As an American, I was raised with the knowledge of the wars our country has been involved in. We are all taught about the conflict, the facts, the stories and reasons behind our involvement. Our education begins in basic history class and becomes more complex as we get older and are able to grasp the realities of war.
The war in Vietnam is no exception. It is one of the worst wars America has ever been involved with and as a kid I found myself, in an almost twisted way, obsessed with the happenings of this particular conflict.
I studied the conflict, read many books, articles, magazines and watched all the movies and documentaries available, anything I could get my hands on.
The challenge for me was getting a grasp on the reasons behind it all and for some reason, the morbidity of it all just fascinated me. Anyone could ask my parents and they will tell you of the many reports I wrote on the subject, maps of Vietnam I had drawn and discussions I had held about it with anyone that would listen.
I didn’t understand it and now that I am much older, I am not sure I do now either.
War is an awful thing for all sides involved and for anyone to think that one side is completely at fault is a very ignorant assumption. Innocent lives are lost on both ends as people defend their beliefs and follow orders of the forces they are employed with.
Being able to accept this fact has given me a peace about my years of thought and internal debate on the subject.
Which brings me to now, I am 31 years old and currently traveling through Vietnam. I have waited my whole life to visit this country and see some of the things and places I have read about with my own two eyes.
Vietnam is an incredibly gorgeous country and we have gone out of our way to see a side of Vietnam that most travelers just pass right by.
There have been moments where I have been standing in the middle of some of the most intense jungles I have ever seen, awestruck with the power of nature when I will be all of a sudden overcome with thoughts about how hard it must have been for the American soldiers to be sent into this terrain.
Totally unaware of how to deal with the conditions, let alone the targets on their helmets.
My first visit to Vietnam has been an overwhelming experience while we have spent our time exploring its natural history and torrent past. From the museums in the cities to the areas of land that still bare the scars of the bombs that were dropped here, it has been an amazing journey.
Hanoi Hilton- Hoa Lo Prison
Our first look into the conflicts of Vietnam came from a visit to the Hoa Lo Prison in the capital city of Hanoi. Dually dubbed the Hanoi Hilton by the American GI’s that were imprisoned here as POW’s during the American War.
The museum walks you through the history of the prison, starting from the beginning when Vietnam achieved its first gust of independence from the French in the 1940s through the war with America.
Personally, the Americans use the name Hanoi Hilton with much irony, although there are many Vietnamese that believe they coined this term because they were treated well and lived a life of luxury while imprisoned. Pardon me, but I don’t buy the propaganda when I have read first-hand accounts from the soldiers that spent time there. Luxury accommodation, it was not.
The signs on the wall will read about the ‘sustainable life’ the American soldiers lived while imprisoned, that they were fed well and treated as citizens.
Yet as your eyes follow the displays around the room you will see many celebrations about how they were captured when their planes were shot out of the sky, accompanied by displays of their personal things around the room.
Ho Chi Minh Trail
Getting out of the city, we took some time to visit pieces of the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail that aided the Viet Cong soldiers in moving supplies from the North to the South.
Today the path is a one-lane paved road, suitable for just about any type of vehicle that can fit on it, but when it was an aider of war it was a mere cattle sized dirt trail that passed only people and small numbers of livestock.
There are many stories that surround the trail, from the locals that were killed and the intense bombing that was ensued and brought into Laos and Cambodia on the trail in the efforts to stop the flow of supplies to the South. We were told a story about some local women living in a cave off the trail.
They used the caves along the trail as a way to seek shelter from the bombings, and one fateful day a bomb struck in the vicinity of the cave they had sought refuge in.
They were unharmed by the bomb itself, but due to the impact of it, a large boulder rolled over the entrance to the cave, trapping them inside.
The other locals were unable to move the rock and the three women starved to death in the cave. Today a temple-like memorial stands in the entrance area where people pay pilgrimage to and ask for luck from the three women that perished during the war.
DMZ and Vinh Moc Tunnels
Continuing to move South we entered the area of the DMZ during the war. This area houses the official border between North and South Vietnam and is the location of the brunt of the war conflicts.
In an effort to keep the area stable, the Americans bombed the shit out of the area. Making it a desolate place that was easy to monitor for movements and attacks.
This area suffered the most from the war and the villages around the area, in an attempt to survive and not move, dug a series of underground tunnels to live in while the war was ongoing.
The Vinh Moc tunnels are the most famous of these areas. The diverse system of caves was hand-dug right next to the coast and provided a safe house for the civilians to live within.
Each family had their own room; there were a kitchen and medical area. There was even a birthing cave where 17children were born during the course of the war.
