Visiting Vietnam? Three things tourists really should know about the Vietnam War

Unlike other countries which have seen terrible tragedies, little of this history is on show

I recently travelled through Vietnam, one of the 12 million tourists that visit each year. Whilst this number will include those with a connection to the War, as well as history geeks that have studied it like me, most will know little about one of the most important events of the 20th century.

‘The American War’, as its known to the Vietnamese, was a Cold War conflict occurring from 1955 to 1975. Estimates of Vietnamese casualties range from 1m to 3.8m with terrible atrocities committed on both sides. This all happened in the lifetime of people that you will see on the street. But unlike other countries which have seen terrible tragedies, little of this history is on show— so it’s easy to travel around blissfully unaware. Here’s my three things to know before you go:

We met people whose grandparents fought on this side

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the War was a struggle between the homogeneous Vietnamese and foreign American invaders. History is rarely so simple. In fact there were four key players alongside a range of other countries — including eight of the top ten visiting nations to Vietnam today:

  • North Vietnam: The communist government led by Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi controlled the northern half of Vietnam. In true Cold War style, communist allies China, North Korea and the Soviet Union provided direct support.
  • Việt Cộng: These small units lived among the people in the South, undertaking effective guerilla warfare. For a taster of their lives, you can still visit the Củ Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City—we did this on a fantastic motorbike tour with One Trip.
  • South Vietnam: The North’s counterpart was created when Vietnam split in 1954. It might surprise you that this country formed the bulk of anti-communist forces and that the conflict was also a civil war that divided the country—we met people whose grandparents fought on this side.
  • USA: Although originally a supporter of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam’s independence, the USA eventually replaced France in propping up South Vietnam. Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan provided direct forces and support—with Great Britain very almost involved!

Explaining the War only from the American perspective ignores half the story

The US entered and escalated the War to contain communism—seen as a threat to its national security and power. Large parts of Europe and Asia had turned ‘red’ following WWII, and America believed that a communist Vietnam could cause the whole Southeast Asia trading bloc to fall to communism. This would force allies Taiwan, Japan, Australia and New Zealand to compromise politically with communism.

Explaining the War only from the American perspective ignores half the story. For North Vietnam this was the latest in a long line of foreign invaders to its territory. China ruled Vietnam for a thousand years and France took control during the era of European colonisation. During WWII, the Japanese invasion prompted a successful Vietnamese resistance—but postwar France returned in 1945 expecting to have its colony returned.

This, afterall, was a period of global self-determinism when the ‘winds of change’ saw large parts of Asia and Africa become independent from imperialism. To make this a reality, North Vietnam turned to a communist ideology and the generous support available from making friends with powerful communist countries.

A high cost paid for no real gain

The underdog eventually beat the superpower. It became both America’s longest war and the first war it lost. The US pulled out in 1975, leading to the fall of Saigon when a North Vietnamese tank drove into the city and it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City (although it’s still widely known as Saigon!). In the following decade more than a million Vietnamese fled.

Vietnam is still a communist country today. It’s one of the fastest growing countries, but also a country with strong internal divisions and a terrible human rights record. Questioning the state’s interpretation of its history is dangerous and descendents of South Vietnam soldiers are still barred from accessing many official jobs.

The impact to America was also far reaching. The War spawned a domestic protest movement that characterised the era. People protested against neo-imperialism, the billions of dollars wasted, chemical weapons and unfair conscription—Muhammad Ali famously went to prison for rejecting the draft. It hampered the presidencies of Johnson, Nixon and Ford with a large majority of US citizens opposing the War. 58,000 Americans died and 303,000 were injured—not forgetting those experiencing long-term mental health issues. A high cost paid for no real gain.

Don’t get me wrong, Vietnam is so much more than it’s war legacy. It’s about chaotic cities and beautiful attractions like Ha Long Bay. But due to the scale of the tragedy, I think we owe it as travellers to understand more about this country’s history.

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Oliver Carrington

Mostly data visualization. Also travel, mental health, LGBTQ & nonprofits. Impact Manager at Imperial Health Charity, writer for www.towardsdatascience.com