Vietnam is a perfect destination for travellers interested in history. Top of the list for most visitors are the remnants of the Vietnam War – but during my visit in 2014 I also saw some interesting sites connected to Vietnam’s dynastic rulers, French colonialism and twentieth-century communism. Scroll down for more detail!
When I visited, I got the sense that Vietnam is both obsessed by and trying to escape its own history. As a socialist state, the government’s very public pride in Vietnam’s expulsion of first French and later American invading forces is visible everywhere through propaganda posters in Vietnamese streets (like the one below) and a strictly nationalist historical narrative in museums (like at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum in Hanoi).
But McDonald’s, Starbucks, and air-conditioned shopping malls aren’t out of place in Vietnam’s big cities nowadays, even in Hanoi, the epicentre of the old communist North. Nearly half of Vietnamese people are under 25, and the country is keen to move forward from the destructive events of the twentieth century. Modern Vietnam is looking forward, while continually looking back.
Historical sites around Vietnam: north to south
In two weeks I couldn’t visit all the historical sites I’d have liked to, but here’s a good start for short trips:
- Hoa Lo prison, first used by the French to imprison Vietnamese nationalists, and later nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs held there. You can even see John McCain’s flight suit, in which he was captured by North Vietnamese when his plane was shot down in 1967.
- Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum houses the embalmed corpse of the famous Vietnamese nationalist leader in grandiose and ceremonial surroundings; his body’s in a pretty good condition, and gets shipped off to Russia annually for ‘restoration’.
- History Museum & Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution – the former containing much older Vietnamese history, including some wonderful sculptures, and the latter containing twentieth-century history. In all honesty, if you’re pressed for time I think Hanoi has some much more visual and fascinating historical sites than these museums; at Hoa Lo Prison or the crashed B-52, for example.
- Vietnamese Women’s Museum is a real gem, containing fascinating case studies of female revolutionaries as well as a section on modern Vietnamese women’s lives, including variance in traditions such as marriage and children across Vietnam’s many ethnic groups. There’s a brilliant display and video about female street-sellers in Hanoi.
- The remnants of a crashed B-52 bomber in a lake in central Hanoi, a really visual reminder of the American attacks on the capital during the Vietnam War; the plane’s body juts out of the water in a bustling suburb close to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
- The city’s thousand-year-old Old Quarter, consisting of 36 streets set up by 36 guilds in the 13th century, each selling their own products which usually determined the street’s name. Even now, shops in each street tend to sell the same things (e.g. all shoes or all flowers).
- You can also visit Dien Bien Phu, the famous battle site which saw Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces defeat French imperialism in 1954. I didn’t have time to visit, sadly; it’s around 470km from Hanoi.
- Visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the war-torn spit of land which divided the country along the 17th parallel from 1954 to 1975. The area includes the Vinh Moc tunnels, much less visited than the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City. Visiting the DMZ is easy from Hue, where most tourists choose to stay (there are loads of day trips available; it’s a 3-hour bus ride each way), although Dong Ha is closer if you’re stopping there.
- Hue’s imperial tombs and citadel of Vietnam’s last emperors, the Nguyen dynasty. It’s worth renting a private car to take you around the tombs (we paid $45 for the day) as they’re too far apart to get to otherwise, and with virtually no taxis waiting around outside in case you get stranded. There are also boat trips you can take along the picturesque Perfume River.
- From Hue, rent a bicycle or scooter to visit Ho Chi Minh’s house, a small but well-preserved rural home sitting by a picturesque river, where Ho lived from 1898 to 1900.The house is in a small village called Duong No, around 20 minutes by bicycle from the centre of Hue.
- Stay in Hoi An, a beautiful old port town connecting traders across continents, a total contrast to its nearby cosmopolitan neighbour, Da Nang. Hoi An is known for its beautifully small and uniform old buildings, and it’s a great place to unwind and relax in central Vietnam, although be warned that it’s now very touristy.
- Remember the My Lai massacre, possibly the most brutal chapter of the Vietnam War during which several hundred unarmed South Vietnamese civilians were massacred by US forces in March 1968. There’s a memorial at Son My, near Quang Ngai (and also accessible from Hoi An).
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)
- The Cu Chi tunnels, an elabourate underground network used by Viet Cong fighters to evade and attack US and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War – you can crawl (literally crawl, on your hands and knees) through the dark earthen tunnels if you’re not too claustrophobic! Probably the most famous of Vietnam’s historic sites, it’s not overrated and well worth a visit.
- The War Remnants Museum is an absolute must if you’re interested in the Vietnam War. Its incredible photography is its best asset, but it also houses artifacts including US tanks, helicopters and other weaponry. A very moving exhibition on the effects of Agent Orange and mass defoliants used during the war, even on children being born today, is one of the best parts of the museum.
- Independence Palace, virtually unchanged since the South Vietnamese government was forced out in 1975, when the palace was stormed, marking the end of the conflict and victory by the North. For me, it was mainly a step back into the 1970s in its architecture, interior design, fashions and cars; there’s also an underground bunker network.
- French Saigon – remnants scattered around the former epicentre of French Indochina, including the beautiful colonial Post Office building, which once was the vital connection between France’s far-flung colonies and officials in Paris. The Post Office is opposite the Notre Dame cathedral, a few minutes’ walk from the Independence Palace.