Despite having studied History to A Level and coming from a family of history graduates and enthusiasts, my knowledge of Asian history was poor to none existent prior to travelling this continent. The majority of my GCSE and A Level history experience as I remember it was, whilst enjoyable, almost entirely centred around the Tudors, the Russian Revolution and WWs 1 and 2.
I’d heard of the Vietnam War of course, although I didn’t know a lot about it, but had no idea about the civil wars in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, the carpet bombing of Laos by the US or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to name just a few examples of my ignorance.
When we arrived in Vietnam I was looking forward to making sure we covered lots of historic sites from the American War (as it’s called there) and doing some reading and research to improve my understanding of what happened and what the legacy of the war has been for Vietnam. Whilst the saying goes that history is written by the winners, I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard about the war from a Vietnamese perspective so it’s been great to learn more about what happened and how it affected people as well as various places. I’ve also been surprised by just how many Vietnam war sites it’s possible to visit as lots have been opened up to target more tourism in local areas.
We found visiting Vietnam war sites not only interesting but also extremely moving. From photography exhibitions we saw to experiencing the underground tunnel networks and seeing bomb craters that remain today some places are definitely very emotional to spend time at. As with any type of historical exhibit, especially ones related to war, you have to try and apply a degree of critical thinking – it’s very obvious that you’re being exposed to material that’s been created in Vietnam by the Vietnamese, just as the reverse is surely true if visiting exhibitions in the US. Sometimes it’s tricky to get a balanced view as particularly with the events being in living memory emotions still run high. This was obvious in everything from the captions on photographs in exhibits even through to the tour guides we met, some of whom were personally effected by the events of the war.
Some of the most interesting Vietnam war sites that we visited are as follows – we travelled north to south so have included them in that order:
Hoa Lo Prison
Situated in the old quarter of Hanoi, this prison’s history pre-dates the conflict with America but is known to many as the place where US prisoners of war were held. In addition to other notable periods in the prison’s history, you can see where they were kept and numerous photographs of how they spent their time here whilst imprisoned. All exhibits strongly emphasise how well the Vietnamese treated the Americans in Hoa Lo – especially in comparison with how the French Colonists treated the Vietnamese when they ran the prison.
Ho Chi Minh Museum
An interesting insight into the leader of the Viet Cong, including the development of his ideology and political goals. The museum includes many examples of his writing as well as more personal history. This complex also houses the mausoleum and wooden Pagoda which are worth seeing if you have the time.
Phong Nha National Park
Memorial to Fallen Soldiers
Not worth going out of your way to see if you’re not planning on visiting the park but if you’re spending time in Phong Nha it’s worth a visit. There is a small temple dedicated to fallen Vietnamese soldiers on the road to the Cave of the 8 Ladies, as well as a memorial on the lead up. This is also one of the areas of the country that suffers most from the unexploded ordnance that still remains uncleared which is a sobering thought. Always stick to marked paths and hikes must be undertaken with qualified guides.
Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)
Taking a tour of the demilitarised zone is by far the best day out we had when it came to learning about the Vietnam war and seeing historic locations from the war years. Established as a dividing line between the US troops in the South and the Viet Cong in the North with the Ben Hai river acting as the boundary line, the DMZ stretches 5km in each direction. Full day tours from Hue are a long day of driving but for 15USD per person offer excellent value.
The first stop our tour covers this is an impressively tall peak used as a lookout station by US marines.
Ho Chi Minh Trail
An ancient trading path, this became an essential logistical system for supplying the Vietnamese forces in the North of the country. Much of the US bombing of Laos and Cambodia was carried out in an attempt to cut this supply chain.
Khe San Marine Base
An old airfield used by the US this is one of the most interesting war sites in Vietnam we visited. It features reconstructed bunkers and US aircraft that sit alongside old shells and wreckage from helicopters and planes. The museum located in the centre has some really interesting photography and the man who works there speaks good English and gives an excellent overview of what’s included in the exhibition and the history of the area.
Vinh Moc Tunnels
Not one for the claustrophobic, this tunnel system was created to protect the local village from intensive US bombing. Many bomb craters are still visible today and the tunnels themselves are extremely interesting to see. A winding maze across 3 levels, with 13 entry and exit points, villagers lived here for over 6 years as the war raged.
Truong Son National War Cemetery
A memorial to over 10,000 Vietnamese soldiers who died in the conflict, as with all military cemeteries, this is a moving reminder of the cost of war. Saddest of all is the number of graves dedicated to unknown soldiers. This was one of the most moving Vietnam war sites we spent time at.
Hue to Danang
Most of the citadel of Hue was completely laid to waste in the war, over 80% of the city in total. This small city is an interesting visit with that context in mind and you can see what remained of the historical imperial palace. There’s also some good photography of the bombing of Hue exhibited at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh city.
Hai Van Pass / Highway 1
Made famous more recently after appearing in an episode of Top Gear, if you’re confident on a motorbike this scenic drive through the mountain pass is a highlight of any Vietnam trip. Known in the Vietnam war as the ‘Street Without Joy’, this was an essential part of the American supply chain in the war years. If you don’t want to drive there are tours available where you can ride pillion with an experienced motorcyclist or even bus tours.
Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon
There are several war sites in Vietnam that are located in Ho Chi Minh city, as it was the famous fall of Saigon as it was known then, that signified the end of the war in 1975. Some sites are in the city itself whilst others make very good half day or full day tours.
Cu Chi Tunnels
This is usually done as a half day tour although some companies offer it as part of a full day itinerary that takes in some other none war related sites. Expect to pay around 6USD for a half day and be ready for plenty of driving as they are located around 2 hours outside of the city. We were only in the tunnels for about 5 minutes which was more than enough time as they are far smaller and more uncomfortable than the Vinh Moc Tunnels. You’ll also see exhibits of Vietnamese war traps like bamboo booby traps dug into the ground and doors covered with sharp spikes to see off aggressive US troops.
War Remnants Museum
One of the most moving places we visited this hosts an external courtyard with numerous replicas of US aircraft and tanks that were in operation in the way, but it’s inside the museum that the relics of war are visually displayed in a way you won’t see elsewhere. There are four or five photography exhibitions that show some of the most graphic and emotive images of War we’ve ever seen. From the direct records of war correspondents on the front line to the after effects of Agent Orange we spent several hours absorbing the material on show. We were quite glad to visit here at the end of our tour as we’d already seen and learnt about so many of the sites where the photographs were taken which added an extra depth to our experience.
All in all whether you’re a history buff or not it’s definitely worth making some time in your itinerary for visiting Vietnam war sites. Even if you just pick one or two you’ll be surprised how much you can learn and how interesting it is to visit places that hold so much history. Our top recommendations if you only want to take in a couple of places on your trip would be the Hai Van Pass, War Remnants Museum and if you have time then definitely the DMZ tour. This is how we fitted our history tourism into our 3 week Vietnam itinerary.