The Southern metropolis of Ho Chi Mihn City (also known as Saigon) is Vietnam’s largest city. Most of the popular tourist attractions in Saigon are centered around the Vietnamese War. As someone who has always loved learning about history, politics, and international affairs (my college major was called International Relations and Politics), I was really interested to see the Vietnamese perspective on the war.
If you have the opportunity to visit some of Saigon’s most famous “war tourism” spots, there a few things that I think it’s important to remember.
First, be respectful. That’s obviously a good rule for life in general, but I think it’s especially important when you’re traveling. When I’m visiting another country, I view myself as a guest there and feel that it’s important for me to respect the customs and culture even if I don’t totally agree with them.
Second, history can be quite subjective, and there are always many sides to the same story. I learned about the Vietnamese War in history classes in the United States taught by Americans and using books written by Americans. The Vietnamese narrative is obviously going to be different. It makes sense, and it’s not necessarily wrong that the two countries would be telling the same story in different ways. I encourage Americans who are visiting these places to keep an open mind and try to put yourself in the place of the Vietnamese people and understand where they are coming from. Also keep in mind that the Vietnamese government is a fairly authoritarian Communist regime, so unsurprisingly, there is some amount of flat-out propaganda. By that, I mean that there is factual/objective information that is sometimes reported inaccurately. That is something that we expected going in and just tried to take in stride.
Lastly, don’t forget that Vietnam, like all countries, has a diverse population with many different mindsets, and the government does not necessarily speak for the people. These tourist sites are operated by the government and are reflective of the government-approved narrative. If you take the time to speak with different Vietnamese people, you will discover a variety of perspectives about the Vietnamese War and the United States in general. We spoke with one woman in Hanoi who described Ho Chi Minh as “a great hero” whereas a man we spoke with in Saigon referred to Ho Chi Minh as “a serial killer.” Just like in United States, political opinions are all over the map.
All of that being said, here are the main sights we visited in Ho Chi Minh City…
Reunification Palace isn’t so much a museum as it is an historic building frozen in time. The French originally built a palace on this site in 1868. When the palace was bombed in 1962 in an assassination attempt on South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, Diem ordered that a new palace be built (this time, with a bomb shelter in the basement). The building ended up becoming famous as the spot where the Vietnamese war officially came to an end when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the palace gates.
The part about visiting Reunification Palace that I found most interesting was seeing all the 1960’s furniture and décor. You get to see the more public spaces like offices and meeting rooms where government business was conducted, as well as the private residence where the president and his family lived.
There’s also a commercial kitchen with the largest stand mixer I’ve ever seen, a movie theater, a rooftop bar, and a helicopter pad.
Matthew’s favorite part was probably the basement bomb shelter because it was full of old telecommunications equipment.
War Remnants Museum
In my opinion, the War Remnants Museum is the most important place to visit in Saigon, particularly for Americans. It is your opportunity to read a full account of the Vietnamese War from the Vietnamese government’s point of view. All of the information in the museum is presented with a very clear bias, and some of it is objectively untrue. (On the flip side, some of the information is 100% true and absolutely heartbreaking to read about.) However, I think learning the narrative that is taught to Vietnamese people is incredibly eye-opening and is essential to helping you understand their perspective. Just be prepared for some extremely anti-American rhetoric.
The most difficult section of the museum is the exhibit about Agent Orange. When I was in the 6th grade, we each had to do a report on a topic related to the Vietnamese War. Strange, history-obsessed 12-year-old that I was, I chose Agent Orange as my topic. All that to say, I was already familiar with it. For those who don’t know, Agent Orange is an herbicide. During the war, America troops sprayed it from planes over vast swaths of Vietnamese land in order to kill off the jungle vegetation in which the Viet Cong would hide.
