Remembering the Vietnam War: The Not Good, the Bad and the Ugly
If you follow this blog, then you know that I am particularly intrigued by historical sites around the world that have been effected by war. I am most interested in the Civil War and WWII, as I feel they have had the biggest impact on my life as an American today. However, for some reason, I did not go to Vietnam with the same interest and enthusiasm for the war history here.
I think it’s mostly because I don’t want to see what happened here. Technically the U.S. lost this war, but that isn’t the reason I’m not looking forward to seeing the history here. The outcome of the war is one thing, but the way the Vietnamese still glorify this war and tell one side of the story is what doesn’t get me excited. I’m not saying America doesn’t glorify its victories in WWII, but the WWII museums you visit in the U.S. do a very good job of showing facts and what really happened. The museums in Vietnam are not there to educate people on what really happened, but instead they are there simply to relish in a victory and show just how evil America was and is. Not only that, but many of the statements made by both exhibits and guides (especially the guides) are simply puffery and propaganda tales that have been passed down from the previous generation. They all know the truth, but instead of creating a museum that tells the real story (still a good story for them, BTW), they have decided to continue relishing in an anti-American, communist love fest that does nothing to move their country forward from the war.
The Americans were wrong to go to Vietnam, and regardless of what horrendous acts the North Vietnamese were doing back then, there were definitely some horrible actions taken by the U.S.A. during the 19-year conflict. From war crimes committed while ravaging villages, to careless bombing of civilians, to the use of chemicals like agent orange, the United States will always have the Vietnam War as a permanent reminder that we can’t intervene in conflicts around the world without causing terrible suffering and anger. I wasn’t alive during the war, but if I was, I really hope that I would have been campaigning against the war.
With that said, here is our experience in Hanoi and Saigon, visiting some of the museums and sites from the Vietnam War.
Hanoi’s Army Museum
For those interested in a more detailed version of the Vietnam War, how it started, who was involved, etc., the Army Museum in Hanoi is much better than the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh. The museum here does a cool job of showing how some of the battles took place and they even have a large model of the Saigon showing how the invasion went down. The exhibits here had great artifacts, and in that regard it was great. However, it is hard to take a museum seriously when they use fake facts on many of the signs. For example, on the picture above, of me in front of a downed plane, the sign says that during the 19-year war, the Vietnamese shot down over 30,000 American planes. In reality, America lost exactly 2,251 aircraft during the war.
It just makes me so frustrated that they can be so careless with their facts. Shooting down over 2,000 American planes is still an impressive number for them. Why still use some made up, propaganda number? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised though. This is the same government that says there are 1,969 islands in Halong Bay because 1969 is the year their leader, Ho Chi Minh, died. In reality there are more like 2,000 islands in Halong Bay, but who needs science when you’re communist.
This was probably one of the exhibits I was looking forward to seeing the most. Earlier this year, Alissa and I visited the United States Prisoner of War Museum in Andersonville, Georgia, and a lot of that exhibit is focused on the POW’s of Vietnam in Hanoi. To be able to see the parts of the prison that remain today is a moving experience. So many of the U.S. POW’s from the Hanoi Hilton are still alive today, and to know what they went through here, not so long ago, is pretty scary and moving. Although, you wouldn’t know it when visiting here. Most of the prison museum is focused on the prison’s history prior to the Vietnam War, which is fine considering that history is more relevant to the local people here.
The first 30 minutes of our tour is dedicated to the suffering of the Vietnamese that were imprisoned here by the French. They show how the prisoners lived in horrible conditions and were tortured constantly. When we do finally get to the two rooms dedicated to the American POWs, I get prepared to see things similar to what I saw in the other parts of the prison museum. Instead, we are greeted with a video to watch. The video is all about how the American POWs here were treated with respect and dignity. How once they arrived at the prison and realized how great the North Vietnamese were, that they all realized their mistake, renounced America, and joined the belief that Communism is good and America is wrong. The pictures on the wall depict Americans living in happiness with guitars, playing cards, physical activities, etc. What I would do to walk through this exhibit with John McCain and see how he really feels about how they are portraying the history here.
In reality, this prison was an absolute nightmare for Americans, and the fact that even today, in 2013, Vietnam is using this prison as propaganda is just sad. If you get a chance to visit the American POW Museum in Georgia, you can see a video there that shows exactly what the conditions were like in the Hanoi Hilton. I find it funny that I learned more about what really happened here in a museum thousands of miles away. The problem is that the Vietnamese who visit here don’t have the luxury of visiting Georgia, and they will grow up believing a false history about their government.
War Remnants Museum – Ho Chi Minh City
This is the new name for this museum. The former name, and more appropriate name given its exhibits, is: Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes. They changed the name, but the exhibits still reflect the former name. If you want to see a museum about the Vietnam War’s military history, go to Hanoi and visit the Army Museum there. The War Remnants Museum is actually about the effects the war had on civilians back then as well as how it’s still effecting them today.
