After I made it past the door man with my iPad in my backpack, I set out to explore my new neighborhood.
Eventually I found what I was looking for on Bui Vien street behind my hotel: a backpacker neighborhood. You know you’re in the right place when you see folks walking with packs on their backs and their fronts like upright turtles.
Backpacker neighborhoods are my favorite introduction to a city. You’re not quite as protected in your little bubble of Western-ness as you would be in a neighborhood of luxury hotels and fusion restaurants, but you’re not being dumped into the deep end of the pool to fend for yourself, either. The menus have pictures, the waiters speak English, and not knowing the local manners and customs is readily forgiven. The food is reasonably priced, nearly authentic, somewhat safe, and usually delicious. I love the energy in these neighborhoods too.
Ho Chi Minh excels at energy. This street was packed with tourists, bicycles, and vendors in conical hats pushing carts or carrying loads over their shoulders. Motorbikes were scattered all over the street and sidewalk, often with people sitting on them talking to each other. The street felt like a giant homecoming party. Navigating Bui Vien street on foot was difficult, I can’t imagine driving a car or motorbike here.
I had dinner at a sidewalk restaurant, watching the hawkers lure tourists in with promises of “Happy Hour!” The city was still romancing me with all its color and vibrance, although I could also feel an edge here, that vague sense of danger and rowdiness. I still had a little crush on Ho Chi Minh, even though I now thought of it as a “bad boy” city in a leather jacket. I wished I was staying more than a few days.
The next morning, I joined a tour to check out the local sights. We visited a temple, saw some French Colonial buildings, ate some pho, and checked out a market. Honestly — and I’ll admit I’m getting jaded at this point — I was more excited about the pho than anything else. And the temple, that was fascinating.
The Vietnam War
Which brings us to the War Remnants Museum. And the War Remnants Museum is the reason why it’s taken me weeks — and multiple false starts — to write about Ho Chi Minh.
Pardon my Vietnamese, but this museum was a massive mind-fuck.
I knew as much about the Vietnam War as the average American of my generation. I was 11 years old when the war ended, so I had a child’s understanding of it all. Here’s everything I knew:
- It was a civil war, and our role was to help the South Vietnamese defend themselves against the communist North Vietnamese
- It was widely protested by people in the US (most notably Kent State) and it was why hippies and John Lennon talked about peace all the time
- Our soldiers lived in constant terror and were forced to do cruel things to defend themselves against the children and civilians who would attack them. Many turned to drugs
- Our soldiers were further scarred emotionally when they returned home to a cold reception from the public
- Many of our soldiers are still dealing with PTSD, physical injuries, and the effects of Agent Orange.
- Prisoners of war were tortured in unimaginably cruel ways by the North Vietnamese, and many disappeared
- Above all, it was a tragic war in a hostile jungle environment against a cunning and cruel enemy.
We didn’t learn about the Vietnam War in school, maybe because it was too recent and too controversial? I learned the above through popular movies, iconic images, and what I heard the grownups say when we encountered those thin, prematurely aged young men in military clothing who rummaged in dumpsters, slept on the sidewalk, and sometimes shouted unintelligible things toward the streetlights. There were quite a few of these men in my city in the last 70s. As a child, I found them both tragic and terrifying.
Note that one ever talked to me about what the war was like for the Vietnamese.
Not being especially interested in war, I’d never researched it either. I was in for a rude awakening.
In Southeast Asia, I’d already picked up on the fact that it’s called The American War throughout this region. The first few times I heard that, I felt some cognitive dissonance. I wanted to helpfully say “No, it was a Vietnamese civil war, we were just assisting the South.” But of course, one doesn’t travel to hang on tight to one’s illusions. I had to pry my brain open a bit and accept that I only know one very biased version of events. I would hear both sides and then I could settle on a truth.
Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression
That ^ was the original name for this museum; it was changed after relations with the U.S. were normalized in the 90s.
Outside the museum was an impressive collection of planes, tanks and other vehicles and armaments. Craig would have loved this part; he’s a history buff with a special interest in armaments and the Vietnam War. I couldn’t help but think about him, but I wasn’t interested in those things so I went inside.
The first floor is mostly an exhibit of photographs displaying anti-war protestors all over the world decrying my country’s invasion of Vietnam.
The photos were typical news shots of 60’s protests. It was the words on the captions that made my blood run cold, so that’s what I photographed. Here are just a few of the dozens I saw.
War of American Aggression? Towards Vietnamese people? No, we were here to protect half the people against the other half, weren’t we? But of course, that half didn’t win the war, and didn’t build this museum or write these captions. The North one, so they get to tell the story from their point of view.
I knew the exhibit I was looking at was biased, but I wasn’t sure what the facts were. Were these protests isolated, or did they represent what the majority of the world felt about the war? Were we guilty of war crimes? Is it possible to engage in war at all and not be guilty of war crimes?
This huge entrance room was designed to drive home a single message: America was not a participant in a war, but an evil aggressor that invaded Vietnam and was denounced by the entire world for heinous war crimes. That message was repeated dozens if not hundreds of times in quick succession immediately upon entering the museum. It was a Clockwork Orange-style indoctrination into the Vietnamese point of view.
