The Best Historical Sites to Visit in Vietnam

Cannon Fort overlooks Cát Bà Island, Vietnam
Cannon Fort overlooks Cát Bà Island, Vietnam | © Igor Dymov / Alamy Stock Photo
Dung Phan

A trip to Vietnam would not be complete without visiting historical sites that reflect the dark side of a country heavily affected by war for centuries. This list picks up the best places of historical interest to visit around Vietnam, from rudimentary hand-dug tunnels to a brutal prison complex where thousands of Vietnamese people died.

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Côn Đảo Prison Complex

Although the prisons of Côn Đảo have been shut down, horrific memories still cast a forbidding shadow over this quiet town. Known as “the true hell on earth”, the complex used to be home to tens of thousands of Vietnamese prisoners, who, at first, suffered and died at the hands of French colonials and, later, of the US-backed South Vietnamese government between 1863 and 1975. Fettered and contorted mannequins bring the bone-chilling experience to reality.

Hỏa Lò Prison

While historical museums in Hanoi are mostly rather propagandist and perhaps superficial, Hỏa Lò Prison can be a good fit to catch up on the city’s back story. Despite many modern restorations, it offers a real sense of the past. Head to the gloomy rooms to see erstwhile prison cells that witnessed the incarceration of US pilots including Senator John McCain, and, more importantly, the ghastliness and barbarity that many Vietnamese nationalist leaders and revolutionaries suffered during the French colony.

The Tomb of Khải Định

Among plenty of royal tombs in Huế, Vietnam’s former capital, Khải Định’s tomb sets itself apart from other Nguyễn Dynasty tombs with an appealing fusion of Asian and European touches. Constructed over 11 years, the tomb is more like a monument of Khải Định’s excessive wealth, staying true to his reputation as a puppet of the French colonial government.

Củ Chi Tunnels

The Củ Chi Tunnels, a complex network of underground tunnels, were firstly built in the late 1940s during the French colonial period and were expanded in the early 1960s, when the US escalated its military presence in South Vietnam to support a non-Communist regime. Read more about the Củ Chi Tunnels here to understand their significant role in Vietnam’s war history.

My Son Cham Ruins

My Son sanctuary, which houses the most extensive Cham ruins in Vietnam, once served as the religious and political centre of the kingdom of Champa for centuries. The fact that it is constantly compared with Angkor Wat of the Khmer kingdom may cause the misleading impression of the natural beauty of the My Son Cham ruins. The temples were discovered by French archaeologists in the late 19th century but, later, were heavily destroyed by US bombs.

War Remnants Museum

It would be a crime to travel to Vietnam without visiting the War Remnants Museum, which was formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. Despite being heavily packed with one-sided information, it still reflects important stories about the gruesome effects of war on the country, some of which came from US sources.

Long Tan Cross Memorial

The Long Tan Cross is a memorial site commemorating the battle of Long Tan, where more than 500 Australian soldiers died during the Vietnam War. Australia’s wartime presence in Vietnam marked its longest, deadliest and most controversial war and a decisive victory over about 2000 Viet Cong soldiers and the communist force. Australia’s support for the Vietnam War also reflected its relationship with the US as an ally, with troops sent upon the request of Ngô Đình Diệm, leader of the US-backed government in South Vietnam. This is one of the only two memorials to foreign military forces permitted in Vietnam.

Hue Imperial Citadel

Compared to the Forbidden City in Beijing, Hue Imperial Citadel was first constructed in 1804 and was home to the Nguyen Dynasty – Vietnam’s last royal dynasty – for 143 years. The complex of the emperor’s residence, gates, temples and pagodas was severely damaged under French rule and during the Vietnam War, and only 20 out of 148 buildings survived. Interested in visiting? A trip to Hue Imperial Citadel is included as part of Culture Trip’s exclusive 12-day Vietnam adventure.

Cannon Fort

Cannon Fort was first installed by the Japanese in Cát Bà, its military outpost during World War II, and, later, used by the French during the Indochina War as well as by the Communist force during the Vietnam War to defend the city of Haiphong. The underground tunnels and trenches are well worth a visit not only because of their crucial role in the country’s war victory but also because of the amazing panoramic views overlooking the hill and sea landscape on Cát Bà Island.

Vĩnh Mốc Tunnels

While the Củ Chi Tunnels mainly served the military purposes of the Viet Cong guerrilla, the impressive network of Vĩnh Mốc underground tunnels, built between 1966 and 1967, was used as bomb shelters for civilians. 300 people sought protection from the US bombing, living and working in the three-level tunnels for six years.

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