One of the most grisly moments in the “American war” makes a sobering, memorable out-of-the-ordinary day trip out of Hoi An. On March 16, 1968, US soldiers troops killed either 347 or 504 villagers (the number is still debated) in a systematic, planned attack of the (VC stronghold) of My Lai (now called Son My), about 110km south of Hoi An. Vietnam’s not always known for a delicate touch on its war memorials, but this one is a stand-out.
No organized group tours from Hoi An regularly go south here, but most travel agents can arrange a tour by private car (about US$45) or motorcycle taxi. It can also be done – with a wee bit effort – by public bus (see Transport).
open 8am-5pm daily; admission US$0.65
→ If you’re traveling with kids, note that the site museum displays many graphic photos of massacre victims.
Less than two months after the 1968 Tet Offensive sent shock waves through the US military, the frustrated ‘Charlie Company’ of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade – who had only been in Vietnam four months – followed orders to this hamlet, where the VC troops were supposedly based. A young officer, Lt William Calley led the ‘search and destroy’ attack, which fell into mayhem quickly – with soldiers shooting children, women and the elderly; raping teenage girls; and carving the initials of the ‘Charlie Company’ into bodies.
One soldier, Herbert Carter, supposedly shot himself to stay out of the conflict; helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr (pictured, above right) evacuated a dozen villagers.
Initially the attack was claimed a ‘military victory,’ until photos by Ronald Haeberle and reports from soldiers leaked out. By November 1969 – 18 months later – it became an outrage (spurring on the growing peace movement). It eventually led to the conviction for premeditated murder of Lt Calley, ,who served four years in prison. President Nixon released Capt Ernest Medina, believed to have ordered the attack.
There are three key parts to the site. Straight ahead, as you walk in, is the museum, behind is a memorial statue – with a woman defiantly clenching her first, and in the grounds to the left is the site of much of the old village.
The paths around the village site are thoughtfully laid in dirt-brown cement, with GI-boot and barefoot footprints madly imprinted to show the chaos of the event. Plaques mark the foundations of the homes, and the number of killed at the site. It’s fascinating to walk around, and see farmers outside the fence peacefully farming in the rice fields, just as many locals may have done on that fateful day.
Do not skip the museum, which chronologically retells the event through photographs. A marble list names of 504 victims, identified by age (many many are under five years old). It’s capped with North Vietnam’s reactions during the war – ‘the atrocious crime can’t be forgiven,’ and calls to ‘punish the thug’ – plenty of photographs of victims and survivors. There’s a short book available in English.
The area’s beautiful, but Quang Ngai’s not. It has its cult fans – amongst many long-term expats, who rally over the countryside drives in the area and the ‘authentic’ experience they have in this friendly town – and a handful of wide-eyed travelers stay a night here en route between Hoi An and Nha Trang. There are several ATMs in Quang Ngai.
There are several budget hotels. KIM THANH HOTEL (tel 055-823-471; 19 Hung Vung St; rooms US$5/8-10 with fan/AC) is in the guidebooks, but worth considering as the manager Mr Dung speaks some English and can rent you a motorbike for US$5 per day.
The My Lai site is reached from the mid-sized town Quang Ngai, 100km south of Hoi An via Hwy 1. No public buses go from Hoi An to Quang Ngai – but it’s not hard to catch one on nearby Hwy 1.
From Hoi An, a motorcycle taxi ride to Hwy 1, at Vinh Dien (9km west), is about US$1.50 to US$2, where frequent buses of various shapes and speeds and conditions roar by. Be choosey. A nice ‘newish’ pink on – without air con – I offered for made the 100km trip south to Quang Ngai in over three hours (with frequent stops and backtracks to pick up big bags of rice). A minibus marked ‘Ban Me Thuot-Danang,’ on the other hand, made the return trip in just over one hour! Both charged 50,000D (about US$3.15) one way.
Hwy 1 no longer cuts through Quang Ngai, but takes a branch a kilometer east of the main road Quang Trung St. Motorcycle taxi guys wait there. It’s about a 1.5km walk to the center intersection at Hung Vuong and Quang Trung Sts.
If you’re making a daytrip here, consider hiring the motorcycle taxi for a few hours. It’s about US$3 or US$3.50 to get a ride to Son My/My Lai, then My Khe beach for a meal if you want. You’ll need three hours, unless you’re planning to swim a while. You can rent a motorbike from Kim Thanh Hotel for US$5 per day, but they’ll want to keep your passport.
To reach Son My/My Lai from Quang Ngai, take Quang Trung St north across the bridge, then follow the first right (there’s a sign) east. Otherwise you can take the bridge north of town on Hwy 1, then take the first unsigned road east. Son My/My Lai is 12km east. The beach is another 3km.
Travel agencies in Hoi An can arrange a motorbike driver to visit here for US$15 or US$20.