The name alone is enough to trigger associations with the ravages of modern warfare, and indeed, Vietnam is primarily a dark tourism destination because of the vestiges of the Vietnam War. Before that there had been a long period during which Vietnam shook off the ties of colonialism, having been a French colony from the mid-19th century. This – together with the spread of communism at the time – had also resulted in war, in particular in 1954.
But that was but a precursor of what would then develop into "The Vietnam War" – also called the "American War" in Vietnam – in which it was the USA that was engaged in war in the region  until 1975 (see also Cambodia).
The fact that the US could not win this war (and lost nearly 60,000 soldiers in the process) is still a national trauma in America. But it's nothing compared to what Vietnam suffered. Millions of military and (in particular) civilian casualties – and a landscape scorched and poisoned by chemical warfare (most notably through the use of the dioxin-heavy defoliant "Agent Orange").
The legacy of the war persists to this day, with dioxin-related birth defects and the danger of landmines and UXO (unexploded ordnance) from the extensive US-bombing campaigns still rife, esp. in some mountainous central areas of the country.
Of the many war crimes committed by the USA, it is however not the chemical warfare or the "free-fire zone" carpet bombing of swathes of Vietnamese countryside, indiscriminately killing whoever happened to be on the ground (and destroying the country's agriculture, i.e. food source, in the process) that is remembered most in the West. No, what is usually picked out as the No. 1 atrocity is a single incident: the My Lai massacre – if only because it received a lot of media coverage in the USA.
Sure, the Vietnamese didn't fight a noble and "clean" war either. But having come out victorious, coverage of Vietnamese war conduct tends to be selective and rather glamourized in the many museums and sites in Vietnam that relate to the war. This is particularly true of the Cu Chi tunnels – now a major tourist attraction. Others glamorize more in the traditional communist style of socialist realism over-the-top-ness (e.g. at Hien Luong Bridge).  
A few of Vietnam's dark tourist attractions go beyond the topic of the Vietnam War too – e.g. the colonial Hoa Lo prison and, especially, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. The latter is one of the world's great mausoleums (think cult-of-personality tourism here), one of the Big 4 of deceased communist leaders (together with Lenin, Mao and Kim Il Sung). The nearby museum stands out for a surreal bizarreness of its own kind.
While still officially a communist country, Vietnam has, like China, embraced a more capitalist economy, and in the wake of this also opened up to tourism. Today the tourism infrastructure can cater for virtually any type of travel, from basic to sheer luxury. Of the dark sites, some have been incorporated into the mainstream tourism product marketed in the country and thus these see huge numbers of visitors (esp. the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City), while others are still very remote and not so easy to get to (e.g. parts of the DMZ).  
    Hien Luong Bridge, Reunification Monument & Museum
    Vinh Moc tunnels
    My Lai (Son My) massacre site    
    Cu Chi tunnels
    War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City
To get to Vietnam, most people will have to fly, usually either into the capital Hanoi in the north, or to the commercial centre and largest city of the country, Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon (see War Remnants Museum).
Theoretically you can also travel into Vietnam by train, even all the way from Berlin (via Russia and China – which naturally takes a lot of time). Land border crossings by road transport are easiest from/to Cambodia, possible also from China, but are said to be unnecessarily complicated from/to Vietnam's third neighbouring country: Laos (so flying is advised).
Practically all tourists need a visa for entering Vietnam, which has to be applied (and paid!) for at embassies abroad in advance. Tourist visas are normally only valid for 30 days – but that's more than enough for seeing all of Vietnam's dark destinations (and taking in some non-dark ones too).
Vietnam today sees a lot of backpacker travellers, and it is now relatively easy to get around. For those who're not the backpacker type but prefer individual but well guided travel with decent accommodation, the company I can recommend is the UK-based East Asia specialist "Experience Travel Group" (sponsored page). I used them myself when I travelled the region in December/January 2008/2009. 
  • Bread seller in VietnamBread seller in Vietnam
  • Central VietnamCentral Vietnam
  • Vietnam motorbike transport 1Vietnam motorbike transport 1
  • Vietnam motorbike transport 2Vietnam motorbike transport 2
  • Vietnam motorbike transport 3Vietnam motorbike transport 3
  • Vietnam motorbike transport 4Vietnam motorbike transport 4
  • Vietnam motorbike transport 5Vietnam motorbike transport 5
  • Vietnam motorbike transport 6Vietnam motorbike transport 6
  • boat in Central Vietnamboat in Central Vietnam


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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