Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Vietnam Online
American Experience
spacer above content
Weapons of War
  U.S. Forces | North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong

Aircraft, Transports, and Big Guns

Sources of Weapons
Although most of their weapons, uniforms, and equipment were provided by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, the North Vietnamese also carried arms captured from the French and even the Japanese in the earlier Indochinese wars. North Vietnamese Army (N.V.A.) troops more often used standard-issue gear; their Viet Cong counterparts dressed as the peasants in whose villages they sought harbor, and frequently used improvised weapons.

MiG-21 sitting on runway The Soviet MiG-21 served as the primary high-altitude fighter in the North Vietnamese arsenal. Capable of flying more than twice the speed of sound and armed with a 30mm cannon and air-to-air missiles, the MiG-21 disrupted American bombing raids, shooting down bombers and engaging in furious and often victorious dogfights with American fighter planes. The highly-maneuverable MiG was also easy to maintain and could operate from unimproved airfields. The MiG-17, an earlier model in the MiG fighter series, also saw frequent service as a fighter/interceptor in North Vietnam.

Specifications for the MiG-21:

- Year: 1955
- Engine: Tumansky R-11F-300 with 12,675 lbs. thrust (with afterburner)
- Span: 23 ft. 6 in.
- Length: 51 ft. 9 in.
- Height: 15 ft. 9 in.
- Weight: 18,080 lbs. max.
- Maximum speed: 1,300 m.p.h.
- Cruising speed: 550 m.p.h.
- Ceiling: 50,000 ft.
- Range: 400 miles
- Crew: one
- Armament: one NR-30 30mm cannon plus two K-13A air-to-air missiles

T-54/55 Tank
The North Vietnamese Army forces did not use tanks in large numbers. The N.V.A. relied on the Soviet-made T-54/55 as one of their main battle tanks. Fitted out with a 100mm, turret-mounted main gun, the T54/55 fired anti-armor and high explosive rounds at a range of about 16,000 yards. A four-man crew controlled the tank, which traveled at a top speed of about 50 m.p.h. The tank's armor varied in thicknesses from 20mm on the underside to 203mm at the turret. The T54/55 weighed 36 tons.

BTR 60 Armored Personnel Carrier
The Soviet-made BTR armored personnel carrier served as the Vietnamese counterpart of the M113. Several different models of the BTR series were used, including the BTR 60P, an eight-wheeled amphibious vehicle with a crew of two, which carried up to sixteen soldiers. While the sides of the vehicle were protected by armor in thicknesses of up to 10mm, the roofless BTR 60 offered no cover for attack from above. The BTR 60 traveled on land at speeds of up to 50 m.p.h. and in water at about 10 m.p.h.

North Vietnamese forces shipped supplies through coastal and riverine areas using thousands of small watercraft. Chief among these was the junk, a traditional Chinese vessel dating back thousands of years. Made of wood, junks were usually powered by sail, although motors were also used. Since junks were not built as warships, their armament, if any, consisted of the weapons carried by their crews.

DP 7.62mm Light Machine Gun
The North Vietnamese used the DP light machine gun as their squad-level, automatic support weapon. This counterpart to the American M-60 fed cartridges using a pan magazine or belt, and had a range of about 875 yards. Based on a Soviet design, the DP 7.62 was provided to the Vietnamese by both China and the Soviet Union.

SA7 Grail Anti-Aircraft Missile
In North Vietnam, American pilots faced a deadly barrage of radar-guided, base-stationed anti-aircraft fire. In the South, one of the biggest threats to American aircraft was the SA7 Grail. A shoulder-fired, portable weapon, the Grail could be moved quickly and concealed easily, making it difficult to deter. Grail missiles downed numerous American planes and helicopters.

The Outfitted Soldier

N.V.A. soldiers wore a variety of headgear, the most common a pith-type helmet made of pressed paper or even of plastic, with a five-pointed star insignia. Viet Cong troops often wore the floppy cotton hat in the field.

N.V.A. soldiers dressed in simple green canvas uniforms. Viet Cong troops, who needed to blend in with local populations, most often wore black Ho Chi Minh-style loose pants.

Both the Chinese and the Russians provided variations on the SK-47 rifle in quantity to Communist forces. Known as a "peasant rifle," the AK-47 was simple in its design, reliable, and accurate. It fired a 7.62mm bullet either automatically or semi-automatically from a 30-round clip at a rate of up to about 600 rounds per minute, and performed with accuracy at up to 435 yards.

Communist troops also used the S.K.S. carbine or "Chicom," a semiautomatic rifle that fired 7.62mm ammunition from a 10-round clip at a slightly greater range than the AK-47.

Grenades and Anti-Personnel Devices
In addition to standard mines provided by their backers in China and the Soviet Union, Communist troops used a variety of anti-personnel devices, many handmade or obtained from U.S. forces. Viet Cong soldiers dug up and reused American land mines, took Claymore mines from their tripods, and even cut open unexploded bombs to harvest components for their hand-made weapons. Many Viet Cong soldiers lost their lives in accidental explosions at low-tech bomb factories.

Booby Traps
North Vietnamese forces frequently employed homemade booby traps. These included "punji sticks," sharpened sticks of bamboo concealed in hidden pits and designed to pierce the feet of enemy soldiers; bamboo maces, which swung down onto soldiers who triggered trip-wires; trip-wire operated crossbows; and boards studded with nails. While these devices did not kill en masse, their existence traumatized enemy troops psychologically.

Capable of living off the land and with the support of sympathetic villagers, the North Vietnamese troops, particularly the Viet Cong, could feed themselves without a complicated food supply system. Viet Cong troops often carried canvas bags of rice slung over their shoulders, and ate nearly anything they could find.

While some N.V.A. soldiers wore standard-issue jungle-type boots, they often adopted the same footwear as their Viet Cong counterparts -- simple cloth sandals with soles made from recycled tire treads. Some Viet Cong even fought barefoot.


Air War-Vietnam. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1978.

Casey, Michael, et al. The Vietnam Experience: The Army at War. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1987.

Macksey, Kenneth. Technology in War. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1986.

Rosser-Owen, David. Vietnam Weapons Handbook. England; Patrick Stephens Limited, 1986.

Uhlig, Frank, Jr., ed. Vietnam: The Naval Story. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1986.

By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia
This online publication from the U.S. Navy's Naval Historical Center provides a chronological history of the U.S. Navy in Vietnam along with photographs, maps, and charts.

Online Bookshelves on Vietnam
This site from the U.S. Army Center of Military History provides numerous publications on the Army's involvement in the Vietnam War.

Vietnam War Aircraft Hangar
Examine the aircraft used in Vietnam on this site maintained by the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

  U.S. Forces | North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong
page created on 3.29.05 back to top
Site Navigation

Vietnam Online American Experience