War Remnants Museum
You can imagine that a lifetime of interest in the war would send me directly to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City the minute we touched down in South Vietnam.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t the first place we headed. We spent almost 4 hours in the museum and I read every single thing I could see in there.
The museum showcases different aspects of the American war, from the use of Agent Orange and the effects it had and still has on the people of Vietnam, the prisons in South Vietnam, torture devices and tactics used on prisoners and my favorite, a hall of photos taken by journalists in the field during the war.
I found most of the displays here appallingly one-sided and it bothered me to walk through the exhibits and see people from other countries making uneducated comments about how awful America is and that we were so brutal to such an innocent country.
Yes, we did awful things, but so did Vietnam. Because we are in their country, they have the power to show only the offenses against them, not the ones they imposed on Americans.
Despite this, I couldn’t stop reading any of it. I looked at every photo, read every caption, read every single placard and sat silently in a debate with myself over it all.
I mingled through the halls taking it all in and trying not to be too bothered by some of the uneducated comments around me. We can only try to truly understand war if we can know and accept both sides of the conflict.
To think that one sides’ doings are worse than the other is negligent and a bad direction for our minds to wander when being faced with the facts of war.
The best display in the museum is entitled Requiem. It is a collection of photos taken by many journalists that lost their lives covering the war in Vietnam. The photos are captivating and real.
Some of them suck you into the point where you could almost walk straight through the wall into the photo. The display is intense and transports you back in time as you walk through the halls.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Our last look into the war came with a visit to the famous Cu chi tunnels that are outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Cu Chi is a small farming community that became a conflict hotbed during the war.
The township dug a series of tunnels that ran throughout the region enabling the Viet Cong covered access to Saigon and the nearby American military bases.
They used the tunnels for cover and numerous brutal offensives against the Americans and South Vietnam during the war. Visiting the tunnels was an eye-opening experience for me as it gave me a chance to see just how determined the Viet Cong were at defeating their enemies.
We were told that the fighters in the tunnels did not care if they lived or died they just wanted freedom.
Spending 2 hours at this site gave us the opportunity to explore the area and learn about the history. We were given opportunities to step inside the tunnels to see how small they really were and also a chance to go inside and navigate through one of them.
This is not for the claustrophobic as the tunnels are very small and narrow, most people had to crawl through them. I am short so I had the luxury of just bending over most of the time, although there were times I had to completely crawl due to the low tunnel ceilings.
It is hard to imagine what life would be like inside a tunnel with no natural light and an intense amount of heat and moisture from the humidity and ground.
They built in air holes every 15 meters, but the tunnels are stifling hot and I was soaked in sweat by the time we resurfaced. The tunnel systems really were incredible and a brilliant tactic used during the war.
It was not something the Americans could conquer nor takeover and many Americans referred to the tunnels as the entrance to hell.
Random Thoughts and Observations
It was really interesting to visit these things and just behave like a fly on the wall. It is shocking to me the amount of ill-education about the events surrounding the Vietnam war in other countries of the World.
There were so many times I found myself biting my tongue and just listening to others debate things and make assumptions that were so far off the facts you would actually wonder if they just took everything in life at face value, including blatant propaganda.
There was one time David pulled a guide aside to correct him after he had said ‘the Americans in the war could not fit down the tunnels because they were all so fat with beer bellies’.
Sorry, but the guys fighting in Vietnam were not middle-aged office workers with 20 extra pounds and an over consumption of beer, they were young, fit, military men.
They had trouble going into tunnels the width of my shoe size because all western people are built differently compared to the much shorter 4’9 average of the Viet Cong.
While watching propaganda videos there were many references to Viet Cong soldiers being awarded medals, honors and recognitions for the killing of Americans. Yes, it was directly phrased like that.
This was unsettling for me that they would feed that type of behavior into the public, at a place that sees many thousands of tourists from all over the world annually.
Medals of honor should be awarded for bravery, the ability to step up and help fellow soldiers, not directly for killing people. That disturbed me a little.
All of the local people we met in Vietnam were really great people with a realistic outlook on what happened during the war. They didn’t blame America for things and we all agreed that we need to learn from it and see it for what it was, war.
It wasn’t a good thing for anyone that was involved but what we can do is move forward and learn from the past to prevent things like this from happening in the future.
Our visiting of the war sites in Vietnam was an eye-opening experience for both of us and one of the reasons we incorporate this stuff into our travels.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert on the Vietnam War, nor do I pretend to be. This post is a collection of my own thoughts, experiences and opinions and was not written to offend or misinform in any way.
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