Wednesday, December 12, 2012


US made Huey helicopter (right) & F-5 jet (left). Captured after the US left, the jet was repainted, 'USAF'.
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is home to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, where I had discovered the dictator Diem's old tunnels. This should not be confused with the Ho Chi Minh Museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh, nor with the Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum. Ho Chi Minh-Ho Chi Minh-Ho Chi Minh!

Does this sound confusing? All of this Ho jargon certainly confuses the tourists visiting Saigon, which may explain the low attendance at all three of these museums. Still, by wandering through these historical sites, I learned that many of these old buildings were once occupied by presidents, prime ministers, colonial governors, and the Americans. After sorting through the propaganda, I unexpectedly found many more fascinating places which were key not only to the Vietnam war years, but to understanding Vietnam today.

An old Huey helicopter sits in front of the old US Information Service building, now a museum
Following the war’s end, the communist government opened one of the world’s most controversial museums. Named, “The Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes”, it became the most visited museum in the country. Later in 1995, when diplomatic relations with the USA improved, the name was officially changed to a less pointed title. As I entered the museum complex, a Vietnamese staffer explained why. “Now we have relationship, more friendship with Americans,” she explained. “We don’t think so much about the past. Change name to ‘War Remnants Museum’.” She’s right in saying that the Vietnamese don’t think much about the past, at least not here. As I look around, I notice that almost all the museum’s visitors are foreign tourists.As I step beyond the walled entrance into the compound, I recognize the 1960’s American architecture of the main building. During the war, this structure used to house the US Information Service. How ironic.

Japanese peace activists play traditional music in Saigon.
Looking around the grounds, it appears as though I’ve walked into a US military yard sale of heavy weapons. There are planes, tanks, howitzers and a Huey helicopter, all booty captured from the ARVN by the North Vietnamese Army at the war’s end.

The very first exhibit is a glass case, holding the book, “In Retrospect, The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.” The author was former US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. The display lists one of his quotes: “Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” After all that went wrong with the war here, McNamara had a lot of explaining to do.

Walking around, I notice most photos here were taken by western journalists. It seems that the communists had plenty of money for weapons, but not much money for quality cameras. In museums across Vietnam they have relied on the foreign press for the war’s best photos. Vietnam was the first war in history where the international press corps had virtually free access to almost everywhere. Having a free press running around Vietnam was something the US military would later regret. Many of the journalists would regret it too. 33 of them died during the war in Vietnam.

In front of the main building, sits an old captured F-5 fighter jet, with new white paint along the side reading, “U.S.A.F.”. It’s a weak attempt at propaganda, since no American held airbases were ever taken by the communists during the war. Although F-5’s were built in America, this jet was captured from the South Vietnamese military after the Americans left, and later repainted.

2 Mercedes with the Prime Minister's motorcade entered the museum compound
The museum has its share of both propaganda, and truth. They focus on American, French, and ARVN war crimes. With numerous official investigations and photographic evidence, it is already accepted fact that most of these atrocities occurred. But there is no balance. Not surprisingly, none of the atrocities perpetrated by the communists are mentioned here at all. In keeping with communist propaganda traditions, the Vietnamese government has not owned up to the war crimes their side committed. As the old saying goes, the winners write the history, at least within their own borders.

The quietest part of the complex, is the war atrocities section. If you’ve ever walked through the Holocaust Museum, these exhibits have the same type of atmosphere. There are photos of American soldiers torturing Viet Cong suspects, and photos from the My Lai massacre. These photos aren’t fakes, they were taken by westerners long before the era of digital photography.

Nearby, are mock-ups of tiger cage like prison cells that the ARVN used to hold Viet Cong prisoners. There is no mention of the bamboo tiger cages that the VC used to hold American prisoners in equally barbaric conditions.

A new Ford SUV with the Prime Minister's security team sits parked by an old US built M-48 tank
A crowd gathers nearby, and I go see what is grabbing their attention. It’s a display on Agent Orange. Here we see the effects on humans from all that defoliant sprayed over Cu Chi, and so many other rural areas. There are numerous graphic photos of Vietnamese children with birth defects. The most moving display is a see through enclosure holding two preserved, badly deformed fetuses whose mothers had been exposed to the toxic chemical.

These displays are so disturbing, that some cannot bear to view them. I met two Indonesian women outside who refused to enter this section. “It’s too sad,” they said. I don’t blame them. As the old saying goes, war is hell, and for many the images here are far too upsetting. The graphic photos and grim displays here, are the closest the average civilian of today will ever come to seeing the horrors of war.

Fortunately, the place isn’t all propaganda and gloom. From a side room, I hear the sound of enchanting Asian music. Entering a large room, I’ve come upon a concert by a group of senior Japanese peace activists. They are playing traditional string instruments, with a lone singer accompanying them. They are surrounded by children’s paintings, and a sign on the wall behind them reads, “Wishing for a peaceful and friendly world.” These seniors were anti-war activists from the Vietnam era.

The concert is not just for the visitors, but also for three communist war veterans that are present for the occasion. One woman is a former Viet Cong, who was captured and imprisoned for years during the war. As the concert ends, she greets the visitors. Looking at me, I’m surprised when she smiles broadly, and reaches out to shake my hand. If she still feels any animosity towards Americans, she’s certainly not showing it.

As I prepare to leave, I see some new vehicles have entered the compound. Looking rather out of place, right in front of an American M-48 tank, is a beautiful new black mercedes limousine. Since it has covered flag posts at the front corners, I reason it must be a diplomatic vehicle. To the side of the tank, looking like a tank in its own right, is a full size black Ford sport utility vehicle. With tinted windows and police lights on the roof, it was obviously a security escort. The motorcade also included a Chevrolet mini-van. They were brought in here temporarily since parking is scarce on Saigon's city streets.
Curious, I inquire if there is a foreign ambassador nearby. “It’s for the Prime Minister,” a helpful staffer tells me. There’s a sure sign of change. Vietnam trusts not only vehicles from Germany to protect their Prime Minister, but also vehicles from America.

Like the woman told me earlier, Vietnamese today don’t think so much about the past, and desire more friendship with Americans. The foreigners have more interest in this museum than the Vietnamese do. Relations have changed between Vietnam and America, and thankfully they have changed for the better.

No comments:

Post a Comment