We’ve woken up not in the twilight zone, but the demilitarised zone. This is not a science fiction scenario or a drug induced psychosis, just the middle of Vietnam where at the Geneva conference of 1954 the post colonial division of north and south Vietnam was drawn. In fact the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is a little north of Hue but lets not let that get in the way of a bit of tourism advertisement shall we. As the name suggests it’s a zone that runs approximately 100km east to west cutting the skinny middle of Vietnam into a roughly 2km wide band where troops were forbidden from either side. So we’re in the DMZ, no mans land, a dichotomous allocation of peace defined by conflict; a sort of awkward in-between controlled by neither Ho Chi Minh’s communist north or Bao Dai’s republican south.
A lot has happened since 1954, there was a little tiff commonly called the Vietnam war, some may have heard of it; now there is no north or south, no awkward in-between, just Vietnam. It’s easy to say ‘the war’ but in Vietnam what we commonly call ‘the Vietnam war’ is just one of a long list of conflicts that have shaped this nation into the industrious, ingenious and resilient juggernaut that it is; a more apt name for the Vietnam war is really the second Indochina war. Yes before this ‘American war’, as the world was licking its wounds of the second world war, the Viet Minh of the north fought off France and Japan from 1946-1954. With just a few years relative peace the late 50’s should have been Vietnam’s turn to lick it’s wounds but it was not to be. The Viet Minh were forced to kick America’s behind back over the Pacific but this one would last till 1975 and due to American atrocities the nation of Vietnam was battered, bruised and only barely remained beaten.Tragic it is that one country should endure so much but before this all happened there was Japanese occupation and French colonialism and lets not start on Chinese invasions; yes plural. Instead of rattling off all the poo that the world has heaped on Vietnam in recent centuries I’ll just name four of the worlds great and powerful nations of the present: America, Japan, China, France. Pretty formidable quartet but after centuries of beating down on little old Vietnam it’s a storyline to make a hollywood scriptwriter weep, Vietnam persevered and beat them all. The DMZ is now more a relic of pride for this nation that has achieved the impossible, the DMZ isn’t just a 2km wide strip, it’s the whole country waving red flags with a big gold star at the powers that tried to bully it and failed.
So, roughly halfway through this epic road trip we’re halfway up this country and safe in the demilitarised zone which is all very moderating; time to get the bikes looked at. There’s a famous mechanic in these parts, a man of near biblical fame; except that he actually does something of value when you give him money. Charlie rides ahead of a sulking Greg being pushed up the road to salvation; praise be to the mechanic: changer of oil, bringer of ignition and cleaner of carburettor. Mystical shamans are of a different breed here; a short fellow with a big smile and covered not in fine priestly robes but an earthly wash of grease and grit barrels out to meet us over a ground that has a greasy coating just like him. He’s at one with the motor gods. Charlie even jests to him that he must have lost his two amputated fingers in a bike chain. He did lose his two fingers in a bike chain.First of all there’s a bit of diagnosis which is a nice change in place of the admirable but annoying focus on just getting you going again. A bargain is struck and for now it’s off to attempt to watch some more rugby in a city that has no pay TV, seemingly an aggression not permitted into the demilitarised zone. I guess Charlie watching rugby could be argued as an act of aggression; the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, he is his fathers son. Lets just say that we followed the game by online updates only making our decision to spend the weekend here to catch the rugby a complete disaster. Greg’s namesake does perform admirably on the field though, lets just hope that serves as an example for my big sulking toff.
Our day signs off on possibly the first food let down of Vietnam. In truth the dignity of Vietnamese food remains above accusation, just the service and portion sizing was a bit average. Chopsticks to eat with are usually a good starting point in a restaurant but let’s not gripe. The royal rice cakes, or banh beo (see image top of post), come as a sticky rice slick wrapped in a leaf with some undistinguished red fishy paste while the banh khoai is a kind of kids sized rice pancake also with some variant of surprise mystery filling. Tasty food but it’s off to a trusty street stall to finish the half done job.In so many ways stopping in Hue is a natural medium in this country, it’s hard to believe we’ve made it this far through bike breakdowns and on Vietnamese roads. For the first time I start to think that we might actually make it all the way but I dare not voice the prediction aloud. The big question remains, as we bunker down in the neutral DMZ: what, if any, cultural division remains between the north and the south of a country that in relatively recent times has become one? In a few days we’ll launch out of the theoretically irrelevant DMZ on the famous Ho Chi Minh trail to see the great mans vision of a united Vietnam that he was so sadly unable to bring into his own lifetime. The south has been a triumph; so come on north Vietnam, what have you got?