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Monument to Perseverance May Fall

Straddling the DMZ, popular tourist site Hien Luong Bridge has been targeted for demolition.


DONG HA, Vietnam — For Americans and Vietnamese alike, the Hien Luong Bridge over the Ben Hai River has been a symbol of a once-divided country and of a terrible war.

The steel bridge, built on 10 piers and the length of five football fields, stands smack dab in the middle of the onetime Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and links what from 1954 to 1975 were two countries: the North's Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the South's Republic of Vietnam.

Today, it remains to the Vietnamese the embodiment of Hanoi's long-held belief that the division of Vietnam was only temporary.

"The Vietnamese are one," Ho Chi Minh--who led the resistance to French rule and was the first head of North Vietnam--said in a comment inscribed on a towering monument on the southern side of the bridge. "The rivers can dry up and the mountains can fall down, but this idea will never change."

But now, much to the dismay of the Dong Ha People's Committee and the local tourist authority, the central government has recommended dismantling the bridge because a new span, built with Russian assistance 300 yards upstream and inaugurated in April, is meeting the growing needs of a unified country.

"Hien Luong is really a very important tourist attraction, and we don't want to lose it," said Truong Van Tam of DMZ Tours. "It's something every tourist coming to Quang Tri province wants to see because it has so much history."

Actually, it's future is in doubt only because of a technical problem. While the new bridge upstream has only five piers, Hien Luong's 10 support pillars are causing whirlpools that slow the water flow.

Besides, transportation officials add, Hien Luong is not the original bridge, as most tourists believe. The first Hien Luong Bridge, a graceful structure with brick arches at each end, was built by the French in 1950 and destroyed by U.S. warplanes in 1967. The current bridge was completed by North Vietnam two months before its troops marched into Saigon--now Ho Chi Minh City--in April 1975.

Quang Tri, one of Vietnam's poorest provinces and one still laced with thousands of land mines, sees increased tourism as critical to its economic well-being. One solution being discussed is to replace the dismantled bridge with a replica of the original French-built span.

Last year, 12,000 tourists visited Quang Tri, despite the lack of visitor amenities in Dong Ha. Most of them came on day trips from Hue, and their destinations were places that resonated in America's consciousness a generation ago: the DMZ (which was never demilitarized), Khe Sanh, the Ben Hai River, Cam Lo, the Rockpile.

"The majority of our tourists are from Japan," Tam said. "Then Australia, Germany and the United States. Very few French. They go to Dien Bien Phu. Why the Japanese come, I don't know. Most don't speak much English and don't understand much about the war."

While the scars of war have been patched almost everywhere else in Vietnam, Quang Tri, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting against France, the U.S. and South Vietnam in two wars, remains something of a living war museum.

French pillboxes still stand silent guard at key road junctions, and two allied armored personnel carriers are parked by Dong Ha's main square as if they had been abandoned only yesterday.

The old airstrip at Khe Sanh could be serviceable with a few days' work, and the few buildings in Dong Ha that survived the war are still pockmarked with bullet holes.

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