War Remnants Museum Saigon – a sombre experience
A few weekends ago I finally got off my fat backside to go do one of Saigon’s touristy sights. The War Remnants Museum is one of the must see sights for many who travel through here. This is despite the fact that no-one here talks about the American War (as the Vietnam war is know as over here). No-one talks about it because it’s history as far as most people are concerned and has little bearing on their life. As a citizen of a country which sent troops over here I have not once had a derogatory comment come my way. The exact opposite in fact, people here are friendly, hospitable and respectful. I’m not sure that all Vietnamese who visit Australia get the same type of reception that I do over here …. to our shame.
Back to my point. In my time I have only heard one person make a comment about the war. It was a person I have the occasional chat to in my weekly routine. We were discussing the public holiday for the Liberation of Saigon when he remarked that it wasn’t exactly a happy day for him. He then went onto say his father had fought in the South Vietnamese army. He then went on his way and I was left thinking that was the first time I’d ever heard any reference to the war.
So I find myself outside the museum on Vo Van Tan street. I park my bike at a nearby restaurant, bargain briefly on the parking fee seeing as I’m not going to eat there and head across the road for an iced tea as I wait for the museum to open. When the museum opens I find myself surrounded by tourists. Some backpackers, some coach tourists and some, that, back in my hotel days, we used to call FIT’s, free independent travellers. There are also quite largish contingents of Vietnamese tourists.
Outside the main museum building are parked a number of tanks, helicopters and planes which remind me of nothing so much as movie props. I am reminded of the comment I once heard/read that the Vietnam war wasn’t so much a war for my generation as a movie. These thoughts soon disappear as I enter the Tiger Cages which remind of the stories of Abu Ghraib as I see a manacled mannequin in a tiny cage and read of, and see pictures of, tortured prisoners.
From there, and in more sombre mood, I head into the main building. There I am assaulted by pictures of war that are familiar. Then I see some that are not familiar …..bodies dragged behind armoured vehicles, pictures of the village of My Lai, beheaded North Vietnamese soldiers, bayoneted Viet Cong, napalmed women and screaming children. I am by now feeling very quiet and find myself easily angered (oh, the irony) by a couple of young backpacking lads behind me laughing.
For some respite I go to the children’s room to see cheesy drawings of peace and friendship. They’re cheesy but they reflect the Vietnam that I know … the one in the photos seems nothing like the place I live in. I leave the museum to catch up with a friend. As I walk out I reflect on the fact that the museum is clearly a place of propaganda. There is no balance in this place and yet, almost every bit of evidence on the walls of that museum come from Western journalists. The horrible things on the walls did actually exist, they have not been made up. I don’t think the Vietnamese were angels in this war but I do sometimes wonder how they can so easily, not only forgive, but welcome their former foes with open arms. It’s a credit to them.