The Vietnam War Tour Images - January 2020
We also welcomed TCE expert historian Col Bob Kershaw on to one of our tours, and he has written the following tour diary.
Days 1 & 2
After a tiring flight we arrived at Hanoi and enjoyed a few hours rest in our hotel rooms. Temperatures were noticeably 20 degrees beyond what we had experienced on leaving Heathrow on a winter's morning. The sun shone and palm trees swayed - a total contrast - as we visited the Vietnam Military Museum in the center of Hanoi. There were some fascinating and lethal looking spiked anti-personal booby traps on display amid a myriad of artifacts from both the French and American wars, including the Citroen car used in the breaching of the US Embassy wall by the Vietcong in Saigon during Tet in 1968. A trip to Ho Chi Minh's bunker complex was interesting and informative, set in the grounds of the presidential palace, housing the North Vietnamese government during the war.
The Ho Chi Minh complex housing his tomb, guarded by goose-stepping virtual toy soldiers in tropical whites and his famous wooden stilt house provided an interesting start to the day. The bus edged through shoals of motorcyclists, transporting Hanoi's citizenry on their way through the early morning rush hour to work. We stopped off for coffee at the Huu Tiep lake, where the wreckage of part of a shot down American B-52G bomber bizarrely protrudes from the lake, its landing gear clearly visible. The 'B-52 Cafe' provided a welcome atmospheric break, set in the corner of the built up area surrounding the lake, with a mill pond like surface. The buildings were not there when the bomber was brought down by Soviet built missiles in December 1972.
Next was the 'Maison Centrale', the infamous French colonial prison, familiarly known as the 'Hanoi Hilton', where American flyers - including the former US Senator McCain, were incarcerated after being shot down over North Vietnam. We also visited the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum, which charts the epic nature of what was achieved along these infiltration routes traversing the country from north to south along the Laotian border. There was a lot to see, with some amazing photographs and a map model, which outlines the network of trails with lights. By now we were beginning to appreciate Professor Pierre Asselin's deep knowledge of Vietnamese history, ably assisted by our local guide Chi's illustrative and poignant anecdotes about family history during both the French and American wars. Lunches and dinners were proving to be excellent as the group quickly began to bond and we were learning each other's names.
The first of our internal flights was to Dienbienphu, the site of the iconic airborne insertion in 1954, the 'rice-bowl' shaped valley that was to result in French defeat and their ejection from Vietnam. Gary and Bob immediately remarked on the significance of standing on iconic and hallowed airborne history ground. This was very much provincial 'up-country' with atmospheric rice paddies and jungle hamlets, encapsulating traditional village Vietnam.
We paused atop the French held 'Dominque' stronghold, part of the inner core, where an epic Communist victory statue commemorates the intense fighting that led to the Vietminh victory. It overlooks the central French HQ area showing the jungle clad mountains surrounding the valley. In the swelteringly hot weather, the air conditioned Dienbienphu Victory Museum provided some relief, perusing exhibits, photos, models and artefacts before finishing at the Vietminh cemetery lit by a stunning sunset.
We drove northwest today along Route 41 past the 'Beatrice' strongpoint to General Vo Nguyen Giap's Vietminh command bunker on Pu Ca hill, a steep climb amid jungle and rice paddies easily accomplished by our group, despite differing mobility capabilities. It is an interesting combination of traditional straw roof peasant huts set alongside hardened underground shelters including a tunnel complex. On the way back we paused at 'Kilometer 7', an epic statue set on the mountainside, commemorating the Vietminh's amazing feat of hauling its artillery up and across mountainsides, completely deceiving the French ensconced in the valley below. A marvelous photo opportunity emerged as we briefly stopped by a rice paddy being cultivated and sown, as in ages past, by hand.
The French 'Beatrice' strongpoint had its former intricate system of bunkers and communication trenches, preserved in concrete, much to chagrin of the veterans who first observed it at the fiftieth anniversary of the battle. The matrix of company and platoon strongpoints protected by barbed wire is similarly well preserved at Eliane 2, which we visited next and then 'Anne-Marie' which offered a view of 'Gabrielle' in the distance. Alan took a picture of Gary through the turret machinegun hole on 'Brezeilles', one of the battle-scarred M-24 Chaffee tanks, that was used as a pill box on the hillside.
The following morning we explored the central French HQ defense area, including its artillery positions, with some 155mm and 105mm guns still in place, as also Brigadier General de Castrie's revetted bunker and the French memorial. A Baily bridge still traverses the Nam Youn River, joining the French east and west defensive sectors, where there is a bustling local market today. There was an opportunity with Chi's guidance to visit a traditional Vietnamese village before flying back that evening to Hanoi.
