NINETEEN: TRAVELLING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE VIETNAM WAR
HANOI I HUE I DANANG I HOI AN I HO CHI MINH CITY I BA RIA
WHEN TO GO
16 HOURS 30 MINUTES FROM AUCKLAND
The Vietnam War reached its bloody crescendo 50 years ago and its veterans have marched into history’s pages. Yet this lovely, dynamic country cannot escape the conflict – it permeates the national personality as profoundly as Honda motorbikes permeate Hanoi streets. The peace forged from pain has, poignantly, created a thriving destination whose complexity owes much to conflict.
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Our journey takes us from Hanoi in the north to Vung Tau and Saigon in the south. Walk in the footsteps of more than 50,000 Anzac’s who served during the Vietnam War, visiting key Australian, New Zealand and American war sites while introducing you to Vietnam’s historic treasures, vibrant culture and mouth-watering cuisine.
VIETNAM’S BUZZING CAPITAL
Touchdown in Vietnam’s buzzing capital, Hanoi. The city wears its multi-layered history like a rich garment. If you are in the mood for a truly local take on this great city, ask anyone in Hanoi, and they’ll tell you the only way to slow up the pace and see the city like a local is by cyclo. After your first night in Hanoi visit the heritage-listed Hanoi Citadel, whose artefacts date from the 6th century and highlight Vietnam’s centuries long independence battle. The Military History Museum narrates Vietnam’s long march to freedom, from early colonisation and occupation to the Vietnam War. A magnificent diorama of the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu underscores Vietnamese guile in defeating the French and ending the First Indochina War. Wander through the main courtyard strewn with tanks, aircraft and weaponry, whose centrepiece is a dramatic sculpture constructed from shot-down American B-52 bombers. Hoa Lo Prison Museum, also know as Maison Centrale or the Hanoi Hilton, was once a brutal prison where the French kept political prisoners and later it was home to shot down American pilots. The late US senator John Mc Cain was kept here, and he is now revered in Vietnam for his efforts in normalising relations and ending economic sanctions after the war. McCain was shot down at Ho Tay or West Lake and we visit his small memorial where a former Vietcong artillery gunner greets you. Next, on to Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body in his massive mausoleum, before wandering the grounds of Hanoi’s former Presidential Palace. “Uncle Ho” lived here until his death in 1969, eschewing the palace for a modest stilt house. He is honoured at every turn. At the Signal Arm Museum view the interesting collections of signal items that helped bring Vietnam to victory and enjoy a special walk with a veteran who was a commander of a signal platoon. Our welcome dinner is at Jimmy Pham’s KOTO (Know one, Teach One). Vietnamese-Australian Jimmy Pham came to Australia with his mother and five brothers aged eight in 1966. Hard work and opportunity meant he could return to Vietnam and open a small sandwich shop to provide employment for nine street children in 1999. KOTO has grown and operates as a hospitality training school for disadvantaged young people. The food is simply amazing. Pham’s resilience, optimism and determination symbolise the Vietnamese character, forged by hardship, inspirational, like the country.
THE PERSONAL TOUCH IN HUE
Our journey today starts with a walk around Hue’s tourist-thronged ancient Citadel, where one of the war’s bloodiest battles took place. Hue, about 70 kilometres south of the 17th Parallel, formerly the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating South and North Vietnam, was once the Imperial capital and remains Vietnam’s cultural and spiritual heart. The Imperial City is a walled enclosure within Hue’s Citadel, with palaces, shrines and the Forbidden Purple City, the exclusive home of the emperor, his family, eunuchs and concubines. The Battle of Hue between January and March 1968 when North Vietnamese forces launched the Tet Offensive was one of the war’s longest and bloodiest battles. Hue was almost destroyed, and more than 5000 civilians killed. Crossing the DMZ, it’s 140 kilometres over the scenic Hai Van Pass via Danang to Hoi An, with its World Heritage-listed old town famous for its tailors. The coastal city of Danang, was a major air base for US and South Vietnamese forces. Today, a fire-spurting dragon bridge loops across the Han River and beach resorts scroll along those golden sands. We make a stop at My Khe beach once nicknamed ‘China beach’ by US forces enjoying RnR before arriving in Hoi An.
THERE’S NOWHERE LIKE HOI AN
For the next three nights you will wander the streets of colourful Hoi An, sitting on the banks of the Thu Bon River, offering narrow cobblestone lanes, well-preserved architecture and distinctive local cuisine. Once a trading port for the sandalwood, spice, tea, rice, elephant tusk and rhino horn vessels that blew in on the trade winds, Hoi An is now a shopping paradise for those after silk or jewels. After Hoi An, carry onto Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. The war ended here when the North Vietnamese Army’s tank No 843 smashed the Presidential Palace gates after the last American helicopter left. You can see the tank in Hanoi’s Military History Museum. Next up, a drive to Cu Chi, 40 kilometres from Saigon. The sounds from the neighbouring rifle range, the jungle smells and the uniformed officials render Cu Chi unsettling for returning veterans. Today, orchid farms replace the trenches, foxholes and caves, while frangipani and paw paw trees line the tapioca fields and rubber plantations. You will see the gruesome spiked traps and can descend into the dark earthen tubes that harboured up to 10,000 VC troops before the Tet Offensive. They are enlarged but can be claustrophobic, and if you are even braver you can experience the VC’s tiny spider holes.
During the next few days your guide elaborates on Australia’s war. Ba Ria, once capital of Phuoc Tuy, bore the brunt of the February 1968 Tet Offensive attacks along with neighbouring Long Dien. You will be taken to Vung Tau where a large fight took place between Australian soldiers and the NVA in June 1966. We will explore the sights of Vung Tau, including Back Beach and the Peter Badcoe Club – named after an Australian VC winner killed in Vietnam and used by Australian and New Zealand soldiers on in-country leave. The area is now a public beach and houses a massive war memorial to honour its past. The following day visit Long Tan, the site of Australia’s most costly battle of the Vietnam War. Our first stop is Nui Dat, where we will explore old bunkers, helicopter pads, SAS Hill and Luscombe Airfield. We will then head to nearby Long Tan village to see the Long Tan Cross, the memorial erected by Australian troops in 1966 to remember their fallen comrades. Marvel in the panoramas of rubber plantations that flank the battleground and imagine the rich and troubled history still tangible on these grounds. The journey continues to the Horseshoe, a former Australian Fire Support Base and the Long Hai hills – a major VC base during the War. We will also visit a memorial which commemorates more than 2000 Vietnamese soldiers who were killed in this area, mostly in operations against Anzac troops.
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