27-Jul-2002 -- During the long period of conflict in Vietnam, the 17th parallel marked the border between North and South. It was around this line that the Demilitarized Zone was formed. Only one confluence occurs at that latitude in the country, so I decided I should try to find it.
As I worked my way from Saigon to Hanoi, I stopped in the city of Hue for a couple days, about 80 kilometers south of the Ben Hai River, which is virtually on top of the 17th parallel and was generally used as a reference for the border. There are lots of tours going up to the DMZ area, but since I needed the flexibility of getting around, I decided to hire a motorbike driver to take me up there.
Explaining to him the purpose of my trip would have been difficult, I thought, so I just told him I wanted to go to the Ben Hai River, look around for a while, and come back. We set off around 8:45 in the morning for the trip, which was about two-and-a-half hours long.
We drove north on National Highway 1. I had been on a motorbike on this highway before (it goes along the coast all the way from Saigon to Hanoi), but it is still unnerving every time. Motorbikes cruise along the edges of the road, and huge trucks, buses, and cars fly down the middle blaring their horn. Every couple minutes, when one passes you, you get hit with the blast of air and spray of asphalt, not to mention the asphyxiating fumes. Two-and-a-half hours becomes a long time very quickly.
After a couple stops, we reached the river. There isn't much there, actually, just a monument with a message from Ho Chi Minh and a statue of a soldier in front of it. I checked my GPS and saw that where we had stopped on the north side of the river was about 5.5 km from the confluence.
Problem was, I didn't know which side of the river it was on. Finding reliable small scale maps of Vietnam isn't easy, let alone ones marked with a coordinate system. OK, maybe they exist -- I didn't really look. I didn't even bring a compass. Talk about unprepared. But I figured I would see what happened.
At this point, after I had taken a couple token pictures of the monument, I needed to let my driver (his name is Thau) in on the true purpose of my little trip. Actually, I had more than a little trepidation about wandering around the countryside with my camera and GPS receiver. It's true that tourists can go practically anywhere they want to in Vietnam, but the government is still really strict about a lot of stuff, and I didn't fancy running into the local village Party boss during my expedition.
Thau's English wasn't great, so I didn't bother telling him why I wanted to go where I did. I just sat the GPS receiver on the table and said "OK, we're here [point at ground]. I want to go 5.5 km there [show arrow on GPS receiver, point in that direction]." I repeated it a couple times but he understood ok. He didn't actually seem that fazed, though. He just looked over in the direction that I wanted to go in order to see if there was a road. There *was* a little track heading down from the highway, to the edge of the river and up along it, where it disappeared into the treeline.
He wheeled the motorbike across the highway and down the embankment, where I hopped on too. He set off along the trail. I still didn't know if I was on the right side of the river or not. I figured that I could maybe find someone with a boat that could take me where I wanted to go, if it came to that.
The trail didn't go that far down the river, maybe only 500 meters. We were basically driving through people's backyards, scaring chickens and getting barked at by dogs. Every time we met a person, Thau would ask them how far the trail went, but no one really gave a satisfactory answer.
Eventually, after a few more conversations and wrong turns, the road dead-ended at the river. The point was on the other side, but I didn't think we could go back to the highway and get to where I wanted to go because the river branched a little ways back toward the highway, making where I wanted to go located on a peninsula or something.
I saw motorbikes being ridden around on the other side, so it is possible that there were roads that connected back to the highway. I thought maybe the direct approach was better. Also, I didn't have a compass, so it was hard sometimes to tell the actual bearing to the point, and I began to fixate on it being upriver.
Thau talked to a guy that lived next to the river, and found out there was a ferry across (we could see where the rowboat was parked but there was no ferryman in sight) but no one could take me up the river. We shouted for the ferryman and he eventually came out of his house and began rowing across. As he came toward us, we talked about what I would do once on the other side. I didn't think we should take the motorbike across, and we couldn't tell if there was a road following the river on the other side either (I was still thinking I needed to go upriver). I told him I would walk and Thau laughed a little and eventually said, "Up to you."
