Ho Chi Minh City is loud and chaotic, a place where tourists spend more time trying not to get hit by a motorbike and turning down taxi drivers than they do taking in the sites. The War Remnants museum is quiet, as people reflect on the atrocities of the Vietnam War, which in this country is known as the American War.
The walls of the first floor are decorated with photos of global protests against the war, on such a massive scale it’s shocking.
The photos show millions of people from across the world
shouting and holding signs in protest - people in Japan, Mali, England, Canada,
Palestine, Germany, Norway, the U.S. Posters from myriad countries showing
support for Vietnam.
The signs and posters are in different languages but the message is the same: American troops out of Vietnam. In 1973, the U.S. finally pulled out which allowed the North Vietnamese to take power. The war left 3 million people dead, the country destroyed by bombs and citizens deformed by Agent Orange, the effects of which would carry into two generations.
One exhibit, Requiem, shows photographs taken from the film of photographers from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan and North Vietnam, who died trying to document the horrors as American troops spiraled out of control.
What started as a mission for the U.S. to help the South Vietnamese defeat the Communist-backed Viet Cong army in the north denigrated into a massacre with U.S. soldiers indiscriminately killing men, women, children and elderly people.
One photo shows American soldiers standing over a line of
dead Vietnamese men. The caption quotes a U.S. army colonel as saying “if it’s
dead, it’s Viet Cong.” Another gruesome photograph shows a U.S. soldier holding the shredded remains of a Viet Cong soldier.
One photographer describes taking a photo of two little Vietnamese boys lying on the road, the older boy on top of the younger one, trying to shield him from the guns pointed at them. The photographer said he walked away and heard gun shots.
There is also a series of photos of the Feb. 25, 1969 massacre in Thanh Phong, a small peasant village that was supposed to be a fire-free zone. The U.S. soldiers, led by Lt. Bob Kerrey – who later became a U.S. Senator — raided the village, cut the throats of two elderly men, pulled three children out of their hiding spot in a well and killed them, disemboweling one of them. The soldiers killed 15 other civilians, including three pregnant women.
It wasn’t until 2001, decades after Kerrey accepted the Medal of Honour, that he confessed to his crime.
Many who survived the war were still affected by the Agent Orange chemical which was sprayed across Southern Vietnam. It seeped into the water and the land, leaving people severely deformed, an affliction which was then passed onto their children.
The second-floor exhibit showed graphic and horrific photos of people with enlarged foreheads, eyeless faces, crooked spines and clawed, misshapen limbs.
Most visitors left the War Remnants museum overwhelmed at the atrocities experienced by the Vietnamese people over two decades of war. I know my father had talked to me about the Vietnam War but I don’t think we learned much about it in school. The time I spent in the museum gave me a sobering but important history lesson as I begin three weeks of travel through this beautiful but complicated country.