- Travel Topics
Vicky and I always gravitate to war related exhibits when we get the chance. It’s not that we love war or anything, in fact, quite the opposite, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that war is a major world event and the 20th century was full of them. Moreover, as America has participated in pretty much all of them, it’s hard to get a clear perspective back home, which is why we like to see the other side of things. In Japan we spent hours at Yushukan Museum to see the Japanese perspective on WWII. In Seoul, in addition to the DMZ tour, we also visited a war museum to get South Korea’s perspective on the Korean War. Now that we were in Vietnam, we were certainly going to seek out a few museums and historical sites that could provide Vietnam’s perspective on the war.
Like many things, my knowledge of the Vietnamese war is severely limited to what we discussed in High School. In my opinion, young Americans know surprisingly little about the war. History books don’t dedicate an awful lot of text, and teachers, often struggling to finish up the school year, generally breeze by the last 50 or so years of American history. America is a new country but it’s been involved in a lot in the last 300 years, therefore, the Vietnam war is, in some ways, just another event.
On the contrary, in Vietnam, where the war is referred to as “The American War” (because, as they say, without the Americans there would have been no war) it means quite a lot. As you can imagine, it’s the classic David and Goliath scenario that everybody loves. It’s also how Vietnam earned their independence after a thousand years of imperialism (first China, then France, then America). By simply walking around Hanoi in December you can see dozens of posters celebrating 40 years since the B52 Bombers were shot down (a major source of pride BTW), and war exhibits.
Aside from what was already all around us, Vicky’s and my first real run in with a war exhibit was Hoa Loa prison, which we discussed briefly in our Hanoi Wrap Up. While I’m willing to entertain the fact that Americans were the aggressors in this war, it was disheartening to see what was so clearly propaganda. Pictures of American POW soldiers having tea, playing games, and singing songs riddled one room. Personal accounts from POWs post war note that this was all staged. Vietnam takes the stance that the war is in the past and there is no reason to belabor it, a stance, which I agree with, yet such blatant propaganda on display 40 years later deeply reminded me of the Yushukan Museum in Japan. If there was one takeaway it was that governments are going to do what governments want to do.
As we traveled South, through conversations with locals such as The Easy Riders and Couchsurfers, we started to get the impression that there were some stark differences of opinion between the North and the South. That’s not to say that the South, to this day, begrudges the communists, but we did come across a few people who mentioned that their parents and/or grandparents supported the American Cause. Moreover, while in the North Ho Chi Minh is seen as a near demi-god (Bin, our Easy Rider guide noted that often people in the North will hang his picture above their deceased ancestors), in the South they seem to take a more “realistic” view, whereby Ho Chi Minh is respected but not revered.
Still, there was near unanimous opinion among Vietnamese that the American War was a political war – a fight against communism, a war of governments. The more I read about it and talked with people the more I began to see similarities between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. The big guy vs. little guy scenario. The outpouring of discontent and the mass rallies at home and abroad. Lastly, the inability to end the war in a timely manner and the sense that we’d be there forever. The main difference was that the motives in the Iraq war were economic and not political.
Our last and most notable impression of the Vietnam war came from attending the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City – a famous war museum showcasing photographs and memorabilia. Among other things it was very interesting to see the display of US articles from the 60s that were on file, and as you read captions like “this captive Vietnamese prisoner was not tortured” you began to get a sense for what was likely the US’s own propaganda in the matter. Moreover, I enjoyed seeing pictures from the university student rallies, which is a reminder that not everyone was for the war and creates some necessary separation between the government and its people.
Most striking of all, however, was the Agent Orange exhibit, which showcases the effects of the chemical Agent Orange as it was released on Vietnam. Agent Orange was primarily used to destroy forests, hindering the Viet Cong from hiding and conducting guerrilla warfare. However, the extent to which it was used was remarkable, and I believe one statistic noted that up to 1/3 of Vietnam’s forests were sprayed at least once with the chemical. Arguably worse than destroying the forests is the effect that is had on humans and newborns for decades to follow. Reminiscent of the images from the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, the Agent Orange exhibit is simply grotesque and inhuman, but true. It was difficult to stomach, yet in an odd way seemed necessary as if it was important to face the reality no matter how awful it was.
By the time we were through with everything it was quite hard to imagine how the Vietnamese are able to look so kindly on foreigners, especially Americans. Yet they do – and it was quite touching.