Many visitors to Vietnam are fascinated by the Vietnam War era. They seek out the places where well-documented battles took place, they visit war-museums, they comb war-surplus markets for helmets, bits and pieces of uniform, canteens, rusty dog-tags and the like.

 

The War Remnants Museum is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most-visited attractions. In the museum’s grounds are American helicopters, fighter jets, tanks, infantry weapons, unexploded bombs and assorted pieces of ordnance. Photographs on display inside show the stark reality of war. Mangled children, torture scenes, the My Lai Massacre victims, children skinned alive by napalm, babies deformed by Agent Orange… all stare out accusingly from their picture frames.

 

The Cu Chi Tunnels, 35 km from Saigon, are a must for anyone interested in learning about the war years. During the war, Cu Chi was an enigma for the Americans. Snipers, booby traps, occasional skirmishes, and surprise raids on the US army base in Bien Hoa were a constant thorn in the side for the Americans, more so because the attackers seemed to vanish into thin air immediately after any engagement. The Americans vented their frustration by stepping up B52 bombing raids and napalm attacks on the area. Cu Chi became the most bombed, shelled, gassed, napalmed, and war-ravaged region in the history of warfare.

 

Today, short sections of the tunnels are open to the public, and can be traversed by crawling on all fours, or, in the larger ones, by walking doubled up. The humid, unlit tunnel sections are an average of 70 metres in length, but there’s an emergency exit every eighteen meters. Very few people go beyond the first emergency exit.

 


 

Upstairs at Pho Binh, the pho restaurant that harboured the Viet Cong. Photo by Rodney Hughes 

 

In the Soup

 

Another place in Ho Chi Minh City to look for reminders of the war is, as unlikely as it sounds, a pho shop. Pho Binh (7D Ly Chinh Thang, Q3, HCMC) was the secret headquarters of the Viet Cong in Saigon. While the public, including US soldiers who were based nearby, ate their pho downstairs, the VC command were busily hatching out their devious plots upstairs. Hiding out in plain sight as it were.

 

My Lai is a small, sleepy hamlet in the Son Mai sub-district of central Vietnam. On Mar. 16, 1968, a troop of men from the 1st Platoon under the command of Lieutenant Calley entered the hamlet and rounded up and shot around 115 unarmed villagers, after gang-raping half a dozen of the girls. Calley’s men were ordered to keep their mouths shut about the massacre, but several went public with the story on their return to the US.

 

Some intrigued tourists visit My Lai to see the scene of the shocking events for themselves. The difficult journey is hardly worth the effort. There’s little to see apart from a carved stone monument and some graves, and the locals are understandably reluctant to discuss the atrocity committed in their own backyard 50 years ago.

 


The supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through some of the most difficult terrain in Vietnam. This photo and the lead photo by Nick Ross

 

Assault

 

A hill in the A Shau valley of South Vietnam became a hotly contested piece of terrain for three days in April of 1969. Known as Ap Bia mountain to the Vietnamese, Hill 937 to the US military command, and Hamburger Hill to the US troops, this 916-meter-high hill was of little strategic value, but nevertheless the US top brass ordered its capture by frontal assault. The battle that followed was hard-fought and brutal. Three weeks after taking the hill, the US forces abandoned it — another unfathomable example of the vagaries of war. Today the hill is hard to find among the many mountains of the region, and looks every bit an unremarkable part of the landscape.

 

The Ho Chi Minh trail is an object of fascination for many Westerners. The US National Security Agency called the trail “one of the greatest achievements of military engineering in the 20th Century”.

 

It was down this trail that North Vietnamese soldiers painstakingly trundled heavily laden bicycles and ox-carts loaded with food, supplies, and ammunition, and later, when the trail became more established, trucks carrying materials and troops used the trail as a strategic supply conduit. Today hundreds of curious tourists and trekkers pay visits to segments of the trail to see for themselves.

 

The Vietnamese are fond of reminding us “Vietnam is a country, not a war”, but for many foreigners just the opposite is true.

 

Born in New Zealand, Don Wills lives in Vung Tau. He’s been writing his way round the region for decades

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