Starting to Explore 1
On September 2, which is Independence Day, we went into Ho Chi Minh City to what is called The War Remnants museum.
The actual “remnants” are household items from My Lai: two woven fish baskets, a few trays, some other small things too modest to be remembered, or maybe I was so upset that I couldn’t focus on them. These are things that were salvaged, it doesn’t say by whom or when, from the site of the massacre. These lie on a low display case beneath a lot of photographs. By the time you get to this display you have been through a whole floor of photographs and then another half floor, so you know what you’re looking at.
My Lai, part of a village named Son My, March 16, 1968, is where Company C of the 23rd Infantry killed 504 Vietnamese, mostly women and children plus a few old men. Killed, raped, shot, etc. This is the massacre that only Lt. William Calley was ultimately convicted for, although 26 US soldiers were charged. There was a photographer present; I should have written down his name but didn’t.
The Museum itself is three stories high. You enter through a gate, buy a ticket for 15 dong, and find yourself in a large courtyard full of military aircraft. There’s a gigantic troop helicopter on your right. On your left planes nearly bump noses. Around the corner are tanks.
I went straight in and up to the third floor, which is where the exhibit I’d read about started. It’s organized around photojournalists who were killed in the war (I counted about 80): blown up by land mines, crashed in helicopters, just plain shot. It’s an installation of a travelling exhibit called Requiem, assembled by photojournalist Tim Page, who is British, now living in Australia. Look him up on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Page_(photographer).
Telling the story of the war through the hundreds of collected photos of named photojournalists, with brief stories of their lives on plaques on the wall in English and Vietnamese, steadies the impact of what you’re looking at enough to make it possible to hang in there and view the whole thing.
On the left are photos from a Life Magazine spread done by Larry Burroughs where he rode with a helicopter crew on a foray.
The floor below is more photographs and includes the My Lai display. Another gallery has photos of the children of people poisoned by Agent Orange; no end of suffering. A big collection box seemed nearly full of paper money.
The bottom floor has guns, amazing numbers of different kinds of guns, some the sort that you carry yourself, some as big as cars.
Coming out of the museum I felt as if the war was still going on. I remember life in San Francisco during that period, the kind of things that were on TV, the demonstrations, the arrests, the feeling that while I was crossing the street someone else was getting killed in my name on the other side of the world. The background to the dancing-on-the-beach culture of the 60s’ was always the war.
There were only a few references to the anti-war movement in the US in the War Remnants Museum. But I think that the photojournalists who captured the horrors of the Vietnam war contributed significantly to the anti-war movement in the US.
However, there aren’t a lot of photojournalists left these days. ISIS beheads them. The photos of Palmyra are taken from satellites.
7 thoughts on “Starting to Explore 1”
The deeper you get into the story, the more powerful it gets.
RE war remnants and museums, Helena. In 2001 in Ha Noi, Gerri and I visited the newly-opened Museum of Women and the Revolution. The exhibits were like the remnants of My Lai that you saw—an apron worn by Mrs. So-and-so at a meeting of the village party committee, a worn wallet-size picture of Miss So-and-so’s father who died on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the (ubiquitous) face mask worn by Mrs. So-and-so who collected intelligence in Saigon before the Tet Offensive, the rifle Mrs. So-and-so fired at an American jet fighter when it bombed her village. Very personal, very touching.
That same trip we went to Hoi An and happened upon the Museum of Revolution and Culture. The director of the museum was there, a wonderful man. Downstairs he showed us a collection of pottery fragments recovered from shipwrecks and derelicts—Hoi An had been a busy port in earlier times. Upstairs he showed us the museum’s exhibit of war remnants like the ones you saw. But also, a poster of Jane Fonda in Ha Noi and a poster of one of the anti-war demonstrations in D.C. Gerri said, “We were there!” He got excited, said that the Vietnamese government always carefully differentiated between the US people and the actions of their government, thanked us for opposing the war and happily shook our hands. We still get goosebumps when we tell the story.
Finally, 3 years ago we were on Phu Quoc, the island in the Gulf of Thailand closer to Cambodia than Vietnam and claimed by both countries. Near the town of An Thoi is the former US/South Vietnam concentration camp, now a museum. Horrific exhibits and revealing glimpses of the still-simmering uneasiness of north-south relations, but also those personal, touching remnants recalling the sacrifices of ordinary people.
Linda, this was in Saigon. So we went to the same museum. it’s now officially Ho Chi Minh City, which is abbreviated HCMC which can get you confused. Whether you call it Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon is a hot button and I am being careful not to make mistakes, although in my mind, I sometimes call it Saigon. I enjoy following your posts, too — most recently the antlered bucks in your garden!
Int about the name! When I was in VN (2010, I think), everyone called it Saigon. I mean the Vietnamese. I think it’s easier to say, so people go w it, at least in English.
This was such a poignant and important post, Helena. I was never in Hanoi, but I visited a similar museum in Saigon. I’m following your experiences in VN with great interest. Thank you.
Rich, The historical display in the museum makes a clear narrative out of the whole awful story, from when Vietnam was a French colony and people were practically slaves on rubber plantations, to the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh, and then the US stepping in because of our “vital interests” which were apparently metals, not oil. You would have really enjoyed (wrong word — but I mean spent a whole day in) this place. It’s worth the trip someday.
This is so interesting to me after having read Seth Rosenfeld’s book, Subversives. I don’t want to lessen or cheapen the Vietnamese people and what they went through though. What he describes happening in the US is the other side the story of the American war in Vietnam. My mother and father used to try to answer my questions about this issue when I was about 5-6 years old. She finally asked me how I would like it if someone came to my country and started a war? That made sense to me. The Tet offesnive happened when I was 10 and Walter Cronkite came on the CBS Nightly News program and said that the war could last another 10 years. I looked at my father and said that I was going to war as I’d be 18 by then. He told me that he would drive me to Canada. The thought had always been with me as to how the Vietnamese people would handle the war rememberance. It appears that they handeled it the same way the the US would. Thank you for sharing these experiences.
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