The major conflicts with global impact were the First Indochina War from 1946 to 1954 in which an independence movement supported by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China defeated French colonial forces, and the Vietnam War or American War in 1955-1975, in which North Vietnam (supported by the Soviet Union and China) defeated and annexed South Vietnam, which was supported by the United States and some of their allies.
There were other smaller parallel and later conflicts, within the region.
The wars in Indochina were extremely destructive, and their effects can still be felt today. As a comparison, in terms of tonnage, more bombs were dropped by the Americans on Southeast Asia during the course of the Indochina Wars, than the total amount of bombs dropped by all sides in all theatres of World War II combined. Landmines were also used extensively in the wars, the result being that to this day, locals continue to be killed or maimed by exploding landmines and bombs on a regular basis in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and to a lesser extent, Thailand.
|“||The horror... The horror...||”|
The Indochina Wars began as wars for independence from French colonial rule. They became part of the Cold War, which pitted the Western allies of the United States against the Soviet Union and China. They were also ideological conflicts between communism and capitalism. The communist camp was split into a pro-Soviet and a pro-Chinese faction in 1961, culminating in a war between the former "brother" nations in 1969.
Background and First (French) Indochina War (1946–54)
In the late 19th century, France replaced Imperial China and Siam as the colonial power in the region that is today Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Japan occupied the entire region during World War II. When the Japanese were defeated, the French aimed to regain their colonies, but their allies, especially the U.S., were opposed. Laos and Cambodia gained their independence, but their governments soon faced revolts by local communists backed by Moscow and/or Beijing.
In Vietnam, things became much more complex. The Allies agreed that the Nationalist Chinese would administer the north of the country and the British the south until a Vietnamese government could be set up. Both countries had other problems — a civil war in China and a major Communist insurgency in Malaya — so neither did a good job in Vietnam. The Việt Minh, a Communist-dominated anti-colonial coalition backed by the Soviet Union, declared independence in the north, while the French regained control in the south. By 1947, the two were at war and after 1949, the Chinese Communist government gave the Việt Minh considerable support. The U.S. supported France, but President Dwight Eisenhower refused to send American troops. After the French suffered a humiliating defeat in the bloody Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the 1954 Geneva Accords ended that war.
(American) Vietnam War (1955–75)
|“||I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than Chief of State Bao Dai.||”|
—U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower
The Geneva Accords again divided Vietnam, with the Việt Minh led by Ho Chi Minh controlling the north and the French the south, and provided for elections in 1956 to create a government for the whole country. The French turned power over to a United States-backed capitalist regime led by Ngo Dinh Diem in the south, but Diem refused to hold the elections, resulting in another war. Diem, who was a Roman Catholic, enacted discriminatory laws against the Buddhist majority, making him very unpopular among the citizenry of South Vietnam.
Although the accords specified that the military demarcation line was provisional and not a political boundary, the United States recognized South Vietnam as an independent country, and provided military and financial support. The pro-communist National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, colloquially known as Viet Cong (VC or "Charlie" in US military slang), did not recognize the Diem administration, which they viewed as an American puppet regime. Aided by the North Vietnamese People's Army, they fought for a re-unification of Vietnam under communist leadership and against the U.S. presence.
At first, the United States only provided arms and military advisors to South Vietnam; but after the 1963 "Gulf of Tonkin incident", President Lyndon B. Johnson sent thousands of American "boots on the ground". In the course of the war, more than 2.7 million U.S. soldiers fought in Vietnam. Despite the American forces' use of attack helicopters, napalm and "Agent Orange" defoliant, they were not able to rout the Viet Cong, who used guerilla tactics and benefited from their acquaintance with the rough terrain and support from parts of the civilian population. Both sides committed horrendous war crimes, most notably the Huế Massacre during the Tet Offensive, and the Mỹ Lai Massacre in 1968.
Following World War II, Thailand became a U.S. ally and an important forward base for U.S. operations in the Vietnam War. The Philippines, a former American colony that gained independence in 1946, also had important bases for the U.S. war effort, notably a naval base at Subic and Clark Air Base. Other regional U.S. partners included Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and the then-British colony of Hong Kong. These areas also became officially-approved destinations for the R&R of American soldiers fighting in the war, thus boosting their tourism industries, though with the exception of Australia, also led to the growth of sex and vice tourism in those areas, especially in Thailand.
United by their fear of communism, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed as a de facto anti-communist grouping by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore in 1967.
The Americans pulled their forces from South Vietnam in 1973 amid mounting losses and domestic pressures to end the war. The Vietnam War eventually ended with the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, when a North Vietnamese tank drove into South Vietnam's Presidential Palace.