The museum is very moving, and while I don’t dispute the photos and/or the facts in this museum, I do have an issue with the way it’s presented. It feels like the goal of this museum is to keep Vietnamese and the rest of the world angry at America. It is almost impossible to not hate America when seeing a picture of a dead child with the caption “This child was burned by an American aggressor for hiding in a water well. The Americans also killed the child’s mother and 4-year-old brother.” Remember, the museum also makes ZERO mention of the 160,000+ South Vietnames civilians that were slaughtered by the North Vietnamese army during the same war. Those crimes, while not justifying any crimes committed by the U.S., should still be displayed as part of this war’s history.
The museum is so filled with propaganda, that I don’t know which stories are real and which are made up. Some people actually leave this museum under the impression that Americans simply came to Vietnam to kill hundreds of thousands of villagers, but were run out of town by the North Vietnamese. This was a brutal war on both sides, where war crimes and atrocities were being committed daily. That story, while just as horrible, is still interesting and one everyone of all nationalities can learn from. When they decide to create a museum that only shows war crimes from one side, it only fuels hatred. When a war museum tells both sides, it can actually create a sense of remembrance and healing. Something that this museum does neither of.
The best exhibit in the museum is the photography exhibit on the 3rd floor. It was an exhibit put together by some Americans, dedicated to the photo journalists from around the world who worked in Vietnam during the war (many of whom died during the war). I was able to find the photos and dedication to the photo journalist Dickey Chapelle who was born in our home-state of Wisconsin:
The worst part of the Vietnam War, in my opinion, was the use of chemicals by the United States. This is the part of the museum that I think they have done decent job with, however since the government has no credibility, I again don’t know which facts are true, which are exaggerated, and which are made up. One fact is definitely true: The chemicals used in the war by the U.S. have had a lasting impact on their society. Birth defects from these chemicals continue to happen even today. As an American, it is hard to view this exhibit. I feel the same anger and sadness as the Vietnamese person next to me, and I hope the U.S. government will find a way to help clean this mess up that we so carelessly left behind 40+ years ago. So far, the U.S. government has done little to help clean the problem up. They pledged $30 million a few years ago, but that is just not enough.
There were some amazing stories in the Agent Orange exhibit of people effected by the chemicals overcoming their disabilities to do amazing things with their lives. Click on the picture to the right to read one of the most amazing stories:
The Cu Chi Tunnels – Outside Saigon
After the War Remnants Museum, we jump on a bus to head north to one of the former homes of the Viet Cong, the Cu Chi Tunnels. In this large, jungle area, these guerilla fighters lived for years underground, fighting the Americans and South Army with tactics never seen before. Our tour starts off with a nice propaganda video from the 1980s. Why can’t they just tell the real story? Or at least update the video. The real story of what happened here is just as impressive as the made up ones. Telling me a 10 year old girl killed 20 American Soldiers with a rifle that holds ten bullets is a waste of everyones’ time.
I noticed when we were walking around that I kept hearing gun shots in the distance. I asked about it and was told that the Vietnamese built a firing range on the site so both locals and foreigners could feel what it is like to shoot a weapon from that era. So all we hear as we walk around this historical site is bullets being fired. Almost as if the war is still going on. He we are, where hundreds of both Vietnamese and Americans lost their lives, and the government pays respect to them by continuing to glorify war and killing with the constant sound of gun fire. Anything for a buck right?
The site is pretty amazing, and the fact that these men and women could live underground all day long is just mind-blowing. The exhibits do a good job of showing how they managed to survive. Although each exhibit always ends with our guide pretending he is holding a gun, making “bang bang bang!” sounds, as he pretends to shoot Americans. Real nice. He then walks us over to an exhibit that shows how cleverly they trapped Americans and killed them. He one by one shows us how each trap worked and demonstrates what it would look like when an American would be caught in the trap. One of the worst built war exhibits I’ve seen in my life (I’ve seen a lot of war museums), and it has to be by far the most disrespectful tour I have been apart of. Doesn’t matter what nationality you are, to sit hear and laugh and joke about how certain men were tortured and killed in bear traps is just a disgrace. Look at the paintings in the background of the photo above, they even have cartoons of American soldiers dying in their stupid traps.
Something really amazing is that many of the tunnels are still here, and you can even crawl through one! I am a little claustrophobic, and the tunnel continues to get smaller as you crawl through. It eventually gets to the point where it’s too small to turn around or pass someone. I am just praying that the people in front of us don’t stop, as I would be trapped. Which is one of my worst nightmares. I am getting queasy just typing this. We of course made it through the tunnel without incident, although I don’t think I would do it again.
Here is a short video of us going through the tunnels to the Dances With Wolves theme song:
The tunnel tourist are was also WAY too crowded for our tastes. There were about 10 groups of 20 people, each with their own guide, basically fighting over each exhibit on the grounds. Just look at the picture below. This is a bottleneck of four tour groups all trying to see the same tank at the same time. Remember, in the background everyone is also hearing a bunch of M-16’s and AK-47’s firing.