‘Hunker (Down) in the Bunker’ – By Robert
When you come to Hanoi, you should take a trip to the wartime command bunker that Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese Cabinet used during the Vietnam War (1967-1975). It is not spectacular, but it does bring back some strong evocative memories and gives you a tactile experience of what it must have been like to try and endure the endless, day-after-day, carpet -bombing of Hanoi and North Vietnam. In those days it was American B-52s just relentlessly laying round after round of bombs onto civilian Hanoi… from so way far up in the stratosphere that the crew-cut aircrew could just munch on their donuts and slurp their coffee and watch all the screens and dials to wonder when it was time to turn around and go home to Thailand… with no thought all to the fate of the people under their maelstrom.
Thanh Long Imperial Citadel in Hanoi – the story
The city authorities first discovered the bunker a few years ago – before it was opened to tourists. They were digging up the ground for the new Parliament building and they went into an old piece of mostly disused army land and then….ohhh…they found all sort of archaeological goodies from the past…some really old stuff like pottery and tiles and terracotta decorations etc… but also some more recent stuff like the war-time command bunker, the radio communications room and the emergency meeting room for the government leaders during the war.
Anyway, me and Mrs Thu had been having this conversation about this underground bunker for a while. I had insisted that I knew it was there and remembered some talk from the old Ministry of Planning days when they had even picked up some boxes of old documents from the underground office. When the “1000 years of Thanh Long” celebrations had been on, they briefly opened the gates and showed people all the goodies. So I knew it was there and I knew it was real!!!!
We decided that this morning, we would take the normal tourist route… and went to the Hoang Thanh Thanh Long – the Thanh Long Imperial Citadel. (Sorry…short rewind…the old name for Hanoi is Thanh Long which means ‘Dragon Ascending… don’t ask me why…that is the topic for further research and another blog eh?’)
Anyway, we set off- me, Thu and Thien. We really recommend you do a half-day tour of the Citadel and the Military Museum… it is a great balance and also a manageable morning tour. We decided to head into the Citadel first… and we dodged the endless tourist buses to sneak into the motorbike parking area. It was a graduation week at the universities so there were big groups of young graduates in their academic gowns having photos taken and lots of pretty girls wearing white ao dai dresses taking each other’s photographs.
Hanoi Imperial Citadel – An Historic Site
In front of us was the magnificence of the Thanh Long Citadel…. sure it maybe not as polished as the huge buildings in Kyoto, or the Royal Palaces in Seoul…but it is very authentic and shows the buildings in the state they have arrived in today as a result of their history. It was great to explore the ancient stone buildings and even threaten Thien with banishment into some of the darker tunnels if he continues to be a naughty little boy.
We pushed on through all the gardens… the gardens and buildings are quite impressive and they have done their best to show the history of this location going back to around 700AD.
Once you go past the first set of citadel gates with its massive stone arches and wooden gates (you can climb up the top for a great view) there is a collection of buildings around a central courtyard. One of them was open and had a great little exhibition of old photos and postcards from the French Colonial period. It is always fascinating to see images of a place that you know so well on a day to day basis… but back in time past. It was easy to see that despite the oppressive colonial regime and the brutal tyranny of the French rulers, Hanoi was truly a “Pearl of the East” with its leafy boulevards, the rickshaws and the little tram cars running by the lakes.
I kept telling Thu about the ‘secret bunker’ underground, but we just couldn’t seem to find it. We got given lots of friendly (but incorrect) advice from one of the security guards who directed us across the road to the site where they had just begun to excavate for the new parliament building. Sure there were lots of displays of historical relics and pottery and terracotta fragments and some impressive excavations (errr… ditches) that showed up the ancient ruins and foundations of the original citadel…but no secret bunker. At this point I was beginning to doubt my sanity if not my memory.
“No, no no and no!” I said loudly, “this is not where the bunker is!”. “Indeed sir it is not hereabouts at all”, drawled a thick Texan accent. We turned to see a six-foot tall tanned, muscular and moustachioed couple who both pleasantly assured us that yes there was indeed an underground bunker and yes it was not in this section and yes my memory was right and it was over in the other section of garden. “Thankyou to you good sirs and have a nice day” I gratefully replied. These two ‘Yellow Roses of Texas’ smiled gayly and went on about their tour of the relics and we crossed the road (yet again) to greet (yet again) the now thoroughly confused gate guard. Thu explained our destination this time in detail and our specific desire to see the underground war-time office and bunker of Ho Chi Minh…. “AAAAAHHHHHHH” he beamed with that kind of “Oh why didn’t you explain it to me much clearer in the first place?” kind of look to the left, the small flower garden has two strange looking canopies, now concreted and sealed up, that once discreetly provided the cover to stairs leading underground. If you didn’t look out for them you could easily miss them. Turn around and there is a non-descript 1960s concrete building with the bizarre label of “D67 REVOLUTIONARY RELIC”. This is building D67 indeed designed to look from the air as just another rather boring and non-descript little office in the gardens behind the Citadel. Nowadays in the top floor room they have set up the old meeting table for the war-time Cabinet and have some maps and displays, and all the name-tags of the cabinet members laid out around the table.
Go through the doors and then across the other side, there is a narrow set of concrete stairs and lead underground to a massive set of steel, armoured-plated doors. At the bottom of this descent there is a small set of rooms…. the war-time command bunker used by the Vietnamese Command during the war. As Hanoi, Hai Phong and the north of Vietnam were being carpet-bombed from the skies they directed the war efforts from this small command post. It is eerie and has a very realistic presence. Actually once we went back upstairs and back-tracked a little we found a few information boards that filled us in on some of the details and also revealed how all of the Citadel gardens contained a rabbit’s warren of underground bunkers and tunnels.
We tossed up between going to the Military Museum next door (for great coffee and a chance for the little boy to clamber all over the tanks and helicopters etc). We could see the massive flag tower erected by the French and the enormous red star flag fluttering in the breeze… but….eeehhh
We had had enough history culture for the day and so we just crossed over a few blocks to sit in a small cafe on the edge of Truc Bach lake and eat steamed lemongrass snails , Rau SuSu vegies in garlic, fried rice and ice-cold beer.Bunker found…tick! Memory intact….tick! Ideas for bringing guests next time.. tick!
The other day when I looked at some tour options around Hanoi. I found a private walking tour through Hanoi old quarter, Hoan Kiem lake, try beautiful street foods, was very interesting. I lived in Hanoi for nearly 10 years, so these places and trying some real Hanoi food are worth to do while you are in Hanoi.
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