I finished that section of the museum, feeling quite off-kilter. Now I had to pick a direction.
I didn’t feel ready for Agent Orange Aftermath, so I headed toward Aggression War Crimes first.
Aggression War Crimes
Seeing words like aggression, war crimes, and barbaric over and over was having an effect on me already. Part of me was just rejecting it. My inner child — that part of me that had soaked up American propaganda in the form of countless movies depicting the North Vietnamese as cruel torturers and our own soldiers as innocent fun-loving boys tossed into the jungle — wanted to shut her eyes, stick her fingers in her ears and sing LALALALALALA. Or maybe leave the museum and wait for the group outside.
But somewhere a more mature voice within me was saying take it in. Don’t shut down. Stay open. Listen. Later we’ll sort out facts from propaganda, but if you get defensive you’ll learn nothing. The truth always lies in the middle.
The War Crimes room was mostly a photo gallery. It was also a chamber of horrors, where those innocent fun-loving boys from the movies of my youth could be seen committing the most heinous acts imaginable against Vietnamese adults and children. Here are few less-graphic photos:
and of course
Links to a couple of more graphic examples of what I saw, for those who feel ready to see them:
- I will never forget this gruesome shot as long as I live.
- Mass children’s grave
- Hideous dragging
- Napalm corpse
I’ve seen a couple of these photos before, of course. But here, where they were being presented as the totality of the war, one after another at enormous sizes and with accusatory texts, they impacted me deeply.
Horror was my chief emotion, of course. I wasn’t nauseated, but there was a hot, throbbing sense of darkness in my stomach. My legs felt like bean bags, flimsy and useless. My jugular veins felt strange, and my vision was narrowing. It felt like my soul was curling up in a fetal position inside my heart, leaving my brain, arms and legs empty and weak. I was crumpling.
I felt horrible hot shame, too, just from walking around being American in this space. I didn’t want anyone to look at me.
I was deliberately trying to fight off my defensiveness, but I felt righteous anger in the mix, too. Especially when I saw the groups of Vietnamese schoolchildren, all polished and innocent, who come on field trips to learn that American are vile monsters.
Mostly I just felt desperately confused. This may not be the truth but it is a truth, someone’s truth, a facet of truth. To me, it’s an Orwellian nightmare of mind control, the exact opposite of the one I grew up with. The truth is there were horrors on both sides.
Who is to blame for the horrors of war? I don’t even know.
Those Vietnamese who grew up visiting this museum on field trips would feel every bit as certain about pure evil as I felt when I went to the Holocaust Museum. I was trying to absorb a huge lesson about propaganda, about point of view, about the power of the lens, the words. Of course there are stories of genuine horror and atrocity and evil, but is there always more than one lens to view them through? Everything I thought I knew about the world was suspect. That’s openness, and it’s where comprehension begins, but it’s incredibly uncomfortable and easy to resist.
The Rest of the Museum
The Agent Orange area depicted children with every birth defect and deformity imaginable. These children would be in their 40s now. To most Americans, this war is history, all but forgotten. But to parents who have cared for a disabled child every day for 40 years and are still doing so, it is still very much present in their lives. They don’t have the luxury of forgetting.
Here’s just one photo, and a mild one. To be honest, I couldn’t look directly at the walls in this room much. I had to use my peripheral vision to shoot any photos at all. (Gloria at The Blog Abroad has more photos from this area in her post about the museum. )
The final exhibit was a bit of a surprise; an exhibit of photographs titled Requiem that included work by American journalists during the war and at times showed the American soldier’s suffering and struggles during the war, along with other points of view. Powerful photos all around.
My brain was spinning, trying to slam shut, yet I was still trying to be open and allow the cognitive dissonance to unfold. I met my group and we continued walking around the city, although I couldn’t tell you where we went. My guide kept checking on me: “Are you alright?” I must not have had any color in my face, and I don’t know how I kept putting one foot in front of the other.
When I got back to my hotel room, my head was throbbing. There wasn’t enough hot water to fill the tub, so I used my teapot to make more and finally sank into the tub, where I let my tears stream silently into the bathwater. I kept thinking about John Coffee in the Green Mile saying “I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time.” I thought his soul must have crumpled up inside him too.
I had a little time before my evening food tour, so I uploaded my photos to Flickr and sent Craig a link to the album. We hadn’t talked in months, and I didn’t expect a reply, but I thought as a Vietnam War buff he’d be interested. If I’m being honest, I’m sure I hoped on some level that he’d reach out to me. He knows better than anyone how ridiculously sensitive I am to this kind of suffering and he’d know how profoundly this would affect me. He was always really good at helping me recover from emotional extremes like this, and I’d gotten so dependent on his help that I wasn’t sure I knew how to recover on my own any more. I had no one else.
But he didn’t reply — for all I know he doesn’t even use that e-mail address any more — and I did recover. Because I am a whole human being, not half of one, and I can care for myself even though it may not feel that way sometimes.
I wound up getting some support from a very unexpected corner, though. I’ll save that story for part 3 since this post is already one of the longest I’ve ever published.