Formerly a Combat Base for the US Marine Corps and Army, Dong Ha has become an important city in Vietnam’s East-West Economic Corridor. The capital of the Quang Tri Province, Dong Ha’s proximity to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) makes it ideal for travelers who want to learn more about Vietnam’s division as well as the history of the Vietnam/American War.
Historical Capital of the Quang Tri Province
Situated at the intersection of Vietnam’s Highways 1A and 9, Dong Ha is a well-known destination for tourists who are traveling along the county’s central coast. Although somewhat isolated from other cities, many ex-servicemen from both Vietnam and the U.S. visit the city while touring the DMZ.
Rebuilt and now a class-3 city, Dong Ha has several tourist attractions, however, the most popular are the tours of the DMZ. By road and rail, Dong Ha is well-connected to the rest of Vietnam. Serviced by the North-South Railway, the Dong Ha Railway Station is located not far from the city center. Trains leave daily from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Hanoi is about 606km (377 mi) to the north of Dong Ha and HCMC is 1119km (695 mi) to the south. Alternately, many visitors who are road tripping will stop in Dong Ha. If you’re hoping to fly, the closest airport is located in Hue, which is 83km (52 mi) south along the coast, as there are no direct flights to the city.
Long before Dong Ha became a combat base, the city was part of the Kingdom of Champa. Beginning their rule in the 2nd century AD, the kingdom extended across much of Central and Southern Vietnam. Losing power to the Chinese Qin Empire for a time, the Cham rebelled in the 2nd century CE, regaining control over Dong Ha.
However, by the 14th and 15th centuries, the Kingdom of Champa was in decline, and as time passed, more ethnic Vietnamese began to replace the Cham people in the area. Centuries later, Dong Ha would become a strategic point for South Vietnam and foreign forces fighting in the Vietnam War.
At the time, when Vietnam was divided into North and South, Dong Ha was Southern Vietnam’s northernmost town and closest urban area to the Demilitarized Zone. The U.S. Military forces turned Dong Ha into a combat base to support US Marines who were stationed in the DMZ, however, its placement and base status made it a target for attacks.
For years, Dong Ha was able to hold off the People’s Army of Vietnam (Northern Vietnam’s Army), but in 1972, as part of the Paris Peace Accords, Dong Ha fell to North Vietnam. Unfortunately, much of the city was destroyed by gunfights and bombings. In fact, almost nothing of the town from before the war remains and much of what exists today was rebuilt decades after the war.
- The famous Vietnamese singer, Nhu Quynh was born in 1970 in Dong Ha.
- Last estimated in 2009, about 93,800 people live in Dong Ha.
- Dong Ha’s total area is about 73 sq km (28 sq mi).
As a former combat base, most of Dong Ha’s attractions revolve around the Vietnam War and the military. The biggest draw for tourists to the area is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which marked the border between North and South Vietnam. Other historic military sites in the area include the old combat base, Vinh Moc Tunnels, Rockpile, and Ben Hai River.
Each site is open to the public and some local guides will take visitors on a tour to visit each location as a single package.
For travelers who want to get the most out of visiting Dong Ha, the best way to ensure that you see all the important sites is to book a tour of the DMZ. There are a few places in town, especially near Vinh Linh District, where tourists can arrange and book a tour. Local guides are excellent resources as they can not only take visitors to the historic sites but also provide a lot of information.
Another perk of booking a tour is that most companies will provide transportation to their clients. Visiting sites like the Khe Sanh Combat Base or Vinh Moc Tunnels, most tours will take a full day to complete.
Khe Sanh Combat Base
Once important for American forces during the war, Khe Sanh Combat Base is just 20 km (912.4 mi) outside of Dong Ha. During the war, the base largely consisted of an airfield and barracks. Today, it’s been turned into a museum. A few airstrips have been preserved and there is numerous small artifacts leftover from the war.
Tourists are permitted to visit independently or with a tour guide, though local guides will be able to narrate much more of the history.
Vinh Moc Tunnels
Frequently named as the “must-see” war site in Dong Ha, the Vinh Moc Tunnels were used by civilians, not soldiers during the Vietnam War. Many of the tunnels were designed as bomb shelters, but there was also a school, makeshift hospital, and even a small theater underground too.
Built between 1966 and 1967, the tunnels became a part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which not only protected locals but also helped supply the front lines. There are multiple entrances to the tunnel with many maze-like structures underground. DMZ tours include a visit to the Vinh Moc Tunnels, but tourists can see the area on their own too.
One quick stop on many tours and for travelers in the area is the Rockpile. Standing at 230 m (754.6 ft) above the terrain, the Rockpile was originally built by the French and used during the war as a lookout point. American forces called the Rockpile and barrier it provided the McNamara Line.
Surveying the area, soldiers were able to stop supply lines to North Vietnam. Now, the Rockpile is little more than a jagged hill. Most DMZ tours will stop at the Rockpile and travelers may visit on their own too.
Ben Hai River
The Ben Hai River is the delineation between what was, at the time, North and South Vietnam. Originally built in 1967 and rebuilt after the war, the bridge helps people cross, and on both sides, there are monuments to the war. A small museum not far from the bridge houses historic artifacts and photographs.
