2-3-7-8 TETRA CHOLORODIBENZO-P-DIOXIN
Children during the war. Photo credited to NDN
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as most people refer to it, is the largest city in Vietnam. I was visiting Saigon with a mate from Australia, and would be there for a few days. While it is easy to sleep in and start drinking early, I wanted to see some of the sites in this city. My friend had been to Saigon many times and would employ the role of tour guide.
Getting used to the currency was not as hard I had imagined. I got a feel for it straight away, with the aid of a currency convertor I had scribed on the back of a business card and kept in my wallet. One Hundred Thousand Dong was equal to about $5. I was an instant millionaire! Saigon had more motorbikes than any other country I had visited. Walking across the street can be quite daunting to begin with, especially at a roundabout. If I was to wait for a break in the traffic, I would still be there. The trick is confidence and to just start walking across, keeping an eye on traffic to ensure they have seen you and walk at an even, steady pace. The bikes will veer around you, although it is wise to let the buses have right of way. Trying to shadow a local also works when starting out.
The War Remnants Museum
What trip would be complete while in Vietnam without a visit to the War Remnants Museum? We wandered from the hotel in the general direction of the museum. We happened upon a very friendly vendor who was selling coconuts. He gave us some advice about keeping our phones out of site as people might snatch them. He gave us some directions on how to get to the museum and let us take some pictures of us with the coconuts over our shoulders. ‘He was a nice guy’ I said to Steve as we strolled to the museum. Well not exactly. His directions got us completely lost and were in the opposite direction that we needed to go AND the coconuts he sold us were the equivalent of $7, when they should have been about 40 cents. That was more our fault though for letting our guard down, but still stings a bit.
Steve with a lovely bunch of coconuts
After getting back on track, two tricycle riders stopped us and we got to chatting. One showed us an old photograph of a soldier in uniform and he told us this was him, and that he had killed seven Viet Cong during the war. A bit strange to admit this to a couple of strangers, but it was part of the story to get us onside before hitting us up for a ride. We were only a few blocks away at this stage and we declined. These two touts would not take no for an answer and after unsuccessfully dropping the price many times, they decided to follow us when we walked away. They would ride their bikes to each intersection and almost plead with us to take a tour of the city on their bikes.
We reached the museum, although it was closed for lunch for two hours. Not very tourist friendly I surmised. This was common with a lot of attractions we were to visit in Vietnam, and we had to be careful when we visited. It was not a major issue for us this time, although I can see how it might be for some other people on a tight schedule. After waiting at a nearby café until it re opened, we eventually were allowed in. The entrance fee is only a few dollars and we were soon confronted with tanks, planes and helicopters in the compound outside the main museum building. These were not replicas, but the real deal left over from the war. I broke out the camera and we got a few holiday snaps.
99 with a US Huey helicopter
We make our way into a covered area where they have a guillotine and cages made from barbed wire, called ‘tiger cages’ where it was reported that the South often housed two or three people, even though they were quite small. Each artifact is explained with extensive information, which is great as I love reading about the background of what I am looking at.
Tiger cages surrounded with barbed wire.
We then enter the main building of the museum. The first floor is full of photographs and people milling around them, trying to get the best vantage point. The museum used to be called the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, but in 1995 it was changed to its current name, the War Remnants Museum. I guess it was changed to reduce the negative connotations associated with the old name and Vietnam was now being more diplomatic towards the U.S
View of the outside compound
The tone of the place and subject matter is incredibly anti American, and since it was run by the Government of Vietnam, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Big sections of the museum are dedicated to war atrocities performed by the American forces. Most are backed up with photographs or remnants from the different incidents. The My Lai Massacre features prominently, in which 504 unarmed civilians were killed in 1967. Quite a few deal with the torture, and death of civilians, including women and children and sadly, even infants.
The place can get quite depressing if you are not ready for it, and most visitors walk around with sombre looks on their faces. I don’t hear any laughter and most people voices are low and subdued. It is not a fun place, and it is not supposed to be. It is a place to display the horrors of war, and it does this in a very graphic way. One section that was hard to look at was the photographs of the deformed babies and people from the Agent Orange chemical and really hit home about the kind of war that was fought in this country. While it can be harrowing to be confronted with the realities of war, it needs to be done as so not to forget.
To be honest, it was quite disturbing to be confronted with the graphic realities of war, and I didn’t want to look at some of the photographs because of their nature, but felt I had an obligation to view them. Not for any voyeuristic reasons, but as so not to forget how sickening mankind can truly be. Many of the people of Vietnam were killed, disfigured and went through their version of hell, who was I to remain in my comfort zone by looking away.
A childs drawing, scratched into the wall during the war
Mekong Delta, 1965. Huynh Thanh My of the Associated Press on a search and destroy operation. He was to die on the 10th of October that same year.
It was moving experience to visit the museum. We had never studied the war at school and the limited knowledge I do have of it was from Hollywood movies and Vietnam veterans rarely talk about their experiences as well. While I am sure atrocities happened on both sides and this museum only presented one side, it was still very much a worthwhile visit, even if just to widen my knowledge of what took place during the war.
The requiem room of the museum