Monday, 27 June 2016

Vietnam 2016 - War Museums, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Tank 714 of the 165th Regiment part of the force that fought their way into Lonh Khanh in 1975 on the drive to Saigon
Our last two days in Vietnam were spent travelling down to Ho Chi Minh City from Nha Trang, followed by a day in the former capital of South Vietnam exploring two major war exhibitions at the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum.

On our way back into Ho Chi Minh City I got our driver to pull in at Long Khanh to have a closer look at the T59, pictured in the first post of this series on our drive out of the city.

As discussed in that post, Long Khanh was a key approach into Saigon and featured heavy fighting for the Australians in the early seventies and was one of the key battles fought by the North and South as communist forces forced their way into Saigon in 1975. The tank is a memorial to that battle.

The war in Vietnam is not my speciality subject so I can't comment on how reliable these markings are, but for those interested in these things, from a modelling perspective I took some all round shots for reference.

The next day was an early start as we intended to do the tunnels in the morning, followed by the museum in the afternoon and then off to the airport at 9pm to catch a flight back to "Blighty", a fourteen hour flight with a four hour stop off at Dubai to change aircraft half way.

I think I should stress a few points as a introduction to this post.

The Vietnam War is a conflict still very much in living memory, and with many unresolved issues still outstanding forty one years after the end of the fighting. It has been my privilege to hear some of the repercussions of that war from the Vietnamese we have met on our travels, some with very diverse opinions about the war and the situation the country finds itself in now. We encountered strong opinions about former enemies from both points of view, and the museums featured presented some information in what seemed to me to be in a very subjective way, open to challenge.

In addition I am very much aware of the model of government that runs Vietnam and the impact that system has on the presentation of information, unimpeded by the scrutiny of a free press, political opposition and an independent judiciary, with all that lack implies.

This blog is focused on the hobby of wargaming and looking at military history from that angle and so I will deliberately strive to avoid the social and political aspects of the war that we encountered, as this is not an appropriate forum to express those opinions either way. That said I reserve the right as the editor in chief to give my broad assessment of the country and to reference the steep learning curve I have been on in the last two weeks, based on my first impressions.

As the old saying goes, opinions are like noses, everyone has one, I'm just attempting to keep mine within the confines of my own terms of reference. I'll let the reader determine how successful I have been.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Map to illustrate the position of the Cu Chi tunnel network north west of Ho Chi Minh City
The building of the tunnel network at Cu Chi was started in 1945 with the reoccupation of Vietnam by the French as a place of refuge for women and children of communist fighters against the French re-occupation of the country.

A tunnel access point leading into a surface gully designed to provide a firing trench for Viet Cong fighters
The tunnel system would grow to a giant network of three levels from three metres, six metres and ten metres depth and extend to 250 kilometres of tunnels occupying the triangular bend in the Saigon River, about one hours drive, north west of Saigon. The system developed from a refuge to a major Viet Cong base able to support large numbers of Viet Cong fighters as well as their support facilities in what became known to US commanders as the Iron Triangle.

This tunnel entrance demonstrates how small the access points were for the diminutive Vietnamese fighters to use and how easy they were to camouflage - not the small hatch cover on the top right corner 
The soil structure in this part of Vietnam is a compressed sandstone that has the texture of concrete that makes it an ideal soil to build these very small tunnels into.

To day the tunnel complex is a major tourist attraction and serves as a vivid living history site to educate the visitor about the conditions and the effort made by the communist Vietnamese to wage war against, as they saw it, foreign invaders and their internal supporters.

Additionally, the site provides an opportunity for the Vietnamese to draw visitors attention to the continuing legacy of the US laid air dropped agent orange herbicide, that contained dioxin, a well established carcinogen. Cu Chi was a site that came in for special attention from this chemical agent and with its damaging effects on human DNA means that birth defects continue to present in second generation Vietnamese whose family members were exposed in spite of the agent being washed out from the original sites attacked.

Cu Chi would have appeared much different than it does today, as the wildlife and foliage has grown back in the forty-one years since the end of the war to cover up the scars of that conflict. Sadly the human scars are less responsive to time.

Will demonstrated getting into this access point in our group, and the likely problems encountered by US/Allied troops of a larger stature trying to gain access themselves.
The Viet Cong in this area were very much a self reliant combat force, producing their own clothing designed to provide camouflage for night operations, recycling old tyres to produce sandals, enemy weaponry, including munitions to make boobytraps and when those were unavailable turning to the traditional peasant weapons that were used in the wars against the Champa and Chinese, bamboo spears and stakes, formidably sharp and effective weapons.

By day the proximity of the complex to Saigon allowed fighters to gain easy access to the city, mingling with enemy troops and looking to gain valuable intelligence on them.

