War Tourism in Vietnam
This post is super long. Read it anyway. If your attention span is short, skip ahead to My Reactions.
For many people in this world, “Vietnam” is the name of a war and not a tourist destination. I’m ashamed to say I knew very little about the Vietnam War (or what the Vietnamese call the American War) before I arrived in the country. I know that it is something I was taught about in high school, but unfortunately that information was not retained in my brain, which at the time was probably busy trying to con my parents into extending my curfew.
Today, visitors to Vietnam can learn about the war not just from the history section in their guidebooks but also from a number of “war tourism” destinations around the country. Many of the sights we visited were heartbreaking and led me further into an identity crisis I was developing as an American in Vietnam. Other times, the propaganda and anti-American sentiment oozing out were so strong they made me a bit defensive against this communist country. Either way, it was an emotional journey.
The Reunification Palace was once the symbol of the South Vietnamese government (which, for people as clueless as I was, was the side the Americans were fighting on). Readers of my parents generation may recall seeing images in 1975 of communist tanks crashing through the wrought iron gates of what was then the Presidential Palace, marking the end of the Vietnam War.
As we were waiting at the entrance for enough English speakers to gather in order to start our free tour, we read in our guidebook the history and background of the palace, which dates back to 1868. The drama that went on behind these walls from the moment it was built until that fateful day of April 30th, 1975 is well worthy of a soap opera.
As our free tour began, we immediately picked up on the discrepancies between what Lonely Planet had just told us and what our soft spoken Vietnamese guide was stating. Where the guidebook had used terms like “the fall of Saigon,” this woman was using terms like “the reunification of Vietnam.” Where the book said “invaded,” she said “liberated.” As in, the North came and “liberated” South Vietnam from the Americans.
Granted, my limited knowledge of the Vietnamese War up until now had come from faint memories from high school history class, the movie Apocalypse Now, and an Australian published guidebook. (Did you know Australia deployed nearly 8,000 troops to Vietnam and lost over 500 men? I didn’t.) But from my understanding, the Americans were fighting alongside the South Vietnamese. So, doesn’t it make more sense that I am wrong and this Vietnamese woman is right? Considering Vietnam is a communist country without freedom of press and rampant propaganda, things aren’t so clear-cut.
Despite my misgivings over the information we were being fed throughout our tour, the palace was beautiful. The telecommunications center, with it’s bomb center, map room, war room, and endless network of tunnels, was particularly fascinating. The building is a stunning example of 1960’s architecture, it’s design and decor reflecting the harsh and modern Saigon I had begun to know.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are an extremely popular half-day tour out of Saigon. For $6, we were bused out of the city into a rural area that has been called “the most bombed, gassed, defoliated, and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.”
The Cu Chi Tunnels are comprised of a network of more than 155 miles of underground tunnel stretching from the South Vietnamese capital to the border of Cambodia. The tunnels were built and controlled by the North Vietnamese, who were able to live and wage war from, quite literally, underneath the American troops.
Today, the tunnels are extremely popular with both international and domestic tourists who come to learn about the horrors of guerrilla warfare and to try to understand the dedication and tenacity that would allow a person to spend years, in some case their entire lives, living in dark, damp, vermin infested crawlspaces. Usually, daylight hours were spent in the tunnels resting and working and nightfall was spent carrying out attacks and gathering food. When raids were going on, the Viet Cong would often remain inside the tunnels for days at a time. The stories of how the Viet Cong lived and the ingenuity they used to retain control of the area were fascinating.
The tunnels were hell on Earth for American troops who dreaded being send into them on missions. In order to conceal and protect tunnel entrances, the area was rife with vicious booby traps. Cu Chi became a sore point for the American military who, despite incessant attacks, was never able to remove the Viet Cong presence from the tunnels.
Unfortunately the site often seemed a bit like a tourist circus, from the massive tour groups (one of which we were part of) to the on-site shooting range. I had extremely mixed feelings about taking part in the shooting range, all things considered, but ended up trying the last two shots from Mark’s round.
