Throughout our Vietnam tour exploring the country from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Hanoi in the north, we stopped by a couple of historical places in Vietnam of great importance along the way. Here is all you need to know about the My Lai Memorial and the Vinh Moc Tunnels – two important sites in Vietnamese and world history that are absolutely worth visiting.
Visit My Lai Memorial & Vinh Moc Tunnels
These two sites, My Lai and the Vinh Moc tunnels, both have a significant place in history for their role played in the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam) between 1955 – 1975. Both are in central Vietnam, however the 6 hour drive between the two locations means it’s almost impossible to see both in a day. Instead, I would suggest visiting each after a stop over in Hue and Hoi An in between (depending on your direction of travel) which are two beautiful and fascinatingly rich historical cities.
My Lai is not in the DMZ (demilitarised zone) where the Vinh Moc Tunnels are, so book a separate tour to visit this location. For those interested in visiting more of the DMZ area, where some of the most intense events of the war occurred, tours will take you to and point out the most important sites over 1 or 2 days.
How to get to My Lai Memorial
When travelling through Vietnam by bus, journeys between destinations can be very arduous due to winding coastal roads, heavy traffic, and the long distances. A good way to break up each journey is to make stops at points of interest, to both see more of the country and stretch one’s legs for a short while. Fortunately, travelling with Stray Asia meant the stops were planned out for us, and our bus took us right to each of these historical places in Vietnam, and our bus tickets even included the entry fees for the sites.
Other companies also offer tours to the My Lai memorial from Da Nang and Hoi An, the closest cities to the village, depending on your direction of travel. These generally cost around £80 for a 4-seat car transport to and from your hotel, guided tour for Son My and the My Lai massacre site, lunch, insurance, and a commentary during your journey. Of course, the more visitors joining on your journey the cheaper the costs – prices can drop to £25 with 9 passengers.
If you’re making your own way to My Lai (such as by bike) entry costs 15,000 dong (around a mere 50p) for admission and parking. The 2.5 hour journey can be taken from Hoi An, starting on route QL14E and turning onto QL1A for most of the journey before turning left onto QL24B towards Son My.
I would generally suggest the guided tours unless you’re visiting in transit such as with Stray, as this will save you hassle of finding your way and have the benefit of an English-speaking guide who can provide more information on your visit.
My Lai Memorial
About halfway through our early morning journey from the remote fishing village of Bai Xep up the coast to Hoi An, we stopped at Son My, the area which was once the location of several hamlets including My Lai. This well known village in southern Vietnam is devastatingly famous, as it’s the site of the My Lai Massacre in 1968 where around 500 unarmed civilian villagers including entire families were slaughtered by American soldiers, an even which has been described as “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War”. The area is now home to a memorial museum in this quiet, pensive part of the country.
My Lai Documentary Film & Museum
Our experience at My Lai began by watching a short documentary explaining the events of the massacre, and to better understand what had happened on that tragic day. I won’t go into the details of the massacre (more can be found here), but it was far too barbaric for words, and without reason or rationale I was shocked into silence at the brutality of humans. Trying to understand the mentality of the American soldiers who were involved was complicated, the phrase “following orders” was heard several times. Later we discussed what could have caused their actions but there will never really be a clear answer; just a string of theories and an attempt to collate scattered pieces of information from the solider’s and survivors testimonies and accounts.
Following the film, we went to the museum area to where visual aids helped us to understand more about the event, and see important pieces of evidence and items from the village. Much like the War Remnants Museum, there was a lot to take in, and as the entire situation can be analysed it becomes very complex. I felt at this point I could not read or learn any more, so chose to take in the severity and gravitas of what I already knew, and look just at the graphic photographs that so vividly show the event.
My Lai Village
The village itself is now of course largely non existent as much of it was burnt down in the massacre. The Vietnamese locals have done an amazing job at preserving as much as possible, and replicated some of the homes to give visitors an idea of what the village once was like, and what was destroyed. Sign posts show where particular families lived, and how they died in the village. As you continue your walk along the paths you’ll notice that they are littered with footprints carefully imprinted into the ground to mirror the footprints of soldiers and villagers intertwined in the chaos. This subtle but constant reminder of the ground you stand on is eery, but I think a beautiful way to add visual meaning to the now bare landscape. The numerous signs and memorials to families is truly heartbreaking, and knowing that tiny children less than a year old were killed amongst their siblings, parents, grandparents is just astoundingly sad.
The bold stone memorial statue at the end of a paved garden stands out between the fields where houses once stood. The statue represents the resilience and strength of the people, and is really the most important message to pass on. Much of what we know about the Vietnam war is why the acts were committed by Americans, what they carried out and how. The facts we should really familiarise ourselves with is, “What did the survivors do? How did they cope? Was there any retribution for them?”. Part of the documentary we saw at the beginning of the tour does focus on this point: the face to face meeting of a local survivor and the return of an American solider is a particularly strong moment. While the American has blocked most events from memory and in parts denies the severity of his involvement, the victim practices patience, tolerance and serenity with asking appropriate and fair questions. I absolutely admired his diplomacy and passivity in such an emotional moment and hope he was able to achieve something positive from the meeting.
