Exploring Vietnam’s DMZ from Dong Hoi to Hue

Did you know that Vietnam used to have a DMZ, just like the one that still exists between North and South Korea?

The Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone was the 5 kilometre-buffer on either side of the line that divided the north and south from 1954 to 1976. Located in present-day Quang Tri Province, the line ran around 76 kilometres from the country’s western border with Laos to the eastern coast.

Hien Luong Bridge in Vietnam's former DMZ

I have a fascination with borders, so during my recent trip to Vietnam I made sure to arrange a visit to the so-called “17th parallel” where the DMZ used to exist.

After alighting from my overnight ride on the Reunification Express, I had a private car take me to three spots along the route from Dong Hoi to Hue: The Vinh Moc Tunnels, Hien Luong Bridge, and La Vang Holy Land. Slightly off-the-beaten-track, I loved that the spots were mostly devoid of tourists, and that locals made up the majority of visitors I did see there.

DMZ Stop #1: The Vinh Moc Tunnels

The Vinh Moc Tunnels are a complex series of caves located in dense jungle near the former border between North and South Vietnam. They were built to shelter people from bombings by American forces during the Vietnam War.

An entire village of around 60 families lived for two and a half years in tunnels, which grew to include wells, kitchens and spaces for healthcare. Up to 17 babies were also born in the complex.

Inside the Vinh Moc Tunnels

The tunnels total almost 2,000 m in length in three levels, with 13 entrances to the surface. One even leads to the South China sea. In addition to seeing ground-level structures in the jungle, visitors can explore the tunnels through a number of the entrances.

One of the entrances to the Vinh Moc Tunnels

It is very humid in the jungle and I saw lots of large flying insects, and even a rooster. Nearer the coast, you can hear the sound of waves crashing onto the beach through the foliage.

South China Sea near Vietnam's DMZ

I’ll be honest, I was a little creeped out at times walking around down in the tunnels alone. At one point, I turned a corner and had the crap scared out of me seeing this.

Vinh Moc Tunnels

It was a mannequin statue showing how people lived in the tunnels at the time, but in the dim light and dead stillness of the tunnels, it almost made me scream. I felt relieved when climbing out and seeing sunlight, so I can’t even imagine the life the villagers had to endure.

Going down into the Vinh Moc Tunnels

Tickets to the Vinh Moc Tunnels (as of September 2022) cost 50,000 VND per person. You can easily spend an hour or two exploring the site.

DMZ Stop #2: Hien Luong Bridge

Straddling the Ben Hai River, Hien Luong Bridge bisected the two Vietnams between 1954 to 1976. As the story goes, whenever the Saigon regime repainted their side of the bridge with a new color during the Vietnam War, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam would also repaint their side with the same color to signify their desire for a unified Vietnam.

Hien Luong Bridge in Vietnam's DMZ

Now painted blue on the north side and yellow on the south, there are grand reunification monuments located on both banks. A 1cm wide white line painted in the middle of bridge shows where the exact demarcation used to lie.

The old border between North and South Vietnam in the DMZ

Hien Luong Bridge ended up being one of the favourite things I did in Vietnam. For a long time I was the only person there and got some nice moody shots of the empty bridge. I also found the symbolism to be rather poignant.

At one point, an elderly Vietnamese couple who had stopped by asked me to help them take a photo. I thought they wanted the bridge, but they had wanted the monument with the giant flag of Vietnam.

Reunification monument

It made me wonder if they had experienced the war firsthand, and what they felt visiting the DMZ and seeing symbols of reunification. It likely held a personal and special significance to them.

Later, more people started arriving, including these three Vietnamese women donned in brilliant red outfits. I asked if I could take their picture and they kindly even posed for me.

Vietnamese women at Hien Luong Bridge

Tickets to see the bridge and accompanying museum cost 50,000 VND per person (as of September 2022).

(Non-)DMZ Stop #3: La Vang Holy Land

La Vang bell tower

Not exactly related to the DMZ, but also located in Quang Tri Province, is a spot which locals claim was visited by the Virgin Mary in 1798. Today, La Vang has become a major pilgrimage spot in Vietnam, with a festival held every August drawing Catholics from all around the world.

Statue of Virgin Mary at La Vang Holy Land

The land was deemed as being holy after the alleged appearance, with a church constructed in the area. While the basilica was destroyed during the Vietnam War in 1972, the bell tower still stands in all its crumbling glory.

Bell tower at La Vang

There is also a statue just under four metres high of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, and 14 other sculptures which tell the story of Jesus being led to crucifixion. The day I went, there were a handful of people sitting on the side of the statue, chanting something over and over. I assume it was the Lord’s Prayer or something similar in Vietnamese.

Statue of Virgin Mary at La Vang Holy Land

The other well-known feature of La Vang Holy Land is a well believed to contain water that can cure any disease. Many people come to drink it out of respect.

"Holy" drinking water

Visiting La Vang is free.

Wrapping up

The distance from Dong Hoi to Hue is around 165 km, around a three hour drive without stops. Adding the three stops above, which I explored at my leisure, the transfer ended up taking around six hours. I only booked a driver, as I did not find a guide necessary. Reading up a little beforehand and using the explanations on-site were more than sufficient for me, and I had a lot of fun taking photos and videos.

While I didn’t have time to visit other former Vietnam DMZ sites like Khe Sanh Combat Base, Camp Carroll and Hamburger Hill, I felt the two spots alone were already extremely educational for the average traveller. If you are a war history buff, you can book full day tours that will take you all the spots, or arrange an custom itinerary with a driver.

Read more about my Vietnam travel adventures here outside of the DMZ.

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