So I took the ferry across. Thau came with me. The confluence was about 4.5 km away at this point. There weren't any motorbikes around at this point. I told Thau I was going to have a look up the river to see how far I could get. He just lit a cigarette and sat down.
I walked down a little road, trying to follow the river. A gang of men and boys were working on something, at least until they spotted me. I knew I was going to be a novelty, but I just thought they would say "Hello" like everybody else. These guys were pretty mocking, actually. I guess maybe it was me, wandering back and forth for no understandable reason. Eventually they all came over and were standing around me, which actually felt pretty normal after my experiences here.
I looked closer at the GPS and realized my fixation on going up river had me going in the wrong direction. The confluence was actually 4.5 km *away* from the river. If I had brought the compass, this never would have been an issue.
I walked back to where Thau was waiting, because there was a road there heading off in the direction I wanted to go. I told him I needed to go that way, and that I was going to walk, and that I would be back in an hour. He shrugged and I took off.
I walked along the road, surrounded by rice fields, headed toward a little village in the trees across the paddies, about 2 km away. People passed me on bikes or motorbikes (I tried in vain to get them to stop and give me a lift -- I wish it was like that walking around the city, where you are offered a moto-taxi ride every ten seconds) and we exchanged hellos and smiles.
I passed through the village and into more rice fields on the other side. It was almost the same scene, just a little wider fields. I got to the other side and I was about 1.5 km from the confluence, but not in the direction the road led me.
It got a little weird at this point, because it seemed like every time I wanted to turn to go toward the confluence, a road would appear taking me in approximately the right direction. Along the way, children began following me. Eventually it was four girls and a boy on two bicycles.
At last I was very close. I passed out of the village on the other side, still on a normal road and not tromping through anybody's living room. On the right side of the road was a cemetery. The confluence was 300 meters ahead.
I walked on down the road. The kids went to a certain spot and didn't go any farther. As soon as I was about 50 meters from them, they all began clapping to get my attention and yelling "No!! No!!" over and over again. I looked back and they were all waving me back and just kept yelling "No!!"
I figured they might be messing with me, but these were just little girls and I didn't think that they could keep from laughing if it was some joke. They looked dead serious.
I looked back down the road and thought about all the things I had read about mines and unexploded ordnance in the countryside. No, I decided, I was on a road, after all. A road with very big tracks on it, I noticed. Maybe from a jeep? Or some kind of military vehicle? Maybe there was an army camp down that road and they didn't want me to go there.
I should have just shrugged it off, but instead went back to the girls and tried to explain that I was just going 200 meters down the road and would come back, but it was impossible. I set off again, and when I reached the exact same point in the road, they began the "No!! No!!" routine again. I just stood there and looked at them. At this point a man and woman rode bicycles out of the village toward and then past me. So I just followed them. Later, I decided that the little girls thought that I was going to the next town over, about 30 km away, and thought I was going the wrong way to get there.
The road took me exactly to the confluence. In fact, when it was about 20 meters to my right, a little footpath appeared and led me through a stand of trees where someone had burned out the underbrush, and directly to the spot.
I was in a field, on the southern edge of the cemetery. To the north, a lone water buffalo grazed in front of a couple houses.
The kids showed up, so I joked with them as I got out the camera. When I wanted to take the picture in the direction they were standing, two of them hid and I couldn't coax them back. I remembered later the candy I had in my bag, but three was enough.
The trip back was uneventful. I found a guy in the village with a motorbike to drive me back to the river, since I had to get back to Hue to catch a bus to Hanoi. Thau was a little annoyed because I had been gone a lot longer than I said I would, but he got over it and seemed pretty happy on the ride back. I guess that's cause he made out like a bandit that day business-wise.
I have no idea how he explained his day to his friends. Or, for that matter, what the people in the village had to say about the crazy Westerner that came to town, went to the middle of the field by the cemetery, took four pictures of nothing, and left.