Vietnam! Whenever I am about to visit a new country I make a mental inventory of the things that I associate with that place. When I think of Vietnam I think of rice paddies, spring rolls and war.
War is probably the biggest thing that most of the western world associates with Vietnam. Although I was born a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, it’s cultural legacy is still very clear to me. Miss Saigon, Apocalypse Now, Tim O’Brien and more made the entire situation much more vivid than any history book. My parents can’t get over the fact that we now live in a world where their daughter can visit Vietnam as a tourist. “When I was your age,” says my Dad, “we were all trying NOT to go to Vietnam.”
So even with all the things I think I know about the Vietnam War, I realized that the Vietnamese probably have a very different outlook and attitude on it. For starters I knew that they called it the “American War,” which sounds odd but makes a lot of sense. I wanted to know what the Vietnamese attitude was about this terrible time that entangled both of our countries, so one of our first stops in Ho Chi Minh City was the War Remnants Museum.
It was… an awkward visit, to say the least.
The museum, which costs something like 75 cents, is a gray warehouse of a building, with a courtyard filled with re-appropriated American tanks, helicopters and fighter planes. Inside I walked up to the first exhibit to find this plastered on the wall:
Crucial words from the Declaration of Independence, thoughtfully positioned next to a picture of an American Soldier executing a Viet Cong soldier. Subtly. And a pretty good indicator of what was to come. Image after gory image of dead Vietnamese, dismembered body parts and soldiers terrorizing civilians.
It went on: victims of agent orange, dead babies in jars, simulation tiger cages and more. It was weird. And mortifying. And also kind of infuriating. I have absolutely no doubt that the United States did some really terrible things. It was a terrible and ill-advised war. But this place was just too much. What about all the horrible things that the Viet Cong did? Not even mentioned among the debris. I see pictures of locked up Viet Cong, but where is the exhibit on the infamous Hanoi Hilton? War is hell no doubt but it’s a two sided inferno.
“Even women and babies are targets of US American division mopping up operations.”
Now, the museum is run by the government, so of course it’s sole purpose is to booster the party line. In Vietnam, like everywhere else, history is written by the victors. What I was looking at wasn’t the actual beliefs of the majority of the people in Vietnam- it was pure propaganda. Once I grasped this the entire museum experience became less emotional and more academic.
In my travels I’ve had the opportunity to visit a few different places that have been negatively effects by US actions I reflected on the bombed out buildings of Belgrade and the atomic bomb site in Hiroshima. The latter is probably more comparable to here: severe destruction and civilian casualties during wartime. The Peace Park in Hiroshima is almost the polar opposite of this museum though: it’s a monument to what was lost, a (fair) explanation of what happened and a plea to make sure it never happens again. I think that ultimatly had far more impact on me then the smear-fest in Saigon.
So what’s the difference? Well, the Japanese have had much longer to recover from their wounds. And the Japanese lost the war. America did some really horrible things in both countries, but Japan at least recognizes that we weren’t operating in a void. To do that requires a level of self-criticism that the Vietnamese government is clearly not comfortable with.
The good news is, the War Museum is more of a novelty than anything else. It does not represent the views of most people in Vietnam. Things might change when I go up North, but here in the south people are friendly and open. Based on the people I’ve been lucky enough to meet so far, their opinions on Americans range from indifferent to ecstatic. As one guy told me “That was a long time ago, a lot of bad things happened, but now we must move on.”