Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Getting a Different Perspective on the American War

Some people go to Vietnam for the beaches, culture, or because it's cheap. However, I'm not going to lie, much of the reason I wanted to go to Vietnam was to visit the various Vietnam War, (American War depending on your side) sites around the country. We all know that I'm a nerd, but unfortunately the Spaniard didn't completely catch on to this until we were already in the country. Much to his chagrin I dragged him to various sites relevant to a War he didn't know or care much about. His friend made the comment, which he agreed with, that us Americans are obsessed by the War whereas Europeans don't really care. . .

The tour of sites started in Hanoi where we went to what remained of the "Hanoi Hilton." Most of the prison has been demolished to make way for a high rise development, but there is a museumin what remains. However most of the museum is about the atrocities and barbaric treatment the french conducted against the anti-colonial freedom fighters of Vietnam. The history I was most interested in reading comprised only 2 rooms. Despite the lack of content, it was worth the journey to read about all the "good treatment" the Americans received despite being agents of an Imperialistic aggressive government. They showed pictures of Americansat church, playing sports, eating, etc. They also showed what they claim to be John McCain's flight suit.

The next stop on the tour was Ho Chi Minh's tomb. Given I've seen Mao's pickled corpse, I wanted to continue the dead man's tour by visiting Uncle Ho. Unfortunately it was closed for Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year), but we did get to see the house he lived in while president and from which he gave orders regarding the war. Instead of living in the mansion of the former French governor, Ho instead lived in a simple construction he had built on the mansion's grounds in order to project a certain symbolism of having power but still being an egalitarian man. However, despite his wishes, that symbolism changed upon his death:

Former French governor's mansion, now presidential palace used for ceremonial events:
Ho's former house:

Ho's current house:

In the center of the country we passed by China Beach of TV fame. Granted we only saw it from a nearby mountain, but this is where US GI's got they're R&R not too far from the DMZ. . .
We also went to a museum where captured US military equipment was on display like trophies:
All of the previous sites were interesting but the highlights of the magical history tour were in Saigon where we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum. The Cu Chi Tunnels were really cool and surreal at the same time. They are a network, of over 100kms, of tunnels about 1.5 hrs outside of Saigon where many Viet Cong hid and lived during the war. It was an engineering feat to say the least, and drove home how determined the Viet Cong were to win and how intractable the situation was for the US. The guide leading us around told us, with a lot of patriotic pride, that:
  • The tunnels were designed very modularly so that destruction of one section wouldn't harm the others.
  • People had enough drive that they lived in the claustrophobic tunnels for months on end in order to serve the cause.
  • They provided away for the Viet Cong to conduct military operations out of sight before sneaking off and blending into the population.

Just to give you an idea of how small the tunnels are (Keep in mind they expanded them to accomidate the larger sizes of western tourists):

They also had replicas of the various booby traps they used to maim and kill American soldiers in the field. Here's a rather tame one that would be hidden in a covered hole waiting for an unsuspecting leg (yes those spears are barbed):

On a lighter note, after visiting the traps you can play commando and shoot an AK-47 for US$1 a bullet. Of course I bit, but I did find it ironic that a location originally designed and built to expel shooting Americans from the country would be inviting Americans back to shoot weapons. Ah the power of the all mighty dollar.

As for the War Remnants museum. . .keep in mind that it used to be called the War Crimes Museum before the government began actively promoting tourism. Despite the name change, the tone of the exhibits remains the same. There were pictures of deformed and burned people, a jar with a deformed fetus, and children with all sorts of birth defects supposedly from the use of Napalm and Agent Oragne. My Lai was also given a lot of space.

Stories of shooting civilians were also discussed at length. Given the Viet Cong's tendency to slip into the population, I can't say American's were completely to blame but there was no mention of that at the museum. Plus, we don't know if they truly were full-time civilians or whether they moonlighted in Cu Chi. . .

There were also exhibits showing 60s peace demonstrations from the US and around the world that showed "solidarity with the Vietnamese people and cause." (of course the protests was active support for the Viet Cong and not simply disapproval with American involvement.)

Visiting all these sites was great, if only to get the perspective of a population who viewed the US as invadors and not liberators and what happens when you fight them in a guerrila war where it's hard to distinguish the combatants.

Going to all these sites spurred the Spaniard to want to learn more about the War's history as being there made the history come alive. It's too bad President Bush only went to visit Vietnam last fall since it would have been good for him to gain a similar interest and learn some of these lessons earlier . . .

You know what they say: those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. . .

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