I grew up in the USA after the Vietnam War ended but the chill from its shadow was long. Many Americans remembered this war with anger and bitterness for a variety of reasons – veterans who served felt their efforts were not appreciated and civilians who felt the USA should never have been in the war. Having left Vietnam in 1973, memories in the USA of the war seem to have faded somewhat in the intervening 45 years.
Vietnam itself has bounced back as a desirable tourist destinations with almost 13 million tourists in 2017. Among the many touristy Vietnam destinations are Halong Bay, the Mekong Delta and beautiful beaches on the coast. I would suggest that you add these 5 Vietnam War sites to your itinerary in order to understand Vietnam’s relatively recent bloody past. Among the many Vietnam destinations related to the Vietnam War, here is our pick of the 5 war sites In Vietnam not to miss, including the Vinh Moc Tunnels, the Saigon War Remnants Museum and the Hanoi Prison Museum.
Why Visit War Sites in Vietnam?
With so many beautiful and historical sites in Vietnam, why would you visit war sites in Vietnam? For example, this small country has 7 UNESCO world heritage sites with many dating back centuries. Focussing on the ugly historical sites in Vietnam relating to war sites in Vietnam from the 1970’s just seems so depressing.
Yes, it’s a depressing era. I don’t think though we should pick and choose which elements of history we remember.
Here are some sobering statistics on the Vietnam War:
- Nearly 60,000 Americans died during the war and another 75,000 Americans were left disabled. The average age of an American casualty was merely 23 years old.
- Nearly 70% of the current population of Vietnam was born after the Vietnam War ended. The loss of men during the war means there are still significantly more women than men in the country.
- About 2 million Vietnamese people became refugees from their country after the end of the war.
Our first nanny when the twins were babies was such a Vietnamese refugee. Her parents were killed during the war and she sold cigarettes on the streets of Hanoi in its aftermath. She and her sister fled on a boat, was rescued by a ship at sea and then processed as refugees. She was accepted for entry by the United Kingdom and her sister was sent to the USA. They never saw each other again.
She was excellent as a baby nurse and spoke wistfully about the fact that she never had her own children. And, she was just a few years older than me.
All of these people affected by the Vietnam War deserve to be remembered and the Vietnam War should be a cautionary tale on the devastating impact on young lives when old men rattle their sabres.
5 Vietnam War Sites You Should Visit
These 5 war sites in Vietnam show different aspects of the Vietnam War. Obviously there are more Vietnam tourist sites to visit but this will give you an overview of the war as waged in the country.
Son My Memorial
The Son My Memorial is a sculpture of a defiant elderly woman meant to represent the unyielding will of the Vietnamese.
The Son My Memorial commemorates one of the worst atrocities of the war which made it one of the most famous war sites in Vietnam. An American unit massacred almost 500 civilians in the village of My Lai in March of 1968. Although the village was supposed to be hiding Viet Cong soldiers, only children, women and old men were killed. The photos of this massacre was instrumental in shifting public opinion on the Vietnam War in the USA.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum
The Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi was built by the French in 1896 during their colonial rule. Hoa Lo means “furnace” in Vietnmese which no doubt would be an apt description of the hellish conditions at the prison.
During the Vietnam War, it became nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by its American prisoners of war. Under the Vietnamese, Hoa Lo Prison held mostly American air force pilots who were shot down over the jungles of Vietnam. One of most famous former POW’s held at the Hanoi Hilton Jail was Senator John McCain who ran for the presidency of the USA in 2008.
Although most of the Hoa Lo Prison has been destroyed, a gate house remains and is now the Hoa Lo Prison Museum.
The Vietnamese maintain that the American POW’s were not tortured at the Hanoi Hilton jail. The exhibits from the Hanoi Hilton jail era show the Americans being treated well and exhibits such as John McCain’s military uniform. The more grim exhibits from the Hanoi Prison Museum such as the prisoners being chained show the French-Vietnamese era.
Vinh Moc Tunnels
The Vinh Moc tunnels were used by civilian Vietnamese as bomb shelters. The village of Vinh Moc Vietnam had the bad luck of being on the border between the North and the South and faced heavy military action.
So 60 families from Vinh Moc Vietnam moved underground carried on with ordinary life – eat, sleep and even have babies. Over the course of 6 years, tons of bombs were dropped on the villagers (by some estimates 500 bombs a day). Thanks to the Vinh Moc tunnels though, no one died. The Vinh Moc tunnels are an impressive testament to the human instinct to survive and to adapt!
The Vinh Moc Tunnels are one of the cooler Vietnam destinations to visit but like the Cu Chi tunnels mentioned below, they are not for the claustrophobic.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Like the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, the tunnels under Ho Chi Minh city started during the French colonial period.
During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong extended the tunnels to conduct guerrilla war against the Americans. The Cu Chi tunnels are thousands of miles of tunnels which still exist today. The Viet Cong used the tunnels to hide as well as a base from which to conduct war. For example, the Cu Chi tunnels held hospitals and living quarters.
The American troops knew about the tunnels but they just couldn’t eradicate them. Not only were the Cu Chi tunnels hundreds of miles long but also booby-trapped. These tunnels were instrumental in adding to the American troops’ frustrations, casualties and costs.
The Vietnam War tunnels tour usually includes an optional extra where you can shoot firearms. Some parts of the tunnels have been widened to accommodate foreign tourists. Be forewarned about the tunnels – Vietnam tours may not tell you that they are seriously claustrophobic.
Saigon War Remnants Museum
The Saigon War Remnants Museum (now Ho Chi Minh City) is definitely Vietnam government propaganda. The name may have change from the American War Crimes Museum but that’s about as even-handed a treatment of the war as it gets!
Remember, no American POW’s were mistreated at the Hanoi Hilton Jail and all atrocities were committed by Americans. As long as you have that mindset, the Saigon War Remnants Museum is a fascinating visit. So cough up your $1.75 War Remnants Museum entrance fee and see how the Vietnamese perceive their Western occupiers.
This museum is useful though as a testament to the horrors of war, including exhibits of military equipment, unexploded bombs and photographs of victims affected by napalm. You have everything from a French colonial guillotine to American helicopters and a photo collection from war reporters from nearly a dozen countries.
Whatever your opinion of the Vietnam War itself, you can’t walk away from the Saigon War Remnants Museum without thinking war itself is just a bad idea.
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