FAIR WARNING: There are some pretty disturbing pictures in here. But I think every American should see them at least once. Okay, you were warned.
Inside Saigon's "American War" Museum
The next day around 11am I received a text that my 6pm flight back to Hanoi had been delayed until about midnight. The inconvenience of a 6 hour flight delay aside, it was a much better system than letting me show up to the airport and wait around for those 6 hours. So I had a full day ahead of me. We left our bags at a friend’s place and decided to go to the American War (as they call it) Remnants Museum. I was warned before going that it was going to make me sad.
Before going into this museum I was vaguely aware of most of it's contents but I had never been forced to really consider any of it or face what America has actually done in this country. I'm not very political so I can have the tendency to be lazy in this department.
Worldwide Protests Against The War
The first thing I saw was a wall of pictures of protests against the American presence in Vietnam. And there were a lot of them, from countries all around the world, including Mali, Egypt, Brazil and Hungary to name a few of the more surprising participants. Seemingly every country in the world had had massive protests and demonstrations against America’s involvement in Vietnam. I did not know that. Of course, the Vietnam War was wildly unpopular within America itself at the time but apparently most of the rest of the world was on that protest grind with us.
American War Crimes
I moved on to a room dedicated to American war crimes. The pictures hanging on the wall were pretty difficult to look at. There were piles of bodies with American soldiers proudly posing nearby. There were dead children. There were naked children crying as they ran from the American troops. There were severed heads hanging from trees. There were pictures of ‘Vietnamese patriots’ tied up and being dragged behind American tanks by a rope. This is apparently called being ‘dragged to death.’ I’ve tracked down a few of these pictures so you can share my disturbance.
I kept walking. Now I was in a room about the effects of Agent Orange. For those of you that don’t know, Agent Orange was a chemical that was supposed thin the forest canopy so that American fighter planes and helicopters could more clearly see where to shoot. Companies like Monsanto developed it and made a fortune in government contracts. And the American military dropped it onto the Vietnamese countryside by the kiloton.
They had mild success in clearing away the leaves of the forest canopy, but it also had another unintended effect. To begin with, here are some pictures of what happened on the ground to people (and the unborn babies they were carrying) in the effected areas.
Yeah, messed up things happen during wars. But the effects of Agent Orange have turned out to have much more longevity than intended. It still causes birth defects here to this day. Thousands of children are born here every year looking like this:
The real kicker here is that until very recently, the American government had done almost nothing to take responsibility for this. Better late then never though. I guess.
Torture At The Hands Of Americans
There was also an exhibit on American torture techniques in Phu Quoc Prison. Phu Quoc Island, now a popular vacation spot, is a small island off the southern coast of Vietnam. It was the Guantanamo Bay of the Vietnam War. There were pictures of Vietnamese men and next to them an explanation for how each of them was killed. I remember thinking how one of them looked like one of my students in one of my adult classes, which made the stories more difficult to read. Some of them had nails hammered into their heads. Others were tortured in more creative ways. They had a lot of old torture devices on display that America had used. I could explain it all to you but I’m getting pretty bummed rehashing this whole experience already. It’s my damn blog and I can write what I want, Mom!
There was more to see but at a certain point I was like ‘okay, I get it’ and left. It was an awkward place to be American. I was a little bit disappointed in my education growing up because I felt that these things should have been given more weight in our history books. But I had been conditioned to see America as the good guy (or at least a well-intentioned guy) my entire life so far. The truth is that there are two sides to every story and somehow I’ve really only become familiar with one so far.
The thing is though, the Vietnamese people have turned the page. They have moved on and hold no ill will towards America or it’s people, amazingly enough. When my students ask me where I am from they are always excited to hear that I am from America. They talk to me about American music and movies. They tell me that they love Taylor Swift.
America really has not moved on. It’s no surprise though. America is a bubble and the last thing that anybody has heard about Vietnam is the war. Apart from the war, Vietnam is a pretty obscure place. Americans might not think about it but the only major thing there to shape (most) people's perspective on a country like Vietnam is that conflict. It's similar to how Americans will probably view countries like Iraq or Afghanistan in 50 years. Anyway, I don’t think that many people in the U.S. picture Vietnam as having made much progress since then. When I left home there were no shortage of Vietnam War jokes told to me. My father took me out to dinner before I left and talked about the war for at least an hour. He said that when he was growing up, being in Hanoi was just about the worst thing that could happen to you as an American so he was very interested that I was about to live there. He said that Hanoi (when we was growing up) was considered to be a 'citadel of evil.' Yes, he used the word 'citadel'.
I don’t know about all that but being in Hanoi has been a pretty positive experience for me so far. And every once in a while when one of my adult students brings up the war to me they never have much negative to say. They take me out to dinner and make toasts about it. “To America and Vietnam. No more problems! Hand in hand” one of my older students said, raising his glass of beer. I felt pretty under-qualified to take part in this toast seeing as this all happened about 20 years before I was born but I cheers'd him anyway with a quiet smile.
After the museum we had dinner in a Mexican restaurant and I got a cab to the airport. The warm breeze and the night air felt good on my face as I watched the palm trees move quickly through my line of sight. I put my headphones in and leaned my head against the window frame of the car. I'm not exactly sure how, but my perspective on things is changing.
My Grandfather spent a good deal of time in Vietnam during the war. The U.S. government had hired him as a consultant to assist with military logistics. On of his larger projects concerned trying to figure a way to move tanks through the jungle efficiently. In the end he essentially told them that it couldn't be done. In his time in Vietnam he grew to strongly oppose the war. In fact, he became so strongly disillusioned with what the U.S. was doing that he was prompted to shift the focus of his entire career. The following is a letter that he sent back to his (my) family in Los Angeles from what was then called Saigon. I thought it was interesting.
EDIT: This was first in a series of articles I wrote about this during my time abroad. As time went on, I learned a lot more about the war, and my perspective changed a lot. I would encourage you to read those articles as well. They are as follows:
- Peter Gazes Upon Ho Chi Minh's Corpse... Or Did He?
- Peter Drinks With Former Viet Cong
- Peter's Q&A With Former Viet Cong Spies
My perspective on this conflict has continued to shift the more I learn about it. These should let you in on some of that process. In the meantime, here's the track of the day; a part of the soundtrack of a different era.