The Viet Cong manikins set up in an improvised bivouac, display the self made black uniforms, designed to provide night camouflage and  the rubber sandals made from old  truck tyres
Later supplies of Chinese and North Vietnamese uniform items supplemented  the home produced clothing
The US led coalition were not unaware of the Cu Chi base and in time named the area the Iron Triangle, focusing military sweeps to clear the area of this troublesome enemy so close to the capital of South Vietnam.

Along with traditional armour and infantry sweeps of the area the tunnels were subjected to heavy air attacks and infiltration attempts by specialist infantry, the "tunnel rats" who would attempt to painstakingly penetrate the network and neutralise enemy fighters, sometimes using dogs to locate potential entry points.

The knocked out M41 tank, a favourite vehicle for the South Vietnamese ARVN illustrates the effectiveness of  recycled US heavy bombs and artillery shells turned into antitank mines or the more modern term IED (Improvised Explosive Device). The addition of multiple smaller calibre hits indicates this tank received the attention of infantry weaponry at the time of its destruction.

The tunnel complex also relied on a series of improvised booby trap defences designed to kill the unwary infantryman, and for those intent on penetrating the tunnels a series of entrances designed to draw the enemy into an ever narrower passage that would trap and entomb the soldier.

On the surface, surviving village dwellings would have doors booby-trapped with swinging frames of metal barbed spikes that would drop down into the path of an entering infantryman, and should he be quick enough to impede the frame swinging towards him, the lower free hanging frame was designed to keep on going, striking the soldier in the groin, belly and upper thighs.

Improvised booby-trap defences were a serious threat to would-be attackers
Example of a tunnel trap with slightly larger entrance to entice the enemy infantryman into the funnel trap beyond
Animal traps using sharpened bamboo were now turned to military use
As the conflict went on, the intricacy of these man traps only increased, with a vicious ingenuity
The door frame designed to catch a soldier kicking in the door of a traditional peasant hooch
Note the lower frame that would keep on swinging towards the target - Ouch!!
The next set of manikins demonstrated Viet Cong members recycling enemy munitions for their own use

In addition to sweeps with ground troops, Cu Chi was subject to multiple air attacks, and when the B52 bombers were released from striking at targets in the north, they would be used to attack the tunnels.

A B52 Stratofortress dropping its payload over Vietnam
Their heavier bombs were capable of penetrating the hard ground in the area to a level that could destroy the tunnels in the two levels closest to the surface, but generally the tunnels at the ten metre depth would survive such attacks.

The picture below demonstrates the penetration achieved by one of these B52 bombs, given that forty-one years have minimised the depth of the original crater, with mother nature doing her best to cover up the scar.

Will volunteered to take in a head-cam down along a short section of tunnel opened up and slightly enlarged for tourists to get an impression of the design and layout of the complex.

Close to the entrance at Cu Chi is a display of military hardware from the war and a walk around the display and tunnel area is accompanied by the sound of visitors invited to spend their hard earned Vietnamese Dong on having a hands on experience with various guns used by the combatants in the war.

Of course Will and I, in the interest of providing valuable insights to followers of this blog, volunteered to participate in this living history experiment and decided to loose off twenty rounds, ten rounds each down the range, using the US infantryman's weapon of choice, the classic M16.

I think of the M16 as the weapon of the Vietnam War as I do of the Brown Bess musket covering the Horse and Musket era and so we were both keen to give it a go.

I thought you might like to see the video clips of Will and me having some boys with toys time firing the American M16. The first two clips are of Will firing off his ten rounds, side on and looking down the barrel with the view-cam.

And finally a clip showing the old man having a go.

Both Will and I agreed how well balanced a weapon the M16 seemed to feel with an acceptable recoil and a light feeling in the hands. It was a great experience putting some rounds down the range and capped off a very interesting morning.

The Cu Chi tunnels are a must see venue for visitors in this part of Vietnam and I would encourage you to go if you get the opportunity, and make sure you stop at the nearby Handicapped Handicrafts centre providing work to victims of the agent orange attacks and others who produce the most exquisite pictures using locally sourced materials, on typically Vietnamese themes, with the money generated by the sales going to help the families affected.

Handicapped employee working on a Vietnamese style
 lacquered picture using inlaid mother of pearl and eggshell - really lovely work and craftsmanship
We purchased a beautiful Vietnamese river scene, which will look great next to our elephant wood carving from Sri Lanka.

The War Remnants Museum

After a drive back to Ho Chi Minh City and a quick lunch, the next place to visit was the War Remnants Museum.

As you will see from the references linked above, this museum is quite unlike most military museums that I have visited and I have to say that both Will and I found it pretty heavy going, with the galleries presenting the alleged and known atrocities committed against the Vietnamese communists and the civilian population by the French and US/Allied forces. Of course war atrocities are not a one sided issue and the total lack of any coverage of communist forces crimes such as those committed against the civilian population in Hue only serves to raise suspicion about the selectivity and objectivity of the information presented.

