A courtyard wall at Hoa Lo Prison Museum // © 2016
Feature image (above): Life-size figures help recreate the deplorable conditions for Vietnamese political prisoners held by the French. // © 2016 Marilyn Jones
Millennials think of Vietnam as a beautiful and historic Southeast Asia destination, which it is. But for American baby boomers, the mention of Vietnam evokes memories of war, the draft, protests and military service. The war touched every American’s life one way or another.
And the American history in Vietnam — along with the country’s famous sites and culture — have attracted an influx of American travelers since Vietnam opened to tourists in 1997. In fact, more than one-third of the country’s gross domestic product is generated by services, which includes the hotel, restaurant and transportation industries.
As an increasing number of Americans visit Vietnam, travel agents should know what clients can see related to the war. Though there are many sites worth visiting, following are two accessible sites that clients shouldn’t miss.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum
All that is left of Hoa Lo Prison is the gatehouse that now houses a museum focusing on its use by the French (during French rule of Vietnam) and during the Vietnam War.
The first rooms are cavernous and show the deplorable conditions endured by Vietnamese political prisoners held by the French during the 1950s. Life-size figures are shackled on what can best be described as long tables. Another gruesome reminder is the French guillotine, used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries.
The rooms dedicated to the prison’s American prisoner of war (POW) detainment take on a totally different tone, giving off the illusion of humane treatment. One small room is lined with photos of POWs celebrating the holidays by decorating a Christmas tree and sitting down to a festive meal. There are also photos of former POW Senator John McCain visiting the prison. McCain’s flight suit is on display.
When the POWs were released after being held for years, they had a different recollection of their treatment at what they nicknamed “Hanoi Hilton.” The North Vietnamese tortured and interrogated the captured servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids.
The final reminder of the prison’s dark history is in an outdoor courtyard where one wall is carved with gruesome images of emaciated prisoners.
Cu Chi Tunnels
One of the most interesting yet disturbing war-related destinations near Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Guests are first ferreted into an area where they learn how the Viet Cong expanded upon an existing tunnel system. The system dates back the 1940s when Communist forces began digging a network of tunnels under the jungle terrain of South Vietnam during their war of independence from French colonial rule.
From northwest of Saigon to Cambodia, the Viet Cong (VC) dug tens of thousands of miles of tunnels. The tunnels were used for communications, to transport supplies, to mount surprise attacks and to disappear underground to safety. The tunnels grew to house entire villages, including kitchens, ordnance factories and hospitals, as well as theaters and music halls to provide entertainment for the Viet Cong. Dugout areas show the size and use of some of these underground rooms.
The sound of gunfire comes from a shooting range where visitors can pay to fire an AK-47, adding an uncomfortable realism to the site. Exhibits of the horrifying booby traps that were everywhere in the jungle are on display, as is a bombed-out tank labeled in English: “American M41 Tank was destroyed by a delayed mine in 1970.”
The final experience is the opportunity to enter the tunnels. Avoid if you’re claustrophobic.
How to Go
Hoa Lo Prison Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels are part of Exodus Travels’ Classic Vietnam & Angkor itinerary, one of 11 Vietnam tours offered by the tour operator. The tour includes visits to other sites related to the war, such as Da Nang and China Beach (My Khe Beach), as well as Halong Bay and Angkor Wat. Exodus Travels offers small group guided holidays; group size is usually between four and 16 people. Exodus Travels has served clients in the U.K. for more than 40 years and opened a North American office in 2014.
Is Vietnam Communist?
“Russian communism didn’t work here,” said Cong Nguyen, tour guide for Exodus Travels, of the years after the fall of South Vietnam. “We are still communist, but our economy has transformed into red capitalism.”
According to Nguyen, people are happy in Vietnam.
“Tourists will experience this happiness as the Vietnamese show Westerners their country beyond war and suffering,” Nguyen said.