Known to the Vietnamese as the American War, to Americans as the Vietnam War, and to scholars as the Second Indochina War – the American-Vietnamese conflict that took place between 1955 until 1975 brought Vietnam to the forefront of the world’s attention. What most people don’t realise is that the conflict had an equally devastating effect on neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, which suffered massive bombing campaigns and had their own associated political upheavals.
We’ve explored many of the fascinating wartime sites across Indochina, and selected the five top places to learn about the conflict and its effects.
1. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Though it isn’t officially a ‘war history’ museum, Tuol Sleng, formerly known as S21 Prison, rose out of a period of major violence and social upheaval in Cambodia. Many argue that the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia occurred as a direct result of America’s campaign of carpet bombing the Cambodian countryside during the war with Vietnam.
Most Cambodians whose profile didn’t match the Khmer Rouge’s criteria for recruitment into the regime were sent out into the countryside and made to work extremely long hours growing rice with very little food provided. Many who were deemed a threat to the new regime were sent to designated spots to be executed.
For those who were identified as being more closely related to the previous regime or matched certain ‘negative’ criteria, an even darker fate awaited them in S21 Prison. The prison was formerly a school called Tuol Sleng, but was quickly converted into a prison after the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh. It was used as a base to punish, torture and interrogate captives.
S21 has now been made into a museum where you can learn more about the dark period of Khmer Rouge rule and the punishments handed out to those unfortunate enough to be sent there. Though this is a harrowing experience and not one for the faint-hearted, it is a must for those interested in understanding a period of Cambodian history which shapes the country to this day.
2. Vinh Moc Tunnels & DMZ, Central Vietnam
In contrast to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were mainly used to ambush American patrols and were regularly abandoned upon discovery, the Vinh Moc Tunnels were designed as permanent structures built to house families and shelter villagers from the almost constant bombing of the land above.
For those interested in learning more about the war in Vietnam it is also possible to travel from the Vinh Moc Tunnels, along the line of the old DMZ, to Khe San Base near the Laos border. Khe San was one of the most important American bases during the war and was the setting for one of the most intense battles fought between the two nations. This battle was a major success for the Vietnamese Army, and was used as a distraction for the wider goal of destabilising the American army through a series of attacks known as the Tet Offensive. Visitors to Khe San can learn about the battle and see some old American tanks and aircraft which still remain at the site.
3. Viengxay Caves, Houaphanh Province, Laos
Hidden away in a dramatic limestone karst landscape near the village of Viengxay (also Vieng Xai) are a series of seemingly forgotten caves, used to shelter the Communist Pathet Lao forces during America’s war with Vietnam. The bombing campaign carried out by the US in Laos is now known as the ‘Secret War’ and must be one of the least-known conflicts to have involved the US since its birth as a nation.
The main reason for the US bombardment of Northern Laos was to destroy supply routes used by the North Vietnamese Army, now known collectively as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. The Pathet Lao supported the North Vietnamese and used these natural caves as a base to fight the Americans and the civil war raging at the time. Up to 23,000 people lived in the caves, which contained a hospital, school, shops, offices and even a theatre.
4. War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The War Remnants Museum, in former Saigon, is a ‘must see’ for anybody who has an interest in Vietnam’s turbulent past. The museum contains an impressive range of exhibits depicting the conflict with the US as well as some smaller ones which cover the period of French colonisation and Vietnamese resistance.
Though presented from an unavoidably biased viewpoint it is nonetheless shocking to see and learn about the various methods deployed by the South Vietnamese, US and French armies in Vietnam. One building displays ‘tiger cages’ in which the South Vietnamese government kept political prisoners. Other exhibits include graphic photographs documenting the effects of Agent Orange, Napalm and war atrocities.
5. The Imperial City, Hue, Vietnam
The Imperial City is a walled fortress and palace in Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. It was also the setting of one of the most bitterly fought battles between the American and North Vietnamese armies during the war. The site contains many well preserved buildings and interesting old photographs of the Vietnamese royal family, as well as bearing the scars of the fighting that took place there.
As part of the 1968 Tet Offensive carried out by the North Vietnamese army, Hue was one of the main focuses of the operation. Situated just south of the old border dividing the country, Hue was a strategically important city and would have been a major victory for the Communists had they managed to gain full control. Many iconic photographs from the war were taken within the Imperial City walls during the battle, including Don McCullin’s ‘Shell-Shocked US Marine’ and the series of images documenting the photographer being hit by shrapnel.
Alastair Donnelly is Director at InsideAsia Tours.
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