourist experience they go out to the Tunnels of Cu Chi. The museums are chock full of old American military hardware displayed like war trophies and the entire narrative is all about American aggression. But hey, it’s their country, they won the war and to the victors go the spoils. Well, I’m not sure Agent Orange could be considered a “spoil” but its real, they are living with it and moving on. The Vietnamese are tough folks and they know it. There is understandable national pride on display everywhere and the one party state continues to remind its citizens every day that they defeated the American imperialists. It is if the legitimacy of the state rests on this alone. As am American I found it funny how many of the younger Europeans visiting the museums took the bait, hook, line and sinker! I am not an apologist for the war nor do I believe it accomplished anything in the big scheme of things but let’s have just a tad bit of objectivity.
I have been interested in the Vietnam War since I was able to comprehend the material as a young teenager. I watched the POW’s return home on TV, my Uncle served there and many of my father’s friends were Vietnam Vets. Coming from a small working class town in the US, it’s only natural that a lot of guys were drafted, served a tour, came home and went about their life. So it’s living history for me and I sort of grew up in the shadow of the war. I had to get beyond the museums and try to get a first hand look at some of the terrain that the war was fought on and find something more. I didn’t know what that would be, I had not done much research. But, the choice was logical….the former DMZ is ground zero for the initial involvement of American troops (Marines) in 1965. I hopped on a train in Da Nang and 4 hours later and about 5.50 USD poorer I arrived in Dong Ha.
Dong Ha is not a very appealing place, most folks roar past it in an express train on the main north-south railway line that runs from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and with a blink of an eye it’s gone. Dong Ha was erased from the map during the war but has since been rebuilt. Today It’s claim to fame is that it lies along National Highway 1A and Highway 9 which runs west out of the city for 33 miles to the Lao Bao border crossing for Laos. A handful of die-hard war history buffs and former veterans trickle through.
The 4 hour train ride from Da Nang was pretty comfortable and the scenery outside the window as the train ran parallel to the coast was pretty nice. We were the only two foreigners to get off at the Dong Ha train station and were immediately accosted by the Xe Om (moto-bike) drivers who wanted to drive us a few blocks to any hotel they could get a commission at. We walked about 15 minutes to the Thuy Dien guest house (GH) I had read about. Enroute, an older guy stopped his moto and tried to talk us into the going to a GH which turned out to be the same GH we were walking to. The room was adequate, it was less than $8 USD per night for a fan room, no aircon was not necessary in April. Before I could get upstairs the old guy and his crony at the GH wanted to give me a tour of the former De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). They were pretty persistent and acted like my best friends. They were a bit dodgy but manageable. Later I haggled them down to $70 USD for a car tour along Highway 9 which parallels the former DMZ out to Lao Bao with numerous stops and a visit to Khe Sanh.
The next morning we departed at 8AM and we stopped at the National Martyrs Cemetery Road 9. It was well maintained and pretty impressive by Vietnamese standards. There were over 10,000 former North Vietnamese and Main Force Viet Cong soldiers as well as other former party cadre interred here. What struck me was the fact that a vast majority, I would estimate at least 90% all had the same headstone. They read: Liet Sy (martyr) followed by the words Chua Biet Ten (an unknown) and contained no date. There were larger headstones atop large burial crypts. These crypts contained the remains of many unidentified soldiers and the headstones had additional inscriptions with dates of death and the military unit they belonged to. One crypt had a headstone with the names of 106 soldiers on it, the unit and the date they were killed. And that’s where the story gets interesting…….
Quang Tri Province encompasses the land area of the former DMZ. The province is home to 72 Martyrs Cemeteries that contain 65,000 graves. Vietnamese government estimates have over 300,000 former North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) soldiers unaccounted for, out of a total estimate of 1.1 million soldiers killed during the war. Remains are still being interred as they are found. In contrast, the South Vietnamese Army losses are estimated to be between 200,000-300,000 with no data on the number of soldiers unaccounted for. There are no cemeteries for former South Vietnamese soldiers nor are any attempts made to find the missing. After the fall of the Republic of Vietnam, the new government paved over and destroyed the military cemeteries in the south without re-interring any of the remains. The former Bien Hoa military cemetery is the only remaining military cemetery and is abandoned outside of Ho Chi Minh City. It has recently been renamed the Binh Ahn Cemetery and opened for public use. Former South Vietnamese soldiers are considered traitors by the government and have suffered discrimination and oppression for decades..
Researching one of the headstones I photographed was an interesting history lesson. The headstone to the left notes that 80 NVA soldiers from Group 31 (company sized element), 33rd “Special Task” unit were killed in Cam Lo on 26 August 1966. A “Special Task” unit is actually an NVA Sapper Battalion. We typically equate a sapper unit to an engineer unit. The VC/NVA sapper units retain the engineering mission but they also include those tasks normally assigned to a commando-raider-ranger type units. During the war, the NVA Sapper units were some of their best trained battle formations.
