Monday, May 6, 2013


Hien Luong Bridge divided North and South Vietnam in the former DeMilitarized Zone (DMZ)

I’m walking across a quiet, one lane bridge, and a light rain is falling. This bridge is different than others I’ve crossed in Vietnam, it’s more rustic. Of an older design, the surface I’m walking on is made of wood. This is unique, since most of Vietnam’s old colonial bridges were blown up or replaced long ago.

I’m the sole person crossing, and during the war years, very few people crossed this bridge at all. This span straddles the Ben Hai River, at the very center of the former Demilitarized Zone. During the war, this was the dividing line that marked the border between North and South Vietnam. Called the Hien Luong, this bridge in the DMZ was also known by another ironic name: ‘The Peace Bridge’.

This bridge on Highway 1 was never meant to be a border at all, and this is what all the fuss was about that led to war. As the French colonials departed Vietnam back in 1954, the United Nations brokered an agreement in Geneva to smoothen the transition. Vietnam would be temporarily divided into two zones of

Memorial to Vietnamese families separated by the war
control until national elections could be held in 1956, then the country would be unified again. In the north, Ho Chi Minh and his communists were in charge. In the south, the strongman Diem had the power. As the date approached, Diem the dictator knew that he would never beat the popular Ho in a fair election, so he canceled it.

This only set the stage for more conflict. Diem and the US government wished for this border to remain permanent. This would leave Vietnam divided, much as North and South Korea remain divided today. The North Vietnamese government wanted this border erased, and the country reunified. The war was back on.

On the south side of the river, stands a rather poignant memorial. In front of a group of feather shaped stone towers, is a tall statue of a Vietnamese woman standing with her child. They both look longingly across the bridge to the north, where the man of the house has gone.

As Vietnam was dividing into communist and anti-communist zones of control,

Plaster border police figures recall the days of division
many Viet Minh soldiers and political cadres left the south, leaving behind their wives and children. They crossed to refuge in the communist north on this bridge. At the time, they all hoped that the separation of the country, and of their families, would be relatively brief. But it was not to be. With the elections nixed, these men returned to fighting. Their separation from their families, and the war itself, would drag on for two more decades. 

It’s fitting that it’s raining today, because many tears were shed here at this very place where families were separated. For once, I’m looking at a memorial not dedicated to soldiers or politicians, but to Vietnam’s families. These statues stand in memory of those families torn apart by the country’s division. Many of those men who left their families behind on the south side of this bridge, would never see their families again.

After negotiations broke down, the only people who crossed this bridge were UN monitors, along with the border police of both sides. Located at about the 17th Parallel, the Ben Hai River became the de facto border. Land reaching about three miles on each side of the river was declared a ‘Demilitarized Zone’, meaning it would remain free of troops and their weapons. As the conflict heated up, this agreement was ignored by both sides, and the DMZ became filled with landmines, booby traps, barbed wire, and unexploded ordinance (UXO). Some US Marines ghoulishly remarked that the DMZ stood for, ‘Dead Marine Zone’. It’s still a very dangerous place today, loaded with literally tons of UXO and landmines.

Old propaganda flagpole on north side of river
A massive amount of heavy artillery was fired back and forth, high overhead of this dividing river. As the war raged across the rest of the DMZ, the war on this small bridge took on a different form. It became a silly war of propaganda. 

Not far from the bridge on the river’s north bank, stands a very tall flagpole flying the current flag of Vietnam. Back then this pole and its massive flag, were an attempt to assert their presence, and intimidate anyone viewing it from the southern side. Not to be outdone, the South Vietnamese government put up an even taller flagpole, with an even larger flag. But that one is gone now, only the north side flagpole remains.

As I walk by an old French bunker, I find a weapon I wasn’t expecting to see here: loudspeakers. Another part of the war of propaganda, was the war of words. In those days these large outdoor loudspeakers were mounted on both sides of the riverbank, and a continual war of rhetoric was broadcast through them. Some days it wasn’t only propaganda that was aimed at the opposing sides. When I examine one of the old loudspeakers sitting on the north side, I see that it has several bullet holes. Snipers firing from the south had tried to silence them.

With so much turmoil around the DMZ, this small bridge has had multiple incarnations. The original French colonial bridge was destroyed by a typhoon in 1963, then it was wrecked again by American bombing in 1967. As the Americans departed in the 1970’s, the North Vietnamese Army built a one lane floating bridge as they pushed southwards. Later a modern two lane bridge was built just upriver, improving the heavy flow of traffic on Highway 1. Finally, to preserve history, a bridge resembling the original colonial structure was rebuilt in 2001, in the original location.

An old yellow arch stands over the north side of the bridge, and written across the top it says, “Long Live President Ho”, though he’s long gone. On a nearby monument, Ho is quoted as saying, “This border is only temporary. Vietnam is one country.” Ho’s words about the border here were prophetic, however, he wouldn’t live to see the day when his country was once again reunified.

1961 view of bridge looking south, when Vietnam was divided (Photo: Museum)
Bullet riddled loudspeaker, with old police post beyond

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