The experience of visiting the Son My area and My Lai Memorial hit home one again that war is continual and ever-present in our world. A humbling experience would be an understatement, and much like the Killing Fields in Cambodia the stories we heard and the mere presence of being in this location was enough to leave me inspired to be a better person for ourselves and future.
Getting to Vinh Moc Tunnels
We stopped at the Vinh Moc tunnels during another long bus journey on our way from Hue to Phong Nha, where we intended to leave the cities for a little while and experience more rural areas of the country further north. The best way to visit the Vinh Moc Tunnels is by booking with a tour, as the location is rather remote and detached from the nearest city of Dong Hoi.
There are several DMZ (demilitarised zone) tours available to take you through this part of the country, such as through Viator (as recommended by Lonely Planet). Their tours offer a variety of options costing between £50-70 depending on the excursions included and dates of booking.
As with My Lai, entrance to the tunnels is minimal at just 30,000 dong (about £1) if visiting by yourself, a small price to pay to visit such important locations. The route is fairly simple from Hue to Vinh Moc Tunnels, take route QL 1A straight up the coastline, crossing the Song Sia, Song Ben Da, Song Thach Han, and Song Ben Hai rivers, and turn off right on AH1. The journey should take around 2 hours from Hue.
Hien Luong Bridge
On the way to Vinh Moc Tunnels we had the chance to experience another historic site in Vietnam; the North and South Vietnamese border. The simple Hien Luong Bridge clearly marks out the crucial divide in the DMZ, and now stands as a national monument to remember the war and the reunification of Vietnam.
Notable sites at the bridge include a monument representing the war on each side of the bridge, each depicting a different scene of the events during the war. The now-silent speakers that once blasted propaganda remain intact, a reminder of the many tactics used through these years of conflict. The Hien Luong Bridge and monuments are simplistic memorials of the Vietnam war, and rather than focus on the horrifying events that we learned about, represent the division and now reunification that indicates a more political message than other sites.
Vinh Moc Tunnels
Further up the coast of Vietnam is another chance to understand the impact of the war on the country. A couple of days after we visited My Lai, we were this time stopping at the fascinating historic site in this demilitarised zone; the Vinh Moc Tunnels. The tunnels were an impressive underground village developed by the local villagers to allow up to 90 families of civilians safety in living and working throughout bombings during the war that surrounded the area, and the country.
Of course, the complex tunnels spread over 3 levels are no longer functioning as their original intended uses, but visitors can enter the cramped tunnels to experience a sense of what navigating the warren of dark passages might have been like. The tiny narrow passageways were pitch black, it was hard to imagine an entire village down there! Certainly not one for the more claustrophobic types, but interesting nonetheless to see what methods of survival helped locals protect themselves during the Vietnam war.
Visting the Vinh Moc tunnels has a very different atmosphere to that of the My Lai Memorial. The emphasis on survival over death is evident, and with the depicted scenes of replica model families underneath the ground the visit is significantly more romanticised; it’s easy to forget the reason behind the tunnel’s existence. This may be due to the civilian nature of the 2km of tunnels. The tunnels served their purpose well, with no fatalities for these families. It also highlights the remarkable ingenuity of humans in the face of terror, and should certainly be highlighted as a triumph for the Vietnamese people who managed to live with water, food, healthcare, and even deliver 17 babies in the 4 years spent living below the ground in the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
Why You Should Visit My Lai and Vinh Moc Tunnels In Vietnam
These historic places are more than just things to do in Vietnam designed for tourists. These are real pieces of history, affecting real people. Visiting My Lai and the Vinh Moc Tunnels opened my own eyes to the extremities of war, and the profound impact it has on the landscape and its inhabitants. Despite these events happening in the past, the effects can still be very much felt in so many ways. Even seeing locals with debilitating injuries and scars on the streets makes me wonder if they too were victims of war in some way.
The Vietnamese people are a resilient bunch, and they sure as heck show incredible generosity and compassion to anyone visiting their country. I’m incredibly honoured to have been able to visit, learn, and understand more about this part of the world – we shouldn’t shy away from tragedy just because it’s part of history, instead its imperative to confront and educate ourselves for the future, and for a better world in the present.
These two destinations are not alone in offering to tell their story to visitors. A large part of Vietnam tourism focusses on the war that was so prevalently destructive to the country. The Chu Chi Tunnels, War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace, and many other museums and places of historical interest related to the war in the DMZ and elsewhere are also important to visit if you’re looking to learn more about the complexities and details of this heartbreaking part of Vietnamese history.
Have you visited these historical places in Vietnam? Where had the biggest impact on you? Share your story below.
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