A chance to visit Ho Chi Minh lying in state opened up, an interesting glimpse of the reverence the founding state's father still inspires in the population of the north. Rather like the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow, his preserved body lies in state, despite as Chi explained; this was not his personal desire and is contrary to the normal Vietnamese burial tradition, but the communist view held sway. We drove east to Ha Long Bay via Haiphong, the UNESCO World Heritage site, for a welcome break and overnight cruise amid literally hundreds of limestone islets, covered in vegetation, that jut up from an emerald colored bay. There was fun to be had on board, canoeing and early morning Tai-Chi on deck amid wonderful surroundings and excellent sea food. Nick won the spring roll cooking competition and Lynn came a close second. It remained a little misty and overcast until the second day, but there were trips via the boat's tender to picturesque caves and isolated beaches, that quickly filled with tourists.
We finished the morning cruising and visiting a massive cave complex before flying from Hanoi to the Imperial city of Hue in central Vietnam.
We were now investigating the American war and the debates between Pierre and Neal over the US involvement in the war took on a new intensity. It began with a very full day covering the area to the south of the DMZ beginning with the siege of the Marine base at Khe Sanh, which excited most people who had heard of it. We stopped off at the iconic 'Rockpile', a former US communications surveillance base set on a mountain top. At Khe Sanh it was just possible to pick out the former (destroyed on withdrawal) airstrip amid vegetation, aided by the small museum in situ. There are a enough preserved US trenches and bunkered accommodation remaining to intelligently interpret the course of the siege during the Tet offensive of 1968.
Driving on to the east coast we visited the original bridge that separated North from South Vietnam, in the middle of the DMZ, after the French departed. Nearby is the Vinh Moc tunnel complex, where Vietnamese villagers continued their existance under constant US bombing and where North Vietnamese regulars staged on their journeys south. This was a claustrophobic experience, where the difference between portly westerners and slight Asian frames became very pronounced. On the way back to Hue we stopped off at Quong Tri, a little known battle where South Vietnamese ARVN forces held off invading communists for 81 days in 1972.
We spent the morning exploring and attempting to decipher the course of the battle for the Hue Citadel during the Tet offensive in 1968. Cascades of beautiful flowers, set up in preparation for the Tet New Year do much to cover the scars of the horrific and intense fighting that occurred here over 50 years ago. Some evidence of battle damage is still visible on the periphery of the restored, previously gutted citadel. That afternoon we drove to Da Nang across an epic mountain pass, with abandoned French bunkers still acting as sentinel en route to the airport, passing Red Beach 2 where the US marines first came ashore in 1965 and the former US recreational center at China Beach, where combat troops rested. We arrived at Saigon that evening.
The temperature in Saigon was a muggy 36 degrees, the hottest so far. The day began with a visit to the colorful market at Ben Thanh in the city center before travelling northwest to see the famous Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chi. These are on three levels, fighting, command and supply, and at bottom: storage, hospitals and living quarters. All this was intensely claustrophobic for western frames, nevertheless, following Chi's example, Alan, Pat, Nick and Mike all had a go, barely able to squeeze themselves through the trap door entrance. Only parts of the network were negotiable to the group, as it had virtually to be conducted on knees. There were fascinating examples of lethal stake filled, swinging touch sensitive, lever and other horrific booby trap devices on display, as well as examples of how the Vietcong lived, including fabricating sandal footwear from lorry tyres.
We spent this morning travelling south toward the Mekong Delta through teeming Chinese New Year holiday traffic. The first stop was to view the site of the early Vietcong victory at Ap Bac in 1963, where a superior South Vietnamese helicopter and M113 armoured personnel carrier borne force, supported by airborne troops and US advisors was defeated by Viet Cong entrenched on the outskirts of a typical village. They transformed its flat and open paddy fields into killing areas, and despite massive air raids, held on. Because it was one of the earliest Communist successes, the site, like Dienbienphu, is well preserved. Driving on to My Tho on the Mekong Delta we took a boat cruise to lunch on an island, amid far more comfortable conditions than the US Brown Water Navy, although the obsolete engine at the rear of the boat was starting to overheat.
Days 13 & 14
This was the final day, conducted with some regrets because the group had bonded so well and we were clearly enjoying each other's company, with witty humour in abundance. It began with a visit to the Reunification Palace, home to south Vietnam's departed presidents, where two Soviet era T-55 tanks, still on display, crashed through the metal palace gates in 1975, ending the war and US involvement. We were able to see the US Consul building, which has replaced the original US Embassy building, where Vietcong sappers famously breached the wall during the 1968 Tet offensive on Saigon. The War Remnants Museum, our final stopover, displays a grisly propaganda view of US atrocities and a stunning exhibition of some of the best photographic journalism to emerge from the French and US war years. We paused at the former French Colonial Post office and Catholic Cathedral before boarding our flights back home arriving the next day.
We were extremely fortunate with Professor Pierre Asselin's original and well informed historical commentary throughout. Chi our North Vietnamese guide provided an insightful local perspective, in excellent English, illustrating it with poignant and personal anecdotes about his family life covering the generations from the French colonial period, through the American involvement to the present day.
View details of this tour - The Vietnam War