Downtown Saigon Tour (War Remnants Museum)

Part 4 of 5

Saturday, 04 October 2014

I went home after lunch at L’Usine to catch up on some zzz’s. My next destination would require me to be tough and not a faint of heart.

I took a cab from the hostel to the War Remnants Museum after my siesta. The driver did not know where the museum was and even the name Bao tang chung tich chien tranh I scribled on a piece of paper didn’t ring a bell. To resolve the language issue, I showed him a photo of the museum’s façade which I saved on my phone and it lit up his otherwise bewildered face. Travel tip, when traveling in a place where English is not widely spoken, it would be helpful to download or print images of points of interest so asking for directions would be less stressful for both local and foreigner.

One of the downed American bomber in front of the War Remnants Museum.

One of the downed American bombers in front of the War Remnants Museum.

After securing the VND15,000-pass, I made my way inside the museum grounds, passing repainted American aircrafts and tanks and still unsure if I could stomach graphic images from the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, the later phase of the Vietnam War is known as the Resistance War Against America or American War. So depending on where you are from or which side you’re on, the war involving the communist and democratic factions of Vietnam, America and its allies is known as Vietnam War or American War. Not that I am taking sides here but just so confusion can be avoided, I will refer to this war as Vietnam War.

This museum, as I was forewarned by some of the articles I read and friends who had been here, explicitly expresses anti-American sentiments of maybe most of the Vietnamese. Just before entering the main building, there is a display of the prison condition and execution methods used by the French colonists to punish subversives. The tiger cage and other South Vietnamese prison/torture styles were also recreated in this part of the museum. Next to it is another exhibit showing the effects defoliants to Vietnamese children, one (or two) generations after the war.

Defoliants or herbicides were substances used by the Americans to strip forests in South Vietnam to deprive the Viet Cong guerillas of cover and food during the war. Low-flying aircrafts were loaded with defoliants and flew over jungles and agricultural areas in South Vietnam indiscriminately swathing the land with these toxic chemicals.

Agent Orange is the most famous and most potent of these defoliants. It was named for the orange stripe painted on drums where this deadly substance was stored. Human exposure to dioxin, the toxic chemical compound in Agent Orange, even in minute amounts can cause skin disorders, cancer and serious birth defects. Other herbicides used during the war, Agents Purple, White, Pink, Green and Blue, were aptly called Rainbow Herbicides.

All exhibits in the three-storey museum feature photographs of war-torn Vietnam, pieces of artillery from captured American and South Vietnamese soldiers, uniforms, propaganda materials and more propaganda materials. The images inside were grossly unnerving. I gathered it was not prohibited to take pictures as most of the visitors were photographing everything they can point their camera at without being apprehended. I only took one photo from all galleries; I couldn’t even look at the photos long enough to confirm what I read in the captions.

One of the most iconic photos from the Vietnam War, taken by photojournalist Nick Ut.

One of the most iconic photos from the Vietnam War, taken by photojournalist Nick Ut.

Not even the number of and my closeness to aircrafts could calm my nerves when I got out of the museum. Images of mutilated corpses, deformed fetuses in jars, and terrified faces of civilians were still on display in my head. I couldn’t place my emotions, whether it was fear that I felt or pity or I was ashamed of myself because I was disrespecting war victims even more by looking at their dismembered corpses and maimed bodies.

I had to sit and take a breather after the War Remnants tour. This was my view, a Chinook trophy, as I write my notes about my little tour.

I had to sit and take a breather after the War Remnants tour. This was my view, a Chinook trophy, as I wrote my notes about the tour.

What was in the museum was just one side of this complex and divisive story. Critics labelled this particular museum as propaganda territory, anti-American, and one-sided as atrocities committed by North Vietnamese forces were noticeably absent from any of the galleries. Whatever purpose or intent this museum was built for, it had successfully conveyed the message of the lasting horrors wars inflict on civilians, especially children. It also serves as a reminder to visitors from my generation of how fortunate most of us are that we did not have to go through anything close to what the Vietnamese did. I looked at this not as propaganda movement against the Americans or a certain ideology but more of a call to leaders to never let this happen again. Ever.

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