A look of bemusement is the response to my question. Having encountered some astonishing stretches of sand to the south, I’m determined to discover what exists in Quang Tri. I rephrase the question.
“There must be some beaches in Quang Tri, really nice ones. Everywhere else in Vietnam has them.”
A quick discussion ensues between the three men, all NGO workers, all team leaders and project managers. Eventually they seem to agree on somewhere, but the looks remain quizzical. “We only go to the beach to eat and get drunk,” says one, still confused. “Or as a child,” another pipes in. With the way the land lies in Quang Tri, beaches just don’t come into the itinerary.
Covering the width of the 17th Parallel, the boundary that once served as a front line between north and south, Quang Tri’s positioning in the country made it the grounds for some of the worst damage of the war. And it’s still trying to clean up the mess. Fighting, bombing, Agent Orange — near total devastation — left this otherwise nondescript slip of Central Vietnam in tatters. The former citadel was flattened with now only the ruins of a church and a school to show for 150 years worth of history. A staggering statistic reveals that even today, 83 percent of the land has yet to be cleared of unexploded ordnance (UXO).
And despite being home to some of the most eye-opening, grandiose scenery in the country, Quang Tri’s principle city of Dong Ha is not even a stopping point. Ten years ago, the backpacker tourist trail ran through here courtesy of the bus route to Savannakhet, Laos. But a new well-paved mountain road connecting the Lao Bao border point with Hue, via A Luoi has changed all that. Now the buses bypass this provincial capital, going instead directly to Hue.
Up the Line
Around lunchtime the next day Nguyen Thanh Phu picks us up to drive north. Formerly a tourist guide based in Hoi An, like his colleagues he is a well-educated, English-speaking professional who has avoided the brain drain lure of the big city. Instead he now devotes his life to his vocation, helping to clean up the mess that is Quang Tri. He is passionate, not just about decontaminating his home, but about telling the story and helping those affected by the aftermath — he wants to make Quang Tri a better place. His energy, an unusual dynamism, is not the first to have struck us over the duration of our trip. There are many others like Phu, who believe in their ability to make a difference to their wounded home.
On a trip where we would be visiting Phu’s museum, meeting victims of UXO explosions, going to a mushroom farming facility and seeing first hand the clearance work undertaken by the NGOs, we considered joining an easy backpacker tour to see the contrast in travel experience through the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) and Khe Sanh. But the idea was quickly binned; posing as backpackers would have been an insult to our hosts who had stretched the boundaries of hospitality to show us their home, its positives, its beauty, its problems and its goals.
Anyone who has visited Cu Chi in southern Vietnam will tell you of the claustrophobic tunnels. Dark, narrow and only high enough for you to stoop, how people in the throes of war managed to live in the condensed terror has become the source of many a heroic story.
In comparison the tunnels of Vinh Moc in Quang Tri are palatial —well-lit, less humid, and easy to navigate.
Located north of the former demilitarised zone, they were originally built as shelters from intense bombing. With nowhere else to go, the villagers of Vinh Moc dug tunnels and moved 12 metres underground. The space was then gradually increased to 30 metres.
Over time the complex grew to include three levels of wells, kitchens, rooms for each family and healthcare stations. Around 60 families lived here, and as many as 17 children were born underground. During the six years the villagers had to retreat from life on the surface, not one person lost their life.
Today most of the tunnels are easily accessible through entrances in a carefully manicured bamboo forest. Other doorways remain shrouded by thick foliage and hidden from view — a throwback to the concealment of the past. Following the labyrinth of passages, stairs going down, deeper and deeper, the struggle for survival is clearly evident. In nearly all of modern day Vietnam, such travails are a distant memory. However, here the battle for survival on the outside is still very much being fought.
Upon leaving the tunnels, the beach discussion somehow re-emerges. Our hosts are still not quite sure what we are looking for. And Cua Tung, the stretch of sand just south of Vinh Moc, is not it.
Developed some years back, the beachside has been replaced by concrete sea walls, the natural replenishment of sand has been disrupted and already starting to erode. Even the hotels overlooking the sea seem strangely disfigured. “I used to come here as a kid,” says one of our hosts. “It was much more beautiful back then.”
With beaches stretching endlessly south — many deserted — eventually we end up in Cua Viet, a coastal area close to Dong Ha that is in the process of being developed. Once again it is a development that leaves much to be desired: plastic-stool restaurants with the odd deckchair rental option for those with cash to splash. There is no shade or greenery, just the standard, but fortunately quite light, collection of litter. Yet, the sand here is fine; coloured somewhere between European beach yellow and tropical paradise white. And standing on the edge of the vista that connects land, beach, horizon and sea, you can envision how with a bit of foresight, this could become a beautiful destination.
Returning to the car the talk quickly leaves the beach and moves on to the afternoon light. The sunset around us is sensational, a photographer’s late afternoon dream, and our man behind the lens has caught some picture perfect, fisherman-on-the-beach shots. He is beaming. Our hosts, too, have captured the light. With our final destination a 20-minute drive away, our only concern now is getting to Long Hung Church in Quang Tri Citadel before dark. We make it, just in time to see this building that despite bombardment, bullet holes in its walls and a lack of proper preservation, is acting as an epitaph to the past.
Along the tunnels, this is the highlight of the day. Our hosts were correct; if you’re coming to Quang Tri, don’t come for the beaches.