Good morning Vietnam!
From Cambodia’s southern coast we took a miserable 13 hour bus ride, including 3 busses and a border crossing, to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The ride was long and cramped (I’m fortunate enough to be able to comfortably fold into the smallest spaces, but 6″2 Alistair is not so lucky), but we managed to survive and arrived in Ho Chi Minh just after midnight.
Like most larger cities we did not plan to stay for long, explore the main strip or check out a few cheap museums and move on to another destination. We visited Ho Chi Minh’s War Remnants museum and got a lot more emotional distress and discomfort than we ever thought our 50 cent tickets could provide. The entrance to the museum is an impressive courtyard of tanks, airplanes, helicopters and jets that we decided to check out after the museum’s contents to get a full appriciation of the massive machines of war.
The museums is three stories, each one more disturbing than the previous, resulting in a near to tears afternoon. The first floor was focused on propaganda during the Vietnam war, but also on the children of war that had continued to go to school and learn during these hard times. Often living underground they partook in classes specializing in first aid, thick straw hats to protect from shrapnel/explosions, as well as their ordinary classes and arts. It made me feel proud of these brave children, and sad for the way they spent their young lives. My heart felt heavy, and as we decended to the next floor I never could have guessed the horror that awaited us.
The next floor was a dizzying display of graphic and gory photos from the war. A black and white image of an American soldier grinning, holding the head of his enemy in his hands and a crumpled beheaded body at his feet made my stomach churn. Images of unburied and partial bodies brought tears to my eyes as we staggered through the gallery of images so raw and uncencored that even though there were dozens of visitors, it was silent in the gallery.
The third floor had the hardest impact because it was not images of the past, but of the victims still affected by the war; those that were and are still being affected by a chemical used by the US called Agent Orange. An unimaginable amount of the chemical was dumped over Vietnam, those that came in contact were imidiately effected and left with horrific burns and disfigured. Images of these victems were posted with their names and personal stories, making the photos harder to bear. Many of the stories were from victims much more recent than the war; families eating fish from contaminated rivers or crops had given birth to children with disfigurements, flesh deteriating diseases, and mental disabilities. Each story told details of children born without limbs or mothers that still dressed and feed their fully grown but mentally disabled and bedridden children, sometimes 2 or 3 in a family (the hardest part was walking around the city afterwards and seeing mentally or phsically disabled children/adults, and knowing that they were likey victims of Agent Orange).
There was also an outside courtyard, behind the machines, that featured various torture devices and techniques used by the US during the war. We breifly walked through but didn’t dwell on the devices, after an afternoon starring glaze eyed at horrific war photos I didn’t want to imagine a time when these barb wire cages and tortue devices were used on people.
After our heavy and reflective afternoon at the museum we tried to shake off the lingering depression and explore more of the city. We spent the rest of our time in Ho Chi Minh bargening at the large Ben Thanh market, and trying different vietnamese restaurants.
With a brutal history in the back of our minds, we set off to explore the rest of Vietnam…