The actual walk through the tunnels was saved for last. They are still unlit and fairly claustrophobic, though in fact they have been enlarged nearly 50% to accommodate tourists. I was pretty uncomfortable even given the safe environment we were in. I simply can’t imagine spending my life in a crawl space the way so many did.
The Cu Chi Tunnels had a strong anti-American sentiment. A video we watched before departing saluted the many “American killers” that lived in the tunnels and proudly boasted about their “American killing” and did I mention they used variation of the term “American killer” about twelve times? It was certainly a shock to hear.
Still, I found learning about the sacrifices people were willing to make for war to be fascinating. From a tactical standpoint, the Cu Chi Tunnels may be one of the most amazing marvels of modern warfare. It’s definitely a worthwhile visit, if you can stomach the gleeful pride at the “American killing” that took place here.
War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum, is the single most popular museum in Saigon. More than anywhere else we visited, it left me filled with grief and questions about how everything went so horribly wrong.
I barely raised my camera from my limp arms during my visit, which I spent mostly in a blur of tears, as I knew there was no way the images I was seeing would leave my memory anytime soon. The human suffering and in some cases, depravity, that is depicted here is on a level I’ve never seen before. The room dedicated to Agent Orange victims, still suffering today, left me outraged. However, a huge part of the story is left untold here.
There was a room dedicated to the opposition and outrage expressed around the world at America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. I only wish that it had more clearly explained that many Americans were part of that opposition as well, and that the draft sent many unwilling young American boys to their death. Or that the war divided America in a significant and lasting way.
And lastly, I wish the museum had taken time to explore the horrors of war from both sides. No war exists in a vacuum, and by putting all the blame and atrocities on one group, the museum in the end comes off very strongly smelling of propaganda.
My reaction to the sites and museums we visited was extremely emotional. Half the time I found myself genuinely ill about the horror America has helped cause in Vietnam. Specifically, the short-sighted use of Agent Orange, which not only killed or maimed half a million people but has gone on to disfigure unknown generations, and poison countless food and water sources.
The other half of the time I felt an indignation boiling up at the biased and propagandized views being fed to Vietnamese nationals and international tourists. War is a two-sided hell, but the atrocities of the Viet Cong against the South and yes, against Americans, were completely absent from the discussion. But as they say, history is written by the victors.
I think most Americans would find it difficult to travel through Vietnam and not have some bit of identity crisis. I found myself thinking we had no business getting involved in the first place, while simultaneously outraged at the US’s lack of interference during the Khmer Rouge occupation of Cambodia. I found myself sympathetic to the terrorized civilians of Vietnam, while at the same time empathizing with the terrified young American soldiers, many of whom fought a war they didn’t believe in. I found myself embarrassed, and I found myself confused. Mostly, nationalities aside, I found myself mourning the fact that so many humans on this Earth suffered so deeply for so long.
Visiting Vietnam gave me a perspective on war I didn’t previously know I was missing, and made me reflect deeply on the war my country is involved in today. It seems to me that the wounds of the Vietnam (or American) War are still very fresh despite the decades that have passed. I hope as time begins to heal them we can all learn from a more balanced, two sided story of a war gone horribly wrong; and that we can move forward into the future and learn from the mistakes that were clearly made.
I found this post to be really moving, thank you for taking the time to write it. There are so many things like this in the world, where I wonder what I was doing during history when this was taught. Was it just bad delivery by my teachers? Why wasn’t this interesting to me? I am really ignorant about the Vietnam war as well. Maybe I’ll add this to our list of things we need to do when we come out there.
Thanks Jenna. The more I travel the more I find myself wondering the same thing about my education. I said to Mark a million times I wish I could go back in time and hear what my teachers said about the Vietnam War. Was I affected at all or was I too wrapped up in my teenage life?
One thing I know for sure is the more places I go, the more I learn. In Cambodia I learned about the Khmer Rouge, in Greece I learned about the current economic crisis… sometimes I think I need to be there and see it with my own eyes to trigger my brain into compassion mode.
