Note: This post originally appeared as three separate entries on my previous, now defunct blog Thompsonwerk.
For three weeks, between May and June 2011, I toured Vietnam. During my time in country, I visited the cities of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Da Nang, Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi. I saw the Mekong, Perfume, and Red rivers. I swam in the South China Sea and dove in the beautiful Ha Long Bay. By far the most memorable areas seen during my trip where the battle sites of Cu Chi, the Iron Triangle, Hue, and Khe Sanh. While this post addresses my visiting various war related sites, future installments will discuss other facets of my trip. So without further ado here is the first post about my experiences in Vietnam.
The trip began with a long flight from New Orleans to Atlanta to Seoul to Ho Chi Minh City. Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City was everything I anticipated. As the Korean Air jet lande hangers. Odds are those hangers are full of MiGs and not Thunderchiefs. Later on during the trip I saw similar hangers full of Russian-made fighter jets at Da Nang and Hanoi. As anticipated, sweating commenced as soon as I existed the airport.
My first day in Saigon included a visit to the Reunification Palace. As seen in Vietnam War-era news reports, the interior of the Reunification Palace retains its green carpets and woodwork. It did not take much to vision Ngo Dinh Diem sitting in one of the rooms with an U.S. official seated by his side. The tour consisted of seeing the main rooms and the extensive network of command facilities. The Palace is complete with offices for the President and the Vice-President, military command rooms, various conference and reception, dinning facilities, living quarters for the President and family, and entertainment (dance floor and theater). Located on the Palace grounds are the two NVA tanks that breached the Palace gates back in 1975. This place is a must see for all scholars and students of the Vietnam War.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The group spent the better part of a day visiting the famous Cu Chi Tunnels. Located approximately 30 miles outside of Saigon near the Saigon River, the Cu Chi Tunnels made the Iron Triangle infamous among American military personnel. During the French and American wars, this sprawling underground network of tunnels housed the living quarters, kitchens, hospitals, command centers, and stockpiles of weaponry for thousands of Viet Minh, and later, Viet Cong (VC) fighters. Entire families lived within the tunnels. For much of America’s war with Vietnam, U.S. forces never destroyed the Cu Chi Tunnels. U.S. attempts to use dogs to sniff-out VC and tunnel entrances resulted in the lose of many K9s. Today, families of VC Cu Chi Tunnel veterans display to golden German shepherds outside of their homes to tell passersby that their family member survived. It is estimated the while about 280 American soldiers lost their lives at the tunnels, over 50,000 VC combatants died.
Da Nang’s Vietnam War Sites
Much like the airport at Saigon, Da Nang’s airport still exhibited traces of its time as a U.S. installation. The concrete hangers typical of the Vietnam War, still line a part of the runway. While in Da Nang, I was able to catch a glimpse of a once sprawling American helicopter base. It is hard to visit these former bases since most are now Vietnamese Army barracks and it is illegal to photograph such places. Nevertheless, I was able to snap a few pictures from the highway. As far as military history goes, visiting the China and Red Beaches makes for a nearly complete trip to Da Nang. Consequently I did not hesitate to see the Red Beach were the first detachment of U.S. Marines landed. Also not to be missed was China Beach, where many U.S. personal spent time on R&R.
My time in Hue began with a tour of the Citadel. Knowing full well that American forces were forbidden from attacking historical treasures, during the 1968 Tet Offensive VC cadres infested the Citadel. After much debate and pressure, the South Vietnamese authorities allowed the U.S. to bomb and use heavy artillery on the Citadel complex. Aside from the massive amount of ordnance dropped on the Citadel, intense fighting occurred within the fortification’s walls. As a result, much of the complex was destroyed. The massive exterior walls remain (with shell holes) and only a handful of buildings survive. Most of the existing buildings are located near the main gate. An ongoing project of the Vietnamese government is the rebuilding and restoring of the Citadel complex. The endeavor is far from complete.
Ever since I signed-up for the Vietnam trip, thoughts of seeing Khe Sanh dominated my thoughts. Honestly, seeing Khe Sanh was both surreal and greatly fulfilling. Strategically situated on high ground and beautiful green mountains, much of the former Marine base is gone. At present, the base is surrounded by seemingly endless coffee plantations and a small museum complete with disabled American military equipment straddling a dirt runway. However, the Vietnamese are slowly restoring the airstrip, including the runway and bunkers. With the stunning views, eerie war relics, and the biased exhibits – which were of course anticipated – Khe Sanh meet all of my expectations. I am definitely a war geek.
