No trip to Vietnam can be made without acknowledging what the country went through from 1945, when President Ho Chi Minh declared independence from France, to 1976 and the unification of the communist regions of the north with the National Liberation Front-backed areas of the south. Although over four decades have elapsed since the end of Vietnam’s war with the United States of America, the battlefields, ruined architecture and POW fortresses remain as testament to a time that many people the world over still struggle to comprehend. Historical sites are scattered from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with the final ruling family of Vietnam, the Nguyen Dynasty, and the overlapping colonial takeover by the French, adding to an interactive history lesson to ensure cultural travellers are kept enthralled every step of the way.
A bit of research, pre-tour, will go a long way, with lengthy train journeys and the odd domestic flight during your holiday offering time to read before encountering key locations, firsthand, in addition to comparing the modern-day lifestyles in rural and urban areas.

Below are some of the sites to add to a history tour of Vietnam with extra excursions to natural highlights, such as Halong Bay, Nha Trang and the Mekong Delta, certain to provide conclusive evidence of the country’s continuing journey from colonialism to communism, and beyond.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum (The Hanoi Hilton)

With former “residents” including former US presidential nominee John McCain to one of America’s longest ever captive POWs, Navy Commander Everett Alvarez, Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, was built by the French in the late 1880s but is more commonly remembered as an American POW lock up from 1967 to 1973. Although demolished during the 1990s the original gatehouse has been converted into a museum, offering insight into the conditions and the inmates that once resided in one of the Vietnam War’s most notorious incarceration centres. To learn more, read The Passing of the Night, a moving autobiography by Hoa Lo inmate Brigadier General James ‘Robbie’ Risner.

Hanoi's old quarter (The 36 Streets)

Situated north of Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi’s Old Quarter, also referred to as the 36 Streets, is Vietnam’s oldest inhabited district. It provides a fascinating glimpse into life in the 13th to 15th centuries when migrating villagers set up workshops and market stalls around the palace of King Ly Thai, the founder of the later Ly Dynasty. As workshops and stalls became permanent, streets formed which would become synonymous with arts, services and wares stemming from silver, bamboo, silk, tin, paper and fish sauce, to name but a few of the original 36 guilds. To this day, each street still represents one particular craft with numerous pagodas, temples and religious shrines pertaining to the patron saint or founding member of each individual guild, to be found on every corner.

The Imperial City of Hue

Founded in the mid-13th century, but taking over 200 years to complete, the impressive walled palace known as the Imperial City is found within Vietnam’s former capital, Hue. It stands as testament to the might of Vietnam’s last reigning emperors, the Nguyen Dynasty, and provided a battleground between US troops and the North Vietnamese Army during the 1968Tet Offensive. Bullet holes aside, much of the Imperial City remains intact with the Purple Forbidden City, Hien Gate, Pavilion of Splendour and Royal Gardens all providing insight into a royal past that ended with Ho Chi Minh becoming President of the Republic of Vietnam in 1945.

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Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh holiday in Vietnam

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Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue

This seven-storey temple sits atop Ha Khe Hill, overlooking the city of Hue. The 17th century pagoda acts as an unofficial emblem of the city, reflected within the waters of the Perfume River, as well as in the folklore and literary tales surrounding Hue, Buddhism and Chinese mythology. Also termed the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, no visit to Hue is complete without stepping foot inside the main hall, as well as finding out more about the tower that was once the meeting place for anti-communist activists, and also served as a fully-functioning Buddhist monastery.

My Son Temples, Da Nang

Around 70km from Da Nang, the ruined temples of My Son are the resting place for the Cham royal family and fallen Vietnamese heroes, as well as one of the most revered Hindu temple complexes in the whole of Southeast Asia. Built as a shrine to the Hindu god Shiva between the 4th to the 14th centuries, and decimated in about a week by US bombers in the Vietnam War, there were once thought to be more than 70 temples at the site. Many of the sculptures have been taken to be exhibited in the Museum of Cham Sculpture in nearby Da Nang.

The ancient streets of Hoi An

Untouched by the War, Hoi An’s old town, on the north bank of the Thu Bon River, provides glimpses of what life might have been like a few hundred years prior with Chinese, Japanese and European influences in evidence in everything from the food to the architecture. Hoi An’s pedestrianised streets come alive to the chimes of bike bells as travellers are tempted in to tailors, coffee houses and boutique art galleries. By night, Hoi An is a real picture with brightly coloured lanterns swinging from store fronts and street food stalls whilst the town’s 16th century covered Japanese bridge casts illuminated reflections in the water below.

War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

First opened in 1975 this museum has long served as a reminder of the atrocities of first the French and then the Americans carried out on the people of Vietnam. It has to be said, however, that many of the exhibits offer a less than balanced depiction of events, often bordering on Anti-American propaganda. Whichever way you care to look at things the War Remnants Museum, previously known as the slightly more inflammatory Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, is incredibly thought provoking. Helicopters, bombers, fighter planes and “tiger cages” – ghastly cages where Vietnamese prisoners were incarcerated and tortured – all to be found alongside graphic images depicting the effects of chemical weapons and mass killings such as the Son My Massacre.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City

Nowhere is the resilience and industry of the Viet Cong more in evidence other than in the vast Cu Chi tunnel network that served as the National Liberation Front’s communication base during the Tet Offensive towards the end of the 1960s. Camouflaged trapdoors, bamboo stake booby traps and underground command centres are all ready to be explored as part of the tourist destination that you’ll find today. Visitors are invited to crawl through selected underground corridors that have been, mercifully, widened to accommodate Western guests.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên] [Top box - Cao Dai temple: Nijumania ] [Pagoda: Maya-Anais Yataghene] [Hoa Lo Prison Museum: David McKelvey] [The Imperial City of Hue: Andrea Schaffer] [My Son Temples, Da Nang: Nam-ho Park] [Hoi An: Mstyslav Chernov] [Cu Chi Tunnels: Emilio Labrador]