Warning: this post contains some explicit descriptions of articles/exhibitions at the War Remnants Museum that some people may find upsetting. There are no graphic photographs.
Renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, this city used to be called Saigon and is still referred to as Saigon in an unofficial capacity. One of the most common beers in the area is actually named Saigon, and whilst I wasn’t a fan of the standard bottle, Saigon Special was much nicer (and double the price, too! Though I’m not really complaining – beer in SE Asia is quite often cheaper than water, and forking out $2 for a bottle instead of $1 was not going to break the bank…). We were told that there are around 95 million people in Vietnam, and around 45 million registered motorbikes. They were everywhere. And so loud. Honking for no reason at all.
Anyway, on arrival, we went to a Pho restaurant. So many people within our group had been itching to try real Vietnamese Pho and not a single person was disappointed. We were directed upstairs where there was much more seating, and it kind of reminded me of the upstairs of McDonalds or Burger King restaurants in the late 90’s, early 2000’s where I grew up in the UK. Maybe it was the décor that made me think of that era. The walls were plastered with blown-up newspaper articles from when President of the US at the time, Bill Clinton visited that very restaurant on the 25th Anniversary of the end of the Vietnamese war.
The place was really great though – clean, friendly staff, some of the best service we’d had to date on the trip, and the noodle soup was pretty awesome. I went for the veggie option and there were some interesting vegetables floating around. Okra made an appearance, there was something that could have been turnip or swede. There was definitely some pumpkin going on, naturally there was enough bok choy to make up your five-a-day all on its own, plus a super crispy fried omelette. After lunch, we headed out into the city, trying to see as much as possible, as our time, as ever, was limited in this city.
We visited the Notre Dame Cathedral which did actually look very similar to its namesake in Paris. The due to the French invasion, there is still a lot of French influence around Vietnam and also other areas of Indochina. We didn’t go in, but it looked pretty from the outside. It had gotten to the point in the trip where a lot of people had bought and written postcards but not had an opportunity to put them in the mail. It seemed silly to be in the same city as the biggest post office in all of Indochina and not make use of it, so one of the guys and I gathered the group’s postcards and we headed off to go see this place. I bought a couple of postcards and wrote them out in the giant atrium of the post office; one for my parents and one for my grandparents, as it was my Grandad’s 79th birthday the day before. We double and tripled checked the postage on all of the postcards and got on our way to the War Remnants Museum via interactive map and GPS. Oh man… the number of times GPS has saved my life on this trip is unbelievable!
The War Remnants Museum was a fascinating place. I could have spent hours there, but unfortunately, we’d been told you could get through it in an hour and so arrived with only 90 minutes until closing time. Of course the narrative throughout the exhibitions was heavily biased against the US and the French and the history got a little bit hazy for me in the middle, so I won’t attempt to explain the reasons behind the war. Some of the statistics though, could not be argued with. I have no doubt in my mind that those figures were accurate and ran shivers up my spine that had absolutely nothing to do with the air conditioning.
The museum was split into set exhibitions and the first that genuinely took my breath away was the room that was dedicated to colour photography of the war. We’re talking early 70’s when journalists went out to Vietnam and captured the horrors on paper and for the first time ever in technicolour. Although the imagery was devastating to see, there was one piece of text that stuck with me. I haven’t been able to find it again online, so I can’t credit it properly nor give you the exact wording, but the idea of this tiny extract was written from the point of a journalist based with some US soldiers. It was along the lines of: “And then, out of nowhere, these two young boys emerged from the rubble, along with a man who could have easily been their father. The soldier didn’t even blink as he shot them down, one boy falling against his brother, and finishing the man off with another shot”. In one respect, it was humane of the soldier to end the poor injured and emotionally scarred people’s lives, and the soldier was only carrying out his orders, but kids? What have children ever done to deserve being murdered in cold blood. Their only sin was to be born. There were preservation tanks with deformed embryos in it, there were countless images in the rooms. It was hard going, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave.
Another room was bathed in a sunset glow and its main focus was Agent Orange. Apparently, it takes only 85g of Agent Orange to eradicate greenery living across a city with a population of 1 million people. That is incredible, and it’s no wonder that the population of Vietnam crumbled during the years of the war, and the numbers are still not back up as the generations have suffered the after effects of the chemical weapons. Children born as late as 2005 with enlarged heads, bulging eyes, additional limbs and brain abnormalities. The photos were devastating and the captions even worse; most of the children passed away within a few days or weeks. Some of them live in agony every day.
We saw the famous picture of Napalm Girl. Ms Phuc is only in her early fifties now living in Canada, with her own family, educating people of the horrors of the war. She also has established the Kim Phuc Foundation in the States which supports child victims of war. She has found happiness in her life and there is some small relief in that.
We were ushered out of the museum at 5pm, and managed a very quick walk-through of the outdoor recreation of tiger cages which were used in American/French PoW camps that the Vietnamese created towards the end of the war with the intention of torturing soldiers. There were displays of instruments of torture and at the end of the exhibition, there was a massive guillotine. It must have been 12-15 foot high. I mean, there was no room for error here, and one small mercy was that it would have been a fast way to go. After months of torture, I imagine it was welcome to many prisoners.
In the evening, we caught up with the rest of the group and the atmosphere was a little more subdued than it had been. We visited the main town area of Ho Chi Minh City with the Street Food Market and had a couple of drinks. No one was really up for too much of a party because we had another war history day planned for the following day and wanted to be mentally prepared for it.