Only five decades ago, Việt Nam was in the midst of its violent civil war. The Communist-run northern half of the country fought against the southern half of the country, which itself was a proxy for Capitalist countries such as the United States in an attempt to stop the spread of Communism. The result of this lengthy struggle was victory for the north and the retreat of the American military with heavy losses on both sides, leaving a devastated country to rebuild. Throughout the country, I visited many places that were significant during the war in order to get a better understanding of the war and its consequences.
My journey began in Hà Nội, the former capital of North Việt Nam when the country was divided during the war. It is from here that President Hồ Chí Minh led much of the war effort against the Americans and the South Vietnamese. Towards the end of the war, the city was heavily bombed, and many important areas, including the train station, were destroyed. However, nowadays, the physical damage to the city has been either rebuilt or built over, so that it is hard to imagine what it must have been like in 1972.
One thing that I noticed throughout my journey in Việt Nam is the interesting way in which Vietnamese history is presented. Going all the way back to ancient times, the National History Museum in Hà Nội makes a concerted effort to differentiate the country’s history from that of its neighbors. The museum places great emphasis on the indigenous cultures of the country and the recent archaeological efforts that have been undertaken to understand this ancient history. Of course there is nothing wrong with this type of work, but at this museum, the message was made explicitly clear: though China and its culture have had a great influence on Việt Nam and its culture over the centuries, Việt Nam is an independent nation with a unique culture distinct from that of its neighbors.
The narrative continues at the Việt Nam Military History Museum. Situated adjacent to the imperial citadel and not far from Quốc Từ Giám (the first national university in the country), the military museum provides an interesting perspective on the history of the country. The part of the museum that stuck with me the most was a panel in the first exhibit listing the struggles of the Vietnamese people over the centuries. With one “resistance” or “struggle” after another, the national narrative seems to be one of a people continually fighting off invaders and occupiers. Throughout the museum, I noticed that the historical information was significantly lacking in details regarding particular timelines of events, battles, and military strategies. Rather, the museum simply displays war artifacts, stating what they are and where they came from. The courtyard outside the main museum building houses a collection of planes, tanks, and other artillery collected from the war. In the center of this area, there is a large tangled pile of debris formed into a bizarre mess of a sculpture – perhaps this is symbolic of the mess that was left behind in the country when the war ended.
At the Hoả Lò Prison in Hà Nội, another interesting trend emerged. This prison was built by the French during the colonial period, but was later used by the North Vietnamese to house South Vietnamese and American prisoners of war. Much of the prison has been torn down, but what remains has been converted into a museum that gives harsh criticism of the French, but downplays the war with the Americans. The museum makes a clear effort to highlight the humane treatment that American prisoners received, and also to avoid saying anything too provocative with respect to the most recent war.
By far the most prominent feature in Hà Nội is the large complex dedicated to Hồ Chí Minh. Located adjacent to the legislative assembly and the presidential palace, this large, park-like area contains the Hồ Chí Minh Museum, a pagoda, Hồ Chí Minh’s house, and his mausoleum. Against his will, Hồ Chí Minh was not cremated but rather embalmed and put on display in an imposing mausoleum – with the number of people who come to see him every day, I cannot imagine he’s resting in much peace! Due to the long line to view Uncle Hồ himself, Dad and I opted to skip the mausoleum and headed straight for the museum. Like the military museum, the Hồ Chí Minh Museum was not really focused on details such as the particulars of his life and work, but rather on praising his ideology and influence. Specifically, the museum presents personal stories of how he influenced various people – from high-level officials down to ordinary people like schoolteachers. People shared their memories and motivations from before, during, and even after the war, often expressing hope for the country’s future in light of Hồ Chí Minh’s leadership. The museum also has a strong focus on the Communist ideology that Hồ Chí Minh stood for; one entire gallery is devoted to the Russian Revolution and Hồ Chí Minh’s interactions with the Soviet Union. The top floor of the museum displays an abstract artistic exhibit depicting his ideals, ideology, and lifestyle. This, to me, is symbolic of the country as a whole – it looks up to the abstract ideals of Communism, but the details are lost in the Capitalist reality.
Between the former North Việt Nam and South Việt Nam, the Bến Hải River passes calmly under a nicely-restored historic bridge and a modern highway bridge. During the war, however, this was the center of the “De-militarized Zone” and the site of fierce fighting. Several of the surrounding hilltops once hosted firing bases but have now given way to agriculture, with only a few neglected monuments to indicate what took place there. The most well-maintained monument is a large flagpole flying the Vietnamese flag at the northern end of the bridge. The base of the flagpole is adorned with a map depicting all of the provinces of Việt Nam – both northern and southern – as a symbol of the North’s victory and the country’s subsequent re-unification.