Knowing that Marines were operating in the DMZ during that time frame, I searched online archives and was able to determine the unit that was attacked on the date on the headstone, find the official unit chronology and a first-hand battle account on a veterans organizational website that mentioned the number of NVA killed and method of burial. Based on the information I believe I have tied the headstone in the cemetery to this battle. During this time, east of Khe Sanh, the 3d Marine Division was strung out in a series of outposts and bases that allowed protection for Route 9 and the important Cam Lo River Valley which extended to Dong Ha, and the coastal plain. The National Martyrs Cemetery Road 9 sits above the Cam Lo river valley and south-east of Thon Cam Lo, refer to the map and see reference point 559.
The official Command Chronology of 3/12 Marines lists 78 NVA killed. A lengthy firsthand account by Marines Dan “Stumpy” Post and Jim Pickett of the battle involving 3rd Battalion, 12th Regiment, 3rd Marine Division and the attack on their fire base near Cam Lo by the NVA 31st Company, 33rd Sapper Battalion states that the unit collected 80 bodies in and around their position the next morning. The unit bulldozed a pit and conducted a mass burial of the NVA. I have included excerpts of the account below and the entire account of the battle can be found at http://www.12thmarineartilleryregimentassociation.org/12thMarBattles-AttackonCamLo.html
“We had “Puff” come on station; he started firing at the gook positions. All those red lines from the air to ground, then the buzz of bullets impacting. Everything seemed like slow motion, but it wasn’t. We kept firing our 105 until we were out of ammo; as daylight arrived, the jets came in and started bombing runs to our rear. They continued all the way up, into the hills to the southwest where the gooks were trying to escape.”
“The enemy small arms fire started dying out; we began carrying ammunition for the gun from the ammo dump. I know I had a rifle over one shoulder and an 105 round over the other. H-34’s started bringing in ammo for the grunts and taking our wounded out; the sun had risen when the last jet dumped his load on the gooks, made a pass over us, wagging his wings. Everyone started policing ammo tubes, getting ready for another attack, trying to make sense of the mess around us.”
“The Gooks lay dead in weird positions; I recall one NVA soldier was running, then suddenly his midsection was missing and his chest and head lay about 10 feet away from his legs; bullets had hit the explosives on his hips, literally blowing him in two. Everyone started dragging dead NVA to an area where a bulldozer was digging a mass grave; we started throwing them in. The final count was 80 inside our lines; Lord knows how many were outside. (matches the count on the headstone in the cemetery)
“All the North Vietnamese had tied strings to their pressure points; if they were shot and still capable, the gooks would stop, tighten the string to control bleeding, and continue on. Were they taking opium? Who knows but usually a rifle wound would take anyone to the ground. Maybe the weirdest I saw was an NVA soldier who had been shot through the head; he had stopped to bandage his wound when someone had finalized his days on earth with a few more rounds to his body.”
Unfortunately, the guy I hired to get me up and down Highway 9 was able to show me some of major sites like the cemetery, Dakrong Bridge, Khe Sanh and the rockpile, but he had very little knowledge and in many cases I was more informed than him. I felt like the US Soldier depicted on the stone relief to the left. After doing further research I realized that I was less than 5-6 kilometers away from the site near the Cam Lo bridge, where LT Thomas R. Norris, a Navy Seal earned a Congressional Medal of Honor for the rescue of the 2 downed pilots on 2 separate rescue missions. His series of successive rescue operations have been captured in the movie, BAT-21 starring Danny Glover.
There are some historical sites to be found in the Vietnamese countryside but one must do their homework to get much out of it. I didn’t do enough and am now piecing it together after the fact. It gives me an excuse to go back! Next time I will take a tour with Tams Café in Dong Ha. I ran into his small group while we were visiting the Dakrong Bridge on Hwy 9 which connects to the old Ho Chi Minh Trail. He is knowledgeable, speaks great English and operates a reputable service. We stopped at his café for dinner and drinks and he provided us with a map that we subsequently used for our own moto-bike tour to the Vinh Moc Tunnels and some other sites north of Dong Ha..
If You Go:
Go there; Arrive and depart Dong Ha via train.
Get Around: The city is very walkable. Rent moto-bikes from Tams Cafe or inquire at your GH. Don’t rent a moto-bike from the dodgy characters at Thuy Dien GH unless it is your only option.
Stay: Thuy Dien GH is adequate, cheap and well located but there are better options in the city for a few more bucks.
See: Hwy 9, Khe Sanh, Martyrs Cemeteries, The Rockpile, Vinh Moc Tunnels, Gio Linh Firebase (known as Doc Meiu), Long Bien Bridge, UN Guard Post, Land Mine Museum, Dong Ha Museum and take a drive down the coastal road. It will take 2 full days to see the sites I have listed above.
Bloggers Note: I received a nice note from Mr Dan Post who correctly identified the firebase in the post as not being the Cam Lo FB mentioned in the post. Thanks!