If you're old enough to remember the Vietnam War from television, you'll know Hue from the large-scale battles waged here. The 1968 Battle of Hue, which heralded the Tet Offensive in the far south, was one of the most gruesome and well-documented battles, and scenes of the fray were depicted in the film Full Metal Jacket.
Starting from Hue, a day trip to the nearby DMZ and Vinh Moc Tunnels is a sobering reminder of the tumultuous wartime, and crossing the invisible line of demarcation between north and south is an important part of bringing things full circle for returning veterans and folks who lived through the war years. All of Quang Tri Province is a vestige of the war years really, as this was the site of some of the heaviest shelling and artillery exchanges during the war.
Under the Geneva Accords of 1954, an agreement brought peace to Indochina after its struggle with French colonists. Vietnam was divided into north and south along the 17th Parallel. What was meant to be a short-term political fix became a battle line known as the DMZ (demilitarized zone), a tangle of barbed wire and land mines bombed and defoliated into a wasteland. The famous American fence, what was called the "million-dollar eye" -- a folly of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara -- was an elaborate system of barbed wire tangle laced with electronic sensors that the United States built along the border's length; when sensors in the DMZ were tripped, they triggered American bombers into action. The North Vietnamese regularly foiled U.S. efforts, playing cat-and-mouse with the sensors and sending livestock into No Man's Land to draw fire. The perimeter was overrun in 1975.
The once-scorched earth of the DMZ is now green with growth again and completely unremarkable except for its history. Nearby are strategic sites with names you may recognize: the Rockpile, Hamburger Hill, Camp Carroll, and Khe San, a former U.S. Marine base that was the site of some of the war's most vicious and deadly fighting. If you take a tour of the area, you'll also visit Dakrong Bridge, an official entryway into the Ho Chi Minh Trail region near where the trail begins. The tunnels of Vinh Moc, where border troops along with whole families burrowed underground, effectively creating their own underground city, is a testament to the determination and motivation of Viet Cong forces at the north end of the DMZ. A visit here is likely the highlight of any DMZ tour.
Important: If you're interested in tours to the DMZ, your best bet is to pay a little extra and find a knowledgeable guide who can paint a vivid portrait. Except for a few memorial sites and preserved relics, the physical battle scars on the landscape have healed. To make this trip engaging, you'll want to go with someone who knows about the history of the area and can take you to out-of-the-way bunkers and battle sites. Budget tours of the DMZ are often just a full day riding around on a bus, with little time to visit sites and scant information about scheduled stops. "Lots of people fighting here long time ago," your guide might say, pointing to a farmer's field no different than the farmer's field adjoining. It's important to note that the heavy plant growth is only recent, and that this area was the hardest hit of anywhere in Vietnam by the U.S. defoliation campaign Operation Ranch Hand.
The many sites in the DMV are some 60km (37 miles) north of Hue. Visitors with a serious interest in the history of the area could certainly make it a multiple-day operation; in such instances, but only in such instances, it makes sense to overnight in the town of Dong Ha, the jumping-off point to the DMZ and for onward travel to Laos. Most budget tours stop in Dong Ha for lack of options, but this one-stoplight burg is not the kind of place you want to be stranded in for too long. The best local hotel is little more than a concrete block of the older Soviet style. Near Dong Ha, you will cross the Ben Hai River, and most trips stop briefly to take in the old French guard towers and old denuded battlegrounds.
For tours, contact Hue tourist cafes: The best is Sinh Café on the budget end, or Huong Giang Tourist for a good private tour. Tours leave early in the morning and trace Route 1 north of Hue into Quang Tri Province. The coastal highway passes some lovely stretches of natural inland sand dunes lined with colorful Chinese tombs, some like small temples in themselves, before reaching the town of Dong Ha. From here, there are two routes to follow, one up north to the Vinh Moc Tunnels and the other north and then west toward Laos and a number of deserted American bases; most day tours follow both tracks. Some opt to just visit the tunnels of Vinh Moc and a few sites near Dong Ha, making this a half-day tour.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.