Historical places in Asia
Dien Bien Phu was the site of one of the most important battles in Southeast Asian history. It was here, during 57 days of fierce fighting in 1954, that the Vietnamese nationalist movement, the so-called Viet Minh lead by Ho Chi Minh, defeated the French colonial power. After that, the French withdrew from their colonies in Asia and Vietnam finally became independent. Before the battle, Dien Bien Phu was nothing more than a landing strip constructed by the Japanese under WWII. The French turned it into a military stronghold which purpose was to interrupt the movement of Viet Minh troops into Laos. The French lost more than 10,000 men (including those who died as prisoners of war), while the Vietnamese number is estimated to 23,000. At Dien Bien Phu today you can see some of the French bunkers along with the trench system at the hill named A1. You have to be into military history to get more out of it than the mandatory been-there photo snap - so read up a bit before going.
The city of Vinh doesn't have very much to offer in the sense of mind-blowing sights, but there is one thing the city can brag about: The biggest Ho Chi Minh statue in Vietnam, which must presumably also be the largest in the world. The square in front of the statue is laid out exactly like the Ba Dinh square in Hanoi in front of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. If you are a true Ho Chi Minh buff, you must also visit the birthplace of the great leader in the village of Kim Lien, a 14 km drive from Vinh.
Ho Chi Minh was not just the founder and leader of the Vietnamese communist party, he is considered the liberator and father of the modern nation of Vietnam. He created the independence movement Viet Minh who victorious fought both the Japanese, then the French, and in the end the South Vietnamese coalition, which included the Americans. Ho Chi Minh past away in 1969 during the Vietnam War, so he never lived to see his nation reunified and independent. Against his wish he got embalmed like the communist fashion dictated at the time, so today the pickled remains of Ho Chi Minh can be enjoyed at his fine mausoleum. Dress nicely, stand in line and behave for it is a serious affair to visit Uncle Ho.
When you have named the city after the guy, you better have a museum about him as well. So this museum is a celebration to the father of modern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. The displays go way back to when he was still called by his real name, Nguyễn Tất Thành, and he was an ordinary cook's helper on a ship to America. He even lived in New York for some years. Later when he got involved in the independence movement he changed his name to Ho Chi Minh, which mean "He Who Enlightens". The museum contains a lot of pictures and other patriotic stuff, and is a hit for Vietnamese school classes. Most of the texts are only in Vietnamese, but you don't need words to enjoy the display of Ho Chi Minh's personal watering can! There are some cool modern HCM art on the top floor too.
Like their Chinese counterpart, the emperors of the Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty had some mighty fine tombs build, so they could have a descent afterlife. Though not as big as the Chinese, they were designed on the same feng-shui principals. Though keep in mind that the Chinese emperors started erecting tombs in 11th century, while all the Vietnamese ones are from the 19th and 20th century. The Nguyen dynasty had 13 emperors altogether, but only seven of them had a tomb made; Gia Long, Minh Mang, Thieu Tri, Tuc Duc, Duc Duc, Dong Khanh and Khai Dinh. The last emperor, Bao Dai (dead 1997), is buried in Paris, France. Some of the tombs have been restored while others are slowly decaying. A closer look reveals a more practical, than aesthetic, style of architecture, like tiles made of broken porcelain (tomb of Khai Dinh). The finest tomb is probably the tomb of Tu Duc, which also functioned as a retreat while Tu Duc was still alive. It was quite a lavish affair including a lake with a tiny island for hunting. The other popular tombs are the ones for Minh Mang and Khai Dinh.
The One Pillar Pagoda (Chùa Một Cột) is renowned for being more than a thousand years old, but the rather new structure with a concrete pillar certainly doesn't look like it. The original pagoda was erected by Emperor Ly Thai Tong (ruled 1028-1054) as gratitude for having a baby son. Through out time the pagoda got pillaged, so the version that stands today is only about 60 years old, build after the withdrawing French forces blow up the previous one in 1954. It is considered as one of the most important Buddhist temples in Vietnam, which can be hard to understand considering its modest size and state.
During the Vietnamese War the palace was home to the South Vietnamese President. When Saigon fell in 1975 to the North Vietnamese Army, a tank crashed through the gates and the NVA troops ran into the office to the waiting South Vietnamese president, who had only been sworn in days before. The North Vietnamese seized power and a long process started to reunite Vietnam, which involved reeducation of hundred of thousands of South Vietnamese who had supported the South Vietnamese government and their foreign allies. The palace, which was previously known as the Independence Palace, got renamed to Reunification Palace. Today it is a museum and the interior has been kept intact since 1975. You can see the president's office with strange decorations like elephant foot baskets and stuffed animals. The rooftop has a display of the helicopter evacuation done from the American embassy (which no longer exists) in the last days before the fall of Saigon.