Perhaps the most infamous site in all of Vietnam, at least for Americans, is the Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison). Interesting side note, because Hoa Lo Prison is better known as the Hanoi Hilton, the local Hilton is called the Hanoi Hilton Opera. About half of the original prison remains, with much of the building demolished to clear space for a modern sky-rise building. Contrary to popular belief, most of the prison/museum focuses on the plight of the Viet Minh prisoners and the brutality of the French. Only two rooms are dedicated to the history the American pilots who spent time at the prison. It comes as no surprise that the museum presents an overly positive take on the treatment of American POWS. According to the museum, and official Communist Party history, all of the airmen imprisoned enjoyed good food, health, treatment, and leisure. This take is backed-up through staged Christmas pictures and images of John McCain’s return to Hanoi. What is missing of course are the images of malnourished and beaten prisoners as well as the testimonies of numerous Americans scarred by the prison experiences.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Touching down in Hanoi was similar to the landings at Saigon and Da Nang. Air force hangers lined the runway, though this time they were not American built. My time in Hanoi coincided with the first of many ongoing demonstrations against the Chinese government. Since the Chinese believe they own the entire South China Sea, their warships cut Vietnamese undersea cables and shot at some fishing boats. Not taking this lightly, some Vietnamese, with permission from the Vietnamese government, protested outside of the Chinese embassy. Unfortunately for us, the Chinese embassy in the center of Hanoi. Consequently, we were unable to visit the military museum. Fortunately, however, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum remained open. Seeing a frozen Uncle Ho required navigating a large and impatient crowed. With numerous well dressed Vietnamese honor guards, order and safe were not an issue. Ho Chi Minh looks like he did back in 1969, but that is probably because of the layers of make-up used to keep him from looking like a zombie.
One of the most rewarding aspects of studying the Vietnam War is speaking with veterans. Having met many American veterans, I eagerly awaited meeting their Vietnamese counterparts. Once in Saigon, I did not have long to wait. Within minutes of leaving Tan Son Nhat International Airport, our local guide, Tony, greeted me. Little did I know that within a few hours, Tony would teach me more about Vietnam and the American War than I had ever imagined.
Before setting out on my first tour of Saigon, I spoke with Tony. During the Vietnam War, Tony served with the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) as a translator. For part of the war, he served with an American tank crew. During one engagement with the Viet Cong (VC), Tony was gravely wounded in the jaw. Tony credits an anonymous U.S. surgeon for having saved his life, for he believes he would have died waiting at a South Vietnamese hospital. Moreover, Tony says he received many vaccinations and has not been sick since his encounter with American medical care. As a result of the actions of his American comrades and the surgeon, Tony has the utmost respect for Americans and their medicine. After the U.S. began to drastically reduces its military footprint in South Vietnam, a process known as Vietnamization, Tony told me of the biggest decision of his life. When the war ultimately turned against the South Vietnamese, Tony said his commander informed him that he could either continue fighting or find a way to remain with his family. Knowing that if he stayed in the field odds where he would never return, so he decided to render himself unfit for military service. Tony amputated his index finger on his right hand, thus preventing him from properly operating a rifle. For Tony, this extreme action kept him alive and able to enjoy family life. Tony’s story is one of the most extreme I have ever heard and one that I always remember. Another fascinating facet of Tony is his persistent belief in the Republic of Vietnam. Throughout our time in the Saigon area, he proudly talked about his time in the ARVN and U.S. commendations. For me, Tony is living proof that people truly believed in South Vietnam.
The program centered on taking back Pete Edwards, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, to Vietnam for the first time since the conflict, one of the most significant moments of the trip was seeing the ambush site infamously recounted in David Marnaniss’s They Marched Into Sunlight (Pete signed my copy before the trip ended). North of Lai Khe in Binh Long province, in an area once called the Long Ngyuyen Secret Zone Near, Pete’s life change forever. On a path cutting through acres of rubber trees, near the site of the Michelin rubber plantation, the group came across the area were Pete, then a Second Lieutenant and platoon leader in the 2/28 Black Lions, lost a lot of good men to a VC machine-gun nest. During our time at the site, Pete explained the ambush. After struggling with a number of jammed M-16’s, Pete finally found a functioning weapon and killed the machine-gunner. Later, Pete said he regretted not being able to lead all of his men off the battlefield. This was probably Pete’s most emotional moment of the trip, and one I will never forget. After a few photographs we paid our respects and left flowers.
After leaving the ambush site, the group drove a few miles to a field that was once a thriving U.S. Army base at Lai Khe. During his first tour, Pete called this base home. After the war ended, the Vietnamese removed all traces of the base. The Vietnamese plowed under what remained of the American base, leaving an open field. Postwar maps bear no markings for a Ben Cat in Binh Long province. While the base no longer exists, a few small dwellings and dirt roads remain. Pete pointed out a hut once know for its various “services.” Along a dirt road near the creek, Pete located the site of his tent. Pete remarked that he could still picture the base bustling with men and helicopters.
