For our first day in Ho Chi Minh, we decided to head to the War Remnants Museum. We were well aware that we had travelled the length of Vietnam and while we had seen a lot of culture, we had not delved very far into the fraught recent history of the country.
The museum is situated in the centre of the city, amongst tree lined streets and parks. The museum itself is huge, with three floors of exhibitions, a model of a prison and a forecourt which houses old army transport including helicopters and tanks.
The first exhibition was about the history of the war, how it began and who was fighting against who. There was also information about how many bombs were dropped by the French, and how much the USA were supporting the them in their quest to colonise Vietnam (at one point they were practically paying all their war costs). By the end of this exhibition I had a much better idea about who was fighting who and why; something which I had no knowledge about before (yet another failure from the UK schooling system).
Next was an exhibition dedicated to the photographers who spent their lives on the front line, capturing the reality of what was happening and sending coverage back to the US to make people aware of what the war was doing to people. The majority of these photographers lost their lives in Vietnam, doing what they loved.
The exhibitions on the second floor however were where I struggled. I have hands down never seen anything so disturbing and harrowing in my entire life. One exhibition centred around War Crimes committed by American soldiers during the war. Photographs and accompanying stories about torture, beheadings and killings of civilian men, women and children seemingly just for fun. American soldiers setting fire to peasant houses and laughing while a family watched their worldly possessions burn. Children as young as 6 being disembowelled and shot. Half way through this exhibition I had to leave the room; the image of two brothers shot down in the street while trying to run for safety was just too much.
Another exhibition centred around Agent Orange, something which still affects families in Vietnam today. Agent Orange is a dioxide chemical, which the USA sprayed over miles and miles of Vietnam’s forests, infecting plants, food and people and destroying vegetation. When exposed to this chemical, your genetics are altered and your offspring are almost guaranteed to suffer the consequences. Children born with no limbs, severe brain damage, dwarfism and blindness are just a few of the conditions that have arisen from Agent Orange. Conditions which are now known to continue through 2, 3 or 4 generations. This has devastated thousands of families; many of whom live in rural communities and have little resources to gain help.
Ironically, when the US dropped Agent Orange they also exposed many of their own soldiers. American, Australian and Korean military were also caught up in the chemical onslaught. Since then, the US government have agreed to set up a fund for the American families affected by Agent Orange, and the chemical companies have been sued repeatedly. Vietnamese victims however, who arguably need the support the most are still currently being denied any compensation by the country who repeatedly broke the Geneva Convention and caused so much pain.
It was a sobering experience for me walking around that museum. It made me feel sick to know the lengths that the west will go to in order to control a country that is not theirs to control. It was good to get the Vietnamese perspective of the war, as I am sure that the western version would be very very different.
I know that war is a complex, many pronged and sometimes arguably a needed phenomenon in which it is difficult, if not impossible to centre the blame on any one nation or side. I just know that spreading such cruelty and terror is not OK. We are all human. It’s about time we all started realising it.