Hopefully, the world can learn from the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War and prevent future injustices….but sometimes history repeats itself unfortunately. Thank you for this post I wish everyone could be so insightful.
Thank you for your kind comment Rachael. I think both the greatest gift and the greatest burden of mankind can be our ability to forget. Some things are worth remembering, though.
I didn’t want to read this post, Alex. But I’m glad I did. Your comments were compassionate and insightful. And painful. To quote Pete Seeger, “When will we ever learn …”
I’m glad you decided to read, Bridget. I certainly didn’t absorb many of these lessons until coming to Vietnam and seeing it for myself. Perhaps a nation-wide field trip is in order.
And from a purely selfish and hopelessly immature standpoint, after that I read the post where you and your beau got dolled up for your birthday. Delightful! Your mix of culture, history, insight, and humor is a joy. Thanks for sharing! (Hope to see your mom tonight if she’s not too jet lagged!) Happy New Year!
That was one of my favorite travel moments! Glad you liked it 🙂 And Happy New Year to you as well.
Thank you for this. It takes courage to write about such controversial subjects and to do so with real honesty and emotion takes integrity and guts. One of my earliest memories as a child was watching my father, whose draft number was 7, pull a piece of shrapnel from his neck at the breakfast table. I have read a great deal on the subject of the Vietnam war in an effort to better understand my own father and my impression is that very little has yet to be published from an unbiased and objective perspective. Thank you for highlighting this issue.
Wow, I’m trying to remember if I knew that your dad was drafted and I don’t think I did because I’m sure I would have picked your brain about it. My dad was one of the lucky ones to be spared in the draft and lately I wonder how different my life would be (ie: would I exist?) If you have any book recommendations on the subject let me know.
I was in high school and college during the Vietnam war and my identity was also challenged. I grew up thinking that the US was the greatest nation in the world and then found out about what we were doing in Vietnam and saw how our government turned on students at Kent State. What is sad is to see some of the now grown men who I went to hs with that have PTSD from that war and how their lives changed from fighting in it. Thank you for your honesty in your posting.
Thank you for commenting Maggi. I enjoyed your insight!
I also found this museum left me in tears. As an Aussie with a keen interest in history, I knew a fair bit about the Vietnam war before I arrived there in 2010. No matter what country you are in, the history you learn will be mostly told from that country’s point of view so it was not surprising to me to see the one sidedness of the version of history told here. Still, we can only hope that the terrible aftermath for the south Vietnamese people following that devastating conflict will not be repeated in the wars currently being fought. This may go some way to explaining why the US and her allies in the middle east are so reluctant to pull the troops out before the job is done.
I agree, its an incredibly emotional place and goes a long way to explain the current climate in Vietnam (at least what I experienced though I know you had a totally different one). And yes, not only was the story being told from Vietnam’s point of view, but also, as they say — history is written by the victors!
What I took away from the museum was the undeniable truth that what happened then is still happening now.
You don’t hear about every war, and most Americans wouldn’t even know where half the countries are that are being invaded by the US, but the fact is that the US government is waging war around the world every day.
The quote at the museum from President Johnson about how the war was all about getting Vietnam’s tin and tungsten. Sound familiar? The wars in the Middle East and Africa are about the control of oil (among other things).
The information presented about the second Gulf of Tonkin “attack”, which the US used as the pretext for joining the war. It’s a verified fact that this “attack” did not involve North Vietnamese at all. We can draw many other similar comparisons involving ‘false flag’ attacks which the government either fabricated or allowed to happen, to enable them to justify their entry to war (or, on another topic, to push through new totalitarian laws in their own country – hello, Patriot Act).
Shocked by Agent Orange? Have a look into depleted uranium, which the US is now using, and the associated rise in birth defects in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the effects on the US soldiers using it).
Torture, anyone? The same methods (and more) are being used today. We can be quite certain that not everyone is being punished for excessive use of torture either, no matter how many scapegoats they highlight in the media.