Tragically, human exposure to Agent Orange has some horrendous consequences. It causes cancer in people who are exposed, and it also causes increased rates of cancer and birth defects in the children of people who are exposed. The Vietnamese people are still dealing with the effects of Agent Orange as they struggle to care for children who were born with significant physical or mental disabilities due to their parents’ exposure to the chemical. Agent Orange also impacted the American soldiers who were exposed to it, and there’s actually a section of the exhibit specifically telling the stories of some American soldiers whose kids were born with handicaps because of Agent Orange.
To be honest, the Agent Orange exhibit is absolutely heartbreaking. Vietnam does not have the same level of resources or quality of medical care as the United States, particularly in the rural areas where much of the Agent Orange exposure occurred. As a result, these families face many challenges trying to raise their disabled children. Overall, though, I was inspired by the stories of these families and how palpable their love for their children is.
Chu Chi Tunnels
The Chu Chi Tunnels are a section of tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City that were originally part of a larger network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war. The tunnels allowed them to maintain control of certain areas while staying hidden, as well as to transport supplies across the country.
The tunnels are a ways out of the city, so we booked a tour. We didn’t want to worry about figuring out transportation. As it turned out, we were the only two people on the tour that day, so we got a whole bus (and tour guide) to ourselves!
On the way out to the tunnels, we stopped at a local farm where the family makes rice paper and had the opportunity to try making some ourselves.
We also got to feed the family’s pigs, and…I kind of freaked out. Those animals were gigantic!
Next we moved on to the tunnels. The area where tourists are allowed to visit is a rather strange set-up. They have all of these mannequins set up to demonstrate the way people lived in the tunnels during the war. If you set the cheesiness factor aside, though, what you learn is absolutely amazing. (Side note: We were glad to have a guide, as there isn’t much written information provided throughout the exhibits.)
The entrances to the tunnels were hidden in various spots throughout the jungle. I had the opportunity to try climbing into one of the entrances, and you can tell by my face that I was a little nervous. It’s tiny and you really can’t see what’s inside!
They used giant termite mounds to disguise holes in the ground that were dug in order to provide ventilation for the tunnels.
In some areas, the tunnels were multiple levels deep and included sleeping areas, field hospitals, kitchens, storage areas, and more. The Viet Cong would have to spend all day in the tunnels, only coming out at night, and during periods of intense bombing they would stay underground for days at a time. There are a couple of sections of tunnel that have been widened so that tourists can walk through them. I made it down the stairs, got a glimpse of the size of the tunnel I would be walking through, freaked out and had to go back up. I can’t even imagine how people actually lived in these tunnels full time.
Below is a photo that I snapped quickly of the tunnel before my claustrophobia overcame me and I had to go back to ground level. Matthew actually successfully walked through that tunnel for like 50 yards or so!
If you ever have the opportunity to go to Vietnam, I would definitely recommend a visit to the Chu Chi Tunnels, Reunification Palace, and the War Remnants Museum, although if you have to choose only one I would go with the War Remnants Museum. It’s an important step to understanding the perspectives of the people you will encounter during your time in Vietnam.
In conclusion, though, I do want to note that the war is not something that will dominate your experiences or interactions with people in Vietnam. It was obviously an important historical event, which is why there are museums, monuments, etc. But as an American traveling through Vietnam, I did not feel an ounce of hostility directed at me. Not a single time. Even the person I mentioned earlier in the post, the one who referred to Ho Chi Minh as a great hero and clearly has a perspective on the war that is pretty aligned with the official government position…I asked her whether she thought that Vietnamese people harbored any negative feelings towards Americans. She looked almost horrified at that idea and said absolutely not! She said that she knew the war was a complicated subject in America and referenced the many Americans who protested the war as it was going on. She said they don’t blame the people for the war because that was the government’s responsibility and that it’s not fair to assume that all the people in a country agree with what their government is doing. “Besides”, she said, “the war is in the past, and we are all friends now.”
The truth is probably a little more complicated than that, but I’ll admit that as she spoke I teared up a little at her unexpected showing of love and forgiveness.