A short distance north of the river, on a cliff overlooking the coast, lies the town of Vịnh Mốc. During the war, the villagers here played a role in supporting the northern anti-aircraft operations and as a result found themselves the target of airstrikes from the south. To defend themselves, the entire village dug itself underground; they created chambers for sleeping, taking care of children, cooking, meeting, and they even dug water wells inside the tunnels.
Just south of the former DMZ, the city of Huế also saw intense fighting during the war. On the Vietnamese New Year (Tết) of 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched an uprising in cities throughout the country, hoping to overwhelm the Southern and American forces. Huế, however, being so close to the American frontline at the DMZ, was overrun and nearly eighty percent of the city was destroyed, including large parts of the imperial citadel. Many of the temples and palace buildings were seriously damaged or destroyed, leaving only foundations in the heart of the beautiful walled city. Currently, there is a large effort underway to completely restore the citadel – the main limitation is financial resources. Even during our visit, there were teams actively working on restoration of various buildings in the citadel.
Farther south along the coast, the city of Nha Trang is also unceremoniously erasing its war scars. The most obvious scar, cutting right through the city, is the former Nha Trang Air Base. Built by the French in 1951 to train pilots, and later used by the United States as an air force base, the facility was finally closed in 2016 – the city’s main commercial airport is located a more comfortable distance from the city center. Now, the base is gradually being absorbed into the city, with buildings popping up at various places on the tarmac and runways, and vehicles freely criss-crossing the open spaces.
In 1976, after the conclusion of the war, Sài Gòn, the capital of the former South Việt Nam, was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City in honor of the North’s hero. However, most locals still prefer use the old name of the city. Despite this, the city does not seem to harbor any regrets about being part of the unified country – during my visit, the streets were brightly decorated for the celebration of the 43rd anniversary of reunification on April 30.
In the center of Sài Gòn, the residence of the French colonial governors once stood, built in a typical French château style. When the country was divided during the war, the building became known as Independence Palace, and served as the seat of the South Vietnamese government. The palace was damaged during the war, torn down, and rebuilt in a more modern style. That building, too, was bombed. When the northern army tanks finally burst through the gates in 1976, the palace was renamed Reunification Palace. For being on the losing side of the war, the care that has been put into restoring and presenting the palace is impressive; it is beautifully furnished, and displays how each room would have looked and been used during the war.
The War Remnants Museum in Sài Gòn, like the museums in Hà Nội, is not focused on the military aspects of the war. This museum is dedicated to the effects the war had on the people and land of Việt Nam. Due to the chemical weapons, such as Agent Orange, that were widely dropped throughout the country, vast areas of forest and farmland were contaminated, wreaking havoc on the plant and human life that depends on this land. Despite massive ongoing cleanup efforts, it will take decades to fully recover from the effects of these chemicals. Likewise, as the number of bombs dropped on Việt Nam was many times more than all the bombs dropped during World War II, many people to this day live in fear of encountering unexploded ordnance, and must wait for crews to clear their land before it is safe to use freely again. This effort, too, will take decades.
My final stop on the war history trail was the Củ Chi Tunnels. Located in the countryside northwest of Sài Gòn, these tunnels are just one part of the vast network of tunnels dug by the Việt Cộng to more easily infiltrate the South and avoid South Vietnamese and American troops. Similar to the tunnels in Vịnh Mốc, these tunnels were equipped to allow people to live inside them for extended periods, though in many places they are much narrower than their counterparts in Vịnh Mốc, requiring you to crawl on your hands and knees with your shoulders touching both sides of the tunnel.
To further hinder the enemy troops, the Việt Cộng erected many boobie-traps throughout the jungle around the tunnels. Functional examples of these gruesome traps – fitted with spikes made of metal salvaged from captured American equipment – are on display at the tunnels. The most peculiar thing in the Củ Chi Tunnels tourist complex, though, was the shooting range. For a few dollars per bullet, you could shoot an AK-47 into the jungle. At first, I felt that this somewhat detracted from the seriousness of the site and might make some people uncomfortable. But, I realized that this is just another example of the Vietnamese people distancing themselves from the war and embracing the free market – if this is what the tourists demand, then let them have it.
Traveling through Việt Nam, it is often difficult spot any signs of the country’s violent recent history. Despite the fact that the Communist north was victorious in the war, the reality is that in many ways, the country today is Communist in name only. Competition and development are occurring everywhere, and its economy is one of the fastest-growing in the world. Nonetheless, signs of the war still remain, and many people are still suffering from its effects. For the most part, though, it seems that most people have moved on and prefer not to think or talk about the war. I hope this mindset will carry the country into a bright future!