Monday, February 13, 2017


Whatever I expected the Vietnamese Demilitarised Zone to look like, I wasn't what I should have - namely the simplicity of wide flat river banks and two bridges - an old one and a new one - in a completely unremarkable landscape except for a high flying national flag.

There's much to said here and I'm not up for a fraction let alone the half of it. Let's go back to the 17th C and a French Jesuit, one Alexandre de Rhodes, credited with establishing Christianity in Vietnam after the Portuguese did a little prepping. There's a concrete sore thumb cathedral in Hanoi (where I am now, jotting this down), another one in Saigon, but not much else left, as far as I can see, except for a lot dead bodies. Vietnam is today one of the least religious countries in Asia, the majority practice some form of naturalistic religious belief or subscribe to Buddhist ideas. Of Vietnam's (probable) 100 million, perhaps 8% are Christian.

Jump forward a few centuries of Indochinese colonialism to 1954 and partition. The French are gone, and the Americans are around. The Geneva Convention of July 21, 1954 recognised the 17th parallel as a "provisional military demarcation line" temporarily separating the country into the Communist north under Ho Chi Minh, and the pro-Western south under Boa Dai, the tail end of the Vietnamese imperial house.

Here's Boa Dai again from the gallery in the Hue Citadel.

And the signing of the Geneva Agreement:

                                                               (from the dmz museum)

The 17th parallel approximated where the Ben Hai river enters the South China Sea and so a demarcation line became geographically a Demilitarised Zone some 5 Kms either side of the Ben Hai river along its course to the border with Loas.

This whole area has loomed large in my imagination, infamy to which I might well have been exposed in my adult life I suppose. We approached from the south on Highway 1 just a few Kms in from the coast, after a few hours drive from Hue.

There's the high raised flag, the river flats, the river, a new concrete road bridge from where the occasional truck would honk when they saw me taking a photo, and the old bridge. A bizarre looking communist-style (whatever that means) edifice was oddly placed alongside a side canal.

And there was no one there. No one. Our guide (we had a guide and driver) let us out to walk across to the 'North'. Actually you needed tickets which he would buy on the other side, where there was an unmanned small museum, a rough roadside rest stop with a mangy dog and nothing you'd want to buy except water, and a ticket seller. And of course the flag pole reaching high from a massive concrete base next to what I was told was the house where the Americans would hold meetings with the North Vietnamese. It looked like it was built yesterday.

No sooner had I got there than reality set in. It was cold and brutal on a hot sunny day.

(facing north with the new bridge is on the left)

A man in a boat smiles, and waves. (OK, I waved first.)

Turning to look behind, back into the south, the perspective you are meant to see and feel is revealed.

And now you can make out the arch to the glorious north, the museum on the right and the flag pole and adjoining meeting house on the left, across the highway.

We wandered about a little - surely this was safe from the 'don't leave unmarked trails because of unexploded material' warnings. Still standing was a huge band of loud speakers for blasting propaganda south across the river.

And of which they were mighty proud - one stood either side of the museum entrance, lest you forget.

The museum was a museum to war, to victory and reunion, the entrance dominated by another statue of Ho Chi Minh of which there seemed no shortage in the south, but this would be the last one I would see. The north has him.

(the bridge in 1961)

                                                                             (a young guerrilla fighter)

(us troops fleeing)


And of particular significance, an operating table made from pieces of downed American aircraft - a more sobering and shockingly affecting relic I couldn't imagine, its stories of survival or death long washed away.

(as usual, clicking to enlarge gives better detail and the option to scroll through the pics)

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