Hero and martyr – that’s what’s inscribed on the gravestones of the unknown soldiers buried in the cemeteries used for those who died in the Vietnam (or seeing as we’re actually in Vietnam now, the American) War. Each unknown solider gets a grave, although there are some mass graves, for those who died together, known and unknown. This is just one of the stops on our Vietnam War Tourism route.
Vietnam War Tourism – Route 9 National Soldier Cemetery
We visited the Route 9 National Soldier cemetery on Highway 9 while taking a tour with the fabulous Mr. Hoa, himself an American War veteran, albeit through conscription and only for the last year of the war. The Vietnamese are pragmatic about where their war dead are buried, (only in a small number of cases are the dead repatriated to their home town) this cemetery is for those who died along highway 9.
The Former DMZ
Quang Tri Province encompasses the land area of the former DMZ. It’s home to 72 Martyrs Cemeteries that contain 65,000 graves. Vietnamese government estimates have over 300,000 former North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) soldiers unaccounted for, out of a total estimate of 1.1 million soldiers killed during the war.
This was just one stop on our tour through Vietnam that took in sites related to the War, although it was as moving as visiting the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC.
Vietnam War Tourism – the Cu Chi Tunnels
We started our trip to Vietnam with a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City, then and still now for many, Saigon. Eschewing the big bus tours, we’d hopped on a couple of local buses and spent a couple of hours getting there before walking in with a Vietnamese couple on a quiet, rainy midweek day.
There’s more on how to get there on public buses here;
When we travelled there was very little online booking available for buses, trains and ferries in Vietnam and South East Asia – the folks at Easybook have now remedied that – check timetables and book tickets online now – its WAY easier!
There was an air of desertion as we walked onto the site, under the sign, to the ticket booth, where we handed over our 90k VND (US $4.50) each and wandered in the general direction of – well, not back out the exit (there’s a distinct lack of signage and the map you’re given is not helpful.). You can choose to visit the temple built to commemorate the martyrs (that’s a common word when it comes to the war, so you’d best get used to it), but you will need long trousers and long sleeves.
A few hundred meters later, and there’s a display of old American weaponry. That’s common across all the war sites, displays of American weaponry, not a great deal on Vietnamese weaponry at all. And then there’s a ticket check area and as we follow 15 or so Vietnamese in, we’re told to wait, at least that’s what we think the hand wave means this time.
A few minutes later we’re led off, just the two of us – being the only Westerners in sight – into the jungle down well trodden paths, and within less than a minute you’re completely disoriented and have no idea where the other group have gone or where the way out is. You pass a display showing the uniform of the Viet army and then throughout the jungle there are a series of covered screening areas, which is where you’re shown the 15 minute program (in English for us) on the history of Cu Chi and how the American devils came to destroy it.
It’s old, there’s a lot of propaganda, but it’s fascinating. If you get to the end of your video (we had a power cut..) then your guide will return and show you a plan of the tunnels and then a map. I was completely ignorant up until this point about the different levels involved. Our guide spoke pretty good English, although heavily accented, and it did help that we’d read up a little beforehand.
Now you head off further into the jungle (or we might have turned back on ourselves, I was probably walking in circles). And TBH this is part of the whole experience. It was raining, it was humid, it was hot, in the war I would have lasted maybe 15 seconds, if that. You walk past termite mounds, that actually are cover for air holes into the tunnels and then you come to your first tunnel. The guide will show you how the tunnels have been increased in size for tourists while you’re thinking, but how the heck am I going to crawl through that!!
We also got to go into the bunker, where the entrance is just about shoulder width and Nige duly does squeeze in, the guide and I shut the entrance lid and Nige shoots us. With the camera, from inside. After he manages to find his way out, we head off into the tunnels proper. You do come up between areas of the tunnel and then go down again, at one point you have the option to go through a longer section (the guide said 30 meters, my knees said longer), but you don’t have to and can bypass that (but honestly, why would you take the bypass?).
When you finally come up, there’s a bamboo hand washing station and you get to taste tapioca – which is what the Viet’s lived on primarily during the war. And it’s not the sloppy rice pudding that you’re expecting, it’s actually quite pleasant, but I’m not sure I would say that after 10 years of it.
It was hot, humid, disorienting and a superb tour, a perfect introduction to the war in Vietnam.
The War Remnants Museum – Saigon
Next stop was the War Remnants museum – an easy walk in the center of Saigon. There’s a fair amount of propaganda on display in this museum, but that doesn’t detract from the display and the stories told. From the American aircraft, helicopters, tanks and weaponry in the front yard to the tiger cages and prison recreation, through the detail on the impact of Agent Orange not just on those living at the time but also on their children. It is a thought provoking, emotional journey through the 18 or so years of the American War.
The photographs of the foreign correspondents and photographers, and those of those impacted by the defoliation that Agent Orange caused will sear images into your mind that will be hard to shake. Indeed the stories of those correspondents lost as casualties of war, such huge talents, will also remain with you for a long time.
