Vietnam was the story for a generation. Follow in the footsteps of soldiers, journalists and politicians on the trail of the war.
Vietnam may be fast reinventing itself as the new Thailand, offering an enticing blend of adrenaline activities and blissful beaches, cultured cities and remote forests, but it is also a fascinating destination for those with a passion for modern history. ‘Nam to a generation, one of the most dramatic conflicts of the Cold War was played out here and the legacy lives on in poignant sites across the country.
Renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the victorious North Vietnamese, it remains Saigon to all but the most committed communist. The Tet Offensive of 1968 was the turning point in the Vietnam War, when the conflict exploded on to television screens across America, shattering the myth of an imminent US victory. Coordinated uprisings were launched across the south, but it was the symbol of the communist flag being raised above the US embassy that pierced the armour of invulnerability. Today the complex is once again open for business as the US consulate.
Nearby is Reunification Hall, the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace, left as it was on 30 April 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks smashed through the gates, one of the most iconic images of the war. A visit to the nearby War Remnants Museum is essential to put these places and events in some perspective. Originally the rather propagandist ‘Museum of American War Crimes’, it now includes the excellent Requiem photographic exhibition featuring the most powerful images of the war.
Communist success was founded on guerrilla warfare. The Vietnamese realised they would stand little chance against American weaponry in open warfare, so opted for attrition. Nowhere is the tenacity and dedication of their approach better illustrated than underground at the incredible Cu Chi Tunnels. This subterranean labyrinth originally stretched for more than 200km, from the Cambodian border to the suburbs of Saigon.
Part of the tunnel network was located directly beneath a US military base and included field hospitals, meeting rooms and living areas. Today it is possible to experience the claustrophobia and clamminess of life underground. Crawling through this underground maze, it is almost impossible to imagine that people endured this hell on earth, this Underworld, for months on end.
US troops on tour of duty needed somewhere for their R & R (rest and recreation) and that place was China Beach, near Danang. An unbroken stretch of white sand cloaks the coast from bustling Danang to the historic trading port of Hoi An, 30km south. Indulge in your own R & R at one of the impressive new resorts before picking up the trail to the north.
The former DMZ (demilitarised zone) divided North and South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. Erroneously named, this soon became one of the most militarised areas on earth. The vestiges of war are everywhere. One of the most sobering is the Truong Son National Cemetery with row upon row of white tombstones stretching across the hillside. Honouring the north Vietnamese dead, many of the graves are empty, bearing the names of some of the 300,000 MIAs (missing in action).
Further east lies Khe Sanh, a former US military base that US commander General William Westmoreland feared could become America’s very own ‘Din Bin Phoo’, as President Johnson referred to the French defeat. In fact, it proved an elaborate smokescreen for the Tet Offensive and the US eventually abandoned the base without a fight. Closer to the Lao border lies ‘Hamburger Hill’, site of a fierce battle in May 1969 where 241 US soldiers died.
During the war, the communists used an elaborate network of supply routes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Ho Chi Minh Highway is a modern successor running along the spine of the Truong Son Mountains and offers the most incredible scenery. Travel through the Ke Bang National Park to discover a Halong Bay on land, where impossible karst formations poking through the dense jungle.
Entering Hanoi, one discovers another side of the wartime story. The ‘Hanoi Hilton’, also known as the Hoa Lo Prison, was where John McCain spent five years as a POW. The original French sign is still visible above the door, ‘Maison Centrale’, and the displays include a guillotine, fortunately no longer in use when McCain checked in. In a sign of the times, there is a Hilton Hotel just down the road, overlooking the lavishly restored Opera House.
The driving force behind Vietnamese independence and the quest for a united Vietnam was Bac Ho (Uncle Ho or Ho Chi Minh). No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a pilgrimage to his mausoleum. Like Lenin and Mao before him, Ho was interred, against his wishes, in a forbidding tomb, which remains a mecca for aspiring Vietnamese communists. See the changing of the guard outside, before entering the austere mausoleum to meet the man himself. If one man can be said to define the history of a nation, for Vietnam it is Ho.
Forget tours of duty, touring the new Vietnam is one of the most enriching, enlivening and educational experiences on earth.
This article, written by Nick Ray, first appeared in the BBC History magazine in 2009. It is reproduced here in memory of Horst Faas, one of the great Vietnam War-era combat photographers who died on 10 May 2012.