Saturday, October 24, 2015

Atrocity Tourism, Part 2: The Vietnam War Remnants Museum

So, you'd like to see a good museum about the war in Vietnam, but you're afraid it might skimp on describing tortures and atrocities, and might not have enough cool military equipment and pictures of children with the most horrific birth defects imaginable? 

Well, have I got a museum for you!  

I visited the Vietnam War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh (a.k.a Saigon) in July of 2014, with my erstwhile sidekick Crazy Bob. It was formerly known as "Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes" and the "Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression." 

Outside the museum you get to see some military stuff that got left behind after Saigon fell: Tanks, planes, bombs, artillery guns: 

Me outside a Huey gunship. If I was 15 years older, I might well have firing that gun out the window at fleeing civilians in Vietnam.

There are also some dioramas that describe various tortures and atrocities, including this statue of a guy in a tiger cage, which is so realistic-looking I saw some young girls scream when they looked in and saw it:

There's also a French guillotine there, that most stylish and elegant of mass execution methods. Leave it to those French, eh? (It's not just the Americans who come in for a drubbing at this museum; the French atrocities in Indochina are well-considered.)

But it's inside the museum that you see the really mind-numbing horrors, if only in photos: the massacre at MyLai, the legacy of birth defects caused by Agent Orange, and the famous pictures of children burned by napalm running down the beach. 

But then, of course, what are you going to do afterwards? Enjoy some delicious Vietnamese food, get drunk on 50 cent beer, chase some Russian package tourists, or maybe get a $50 hooker. For all its horror, alas, the museum seems like nothing more than a trip to a Haunted House, or maybe at the best, something we can do to assuage our consciences and sense of history before we get back to our backpacking and sex tourism. 

The war in Afghanistan recently beat Vietnam's record -- it's now America's longest war. (Still, the death toll of American troops in Vietnam was 20 times higher.) Will Afghanistan someday be a popular tourist destination (again,*)  the years of atrocity compressed into a handy museum?

Well I guess that's better than the alternative. 

*Afghanistan was once an important stop on the overland Hippie Backpacker trail in the 60s; Kabul was considered the "Paris of Central Asia." 


Anonymous said...

Cool post! Would love to hear more about the beers and babes too. Now for a rant:

History is whatever the winners say it is -- yee haw, yankee top gun #1!

It's funny how we Americans (broadly speaking here) love the "hawkish" approach to "bombing 'em back to the stone age", a metaphorical body-slamming of a bogeman by Ronald Reagan or some such avatar. For some reason dropping nukes on a couple of Japanese cities was morally questionable, but incendiary-burning 100,000+ folks in Tokyo and 25,000+ in Dresden (the latter an insignificant military target) was okay.

In Vietnam, all the napalm was fine until the press got a look at a few kids horrifically burning on a beach. I guess with regular bombing, our brains can pretend that all the grandmas and kids were safe in schools and churches while the mean ole' men burned up in the bomb zones. Analogous: eating horse meat and clubbing baby seals is "wrong", but the daily torture of equally intelligent but uglier mammals like pigs is "natural" (we also gas 4 million dogs and cats to death each year in the USA, hidden behind Animal Control doors). What a weird species (and country) we are. Sometimes I envy the neanderthals and the denisovans. Were they equally prone to self-deception and compartmental thinking?

Would all those pilots dropping napalm with unavoidable "collateral damage" just as willingly have walked into each of those home/apartment blocks and hacked entire families to death with machetes? Probably not. From the sky, it must all seem like a video game. Especially now that it's more and more just drones doing the killing. As innocuous as a pre-seasoned veal steak in the supermarket, or can of vienna sausage.

I really think, in the end, that technology (other than limited medical, communications, and transport) is just plain evil. Kinda like the orcs in LOTR. Vietnam seems to be a place where a willingness to accept immense death and suffering won out over tech. Happening again now in Afghanistan & Syria. Evil on both sides. Now, on to that bar!

Some Guy in Saudi said...

The one thing that I gets overlooked at the War Remnants Museum is how it also has a fair bit about the war from the American perspective, albeit the more Doveish elements. There is a fine collection of Robert Capra's photography and also attention paid to the children of servicemen who dealt with Agent Orange. It's all skewed towards showing how the noble Vietnamese people who didn't at all cooperate with the Americans suffered, but I was genuinely surprised by even looking at that side of the history, after dealing with some Japanese and especially Korean museums which aim to make Everyone But Us look bad.

The beer and babes in Vietnam... Most people stick to the Bui Vien bar areas for boozing and babes, which can be fun but a disservice when, just down the Ben Thanh Market roundabout, there are some genuinely nice places such as the Emergency Room and The First Bar. However, it's worth checking out if you want to see backpacker expats and more cosmopolitan/Westernized Vietnamese drinking cheap beers, questionable cocktails and motorbike smog from the horrible congestion. The beers are decent quality, especially for the price, although I think Ukraine's beers were much, much higher quality for the same price.

The babes are typical bargirls in the shadier establishments, but lots of young professionals and college students hang out at the nightclubs and aforementioned nicer establishments. Of course, a lot of the time are jaded to westerners approaching them or are otherwise trying to maintain a veneer of purity/commitment, so it's not as fly-by-night tourist friendly as Thailand may be.

It's a fun place overall though and easily one of my favourite countries.

Anonymous said...

I like this direction you are taking with your writing. I went to this museum in 2002, it is really full on - after all the stuff about the wars with the French and Americans the last exhibition was a temporary one (?) about Hiroshima! For all the horror it is quite a good museum...After I went and had an iced coffee at a street stall; the girl pretty serving, in a trad cheong-sam dress, was all smiles asking me if I'd enjoyed the museum...weird, felt wrong - but very Asia.

I've always been a bit of a Vietnam war history buff - seen all the movies -- read a lot of the books, Dispatches by Michael Herr being perhaps the most well known. I was only ever there for three weeks in 2002, I was travelling with a friend who didn't drink so had a sane-old time. I have a bunch of English teacher friends who are there now. I'm pretty sure they drink around the backpacker street mentioned in the comment above. Like most English teachers they have a good time I guess: cheap booze, driving scooters around the tropical countryside, mainly scoring each other - not much more to it than that.


Anonymous said...

Good post.