When you vacation on the island of Phu Quoc, you’ll remember not just the fish sauce smell that it’s famous for producing, but also the prison, where those heroes of the war were incarcerated, tortured and died in Tiger Cage cells.
Visiting the DMZ in Vietnam
It’s further north, closer to the Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ, where you can find out a lot more to the history of the everyday Vietnamese.
We met Mr Hoa at Tam’s Cafe in Dong Ha and spent the day with this one year veteran conscript of the American War. Careful never to mention politics (then or now), he gave us a fascinating insight as we drove through the DMZ for the day. We found the remaining American aircraft bunker, still in place after all these years, now hidden away down a back alley in central Dong Ha, then found the bunker on the banks of the river, close to the port created by the American’s and where they landed supply boats from the seven aircraft carriers sitting offshore.
Driving along Highway 9, we passed more cemeteries, where now only reburials take place – bodies continue to be found, and are reburied in these plots next to other Heroes and Martyrs.
We stood at the lookout, marked now by a statue of Vietnamese where the Americans watched the border, some kilometers away, at the river.
And then we walked to the river, and crossed the reconstructed bridge across this divisive part of Vietnam. It had been destroyed during unification, but a strong tourist influence and a savvy Vietnamese desire to part tourist dollars from tourists saw the reconstruction happen in recent years. Walking across the old border, we amused a large group of tourists with our western celebrity status and posed for photos.
Over the river, original speakers stand guard outside the museum, complete with bullet holes, they’re retired forever from broadcasting propaganda across the border.
The Vinh Moc Tunnels
The Vinh Moc tunnels were hand dug by civilians so that they could take cover when the Americans bombed the area. Some bomb craters remain, pointed out by Mr Hoa, others were filled in in order to make the land usable after the war. On the surface, though, Vinh Moc has all the requirements for a Vietnamese tourist site – a ticket office, a restaurant, toilets and a huge array of small stalls where you can part with your tourist dollar. Pineapple was popular when we were there.
Under the ground, it’s an absolute maze – on three levels, the top level mainly used for storage, the second level, for living in, included a maternity ward, where 17 babies were born (16 of whom are still alive today), a hospital, toilets, a washing area, places to sleep, a long, large meeting room, a kitchen. And there’s not just one opening, there are lots from the surface, openings disguised beneath bamboo, to the four or so openings onto the beach – where, Mr Hoa explained, food and ammunition could be brought in from the Con Co island easily and brought in through the tunnels, to be distributed from one of the surface openings.
Civilian tunnels eh?
Bomb Craters at My Son
The bomb craters, too are in evidence at the My Son site – Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and the 14th century AD by the kings of Champ – and a UNESCO site near to Hoi An, bombs having destroyed so much of this historic Cham site in American carpet bombing in August 1969.
The Hanoi Hilton – Hoa Lo Prison
There are remnants left also in Hanoi – where American pilots spent time at the “Hanoi Hilton“, or the Hoa Lo prison, including Douglas Peterson, who became the first US Ambassador to a unified Vietnam in 1995. Senator John McCain’s flight suit is on display along with photo’s of him after he was shot down. It’s a sad little display in Hanoi, at the Hoa Lo Prison. While the museum covers more than just it’s use during the American War, it is mainly in Vietnamese. Maison Centrale displays over the entrance door, videos reinforce the damage that the American devils did, yet wax lyrically over the easy time that those incarcerated there during that regime had. It’s in the two American rooms that you find the majority of the visitors and also a desire to read more and cut through the propaganda.
B52 in a Lake in Hanoi
Walk a little further afield in Hanoi and you’ll find the remains of a B52 in a Lake. Down a rabbit warren of alleys, this stark reminder of the War sinks a little lower into the mud and rusts a little more each year, although the tyres look remarkably intact. It’s left there as an aide memoire of the impact of the acts of war.
Don’t forget to book your buses, ferries and trains – and confirm your travel. Easybook have the largest network in South East Asia!
Unexploded Ordinance in Vietnam
But there’s one remaining remnant of the war, and this continues to remind the Vietnamese of the legacy of war to this day. During the war, an estimated 15 million tonnes of ordinance was dropped on Vietnam, a large concentration in the DMZ area.
It’s estimated that 10% did not explode. Yet, it continues to explode now, sometimes for no apparent reason, other times found by farmers or curious children it maims, injures and continues to take lives.
The Mine Action Centre, Dong Ha
The Mine Action Centre, in Dong Ha is a Non Government Organization (NGO) that works in the DMZ area – educating primarily children and collecting, defusing and blowing up unexploded ordinance. We spent a riveting hour with the manager of the centre, as he explained their programs. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a Tuesday or Thursday and they have any recently found unexploded ordinance (UXO), then you just might get to see it made safe – or blown up. With the education programs that they run and the rate of finding UXO the Centre estimates that they may be on top of the situation in 10 years.
The War impacted many people both then and now and in this beautiful country leaves behind scars and memories that will remain for generations to come and this was an emotional journey, even for someone such as me, completely unconnected.