China fought a brief war with South Vietnam in 1974, gaining control of the Paracel Islands, which remain disputed between China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Laotian Civil War
Occurring concurrently with the Vietnam War was the Laotian Civil War (1959-1975), which pitted the French-aligned royal family, backed by the United States, Thailand and South Vietnam, against the communist Pathet Lao, backed by North Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Following the Fall of Saigon, and the consequent loss of South Vietnamese support for the royalists, the Pathet Lao won the civil war.
Spillover to Laos and Cambodia
The Vietnam War had significant spillover into Laos and Cambodia, first through the "Ho Chi Minh trail" that was used by North Vietnamese smugglers to supply South Vietnamese communist forces and later when U.S. President Richard Nixon decided to bomb those countries that had been officially neutral up to that point, which led to Laos becoming the "most bombed country in history".
"Third Indochina War"
The horror, however, was not over yet. After the communist victory, many of the ethnic Chinese and business-owning upper and middle class Vietnamese in the South were targeted for purges. This sparked off a massive refugee crisis as many Southerners, known as the "boat people", attempted to flee the country, with countless refugees perishing at sea. Most of the survivors were settled in the United States, Australia and Canada, thus establishing the Vietnamese communities in those countries. Likewise, the Hmong people of Laos came under general suspicion by the victorious communists of being pro-American collaborators, leading to a mass exodus of that ethnic group to Thailand, the U.S. and other Western countries.
In the course of the war and chaos, Cambodia was first destabilized by a coup in 1970, then the country was taken over by the "Khmer Rouge", as they came to be known in the West, under Pol Pot. Driven by a particularly extremist interpretation of communist doctrine combined with Khmer ethnic nationalism, they overthrew the U.S.-backed Khmer Republic in 1975, and perpetrated one of the most horrific genocides in history, killing roughly a quarter of the Cambodian population. Large numbers of ethnic Chinese, as well as middle and upper class Cambodians attempted to flee by sea while many others fled over the borders with Thailand and Vietnam, thus worsening the already bad refugee crisis brought on by the Fall of Saigon. The West supported the regime despite its professed communism (being pro-China and anti-Soviet, they were seen as the lesser evil in the cynical logic of the Cold War). It was the Vietnamese army that intervened in 1978/79, stopped the genocide and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime. In retaliation, China invaded Vietnam in 1979, but withdrew shortly after. The Sino-Vietnamese war led to an intensification of the purges of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese, with virtually the entire ethnic Chinese population in northern Vietnam expelled to China. A significant ethnic Chinese community remains in southern Vietnam, albeit in much smaller numbers than prior to the Fall of Saigon.
Vietnamese forces only withdrew from Cambodia under pressure from ASEAN in 1989, which was followed by a normalisation of Sino-Vietnamese ties in 1991, and the final demarcation of the China-Vietnam land border being completed in 2008. In Cambodia, stability was restored in 1993 with the restoration of the monarchy, albeit as a constitutional monarchy, and the successful conduct of elections under the oversight of the United Nations.
Following the end of the Cold War, all three countries that made up the former French Indochina were admitted into ASEAN. Vietnam and the U.S. have cordial relations today.
There is considerable tourism by foreign veterans returning to visit the countries where they served or that they visited for R&R. Some even retire there; Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia all have substantial contingents of retirees including some veterans.
The region is also a popular backpacker destination; see Banana Pancake Trail. Relations between all countries in the region are now peaceful, and the route from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City overland is popular among Western backpackers.
- 1 Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Australia's main military history museum, with exhibits dedicated to the Vietnam War.
- 2 National Vietnam Veterans Museum, Phillip Island. Museum dedicated to the experience of the Australian Vietnam War veterans.
- 3 Vietnam Forces National Memorial, Canberra. Memorial dedicated to the Australian soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War
- 1 Dien Bien Phu. Provincial town in the mountainous far northwest of the country. The French were defeated here in 1954, documented by a war cemetery and a museum dedicated to the Viet Minh victory.
- 2 Haiphong. Vietnam's third largest city, and the main port in the north, shelled by the French Navy in 1947. It has both a military and a naval museum.
- 3 Hanoi. Capital of North Vietnam, and since the Fall of Saigon, capital of the unified Vietnam. Much of the Vietnam Military History Museum is dedicated to the Indochina Wars. On the grounds of the Presidential Palace is Ho Chi Minh's stilt house, where he is said to have resided because he found the palace itself to be too painful a reminder of French colonial oppression, as it had been the residence of the Governor-General of Indochina under French rule. Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is located near the Presidential Palace. Also in the vicinity is the site where famous former U.S. Senator John McCain was shot down, and a memorial to the event has been constructed near the site.
