A group of backpackers panned their cameras across a remote commune in Quang Tri Province, clicking away, then turned to do the same to a pile of sandbags placed over a soon-to-be detonated piece of war-era ordnance.
Soon the group was whisked away to watch the climactic explosion set off by a foreign-funded de-mining team.
The Quang Tri UXO Tour has run for two years now as a partnership between the Norwegian-funded project RENEW and the Vietnam Backpackers Hostels, which now operates three hostels in Hanoi and Hue.
Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of the War (RENEW) was founded in 2001 and is now primarily funded by Norwegian People’s Aid.
RENEW is counted among the most effective international NGOs working toward clearing UXO left over from the Vietnam War and helping victims in central Vietnam, particularly Quang Tri Province, which was the hardest hit by the American bombing campaigns.
Thomas Stone, who helped initiate the tour and has accompanied most the 76 groups of visitors so far, said he brought them over to see with their own eyes how the war has lingered in Quang Tri’s remote villages 40 years after it officially ended.
The province was a center for American military bases during the peak of the Vietnam War and a principle battleground during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
An estimated 400,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance (UXO) remain buried across 480,000 hectares of land in Quang Tri.
UXO can be found in residential areas, gardens and even under the floors of houses.
Official statistics list more than 7,000 people, 31 percent of them children, as victims of UXO accidents in the province between 1975 and 2011.
Since the war, buried bombs have killed 40,000 people nationwide and 60,000 injured, nearly half of them children below 16.
In many areas across Quang Tri, almost every family has a member who was killed by bombs and mines during peace time. Many tried to make ends meet by salvaging unexploded bombs discovered with metal detectors and dismantled with saws and hammers for scrap.
Having lived in Vietnam for more than five years and once worked at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in the nearby Quang Binh Province, Stone said he once knew as little about the war as most of his tourists now.
Most are between 18 to 30 and often include students on summer break who are likely to have only learned about the Vietnam War through books television, he said.
Nguyen Thanh Phu, a RENEW employee, said each tourist has to fill out a declaration, providing their full name, nationality, passport number and blood type a week in advance.
“The tour is about bombs and explosives, so optimal caution is inevitable,” Phu said.
A Thanh Nien reporter joined a tour late last month alongside 15 young foreigners from the UK, the US, Norway and Holland.
A bus picked them up from Quang Tri Center of UXO Exhibition and Clearance in the afternoon and carried them to the end of a dirt road in Vinh An village in Cam Hieu Commune, Cam Lo District.
The group proceeded to a bare patch of ground not far from residents’ houses and was greeted by an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit from RENEW, led by Le Xuan Tung.
After a briefing on the basic process of ordnance detection and disposal,Tung showed them three mortars and two 40mm grenades they dug up that morning.
“We’re going to explode these right here. We have prepared a hole, sandbags, explosives and wires. You guys have ten minutes to observe the site under our instructions before stepping back so the explosion can proceed safely,” he told the group.
After ten minutes, everyone moved 300 meters from the demolition site.
Liam O’connell, 21, from the UK, was invited to press the big red button as his companions raised their cameras to the horizon.
An explosion ripped through the air several seconds later, followed by blinding dust.
“It’s hard to describe my feelings right now. I was rather shocked.” O’Connell said after the big boom.
The young visitors wasted no time posting photos and videos of the detonation on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
They were also given debris to bring home.
Stone said a part of the tour’s purpose is to give back to Quang Tri’s casualties, in terms of either cash or gifts.
He also encouraged the tourists to make donations to locals and they usually do.
Stone handles two trips a week and bookings continue to rise.
Phu, who has participated in almost every trip so far, said most tourists were stunned by the explosion and had to take some time to process their thoughts and feelings.
He said it’s particularly difficult for the children and grandchildren of US veterans.
“But we are showing them this terrible picture of (US) arsenal not because we want someone to feel bad, but we want to inspire them to support peace and show sympathy to war victims,” Phu said.
Ngo Xuan Hien, a spokesperson for RENEW, said an Irish doctor named Aidan Ryan was so moved by the trip last March and he is holding a cycling event in Dublin this week to raise funds for UXO victims in Quang Tri.