“ Address: Vo Van Tan Street / Ho Chi Minh City / Vietnam „
You cannot spend more than a few days in Vietnam without being aware - sometimes painfully so - that the War left its mark on this fabulous country. What they call the 'American War' pitted north against south, catching this long thin country in a conflict between superpowers. Vietnam was like a bone being fought over by well armed, politically charged dogs. Thankfully the Vietnamese are lovely people and tourists - yes, even Americans - will find no antagonism. This is a very young country in which the majority of the population weren't even born when the war ended three and a half decades ago. However, don't let the smiles and the friendly people make you think that they've forgotten what happend on their land all those years ago. They haven't - and nowhere is that more apparent than at the so-called War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.
Americans may want to think twice about going there because the museum pulls absolutely no punches about the impact of the war and the legacy of disease and deformity left behind. It's also very clear who they think is to blame and you won't miss the message because it's loud and very very clear. If you aren't open to seeing a very different picture of a war that damaged the USA as well, this might be one museum you'd be advised to give a miss. Just to give you a hint of what to expect, it was previously known as the Museum of American War Crimes. They may have changed the name but the message is still clear.
I was born slap bang in the middle of the Vietnam (or American) War and was too young to follow what was happening. As a Brit I don't have the same hangups about this particular conflict that are common amongst my American friends. Unusually for us, we largely kept out of this one and as a result we are as a nation - especially people of my age and younger- a lot less knowledgable than our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic. When they threw this particular war, we didn't really join the party and I, like most, have gained most of my 'knowledge' of the war from films which is unlikely to be the best form of history lesson.
It helps to have no feelings of actual or inherited guilt if you're going to this museum. It may also help to not know too much detail. Undoubtedly the messages are delivered with some prejudice but that's quite understandable - it's their museum and their interpretation. You wouldn't expect anything else. The museum opened pretty much as soon as the war ended so there has never really been the luxury of time and distance to build a greater sense of balance. This is feedback in the raw, unfiltered through diplomatic channels.
The Museum of War Remnants is a place that records the War, deplores the violence perpetrated on the country by both sides and slaps you in the face with a clear message of 'DO NOT FORGET' and then two quieter ones of 'Don't let this happen again' and 'don't imagine that our suffering is over'.
You will find a really odd mish-mash of displays, most of them presented rather poorly in the style of a school project rather than a world class historical record. Things are crooked, faded, badly displayed and rather shabby. You will find the 'boys toys' that every museum with a military theme must have - most of them tanks, helicopters and weapons confiscated from the enemy. This was one of the first wars of the television era so there are lots of shaky videos of battle and hundreds of pictures of the dead and dying. Particularly disturbing are the accounts of the major events like the Mai Lai Massacre. For me the most shocking section of the museum was the one recording the ongoing pattern of birth defects and deformities caused by the use of chemical weaponry. Pictures of the victims of phosphorous bombs and napalm will burn into your memory like the weapons burned into the skin of those they came into contact with. Agent Orange caused birth defects that are still impacting on births more than 30 years later - the statistics are horrifying and displayed along side the photographs.
I would suggest that you think carefully before taking children to this museum. They may love the tanks, jeeps and helicopters but there are things that can cause nightmares too.
The War Remnants Museum used to be called The American War Crimes Museum, but the name was changed for obvious reasons! It depicts war crimes by American and French troops but the emphasis is on the former. The museum is based a short walk from the Reunification Palace in District 3, in central Ho Chi Minh City and cost 15,000 VND (50p) to enter. A word of warning it is not for the faint-hearted, a lot of the museum is made up of graphic photographs depicting scenes of brutality.
Outside there is an assortment of planes and tanks etc to view and pose in front of if so inclined. Inside the large, modern, air-conditioned museum you view photographic images of massacres of civilians perpetrated by US troops during the Vietnam-American War, some of the older photos are quite grainy, but there are English language explanations for each one. Images are taken either by the Viet-Cong or by International journalists. Some larger massacres list the names, status and ages of the victims, many victims were elderly, children, babies or pregnant women. There is a display of the massacre that former US Senator Bob Kerrey allegedly participated in, by slitting the throats of civilians and disembowelling some children. It is pretty grim stuff, and here you have only just started.
There are walls and walls of photos of disfigured babies and children, harmed through chemical weapons such as Agent Orange. Even some deformed foetuses for those inclined to look at them. I have to confess I skipped a lot of this part, I got the point. You also view some weapons used by the different forces. The downstairs part of the museum, as described in the above two paragraphs is strongly anti-American. The balance is redressed slightly on the upper floors in so much as information is more balanced, but you do not see any evidence of atrocities that the Viet Cong may have performed on captured US soldiers, and I don't think this is because that never happened. I am sure it did, but the emphasis is on crimes committed against the Vietnamese, in particular, civilians.
On the upper floors the images are more toned down, and you get more of a museum rather than a selection of horror pictures. There is information on the number of deaths per nationality (estimated 2 million Vietnamese civilians, 1 million soldiers, approx 55,000 US troops plus soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and other countries in the region), key battles and figures. There is also photographic collections by key photo-journalists of the time, including many who went missing or died during the war, showing the life and realities of war, but often less brutal than the ones downstairs, but often still moving. For examples you see mothers fleeing the bombings across rivers, with their children. There are a few more Agent Orange deformities type photos but this time they also featured US troops and their families, affected by the soldiers' contact with AO, and living on in the birth defects of their children. Australian veterans were also affected.
One positive feature was the before and after photos of certain rural areas. During the war a lot of natural vegetation and buildings were lost through bombings and chemicals, and here we see the damage as well as the re-building and recovery. There are smaller exhibitions, one depicting international support during the war, in the form of propaganda posters from the Soviet Union, East Germany and other countries in the region. The other shows a collection of children's paintings depicting 'War and Peace'. I didn't really find this latter exhibition particularly interesting, but that is just my personal opinion.
Outside amongst the tanks and planes are also various cages and torture implements used on Vietnamese prisoners. I missed these, but I am not too disappointed as the museum was quite draining. There is also a gift shop inside the museum selling traditionally dressed dolls and gifts, postcards and books. Overall, I would say this is a 'must see' museum for visitors to Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon), and will give you a good understanding of the Vietnamese viewpoint of the 'American War'. Whilst it is grim and hard-going in places, you can skip parts of that, but generally the museum layout was well thought out (although it was undergoing some renovation work when I visited so maybe the layout would change). It started with the bad and the shocking, moved on to the facts and information, and then ended on a more positive note with the emphasis on successful re-building.
Museum is open daily from 7.30am to 12.00 noon and again from 1.30pm to 5pm.
War Remnants Museum
28 Vo Van Tan, District 3,
Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (848) 39302112