- 4 Vịnh Mốc tunnels. Large underground system close to the erstwhile demarcation line, in which entire village populations found refuge for more than two years to escape aerial bombing during the Vietnam War.
- 4 Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City). Capital of South Vietnam, and American base of operations during the Vietnam War. There is a large War Remnants Museum showcasing the effects of the war on Vietnamese civilians, as well as the former presidential palace of South Vietnam, with a replica of the North Vietnamese tank that ended the war displayed on the grounds of the palace. There is a memorial at a busy intersection where Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức self-immolated in 1963 to protest the oppression of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese regime.
- 5 Huế. Capital during the Nguyen Dynasty, and the site of several important battles of the Indochina Wars, most notably the Battle of Huế in 1968, which was part of the Tet Offensive. Much of the fighting took place within the Imperial City, the former residence of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors, resulting in extensive damage, much of which is still visible today.
- 5 Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnel complex served as a hiding spot for Viet Cong fighters and as the communists' base of operations for the 1968 Tet offensive.
- 6 Khe Sanh. A US Marine base near the Lao border late in the Vietnam War, scene of fierce fighting and now with a good museum.
- 6 Dong Ap Bia. A 900-metre peak that became the symbol of the controversial Battle of Hamburger Hill in 1969, which later caused the U.S. armed forces to withdraw its troops from the summit.
- 7 Quảng Ngãi. The province where the notorious Mỹ Lai massacre was committed by American soldiers against the local villagers, including many women and children. A memorial to the victims has been erected on the site of the massacre.
- 8 Phnom Penh. Capital of Cambodia with Independence and Liberation Memorials and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison).
- 7 Choeung Ek. The infamous killing fields, where those found to be unfit for the back-to-the-earth style communism perception of the Khmer Rouge (for "crimes" such as wearing eyeglasses or being able to speak a foreign language) were massacred en masse.
- 9 Beihai (北海). The city is home to thousands of ethnic Chinese who fled Vietnam as refugees in the late 1970s. A large proportion of them reside in the fishing town of Qiaogang (侨港) in the city's south.
- 8 Malipo Martyrs Cemetery (麻栗坡烈士陵园), Malipo County (77 km southeast of the city of Wenshan in Yunnan Province). The largest cemetery in China dedicated to soldiers killed in the Sino-Vietnamese War. It features a museum about the Battle of Laoshan (known in Vietnam as the Battle of Vị Xuyên).
Hong Kong was a British colony during the Indochina Wars, and the British military bases there were used as staging points for American forces during the Vietnam War. All British forces left Hong Kong following its return to China in 1997, and the military bases were handed over to the Chinese military. After the Fall of Saigon, many of the Cantonese-speaking ethnic Chinese from South Vietnam fled to Hong Kong as refugees and eventually settled there, and some, such as Ray Lui and Tsui Hark, went on to successful careers in Hong Kong's entertainment industry.
- 1 Wan Chai (灣仔). Hong Kong's most famous red light district; the industry sprung up during the Vietnam War to cater to American soldiers on their R&R leaves. Today, Wan Chai continues to be known for its seedy night life and its numerous love hotels.
- 10 Vientiane. Heritage and memories of the Lao Civil War are present at the Lao National Museum, Kaysone Phomvihane Museum (dedicated to the leader of the communist rebels), Lao People's Army History Museum. The monumental Patuxai (Victory Gate) was built during the war, memorialising Laos' independence from France, but later re-dedicated to the communists' victory of 1975.
- 9 Vieng Xai caves. Hidden base of the communist Pathet Lao rebels, that became the country's ruling party after their victory in the Laotian Civil War.
- 10 Plain of Jars. Famous for its ancient monuments, this was the most heavily bombed area during the Indochina Wars (and perhaps in world's history). Some locals used the remnants as part of their daily life, bomb fragments became spoons, bombshells were incorporated as building material and décor for houses.
- 11 Luang Prabang. Former capital of Laos and seat of the king during the Laotian Civil War. Following the communist victory, the king and the royal family were imprisoned in reeducation camps, and the king's palace was converted into a museum that is today open to the public.
The US had two important bases in the Philippines at this time, though both were shut down in the 1990s. Nevertheless, the Philippines remains an official U.S. ally. Many US veterans have since retired in the country, though most say the base areas "ain't what they used to be".
- Subic. This was a US Navy base. Today it is a port with a free trade zone; products manufactured here for export get a break on Philippine taxes.
