Vietnamese call it the American War. Americans call it the Vietnam War. Any way you look at it — war sucks. It forever changed the lives of millions of families in both countries. Today, relations between the two nations are more than cordial – President Trump visited Hanoi earlier this year. Tourism grows each year. Factories and hotels under construction in many areas. And, for many years already, people seek out tours of the old demilitarized zone in the central region of the country – known as the DMZ.
We took a personalized DMZ tour of this area, which included special sites along the infamous Route 9 where my father served his tour of duty.
How I found our DMZ tour guide
I looked around on Trip Advisor for reviews and found DMZ Tours of Dong Ha, run by Mr. Duy. He was 16 years old at the time my father served in 1966 and 1967.
I emailed Mr. Duy and we had several exchanges more than a month before the date of our trip to the region. He and I set up a specialized DMZ tour based on my preferences instead of the usual tourist sites. His price was negotiable, based on the subtractions and additions I made to his original tour proposal.
I researched quite a bit about the situation when my dad was there, and read every declassified report from every month during my father’s tour of duty — and then some. I have a really good idea of what my dad and others experienced during this horrible time.
Mr. Duy knew Marine Corps operation names and dates and other statistics. His knowledge of the straight history from the American military standpoint was spot on. I looked forward to having him guide us in this area from the Vietnamese perspective.
It didn’t go exactly as planned…
Unfortunately, when the day of our personalized DMZ tour finally came, something happened that prevented Mr. Duy from leading us down Route 9 from Dong Ha and then onto Khe Sahn.
Instead he sent Ms. Thach to guide us, who was quite impressive in her own right. She knew just as much history as Mr. Duy, although she is much younger. She doesn’t have first-hand memories, but her world was definitely affected by the war. She never shied away from any question I asked, and I have a habit of asking many questions.
Our DMZ tour details
Our tour included an air-conditioned SUV with a good driver. In the sweltering heat of Vietnam, that’s worth a lot.
Our pick up was in Dong Ha, not Hue – which is the starting point for most tourists. Hue is more suited for tourists, and many stay there. Dong Ha, about 45 minutes north by highway, but we actively seek out places where tourists don’t always go, so we had no problem staying there. Also, since we had a specialized itinerary, we did not go to some of the usual DMZ tour spots such as the tunnels, the bridge or the beach. (We did some of those sites on our own during our stay in Dong Ha.) Our tour took about 5.5 hours.
- what’s left of the old Marine base in Dong Ha (just one hangar, and the old airstrip is the small city’s main road)
- the area around the old Cam Lo base, which today includes a cemetery for mostly unknown soldiers killed along the infamous Route 9
- the old Cam Lo bridge and the old village
- the new area of Cam Lo along today’s Route 9
- the old site of Camp Carroll
- the Rock Pile and Razorback Ridge
- more on Highway 9
- the old Khe Sahn base (The Marines destroyed everything when they left after the infamous battle at Khe Sahn, but the U.S. Army later reused the site.)
There isn’t really much to see. I knew that before we went. This area of Vietnam is not heavily developed, so much of our trip down Highway 9 was open space with homes and fields.
Yet, it was powerful for me to be there – a foreign place where my dad fought in a war because his country’s government drafted him to serve.
A few of these sites were really moving for me, based on what my dad had told me about his time in Vietnam, and based on reading all of those declassified reports.
Notes on our personalized DMZ tour sites
There is a small marker at the old Camp Carroll site, and there is a museum and army stuff left behind in the country and brought to Khe Sahn so tourists would have something to take pictures of.
There were a few old bridges, one that was blown up still sits in pieces sticking out of the Cam Lo River. The old Cam Lo Village is there, surrounded by new development along Highway 9.
The Rock Pile is still there – but it might not be for long. There is heavy mining in the area, and other chunks of earth similar to the “Rock Pile” have been leveled. Our guide told us they’ve asked the government to prevent the companies from dismantling the Rock Pile.
And there is a large graveyard and memorial site just outside the old Cam Lo village that is filled with tombs of unknown soldiers, with occasional markers that name fallen Vietnamese.
On the way back to Dong Ha, Ms. Thach stopped at a family-run restaurant popular with the locals. It was a nice way to end our personalized DMZ tour – we were hungry and had tasty bowls of pho (soup) as we continued our conversation about the Vietnamese people who live in that area today.
Can you really put a price on an experience like this?
We paid $100 for two people. We tipped well.
All in all, it was a great day, at what I think is a great value. We enjoyed our time with a kind, knowledgeable and experienced Vietnamese woman who speaks excellent English, on a tour arranged by a knowledgeable and experienced Vietnamese war survivor.
If any veteran has questions, I’m happy to help with additional details. Send an email through the contact page.
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