During our day at the Mekong Delta, the grouped saw the local Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) command center at My Tho. During Pete’s second tour, he served as an advisor to a South Vietnamese military unit. Since the MACV installation is now a Vietnamese Army base we were unable to tour the facilities or take any photographs. Nevertheless, we walked around the town and saw the areas where Pete had manned checkpoints.
During our time in Saigon, Pete and Tony developed a close bond. Both men had fought the same enemy and bore the wounds of battle. Before the Saigon portion of our trip ended, Pete gave Tony a Combat Infantryman Badge. A badge identical to one Pete wore throughout the trip.
Before our time in Saigon ended, the group witnessed a meeting of former enemies. At the Vietnamese equivalent of a VFW, Pete met a retired North Vietnamese Army (NVA) colonel and two former members of the VC. Tony, and ARVN veteran, completed this group. During the war with America, the NVA veteran helped supply and prepare VC cadres for their assault on Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The NVA veteran fought other enemies besides the Americans. Before the American War, he fought with the Viet Minh against the French at Dien Bien Phu. He spent about eight to ten years in Cambodia fighting the Khmer Rouge and, later, their Chinese allies. This 82-year-old man had participated in the major events that produced the modern nation of Vietnam. Due to his decades of service, the NVA veteran proudly wore a medal that basically allowed him to do whatever he wanted. He gave this medal to Pete.
The two VC veterans were man and wife. During the war, they met and served together at the Cu Chi Tunnels. The wife spent her time as a nurse in the tunnels, where one learned “on the spot.” After telling us about her role in the VC, she serenaded us with patriotic wartime songs. Besides tending to their physical wounds, the nurses sought to lighten the mood and cheer-up wounded soldiers. Speaking of wounds, the nurse’s husband lost his right leg to an American claymore mine. The couple had a son during their tunnel days, so it is safe to say that people tried their best to live fairly normal lives underground.
Despite all their hardships and scars, none of the veterans displayed any ill will or resentment towards one another. It is true when the Vietnamese people tell you that they left their anger and resentment in the past and now is a time for former enemies to move forward as friends. After witnessing Pete’s experiences, I would love nothing more than to participate in another veteran’s return to Vietnam.
Much like the United States, Vietnam remembers the cost of war. In all the major cities, streets bear the names of war heroes (particularly Nguyen). Statues depicting heroic soldiers cover many of Vietnam’s city parks. Throughout Vietnam, people can find museums, temples, and cemeteries dedicated to North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) dead. Memorials and cemeteries sit alongside the highways of Vietnam. Much of these sites reflect Vietnam’s strong Buddhist influences. In this post, the selected sites show the rather wide range of memorialization found across Vietnam.
Cu Chi Temple
The Cu Chi temple is dedicated to all the VC whom perished in and near the tunnels. At first glance the temple seems like a typical Buddhist pagoda, yet instead of Buddhist symbols, communist and nationalist items adorn the structure. A large statue of Ho Chi Minh, located at the center of inner temple, is flanked by walls of plaques bearing their names and dates of death. With over 50,000 confirmed VC dead, the is little blank wall space. Out of the temple are murals depicting the victory of the Vietnamese people over the French and the Americans. In the temple gardens sits a tear-drop statue, dedicated to all the mothers whom lost their sons. The entire complex, while blossoming with Vietnamese nationalism, is humbling.
Long Hung Church
Once a Catholic Church, this building at Long Hung is now a burnt out structure left as a reminder of violence of war. Destroyed during Tet ’68, the government in Hanoi dedicated Long Hung Church as a memorial to all the people who died during the American and South Vietnamese attempts to re-take the town. It is important to note that since North Vietnam won the war, Hanoi gets to write the official Vietnamese history of the conflict. Hopefully most people outside of Vietnam know that North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam and brought the war to many Vietnamese civilians.
Not to far from Khe Sanh is a sprawling NVA cemetery. At the entrance of this well-kept cemetery are two large statues extolling the virtues of Communism and the sacrifices of the Vietnamese people. Organized in a multitude of sections, each NVA unit’s dead are left together. Thus even in death, the cadre’s cohesion is maintained. A number of statues depicting the heroic acts of both male and female NVA soldiers greet arriving visitors. There are also shrines were people can burn incense to honor the dead.
Old Border Crossing
Despite the unification of Vietnam, a crossing point between North and South Vietnam remains. Functioning as a window into the country’s turbulent and divided past, the crossing is now as a memorial to war dead. On the side of what was the Republic of Vietnam, a large memorial to grieving mothers faces travelers arriving from the north. On both sides of the river, visitors can spot old defense structures and speaker systems.