Vietnam, Part 3, The War
This is the third and final blog post of our time in Vietnam. If you haven't read the other posts, I encourage you to do so....
I don’t know why, but this came as so unexpected…
We both had had the notion that since the US and Vietnam normalized relations in the 1990’s, we would experience and see very little about the war.
Boy, were we wrong!
The legacy of the Vietnam War is as deeply felt and permeated throughout the country as much as it is in the US. Actually, even more so, since the remnants of the war are physically found all over. As we traveled around the country for close to a month, evidence of the war was everywhere, popping up at every turn amidst the beauty and adventure the country has to offer.
Our first dissonant moment occurred when we realized that to the Vietnamese people, there is no “Vietnam War”. To them, it was the “American War”, which makes sense, right?
It just so happened that we were in Vietnam during the preparations for the Tet holiday, the lunar new year, and coincidentally, the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive. This was the turning point of the war for the North Vietnamese, a day they were celebrating while we were there.
The history of this country, we learned, is all about its subjugation and domination by foreign powers. First it was China, then France, and then the US. And when talking about their history, this is the language that the tour guides use: Subjugation. Domination.
It is etched into the psyche of the people everywhere.
And yet the people we met were so friendly and open, even as they were showing us the evidence and legacy that still remains from the “American War”.
It all started at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon),
where we were greeted by American tanks and planes that were captured by the North Vietnamese.
It was a mind - opening and difficult experience to see these American "trophies" and to see the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese. As we walked through this museum, and saw photos and remnants of the war, including many scenes of death and destruction by the hands of the Americans, it was very hard to look at.
(Side note - we learned that all words in Vietnamese are one syllable. Meaning that Vietnam is really Viet Nam and Hanoi is Ha Noi. You will see examples in the pictures below.)
It was especially jarring when we turned a corner and were confronted by an exhibit that contained the infamous Kent State shootings photo. For those of you that don't know, Jay was a student at Kent State on May 4, 1970, the day of the shootings, and it is one of the most impactful events that has happened in his life.
To see this photo in a museum in Vietnam was surreal.
It gave us a lot of food for thought as we continued on our journey through the country.
Also in Ho Chi Minh City, we paid a visit to a rooftop bar of the Caravelle Hotel where journalists like Peter Jennings reported the war. You can see him there in the center in this photo:
It was amazing to be in the same place as they had been and to imagine what it was like in Saigon so many years ago. For us, it was just an interesting stopover, but for them ...
We were a bit apprehensive about how Vietnamese people would treat us as Americans, but our apprehensions were unfounded. We met such lovely people throughout the country, both young and old, and all of them were SO welcoming and friendly. It was clear everywhere we went that the Vietnamese people view Americans as their friends.
In Hanoi, we had multiple experiences with the war. First, we went to visit the Metropole Sofitel Hotel, the oldest luxury hotel in Hanoi, which has a big war history ….
Here’s what happened there:
We were walking around the beautiful lobby looking at all the historic photos of the hotel and then Jay asked the concierge to tell us a little about the history of the hotel. The concierge called over this other gentleman who began to tell us about the significance of the hotel during the war.
Then he told us there is a secret bunker under the hotel that was used during the war and only hotel guests are allowed to tour it.
The bunker was actually unknown to the Sofitel people when they took over the hotel, and one day, in 2011 when they were renovating the swimming pool, the construction people ran into a cement wall and the hotel decided to excavate, and found this bunker from the war. This is the hotel that both Jane Fonda and Joan Baez stayed in when they visited North Vietnam, and Joan Baez even wrote a song down in the bunker.
I don’t know what happened, but when the guy told us this, I just burst into tears. Don’t ask me why. I just started crying. The guy looked at me in amazement. He looked at Jay, like “What the heck??” And then he said that since I am such a lover of history of Vietnam, he would like to take us to the bunker. Would that be ok?
And so it happened that Jay and I got a private tour of the bunker of this famous hotel.
It was very eerie to be down in this bomb shelter.
