Even after living in the USA for many years, I only knew of the Vietnam War (affectionately known as 'Nam in some parts of the US) and when I visited Vietnam, I was keen on learning more about a war that was seen as very unpopular amongst Americans in the 60s.
If you're in Ho Chi Minh City, your first stop to learn about the war is the War Remnants Museum (Google Maps) in District 3. The compound that houses the museum hosts many artifacts from the war and is divided into an indoor/outdoor exhibit featuring weapons, vehicles, photographs and even replicas of torture chambers. With the outdoor exhibit, you can stand next to a US Army tank and envision it rolling over everything in its sights while it fires its powerful cannon.
The museum is a very popular tourist attraction so expect a throng of people to be there most of the time with the occasional large tour group being shepherded through the many exhibit rooms. There is a very somber tone throughout the facility at large, and most of the visitors are very respective of the space while they view all the displays of the atrocities that came about as a result of the conflict. Without a doubt, the "Agent Orange" room brought the most chills for me with the horrific details of the chemical warfare and its devastating impact on the Vietnamese countryside. There were infographics and surreal photos of Vietnamese people with alien like deformities as a side effect of the toxicity. Just like the war itself, I only knew of "Agent Orange" and was caught myself shaking my head several times as I grasped the gravity of the heinous assault.
WAR REMNANTS MUSEUMEntrance Fee: 15,000 VND/~0.70 USD
Hours: 7:30AM–12PM & 1:30–5PM everyday
Another popular tour for visitors to Ho Chi Minh City is the Cu Chi Tunnels located in the Phú Hiệp district (Google Maps), about 2 hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a man-made network of underground tunnels used by the Vietcong guerrilla fighters as a tactical advantage in the Vietnam War against the Americans. Most tour operators will likely have morning (beginning at 8am) and afternoon (beginning at 1pm) tours to cater to as many visitors as possible. I organized this tour with Hangout Hostel (where I was staying) and for the life of me, I cannot remember how much it was, my bad. Our group left Ho Chi Minh City at 1pm and returned at around 7:30pm.
It is important to note that the tour only included transport to and from the tunnels from Ho Chi Minh City; a guide (for the transport portion only) and; on the way to the tunnels, a visit to Hoc Mon, a handicrafts and souvenir store stocked with products made by victims of Agent Orange to aid in their rehabilitation and long-term care.
The tunnels have been revamped since the conflict to be a memorial and be more tourist friendly. After all, this was once the site of a lot of bloodshed and warfare, and I, for one, wouldn't want to go somewhere with guts and entrails everywhere. After you've arrived at the tunnel, you will pay a separate entrance fee of 110,000 VND/~5 USD (cash only) and get paired with a guide that is pre-selected by the tour operator. As soon as you enter the grounds, don't panic about the not so faint sounds of gunfire in the air. You are not in any danger! I'll explain this a little more in a later section. The tour officially begins with an informational video (in English) of the Cu Chi Tunnels that is, and as you would expect, laced with a lot of anti-American Vietnamese propaganda.
After the video, the on-site guide will take you through various stations depicting what the weapons, shoes, traps and artillery were all like during the warfare. There was even a station where you could submerge yourself in a hole in the ground just like the Vietcong did to hide and gain an element of surprise over the American forces.
Whether you will have a great time on the tour will largely depend on whether or not you have a good on-site guide. Fortunately for me, the guide I had (with the Delta Tours Company) was a knowledgeable Vietnamese man who actually fought alongside the Americans. His perspective of the war was very interesting as he captivated all of us with stories of the mundane moments between fighting, how the Americans completely underestimated the resistance fighters and some rather crude (but funny) jokes poking fun at both the Vietnamese and American forces.
If you really want to get a taste of the warfare, you'll have the opportunity to fire a real life firearm from those times, which includes the M16 and AK47 at the gun range. This range is the reason why you will hear gunfire in the air as you first enter the tunnels. How about that for realistic wartime ambiance?
This activity can be rather pricey as you pay per bullet (yes, you read that right) with a single bullet starting at 35,000 VND/1.60 USD. I didn't fire any weapons personally but I stood in the firing pit as I watched a friend fire several rounds of the M60 machine gun. The intensity of each round, even as a spectator, was indescribable, maybe something like the sound of thunder?
Last but not least, you will get to enter a section of the tunnels themselves and see for yourself what it was like for a Vietcong guerrilla fighter to be entrenched in there. If you are claustrophobic, you might want to sit this one out, and if you do go in, there are exits every 5 minutes if you ever feel the need to resurface. The tunnels are hot and relatively tiny and my 5'8"/173cm frame just managed to squeeze through. If you are any bigger and/or taller, you might want to sit this one out as well.
CU CHI tUNNELSEntrance Fee: 110,000 VND/~5 USD
Hours: 7:00AM–5PM everyday
I'm sure glad I did both activities and got a deeper understanding of the whole conflict. Even though Vietnam is still healing to put the whole thing behind them, I didn't feel they held any animosity and they were willing to share their perspectives on the whole ordeal. There were definitely Americans in the audience and I didn't feel at all that they were harmed or treated poorly in any way because they were from the United States.
You can do both these activities in a day, but I recommend splitting them up into two days so you can have a little time to relax. Be respectful and pay attention because there is a lot of information (that may shock you) that is coming your way about the Vietnam War by visiting the War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels.
About The Author
Nico Atienza is a Philippines born, Sri Lankan raised traveler who sold everything, quit his job and escaped the rat race to travel the world in 2016. Apart from his love of travel, he is an award winning volunteer, miles + points aficionado and perpetually epicurious story teller. You can peer into his life by following him on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram or send him an Email.