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 tour of this area, which included special sites along the infamous Route 9 where my father served his tour of duty.
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 DMZ region. He and I set up a specialized 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.
Before I booked our tour, I researched quite a bit about the situation when my dad was there. I 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.
Unfortunately, when the day of our the 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 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 the usual tour spots such as the tunnels, the bridge or the beach as most tourists do. (We did some of those sites on our own during our stay in Dong Ha.) Our tour took about 5.5 hours.
We saw: 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).
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 the 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.
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.
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.
Here are more pictures and the public post I made on my personal Facebook page.