Where to get an up-close look at Vietnam's long history of war
Four decades after the fall of Saigon, memorabilia from the country's war with America is attracting adventurous tourists
The thirtieth of April marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. While it signalled the end of the Vietnam War, it was not yet the end of what seems an eternity of fighting: in the past 100 years alone, the country has been at war with France, Japan and Thailand, then America, and after that Cambodia and China — and the fall of Saigon ushered in a Hollywood genre that has shaped modern perceptions of this skinny, S-shaped Southeast Asian country, bulldozing over the intricacies of this delicate culture and building on images of pain and destruction.
"We choose to forgive, but we will never forget," so many Vietnamese people — from the north and the south — will tell you. And while the country is now establishing itself as a cultural, culinary and adventure destination, real-life American war stories remain one of the characteristics of this vibrant country.
Roll back the years
When the Vietnamese government isolated the country from outside influences after the war, Vespa scooters became status symbols and locals became experts in restoring these Italian icons. These days, you can get to know Ho Chi Minh City a little better by exploring the back streets and markets on a scooter that's been around for more than 40 years. Vespa Adventures (vespaadventures.com) has a small fleet of vintage scooters and a range of tours that includes Insider's Saigon, a fun way to orientate yourself in the city.
Travel further: explore the countryside around Hue in central Vietnam by bicycle and you'll be able to stop along small waterways and see boats — still in use — that have been made from the fuselages of American planes. Book a tour with Backyard Travel (backyardtravel.com) and ask for Shi to be your guide: he'll take you to meet one of the city's cycling legends and war heroes ... in a place you'd least expect.
The art of war
Sophie's Art Tour (sophiesarttour.com) created by Ho Chi Minh City resident and art curator Sophie Hughes, began as a personal research project born from Hughes' desire to learn more about the country's modern art history. It developed into a fascinating and very accessible look into the country's past and particularly interesting is the impact that the American war had on Vietnam's art scene, with the development of now-iconic propaganda art. You don't need to be interested in painting to enjoy this tour, and if you'd like to make sense of the country's modern history, be sure to make this tour your first stop in Vietnam.
Travel further: along the road from Hanoi to Halong Bay is the captivating gallery of the Hong Ngoc Fine Art Company (hongngocvn.com). Here, people with disabilities (many are victims of Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the US military during the war) create the most elaborate and photo-real tapestries. Break the journey and stop for a meal, and to watch the artists at work.
Friend or pho?
Pho Binh (7 Ly Chinh Thang Street, District 3, HCMC) is a noodle-soup shop so unassuming, you'd never guess the major role it played in the American war. Situated just a few blocks from the American military headquarters, it was a popular restaurant with soldiers who had no idea that the shop's owner was a Viet Cong spy. As they tucked into their bowl of pho, VC commanders sat upstairs and planned the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam-American war. The shop is still owned by the same family (and still serves the most delicious pho noodles), who are happy to show patrons their personal museum.
Travel further: If there's one museum you visit in Vietnam, make it the War Remnants Museum (28 Vo Van Tan, Ward 6, District 3, HCMC; warremnantsmuseum.com). Its displays are surprisingly objective, and the photographic section is exceptionally powerful.
Share the spoils
Le Cong Kieu (District 1, Ho Chi Minh City) is a street known for its collection of antique stores. Here treasure hunters can browse for hours through collections of everything from Zippo lighters (which at first glance appear to be from the American war , but most likely aren't authentic), to shelves of intricately painted ceramics and boxes of old black and white photographs… quite poignant when you consider that almost everyone in these thousands of photographs will have been affected by the war.
Travel further: Ca Phe He (27 Le Ngo Cat, Hue), a small coffee shop in Hue, is owned by artist Nguyen Van He. He was born after the war, but he's been collecting relics since he was a child. The cafe's walls, ceiling and floor are lined with war relics, making it a fascinating — if sombre — place to contemplate the country's past while sipping on fresh-filtered Vietnamese coffee.
Explore the underground
Viet Cong soldiers used an extensive network of tunnels as battalion headquarters, storage, hospitals, living quarters and access tunnels during the war. Basically, this network of tunnels, 70 kilometres north-west of HCMC, was at the centre of the VC's operations in the south. The Cu Chi Tunnels (Cu Chi District, Ho Chi Minh City; en.diadaocuchi.com.vn) have now been opened up to the public and although there's a propaganda-filled film that visitors must watch and a theme-park feel (you have your picture taken on top of a tank and even pay to fire AK47s in the shooting range), the place can be very unnerving. Particularly if you choose to drop below ground level and crawl through the network of dark tunnels.
Travel further: Hanoi's stately French-colonial Metropole Hotel (15 Ngo Quyen Street, Hanoi, sofitel-legend.com) has been a favourite with presidents, royalty and personalities for more than 100 years. Recently reopened is the hotel's bomb shelter, which is where Joan Baez famously recorded parts of Where Are You Now, My Son? Be sure to book on the hotel's tour (guests only), where the Metropole's resident historian will lead you down into the shelter. It'll give you a deeper understanding of what life in the capital city was like during the war years.