Monday, 23 November 2015

Return from the East

Been quiet here for a while as Mrs T & I have been off for the last couple of weeks or so enjoying the delights of Vietnam. We went because we head heard it was an interesting an beautiful country, and so it proved to be. Holiday impressions aren't to be relied upon - you stay in nice places and people want to be helpful so any conclusions from a two week stay are naturally suspect. However the country seems to be vibrant and thriving with increasing prosperity and a young and enthusiastic population. Also, from the perspective of a Brit who doesn't like guns and armed police, there's a refreshing absence of firearms on the hip of everyone in a uniform.

New hats for Shedquarters hat-shelf
I have never paid much attention to the Vietnam (aka American) War. I've played in a few games, - and most notably had a US firebase land directly on my NVA HQ in an Andy Grainger map game - but it has never been anything I've ever really dabbled my toes in, so my main aim in going was not to follow up a lifetime's interest in the War. Whilst the Vietnamese have to a large extent moved on the whole thing is quite hard to avoid.

We landed in Hanoi and travelled south via Hue & Denang to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong delta. Our tour manager was a young northerner from Hanoi whose father drove trucks on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Out principal guide in the south came from the Cu Chi area where his parents were one of three non-Communist families in the villager. So we got an interesting range of perspectives, and in addition we had an Australian veteran with us too.

They talked more about the War as we went south, partly because you are visiting sites where the Americans were based. The north is more backwards and provincial but developing fast. They are proud of their victory but don't have a point to prove. This is not so true in the south. There's a definite point to be made.

So shortly after arriving in Saigon/HCMC we were shipped off to the curiously named "War Remnants Museum".

If you don't know anything about it (and I had seen a short description in a guide book) you might be surprised. Initially it looks like a conventional military museum, with the big hardware exhibits outside, - armour, aircraft & guns.

I'm often struck by the relative sizes of modern military equipment. Tanks always strike me as smaller than expected, and the Chinook, by way of contrast, is enormous.

The M113 in comparison to both is positively petite. It may, of course, be due to the setting.

Previously I've got up close to these types of vehicles indoors. Outside they can be dwarfed by their surroundings.

 Jet fighters, likewise, can seem very small when you've been hopping on and off commercial jet liners for two weeks.

They had several crammed into the entrance area. Fighters, not jet liners, that is.

There's also one of the ubiquitous Hueys, that pop up in several locations round Saigon (including on top of the Presidential Palace).

The chain gun in the window of the one here is quite a size, however.

In the forecourt area the intended purpose of the museum starts to become clear.We're introduced to a guide/book seller, who is selling books about the war including "The Girl in the Picture" and Neale's "People's History of the Vietnam War". The one I bought the latter from had stubs for arms and one leg from stepping on a land mine when he was eight.

Inside there's displays of other American hardware, but essentially you are brought here for the pictures and the polemic. The purpose is to show you why the Communists & Ho Chi Minh were right and why the Americans and their South Vietnamese puppets were in the wrong. Carefully selected quotations from Uncle Ho, anti-war protesters and post war confessions are juxtaposed with photographs often set in themes.

There's a gallery on American war crimes and atrocities and also one on the effects of Agent Orange and the other chemicals used during the war on the population and future generations. There's particular indignation that the US has recognised the effects on their servicemen and their children of the defoliants but has done nothing or very little in Vietnam itself. The picture is of Mrs T in the atrocities gallery, I think. She's been in a few military museums with me. This one nearly reduced her to tears.

The artefacts chosen also have a specific purpose. The grenade launchers are described as being a development of the Dum-Dum bullet and so banned under the Geneva Convention.

The top floor is reserved for a collection of top quality war photography from all the greats associated with the war, including Capa's last roll of film.

It's a museum that pulls no punches and is designed to ram home certain messages. It is quite clearly polemical. There is nothing on the Communist atrocities and massacres, and you'd be hard pushed to conclude they ever pulled a trigger from this collection.

The savvy viewer can't help but question some of it as it is only half of the story. I was reminded a lot in the war photographer's gallery that Capa's most famous picture, taken during the SCW, is posed (or, in other words, "It's a fake"). Many of the pictures are clearly authentic, but others are obviously posed, re-staged, chopped and framed to tell specific stories. That's not to say they are untruthful, but it is a very specific type of truth.

If you go to Saigon you cannot avoid the museum. It's important, it's shocking but it isn't the whole story.


  1. I visited the museum 10 or 12 years ago and agree your view entirely - understandably but ludicrously one-sided. Having grown up during the Vietnam War, I found it fascinating to visit the places I had read about so much as a kid. Very similar experience in Cuba at the Havana and Bay of Pigs museums.

    1. It's thought provoking as well. There's no denying a lot of the truth displayed, - its just that it needs quite a bit more truth added to it.

      As our guide pointed out more than once, - history is written by the victors.