I have chosen not to present the majority of the displays focused on this aspect of the war, given the constraints I have decided to apply as outlined in my lead in to this post and the difficulty of fact checking the information presented given the very one sided nature of the museums galleries.

So with those caveats out of the way, the collection of captured US kit on display in the front yard of the museum was what I was keen to have a look at.

M40 106mm recoilless rifle mounted on an M70 tripod and using a .50cal gun bolted to the barrel and firing phosphorous tracer bullets used to sight the weapon on to its target
M40 recoilless rifle

I don't recognise this AFV turret. Let me know if you do
M107 175mm SP Gun
M107 self-propelled gun

M114 155mm Howitzer
M114 155mm howitzer

M101A1 105mm Howitzer
M101 howitzer

M132 A1 - Flamethrower
M132 Armored Flamethrower

M41 Walker Bulldog Light Tank in better nick than the one pictured at the Cu Chi Tunnels
M41 Walker Bulldog Tank

Boeing CH47 Chinook
M48 A3 Patton Tank
M48 Patton Tank

I learned to fly in something similar to the aircraft below in my case a Cessna 152.

Cessna 170

Bell UH-1 Iroquois

Some very famous former owners of this Huey as indicated on the tail
When you think of ground attack aircraft in Vietnam, the aircraft below has to be one of the first you might think of.

Douglas Skyraider

Northrop F5a Freedom Fighter

Cessna A37 Dragonfly

Display items highlighting the treatment of prisoners by the French and the US/Allies

French guillotine

"Tiger Cages"
Communist detainee in a South Vietnamese cell
Wreckage of a B52, looks like possibly part of an aileron
US aircrew "bone-domes"
The War Remnants Museum made an interesting and challenging place to visit, in that the display of military hardware and the look of those items is a great reference for those interested in the conflict.

The other displays covering the treatment of prisoners, alleged war crimes and the use of Agent Orange and its ongoing legacy informs the visitor but must be viewed with an enquiring and critical eye given the partiality clearly on display and it is clear from comments I have read on other sites that emotions are easily raised as I fear was the intent.

I did not want to end my series of posts about Vietnam on the darker side of the historical record as we have all come away with a love for this beautiful country and the friendly welcoming people we met during our stay.

The story of Vietnam is one of constant struggle to remain independent from those who would seek to impose their will on the people and one cannot be forced to admire the cheerfulness of the people we met who continue to struggle against the situation they find themselves in today, which is by no means perfect and I feel is just another stage in the continual change that is Vietnam.

We were really moved by seeing the work being done at the Handicapped Handicraft Centre mentioned earlier and Will seemed to make a lot of new friends on our tour round the workshops and showroom and nearly decided to stay.

So that's it from Vietnam 2016. We had a fantastic holiday and I would really recommend going if you have considered doing so.

Next up Holiday Reading Book Review.


  1. Nice JJ.

    As to the AFV turret, I thought it might be a BT 7 A, which mounted the 76 mm howitzer (the gun appears to be a howitzer of about that calibre), but it isn't. Then I thought it might come from a "Brown Water" navy PBR or Patrol Ship, but I can't find one with a similar turret (most seem to have fast firing cannon or machine guns). It is a one man turret, so could be French, but French turrets of WW 2 tanks are pretty distinctive and more modern ones look nothing like it.

    Tough one.


    1. Cheers Vince, yes that is a big gun especially for that turret. I hadn't thought of the Brown Water Navy. Most of the French stuff in Vietnam was US kit when they returned in 1945 so I reckon it is American but I don't know what and there wasn't any information at the museum.

  2. After much searching I can say it is a River Monitor (Generation 2 Type - Howitzer) turret. They were heavily modified LCM 6's with different engines, guns and 10 tons of armour (heavy bar armour).

    The monitors were part of River Assault Squadron 13 or 15 and many were transferred to South Vietnamese forces from 1970 on.

    If you scroll down this link you can see a picture of the turret in situ:


    1. Hey Vince, good stuff, great bit of detective work. That thing would force you to keep your head down when it started to blast away at a river bank. I see one turret had a shield mount with a couple of .50cal mounted for good measure! Nothing like a bit of overkill to make a point.

  3. Yeah and the "Zippo" variant with 2 turrets, each mounting a flamethrower and 7.62 looks pretty unpleasant too.


  4. Hey man, just wanted to add a note about that "unknown turret". Was originally used on the USMC LVTP-6 howitzer support APC, and later (as noted above) on later program Mike (monitor) boats down in the delta. Pretty cool IMO that they have a survivor turret, as they are pretty rare other than in Singapore military.

    1. Hi DSG, thanks for the added info, and really great to hear about the rarity of this turret and nice to know it has been saved for posterity.