War and Remembrance – The Vietnam War (viewer discretion)

One of the reasons Vietnam has been so high up on my list of countries to visit is because of the war.    It ended in 1975 – I was about 15 years old at the time, so it was a big part of my consciousness.  It helped shape my world views, my opinions about war and US foreign policy, so I knew when I started planning  this trip that I would have to visit the War Remnants Museum. 

The exterior is an easy introduction to what will come.  Various US weapons of war including a Huey helicopter, a fighter jet, planes, and huge gatling guns are spread out around the courtyard.  As I wandered around I spotted a bricked in enclosure off to the side.  It is a replica of part of the Chuong Cop Prison, the North Vietnamese prison for war prisoners and collaborators.  There were a number of photos of some of the tortures that went on there, and the victims.  It’s shocking, especially when you see the actual Tiger Cages that held up to 7 prisoners at a time.  They were too small for the prisoners to stand or sit, so they had to stay hunched over for 24 hours a day, some for weeks, months or even years.  As I emerged I was overwhelmed but still not prepared for what was inside the museum.  There are a few artifacts, mostly US weapons, but the story of the Vietnam War and the aftermath is told through photos.  In the first room are the photos of the children affected by Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the US army to clear the jungles and fields.  There are shocking pictures of infants with horrible deformities, and even one photo of 3 jars containing deformed fetuses.  It is so horrific and sad to see.  Upstairs near the next exhibit there is a statue of two children and a dove across from a children’s play area – sending a powerful message for peace, if for nothing else, at least for their future.

The war is told through hundreds of photographs, which take you on a journey, from the first articles about the war, to the huge collection from news photographers.  The images shocked the world when they were first published but their impact has not diminished.  The photos show not only the destruction and pain the Americans and their allies wrought on this nation, but also the emotional scars it left with the soldiers, some who are shown trying to save the lives of their comrades or grieving the brutal deaths of their close friends.  Probably the most poignant is the Pulitzer prize winning photo of a young Phan Thi Kim Phuc as she ran naked down the street, with her two brothers and cousins, after being burned in a Napalm attack. She is still alive today, has set up an international foundation for the children of war and is living in Toronto.

As you near the end of the tour, the  text becomes even more pointed and critical of the US government- highlighting the human cost of the war.  You have to remember when you are touring the exhibit that this is the war from the North Vietnamese perspective, so it is fairly one-sided, but it still ends a powerful message about the horrors of war.

There are more tanks and fighter jets parked outside the Ho Chi Minh City Museum but these are North Vietnamese.  The museum takes a slightly different approach to the war, focussing instead on the peace movement around the world that protested against the war.  There are more photos and newspaper articles from around the world, including a small collage of various peace demonstrations.  There is also the infamous photo of the Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire (self-immolation) and sparked a spate of other monks attempting the same thing – all in protest of the war. More than 35 years after the war ended, the images still stir up a lot of emotions.  While the Vietnamese have every right to hold a grudge against the west, especially the US, they don’t.  Part of the reason for that is that more than half the population was born AFTER 1975 and have no memories of the war, just the images that have become not only part of the public archive but also part of the national consciousness.

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