Overall, it paints a pretty bleak picture of history repeating itself, and leaves me unsurprised that so many people view the US in a negative light, and present that view in their museums.
I wonder how many museums like this will be popping up all over the world in the coming years (which may just shock or offend the millions of Americans who believe everything they’re taught in school or in movies).
Louise, I definitely take almost everything I hear with a healthy dose of skepticism, so I wasn’t shocked that my public school education wasn’t reflected back at me here 🙂 However, I do think a museum run by the government should make some attempt to be balanced and fair and provide an accurate picture to the public. I think this one crossed the line a bit, and I’ve tried to word that in a delicate fashion that in no way minimizes the horrors of the war that was waged in Vietnam.
This was a really interesting read! I’m a Brit, and a lover or history. I’ve studied the Vietnam conflict at University and intend to visit Vietnam next year, as I love visiting the places I have learned about. I think one of the most important things to keep in mind when looking at the Viet Cong, is that they were first and foremost a nationalistic group attempting to reunify Vietnam following the longstanding occupation of the French. The US saw them primarily as a Communist state and aligned themselves on the wrong side during the conflict. A popular interpretation is that the US and the S. Vietnamese would never be able to subdue the North, because of this cause.
Nonetheless, none of this excuses the actions taken by either side during the conflict. I’m sure seeing it first hand must have been chilling to say the least. Having visited the trenches from WW1 that remain in Belgium, I can imagine visiting the sight were so many plotted to kill and were killed was unnerving.
I’m really enjoying reading your posts, and using them to help me plan my future trip. Thanks x
Thank you so much for this insightful comment, Jess. It sounds like you are someone who would really get a lot out of these sights. I hope you make it to Vietnam at some point to see them for yourself — I’d love to hear your perspective 🙂
Hi Alex, Thank you for visit Vietnam
As a local of Saigon and a history lover, I’m very sorry for your confusion. If you come back to Saigon someday – It would be my pleasure to be your tour guide in Saigon. Maybe It would help you having a different view on the Vietnam war a more balanced view.
Hey Daniel, thanks for your kind offer! That said, I’m not sure what you think I’m confused about. I was very appreciative of all the information and perspective I gained from this trip.
Hi Alex, I lost a few friends of our family to the Vietnam war and sadly never bothered to learn about it. I’ve read a zillion books about the war and finally found a great book that really explains it very clearly. “The Real History of the Vietnam War, by Alan Axelrod. Very easy read. Nate
Thanks for the tip, Nate! Much appreciated, I’d love to read it when I head back to Vietnam someday.
I visited Vietnam a month ago. I looked at this country from quite different perspective than you.
Firstly, the age, I remember times of Vietnam war. Secondly, location, at the time of Vietnam war I lived in Communist Poland so confrontation of my memories with facts was much easier.
Having this in mind I would like to congratulate you on a very thoughtful and sincere report of your experience and emotions.
Hey Lech! Thank you for the kind words, I do appreciate it. I was quite young and early in my travels when I visited Vietnam. I would be interested to go back now.
Thanks Alex. Visiting Vietnam some years later, we visited the same places you did and experienced the same emotions. Ultimately though, we have come to the conclusion, as you eloquently stated regarding “victors writing their history” that modern day Vietnam is living a lie, in fact many lies.
The rampant kidnapping and murder of South Vietnamese (at least 35,000) teachers, doctors, policeman and politicians and the indiscriminate bombing and terrorism of the civilians by the Viet Cong goes unmentioned. The treachery of the north in breaking the peace accord also goes unmentioned, as does the executions and re-education camps that followed the fall of the South.
And ultimately the “utopia” of Communism led to increased infant mortality and a decreased standard of living compared to non-communist neighbouring Asian countries.
If a country cannot acknowledge and atone truthfully for its wrongs, its credibility and viability will always be suspect and precarious. A final thought for those that perished, their souls obliterated by propaganda and the desire for wealth.
I agree, the lack of reflection in the museums and exhibits regarding the war were somewhat disturbing. Vietnam is a tough country to visit, I think. There’s a lot to absorb.