I’ll admit it: I hated history class as a student from elementary school right through grade twelve. I didn’t absorb much of what I studied because I learned just enough to make the grade and move on. So, as we traveled through Vietnam, it was very eye-opening to see actual war sites and learn about the US involvement and all that had happened during the Vietnam War back in the 60s and 70s. We learn a lot of war history as children and often do not grasp the significance or the horror of it all, and then as adults we often do not revisit, discuss, or think about much of it, or what can be learned from the past. From traveling and learning more myself, I realize this is incredibly unfortunate, because there’s a lot we can gain from learning and thinking about the wars of the past and how it might affect our present and future situations in life.
Since I’m personally not big on history and I know many of you might not want a long, never-ending “blah blah blah” post here with a bunch of war jargon and history, let me try to sum up the facts from the Vietnam War in a clear-cut and bullet-pointed way. **I will also make some personal notes within the text below to describe what James and I personally witnessed and learned about as we traveled throughout Vietnam.
- For a long period of time, from the 1800s to the 1950s, Vietnam was occupied by several different groups, including France, Japan, and various Vietnamese political groups.
- In the 1950s, the French were defeated and independence was granted to Vietnam. Tension really increased throughout the country, and there soon became a larger divide between North Vietnam (which was known to be communist, and was supported by China and other communist allies) and South Vietnam (which was known to be independent, and was supported by the United States and other anti-communist allies).
- From the mid-1950s to the late-1950s, forces from South Vietnam began attacking and/or executing those who were communist or supporters of the north, and in turn, forces from the north began attacking government officials and other targets in the south. By 1959, firefights began between the army forces.
- The US got involved in the 1960s, sending troops and economic and technical aid in order to confront the communist forces. The reason—or the worry—was that if North Vietnam took over the south and the whole country became communist, soon many other Southeast Asian countries would follow. Over the next 5-10 years, more US troops were sent to Vietnam to fight and help to aid “the war against communism.”
**When James and I took a one-day tour just outside Ho Chi Minh city, we were brought into areas where a lot of fighting had been going on… and on this particular day it was hot, humid and in the 90s. As we walked through
the dense and buggy jungle, sweating profusely, while hearing shots from a nearby “tourist” gun range, we thought about what it would feel like to be a soldier in the Vietnam War in those conditions. It was really incomprehensible. War is a hard and scary thing in general… and to think our soldiers were fighting in these difficult geographic and climatic conditions on top of it all: it just seems so grueling.
- During most of the 1960s, the US made great efforts to defoliate—to basically kill all the plants and trees in many areas—throughout Vietnam, in order to try to gain an upper hand in the war. By killing the jungle canopy, it would leave the enemy exposed and they would have fewer places to hide their weapons and encampments. Several different defoliants were sprayed from airplanes onto the jungles below, including one called, “Agent Orange.” Later on, it was found that the soldiers and civilians who came into contact with this chemical or were exposed to the chemical through the food and water have had many horrible health problems as a result. To this day, Agent Orange has been linked to innumerable deformities and cancer cases passed down to several generations from US and Vietnam soldiers who were exposed to the chemicals.
**When James and I were in Ho Chi Minh, we visited the “War Remnants Museum” which had a LOT of information, photos, and stories about Agent Orange and the horrible effects it has had on many Vietnamese and Americans still today. It was humbling and very sad to see just how so many soldiers, after the war, started families and soon discovered that their offspring were all being born with missing limbs, mental retardation, or would develop some form of cancer during their lifetimes… which, in the end, were all linked to the Agent Orange exposure.
- Meanwhile the forces in the North had built an impressive amount of underground tunnels and living quarters throughout Vietnam, keeping their soldiers very hidden and safe from the US and South Vietnam.
**When James and I visited Ho Chi Minh, we took a tour of the nearby “Cu Chi Tunnels,” which is one of the larger underground tunnel networks in Vietnam. It was fascinating to hear about how the soldiers hid, fought, and lived using these underground passageways. The tunnels were a complete underworld; including kitchens, hospitals, workshops, sleeping areas, communications, ammunition storage,
and even some entertainment. We decided to try walking through these tunnels ourselves and it was QUITE claustrophobic and hot inside… we couldn’t imagine how difficult it must have been to be a soldier carrying weapons and such, and have to crawl around through these small, dusty, rodent and insect-filled passageways to fight and to get to their living quarters. It also made us realize: South Vietnam and the US seemed to have had NO chance: these tunnels kept the North Vietnam soldiers SO well hidden! They could hide completely underground and easily pop up and attack anywhere in the range of the tunnel complex (hundreds of miles) without a single warning and then disappear again. In addition, the tunnels themselves were protected by booby-traps, snakes, and trap-doors against intruders. [Click here to see a video of the tour we took of the Cu Chi Tunnels, and then of the war museum in Ho Chi Minh.] [If you’d like to read more about these tunnels, there’s some more interesting information here.]