All DMZ tours stop at the Ben Hai River and tourists who want to see where the country was divided, won’t want to miss out on visiting the area.
Tourism in Dong Ha is still expanding, and as a result, there are only a few well-rated accommodations for tourists. Regardless, staff strive to provide excellent service to their guests to ensure that everyone is comfortable during their stay in the city. Dong Ha’s best hotels are the Sai Gon Dông Hà Hotel, Muong Thanh Grand Quang Tri Hotel, and the Hoa Phuong Guesthouse.
Sai Gon Dong Ha Hotel – Opposite Dong Ha Market, the Sai Gon Dong Ha Hotel is one of the largest resorts in the city. Boasting a large property, the hotel has two swimming pools, a restaurant, a bar, a tennis court, and a fitness center on-site. The rooms have AC and include a TV, minibar, personal safe, and private bathroom.
Guests have given high ratings to the breakfast buffet, but in addition to morning service, the restaurant has lunch and dinner menus.
Muong Thanh Grand Quang Tri Hotel – The city’s second large resort is Muong Thanh Grand Quang Tri Hotel, which is just 1.3km (0.8 mi) from the center of Dong Ha. Featuring modern facilities, guests can enjoy the property’s indoor swimming pool, fitness center, banquet room, restaurant, and bar. The spacious rooms each have a seating area, en suite bathroom, and mini-fridge.
Additional services offered by the hotel include traditional massages, room service, and luggage storage.
Hoa Phuong Guesthouse – Further from the city center, Hoa Phuong Guesthouse has been highly rated amongst budget travelers as a great value property. Smaller in size, the guesthouse has an on-site restaurant, lounge, terrace, and shared kitchen. The 24-hour front desk can assist guests with currency exchange, transportation, and tours.
With plenty of room options, travelers can sleep solo, in groups, or as families. Included with the reservation is an Asian breakfast.
Though many hotels have an on-site restaurant, travelers should also visit the city’s best restaurants. Most restaurants in Dong Ha serve traditional Vietnamese food, but a few may have international favorites on the menu too. Dong Ha’s top-rated restaurants are the Sachi Restaurant, Tong Hua, and Tam’s Café.
Sachi Restaurant – One international establishment is Sachi Restaurant, which specializes in Japanese food. Sushi dishes are the restaurant’s most popular menu item with chefs creating individual rolls and full boats. The Japanese-style interior has an open floor plan, so travelers can easily enjoy a meal in a large group. The staff at the restaurant are friendly and welcoming.
Tong Hua Restaurant – Serving a traditional hot pot and Vietnamese style dim sum, Tong Hua Restaurant is well-rated for its excellent service, good food, and fun atmosphere. Guests will have the option of cooking meat, fish, and vegetables in the hot pots. The dim sum is also delicious and for groups, the small portions are easy to mix and share.
Tam’s Café – A multi-use property, Tam’s Café is a small establishment that features quick meals like sandwiches, breakfast omelets, and spring rolls. While the café is small, there’s also a guest house with rooms for overnight stays. Family-owned, the café has become a landmark in Dong Ha and many tourists use Tam’s Café for directions.
Many DMZ tours will pick up travelers from the café and should anyone need assistance, the family is more than happy to help tourists make itinerary arrangements.
Although many memories in Dong Ha are of the war, the city is trying to move on from its conflicted past. Hoping to draw in new tourists, the city’s biggest celebrations are the Regional Art Festival and the Festival for Peace. Both held during the month of July, the festivals highlight the local culture and people.
During the Regional Art Festival, thousands of artists arrive in Dong Ha to perform and showcase their masterpieces. At the Festival of Peace, people gather at important sites in the city to bring the message of “Peace in the Quang Tri Province”.
Travelers in Dong Ha City may find that getting around is a little challenging as there are no city buses. Instead, the best ways to get around are by walking or taxi. The Dong Ha City Center is quite compact and there are several hotels and restaurants nearby, however, some destinations in the city may be too far for walking.
Taxis are common throughout the city and have very affordable rates. Tourists who are looking to visit DMZ sites are encouraged to book a tour, as transportation will likely be included. Many tour companies will meet clients at Tam’s Café for pickup and drop-off. For those who want to tour the area on their own, renting a motorbike is the best option.
Dong Ha’s location on the North Central Coast gives it a mild climate, though the area does experience a monsoon period in the later months of the year. Tourists avoid traveling to Dong Ha from September thru November as they usually are the rainiest months. Instead, tourism in the city picks up in December and lasts until about March or April since these months are the driest and coolest.
A historical destination, Dong Ha is a relatively unknown tourist destination. For those who know or were tied to the Vietnam War, the city is a huge draw because of its proximity to the DMZ. For everyone else, Dong Ha is normally a quick stop as they journey along the coast.
However, Dong Ha is looking to capitalize on its military history and expand its tourist industry. In the not-too-distant future, Dong Ha will likely see more developments in the city as it becomes more popular among tourists.
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