Today we are visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.
It's within walking distance from the hostel so with Martin leading, Juan dragging his malarial heels and me screaming everytime a motorbike whizzes past, we set off. I've just bumped into Christine (the French woman I travelled the North of the country with) back at the hostel. She says:
“I'm relieved to see you've found someone else to protect you from the motorbikes!”
If Hanoi was a maelstrom of whizzing, smoky scooters then I think Ho Chi Minh is a hundred times worse. I can feel my blood pressure begin to soar and my heart is palpitating.
Incredibly; we get there in one piece - and yes i'm very grateful I have someone looking out for me,; outside they have a collection of American and Vietnamese tanks, helicopters and planes.
There are two sections: the first is a recreation of the prisons that were used by the South Vietnamese and also the French to keep Northern Vietnamese revolutionaries in; the second houses exhibitions.
Did you learn about the Vietnam War in school? Have I ranted recently about how useless and sporadic my own history knowledge is which seems to consist of what Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn wore when his divorce came through (yellow) and the second world war. I never learnt beyond 1945 at school so was entirely ignorant of the lead up to and subsequent Vietnam war. In a nutshell -France colonised Vietnam from the late 19th Century until 1955 when North Vietnamese revolutionaries under their leader Ho Chi Minh fought and won their independence briefly before America joined forces with South Vietnam to try and prevent a communist takeover. There then ensued a twenty year war (the start date of the war is under debate with some arguing it should date from 1955 – others from 1959) between the mainly communist North Vietnamese army supported by their guerrila faction in the south – the Viet Cong (and the support of various other communist countries) and the South Vietnamese government supported primarily by the United States who were keen to stop a communist takeover as part of their policy of “containment.” Neutral Cambodia and Eastern Laos who have the misfortune to border Vietnam underwent heavy bombing and saw fighting as the Viet Cong took cover in these countries encouraging America to (for want of a better epression) bomb the shit out of them.
In the prison they have replicated tiger cages – the horrible 2m x 3m bamboo cages covered in barb wire formerly used to trap wild beasts that the prisons used to torture their captives in. There are also small stone cells and shackles that were used to incarcerate their vicitims. Food for the prisoners would be maggoty and minimal and showers even rarer. Women as well as men were imprisoned here with up to 40 women confined to a cell at one time. Showers would be withheld when they were menstruating just to increase their degradation and sordid living conditions.
This exhibition is not for the faint hearted.There are graphic photographs and detailed text that describes in no uncertain terms the various torture methods used on prisoners: amputation of limbs, removal of fingernails, electrocution of genitals, burning, cutting and beating with a pestle – even letting loose snakes down trousers.
There is also information on the infamous prison camp on Phu Quoc island – that garnered the misleadingly chirpy moniker – Camp Coconut. It was used by both the French and then the United States of America to house Vietnamese revolutionaries in the 50s and 60s, and was overseen by 20 US oficials during The Vietnam war. Here, according to the exhibition, the same extreme and barbaric methods of torture were used against the prisoners. Men were crouched into tiny tiger cages made of barbed wire, and tortured with long rusty nails. It is claimed that three prisoners were boiled alive.
I'm naively shocked that the United States both knew and oversaw the camp. When I was a little girl I aways remember my mother taking about "the cruelty of the Asians." I suppose it was a fear of the exotic unknown - the “them and us” mentality bred in the baby boomer – post war generation after Pearl Harbour, kamikaze pilots, horror stories from Japanese POW camps and Allied propaganda had had its way.
I suppose we want to cling to the fact that we are different – because what? we live in a democracy? our Christian morality? Maybe it's human nature or just the fear of the unknown fuelled to racisim through propaganda that means we try and reassure ourselves that “Our people could never do what they were capable of – those people on the other side of the world with their dark skin, their strange gods.”
But of course nowadays we know exactly what American and British troops are capable of thanks to stories from Guantanamo Bay and the like and that dark flame can be fanned within all of us, to grow, consume and destroy.
There is a photographic exhibition commemorating the photo journalists that risked their lives to prevent coverage of the Vietnam war and then upsetting details on the notorious My Lai Massacre.
The My Lai massacre refers to the village of unarmed civilians that American soldiers invaded in 1968 in an attempt to kill members of the Viet Cong. This was not just the extermination of around 400 unarmed civilians (the majority of whom were women and children.) This was the torture and mutilation pre death of those children, the vicious gang rape of women in front often their children, and according to some reports the sodomisation of young girls and use of babies as target practice before slaughter. One U.S Senator later confessed to his part in murdering a pregnant women and killing a five year old boy by disembowelling him. This event typified the culture of conspiracy and cover up that went hand in hand with the way that the US communicated the details of its war back home. For years the facts surrounding the My Lai Massacre were concealed. Initial reports stated that there was bloody fighting with up to 118 Viet Cong killed on the first day, it was later revealed that only 3 or 4 Viet Cong were killed in total and that the soldiers were met with unarmed civilains and no open fire. It highlighted the capacity to commit the unthinkable that must reside in all of us.
Another sinister method to try and achieve victory by the U.S was to spray acres of the country with Agent Orange, an insiduous and highly carcinogenic toxin. The aim was to poison the countryside to force the Viet Cong out into the open and the peasants that provided their food – out of rural areas and into the cities thereby leaving the North Vietnamese armies without support. For just under ten years America sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange across the country which is predicted to have led to the deaths of 400,000 people, giving birth defects to around half a million people and leaving a legacy of a further one million people who are disabled, crippled or have serious health defects as a result. What this exhibition makes clear is that the random and indiscriminate spraying of this poison didn't just wipe out one generation of Vietnamese, it created defects and health problems in the subsequent second and third generation of children to be born as well. There is a further photographic exhibiton of black and white shots of children that have been affected by Agent Orange. It is heart breaking, i realise i've been walking around with what feels like a rock stuck in my throat. This is very difficult viewing, looking over at the Argentinians i can see that they are teary eyed too.
The War museum has come under question as being heavily biased against the U.S – and in instances written off by some quarters as pure propaganda. Certainly some of the wording of the exhibitions focuses heavily on gentle Vietnamese forces requesting peace against the evil American Imperialist overlords. But some of the most disturbing and upsetting details about the war showcased here – the My Lai Massacre and indeed the use of Agent Orange are now widely known and accepted as fact along with the culture of coverup and lack of transparency that dominated the US governments communication of the war effort. This gradually led to massive wide scale protests for peace from citizens around the world including America. It is this global outcry that the exhibition finishes on as well as a plea to Barack Obama to acknowledge the damage done to subsequent generations of Vietnamese children through the use of Agent Orange and to provide some form of compensation – a process that has already started for U.S veterans affected by the chemical.