The war really escalated in 1967 when the north launched a large battle, the Tet Offensive, attacking over 100 cities in the south. In turn, the US and South Vietnam fought back with massive firepower, with one main consequence being that the city of Hue was left 80% in ruins after all the bombings!
**When James and I visited Hue, we definitely saw these effects still today, as the Hue Citadel was still very much in ruins. [Read more about our visit to Hue here.]
- Meanwhile, back in the US, there were MANY anti-war protests all around the country, especially involving students at college campuses. Many citizens in the US were against the war, claiming that most of the victims in Vietnam were innocent, unarmed civilians, and over 2/3 of the country said (in 1970) that they believed that the US made a mistake by sending troops to fight in Vietnam.
- The US pulled out of the war completely by 1972, but the war between North and South Vietnam continued until 1975. The war finally ended when the North won over and captured the city of Saigon—which was, in turn, named after the communist leader, “Ho Chi Minh.” North and South Vietnam were merged to form what it is still known as today as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Phew… crazy to read and hear about all of this! I honestly can say I’ve learned more about the Vietnam War on this trip than I ever did in school! James was particularly fascinated with seeing and learning more about the Vietnam War while we traveled from the north to south. We visited many cities and sights during our stay that had significance or importance during the war. These included:
— Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi. This prison was used during the Vietnam War to house political prisoners and POWs (including John McCain). We walked through the prison, read about the conditions and treatment of the prisoners, and read some history about the prison and its relation to the war. [See photos here.]
–Military History Museum, Hanoi. Walked around and looked at old war memorabilia: big tanks, canons, airplanes, helicopters, missiles, and more. [See photos here.]
–Hospital Cave, Cat Ba Island. We had a private tour of this cave, which was apparently used during war times to hide injured soldiers and such. It was interesting how many large rooms there were, including one room that used to have a small swimming pool and a movie theater! [See photos here.]
–Hue Citadel, Hue. During the Vietnam War, Hue’s central location very near the border between the North and South put it in a very vulnerable position. In the Tet Offensive of 1968, the city suffered considerable damage, most of it from American firepower and bombings on the historical buildings. We walked around the Citadel and could see that the damage is still extremely evident so many years later. [See photos from Hue here.]
–Cu Chi Tunnels, near Ho Chi Minh. During the war, this impressive network of underground tunnels was used for soldiers to live, hide, and fight within. We took a day tour of the area and our tour guide was AWESOME—he was originally from the Philippines, then moved to South Vietnam, and ended up fighting in the Vietnam War in the US military! He had many interesting stories and gave us a unique and REAL view of what the war was really like. We learned about how the Viet Cong soldiers lived underground and how they set up booby-traps around the tunnel entrances to kill or maim their enemies. Both James and I tried fitting down into one of the small tunnel openings of the Cu Chi Tunnels, and we also crawled through one area of the tunnels… which was extremely hot and claustrophobic!! [See a daily video summary of our tour here and photos from Ho Chi Minh here.]
–War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh. After we visited the Cu Chi tunnels, we were dropped off at the War Remnants Museum, which had an impressive collection of tanks, helicopters, aircraft, and artillery. We then saw a few prison cells and read about horrible and unfathomable torture techniques that prisoners faced during the war. Inside the museum, there were never-ending boards with information and photos about the Vietnam War, the US involvement, Agent Orange, and opposition to the War. It was a humbling, depressing, and eye-opening museum, yet was full of SO MUCH great information and photos that give you an all-around view on the war. [See a daily video summary of our tour and visit to the war museum here and see photos from Ho Chi Minh here.]
Facts about the Vietnam War:
- 9,087,000 military personnel served on active duty during the official Vietnam era from August 5, 1964 to May 7, 1975.
- 2,709,918 Americans served in uniform in Vietnam.
- US draftees vs. volunteers: 25% (648,500) of total forces in the country were draftees.
- The average age of a G.I. in Vietnam was 19.
- 58,148 soldiers were killed in Vietnam.
- 75,000 were severely disabled.
- Average age of a man killed in the war: 23.1 years.
- Vietnam Veterans in the US represented 9.7% of their generation.
- The Vietnam war, which lasted for approximately 20 years, is the longest war in the entire U.S history.
So now, having read about our experiences and the facts listed, have you learned something new about the Vietnam War? Do you have any personal experiences to share? Please leave a comment below if you have anything to share.