During our prior three visits to central Vietnam, I avoided much of the tourism focused on the Vietnam War history in Quang Tri. There is something strange, to me, about using the war as a tourist attraction. But, after seeing so much of the region, and spending a day with the Mines Advisory Group learning about the problems that still exist due to the war, I finally realized that I owed it to myself to take my education about Quang Tri more seriously.
I consider myself fairly educated about the Vietnam War, having been a History and Political Science major in undergrad. I even took a course on the Vietnam War in college. But, my knowledge of the war in Quang Tri is limited, and my knowledge of how the war affected the people who lived through it, is even more so. I hoped that by learning more about the war, and its effect on the region, and the understanding of the Vietnam War history in Quang Tri, that I could understand Dong Ha and its people a little better.
A Tour of Quang Tri
We started our tour with Mr. Nguyen** by heading out on a crotchety old motorbike, that was not really meant to haul people the size of Eric and me long distances. I was wearing a thin piece of plastic as a helmet, what Eric called a brain collector. It was sunny and hot, what we like to refer to as Dong Ha hot. After riding around the province for the day I was sunburned and baked, through and through. We were scheduled to see the National Cemetery, the Quang Tri Museum, some former air and fire bases, the DMZ, and the Vinh Moc tunnels. It was scheduled to be a long day, but by the end, I felt as though I started to understand the history of the region just a little bit more.
Our guide started by telling us his story – he grew up in Dong Ha, but he and his family moved to Danang during the war, which was common. He fought in the South Vietnamese army, alongside American GIs, which is how he learned English. At one point during the day, he told us he shot grenade launchers, just like the one we saw at the Quang Tri Museum. He was very matter of fact about it. I have never shot a gun, never mind a grenade launcher, so I would have been a little less nonchalant.
He was clear in where his allegiances lie – he is South Vietnamese and the current government is the government of the North. Mr. Nguyen spent a good deal of time using the word “propaganda.” After seeing so much propaganda in Cuba, many of which was cloaked in the title of news or history or fact, it was refreshing to hear someone call it for what it was. In fact, Mr. Nguyen was very honest with who he is and where his loyalties continue to lie. He was South Vietnamese, now the government is Communist, but it is not his government.
Propaganda in Quang Tri
Before this tour, even with my knowledge of Quang Tri, I had no idea that the 17th parallel, and the DMZ ran through the middle of the province, with about 80% of the province placed in South Vietnam, and the rest in the north. I was unaware that during the first 300 days of the separation in 1954, residents of the north and south could move freely over the border, to essentially choose their side. Apparently, a million people fled south, and a lot fewer moved north. The North Vietnamese government also stopped many people from moving south, so perhaps the movement was not as free as reported. Was this early propaganda? Probably. Both sides built large loud speakers on either side of the border to tout their views.
Down a narrow alley in the middle of Dong Ha, a town I am fairly familiar with, Mr. Nguyen showed us an old American airplane hangar, which we had never seen before. The rest of the hangars were destroyed, as was the one kilometer long runway, that ran from this alleyway and down the long straight road that now forms a residential neighborhood of Dong Ha. The neighborhood was just built around the remains of the hangar. Outside the decrepit hangar was a plaque from the government which called the Americans the “unlawful occupiers of the land.” Propaganda.
Photographs at the Quang Tri Museum labeled the parties to the fight as either the Liberation Army, or the Puppet Government. Mr. Nguyen explained that the Liberation Army flew their own flag during the war, because if they were called the North Vietnamese Army, and flew the famous red flag with the yellow star, they would have been in violation of UN rules. I have seen reference to these terms before, but now understand the propaganda purpose behind the terms.
Also at the Quang Tri Museum, a model scene of three American soldiers showed them weak, lying in a bunker, reactive. A model scene a few feet away showed the Liberation Army strong, ready to fight. Propaganda.
When asked what he thought would have happened if the Americans continued to fight in the war, rather than pulling out in 1975, Mr. Nguyen responded that he thought things would be very different today – perhaps there would be two Vietnamese countries, similar to Korea.
There is a certain part of the American population that could not understand why we would travel to Vietnam, let alone consider moving there. In their minds, “Vietnam” will always be associated with a war, the resulting propaganda, and today’s government. It is important, though, to recognize the difference between the Vietnamese governments in existence at the time of the war, the government in effect today, and the people of Vietnam, just as it is important to distinguish between the American government and American people. Citizens should not be judged by the actions of their government.
Mr. Nguyen’s children are older, either in high school or university. His children had a harder time getting into university, and had to pay a lot more, in comparison to children of the communist party officials. The officials’ children also have an easier time finding employment upon graduation. He pays 100% for everything, but the government officials do not. It is certainly not a fair and equal society, like the government claims it is. When hearing this, you can understand his views – he is like so many fathers around the world, just wanting a better life for his children.
**Because our guide shared his personal view points of the war, and the government, I have withheld his name. If you are interested in taking a DMZ tour with our guide, please contact me directly as withhusbandintow(at)gmail(dot)com.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.