And when I saw this sign, I really got the chills:
After this emotional experience, we continued our walking tour of Hanoi. We hadn't planned on going, but kind of stumbled upon the Hoa Lo prison, better known to us as the “Hanoi Hilton”.
This is where captured US soldiers, including John McCain, were held prisoner for many years. You most likely have seen movies that depict this prison, right?
Since we were right there, we decided to go in.
Well, what you will find there is that this prison was first built by the French during the colonial period to hold Vietnamese “freedom fighters”, and they were cruelly tortured in this prison by the French.
And when the Vietnamese took over and used it for captured American pilots, the exhibit explains, despite the American prisoners' reports and proof to the contrary, the American POW's enjoyed an “easy, quiet life”, away from the war, “a place where they could relax and have a peaceful contemplative time.” Yes, that is exactly how they described the experience of the American prisoners. And they also said this:
This was hard to take. After this visit, I googled John McCain visiting Hoa Lo prison and read about what happened when he came back to visit Vietnam and this prison in 2009.
After reading this article, it was even harder to bear the propaganda that is pervasive in the country about the war. And yet, for the Vietnamese, the war is presented as a war for freedom and reunification of their country. It is a pretty compelling story.
On we went to Phong Nha, where the biggest, most beautiful caves in the world are located. One of the days, we went on a trek through the jungle on a path that was part of the trail of the North Vietnamese soldiers moving South, and the site of extensive US bombing.
We were the only Americans in our small group and our guide asked if we were ok seeing and talking about the war, because apparently some Americans walk away when the guide talks about it; but we were extremely curious, and in no way wanted to miss what she was going to say.
First, on display at the beginning of the trail, were detonated bombs that were dropped by US planes in this area.
We were also shown mortars, and bomb remnants along the trail. Because it was part of the supply route the North Vietnamese used to bring weapons to the south, this area was heavily bombed by the Americans.
After the trek in Phong Nha, we did one intensive day of "war tourism" so we could see the sights that Anthony Bourdain had highlighted on one of his shows: The tour of the DMZ, (for you youngsters out there, this stands for the area known as the Demilitarized Zone, the strip of land that separated North and South Vietnam) and the Vinh Moc tunnels.
Mr. Duy took us on a tour of the area around Dong Ha, close to, and including the 17th parallel, which divided North and South Vietnam. Here are a couple of photos on the bridge over the 17th parallel.
Mr. Duy is from Dong Ha, which abutted the DMZ and was part of South Vietnam, and spent some years of the war hiding in bomb shelters near his home, and he described to us what it felt and sounded like as the bombs fell all around him.
He also took us to the Vinh Moc tunnels.
The villagers dug an intricate, miles long, multi-level series of tunnels to live in to protect themselves against the US bombing. These tunnels were absolutely incredible and well preserved, with three levels, including meeting rooms, family rooms (a space dug perpendicular to the tunnel that afforded personal space and a little "privacy"), bathing rooms, hospital rooms, bath rooms, water supply wells, arms rooms, etc. Many babies were even born in these tunnels. There were thirteen entrances, including several that faced the sea (for ventilation). When digging the tunnels, the Vietnamese deposited all of the soil into the sea at night, so as not to have their activities detected. It is an incredible sight, and an engineering marvel.
After seeing this amazing tunnel structure we visited some other remnants of the war, including a US tank that was sitting right near a main thoroughfare,
and the remains of a US hangar,
which is now in the middle of this built-up city. It was a surreal experience to think about what took place at all of these sights fifty years ago.
The sculpture below is the peace sculpture at the DMZ, marking the end of the war and the reunification of Vietnam under the communist government.
It was absolutely fascinating to see the legacy of the war in Vietnam, and to see it through the eyes of the Vietnamese people. We learned so much and saw how much this terrible war has so greatly affected each country that was involved.
To find out about the rest of our time in Vietnam, please read our other two blog posts for this country:
and soon you can read how our war experience continued as we moved on to Cambodia, where evidence and legacy of the war brought even more horrors to the region. More on that in an upcoming post.
And so, in our final blog about Vietnam, we want to reiterate just how much we loved the country, the people and every moment we spent here. We were very sad to leave this beautiful and complicated place.