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Will tourism transform the way Australians remember the Vietnam War?

The Cu Chi tunnels may be the most popular of the ‘war tourism’ attractions in Vietnam. www.dreamtime.com

Will tourism transform the way Australians remember the Vietnam War?

The Cu Chi tunnels may be the most popular of the ‘war tourism’ attractions in Vietnam. www.dreamtime.com

In 1990, when the Hawke government flew 58 first world war veterans to Turkey for the 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, Australia’s Anzac commemoration was transformed.

The subsequent emergence of the Gallipoli pilgrimage directly provided thousands of Australians with an alternative way of experiencing and understanding the Anzac legend. Indirectly, it altered the way Australians understand Gallipoli.

The internationalising of its remembrance and the accounting of former foes facilitated a more inclusive historical culture and a resurgence of popular interest and participation in Anzac Day.

Historians and social commentators typically explain this cultural transformation by emphasising the distinctive social and political circumstances around Gallipoli. But might the rise of heritage tourism and the increasing ease of international travel lead to more of Australia’s foreign military experiences being better understood?

Sites of war tourism

The Vietnam War is an interesting example to consider in regard to this question. This is particularly so with 2016 marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. Various veteran and battlefield tours are set to take place.

My soon-to-be-published research on war tourism in Vietnam can provide insights into what the effect of tourism on Australians’ remembrance of the war might be.

As Vietnam began to open itself up to tourism and foreign investment in the 1990s, the Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, Le Van Bang, felt compelled to emphasise that:

Vietnam is a country, not a war.

The Vietnamese are eager for their country to be known for more than its military conflict. But the Demilitarised Zone, the “Hanoi Hilton” prison for captured enemy soldiers, and the War Remnants Museum are among the most popular places to visit for international tourists.

Western tourists travelling to Vietnam today for the first time also express their surprise at how welcoming locals are and at their lack of antagonism in relation to the war. This is similar to Gallipoli in the 1990s.

Cu Chi offers tourists a way of engaging with history that is vastly different to austere museums. www.dreamtime.com

Part of the reason Western tourists are welcome in Vietnam is related to social memory. The conflict is understood within a romantic narrative in which sacrifices are seen as contributing to a united and modern country.

Among the various war tourism sites, the Cu Chi tunnels, located less than an hour’s drive from Ho Chi Minh City, are perhaps the most popular. Much like the pilgrimage experience at Gallipoli, a visit to Cu Chi offers tourists a way of engaging with history that is vastly different to the austere museum genre that dominates in Western countries.

Rather than being a hands-off experience, visitors at Cu Chi get to move through the tunnel network, walk in the jungle, see where booby traps were hidden, view how the Viet Cong reused American bombs and, for those who desire, shoot the rifles used in the war.

Developing memory

It is tempting to interpret the Cu Chi tour as catering for tourists and trivialising bloodshed. But this reading fails to comprehend the high level of domestic tourism and the serious historical significance that Cu Chi has as part of North Vietnam’s victory.

Approximately 41% of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 25. The memory-building here is seen as a way to establish national unity.

For Western tourists, Cu Chi is also far from a war “theme park”. Interviews I have conducted with Americans, Australians and Europeans clearly show that they overwhelmingly come to a greater appreciation of the lived experience of soldiers on both sides.

Imagining themselves where Vietnamese and Western soldiers died forces them to rethink their prior understanding of the conflict – particularly from films, commemorations and memorials where the Vietnamese are mere backstage actors.

More than 300,000 Australians visit Vietnam annually. With the ongoing growth of tourism, it is likely that tourists’ experiences at Cu Chi and other war-related sites in Vietnam will increasingly influence how we commemorate this conflict, and encourage Australians to see it from both sides of the frontline.