When I tell people in North America that I have been to Vietnam, they often ask if I went to Saigon. I then have to explain that Saigon is gone: how the former capital of South Vietnam was swallowed up into communist Vietnam after the war and how it was transformed into Ho Chi Minh City.
The Vietnam War is better known as the American War in Vietnam. Visiting the museums and memorials in Ho Chi Minh City tells a very different story about this conflict than the one I was taught in history classes across the ocean, a powerful illustration of how perspective and propaganda can distort facts to serve political agendas.
Just outside of Ho Chi Minh City is Cu Chi, home to the infamous Viet Cong tunnels, which brought home how impossible it would have been for America to win this war. This area has a network of over 200km of underground tunnels and bases. Trekking through the humid jungle, puddles of mud below and dozens of millipedes falling from trees above, overhearing gunshots from the nearby shooting range, it was not hard to imagine how hellish this war would have been for both sides.
The forest was full of hidden entries to the tunnel networks that were all but impossible to detect and certainly too small for the average American soldier to enter.
Even if they had been able to squeeze in, many entries were traps, lined with landmines and bamboo spears.
The Vietnamese army’s motto was “in one hand the rifle; in the other, the plough”. An entire world was buzzing below the ground in these tunnels, complete with living quarters, hospitals, and mess halls. The very ground itself worked against the American forces. The U.S. was out of its depth in this war.
The War Remnants Museum was also an eye opening experience. Presented only from the viewpoint of North Vietnam, this museum was originally called the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”. There were thousands of harrowing photos chronicling the key political events and battles, as well as horrific images of the My Lai massacre, chemical warfare, and the after-effects of Agent Orange on the population of Vietnam.
Another section of the museum exhibited replicas of the POW prisons used by the French and the Americans, including tiger cages, a guillotine, and descriptions of torture that were sickeningly graphic.
Many visitors criticized the museum in the guestbook for the one-sided approach and the glorification of the North Vietnam victory. However, few could deny that this museum clearly demonstrated the horrors of war.
I was very moved by the sculpture display and the anti-war posters drawn by children in Vietnam. Without them, I could have found nothing redeeming about this museum. It would have been just horror for its own sake. These exhibits paid tribute to the victims and alluded to hope beyond the despair of war.
Saigon may be no more, but its shadows remain in these memorials.