- Angeles. There was a USAF base just outside this city; today it is Clark International Airport.
Flick-open "butterfly" knives were a popular souvenir for American servicemen. They are also called Balisong knives, named after a barangay of Taal which is the main center of their manufacture. They are still available — see Taal#Balisong_knives &mdash, but they may not be a good souvenir since they are illegal in some countries.
During the Vietnam War, the United States formally recognized the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan as the sole legitimate government of all of China, and did not have diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. Accordingly, the island was home to numerous U.S. military bases that were used as staging points during the Vietnam War, and was also an approved destination for American soldiers on their R&R leaves. These military bases were abandoned, and all U.S. forces were withdrawn following the switch of diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 1979. Taiwan's status as an official U.S. ally was reinstated in 2003, though it would not be until 2020 that the U.S. would once again establish a permanent military presence in Taiwan.
- 2 Beitou (北投). A suburb of Taipei that was first developed as a hot spring resort town during the Japanese colonial period, during which the hot spring resorts doubled as brothels to serve the Japanese colonial administrators. During the Vietnam War, the hot spring resorts/brothels primarily served American soldiers on their R&R leaves, thus cementing Beitou's reputation as a red light district. After the end of the Vietnam War, prostitution was outlawed in Taiwan, and the area was cleaned up with a vengeance. However, the hot spring resorts remain, albeit now as wholesome family-friendly experiences, and are popular with locals and tourists alike.
Thailand was the most important U.S. ally in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and home to several U.S. forward bases for troops about to be deployed to the battlefield in Vietnam. Thailand itself also fought a communist insurgency from 1965 to 1983, but unlike in the former French Indochina, the Thai communists failed to make any significant gains, partly due to the immense popularity of then-king Bhumibol Adulyadej among the Thai people. Thailand's famous sex tourism industry largely traces its roots to the Vietnam War, when it sprung up to cater to the American soldiers who were stationed in Thailand and/or visiting Thailand on their R&R leaves. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Thailand expelled the remaining U.S. military forces from Thai soil, though it remains an official U.S. ally and regularly conducts bilateral military exercises with the U.S. Thailand's thriving sex tourism industry also remains as a reminder of that bygone era.
- 12 Bangkok. Capital of the United States' most important ally during the Indochina Wars. Bangkok was designated a destination for rest and recreation (R&R), bringing a boom to the city's nightlife and a strong American influence in pop culture during the 1960s. Numerous former GIs returned to Thailand, settling permanently after their retirement. The era is documented by a few remaining former GI hotels, the Patpong (redlight district) Museum, National Memorial and Royal Thai Air Force Museum.
- 13 Pattaya. Merely a fishing village before the war, Pattaya owes its growth and reputation as a sex tourism destination to the R&R leaves of American soldiers. The city's U-Tapao International Airport was also previously a base housing U.S. bombers carrying out strategic bombing missions in the wars.
- 11 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.. A black granite wall engraved with the names of those service members who died as a result of their service in Vietnam and South East Asia during the war.
- 12 National Veterans Art Museum, Chicago. Dedicated to displaying and studying art produced by veterans from the Vietnam War and other wars and conflicts.
- 13 New Jersey Vietnam Veterans' Memorial and Vietnam Era Museum, Holmdel, New Jersey (7 mi south of Hazlet; 7 mi west of Middletown).
- 14 National Vietnam War Museum, Weatherford, Texas. Memorial and meditation gardens, and a visitors center with a small gallery are open during the construction of this new museum that aims to foster understanding of this war.
- 15 Museum of the History of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces, Westminster, California. Reportedly the only museum in the world specifically dedicated to the history of the Republic of Vietnam and its armed forces.
The wars continue to be a sensitive topic for the generations that lived through them, so tread carefully when discussing them with locals. In particular, cultural differences between northern and southern Vietnam persist as a result of the previous division, and some Southerners in Vietnam are still bitter about having lost against the North. Most locals bear no animosity against individual tourists from the countries that participated in the wars, however, and American visitors can expect a warm welcome as most younger locals born after the wars admire American culture.
While Cambodia and Laos have developed close relations with China, relations between Vietnam and China continue to be tense due to unresolved maritime border disputes, so tread carefully when discussing Sino-Vietnamese relations with locals. China is now the largest source of international tourists for all three countries, though, and apart from the odd jibe against the Chinese government, visitors from China are unlikely to run into any major issues as long as they are respectful and avoid political discussions.
Much of the region is still littered with land mines and unexploded ordnance, so be sure to avoid going off the beaten track in rural areas unless you have a guide who knows the area well.