(this one gets a little preachy – you’ve been warned)
Imagine, if you will, a bad science fiction movie. Evil aliens have invaded the Earth. Their motives are unclear but their goal is simple: subjugate the human race. They come with advanced technology: fantastic flying machines, impossible bombs, chemicals that destroy the environment and cause children to be born with terrible illnesses. They treat us cruelly, burning our towns and villages, making no distinction between soldiers and women and children. Worse, they have recruited some humans as allies, using them to do much of the dirty work. But the human race is not quite so easy to conquer. Fighting tirelessly over 30 years, a group of cunning soldiers led by a charismatic leader manage to overthrow the oppressors, destroying their tools of war and sending their army back to their home planet in tatters, never to trouble humanity again.
That’s basically the plot of the Vietnam War – just replace “alien” with “American” and “human” with “Vietnamese”.
It is difficult to travel to Ho Chi Minh City without thinking about the Vietnam War. Even the airport hints at it – the code SGN refers to Saigon, what it was called before it was renamed to honor the father of the Vietnamese Communist Party after the reunification. Two war-focused sites top most lists of tourist attractions in South Vietnam: the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels.
The War Remnants Museum is located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. It has a large outer courtyard filled with American armaments abandoned after the war: airplanes, a helicopter, tanks, artillery, bomb casings. The 9-year-old in me was delighted, but it’s hard to read about hundreds of tanks, thousands of artillery pieces and bulldozers, and hundreds of thousands of rifles without wondering how much they cost. How many teachers, nurses and social workers we could have hired with that money, how many schools and bridges we could have built with that steel?
Inside the building were a number of well-put-together exhibits. There was a tribute to combat photographers. Sections on the My Lai massacre and the effects of Agent Orange turned my stomach. There was a moving room dedicated to anti-war activists both in the civilian population and within the military, reminding us that organized protest can and does change the world for the better, even if it takes a while.
That evening, I discussed the museum with a few Europeans on the roof of the hostel, none of whom knew much about the war going into it. “Surely,” they said “it couldn’t have been that bad. At least some of this must be propaganda. History is written by the victors, after all.” Some probably is, particularly the omission of any atrocities carried out by the NVA, but from what I remember from high school history and what I’ve read since the depiction of the American side of the war war is pretty accurate. The fabricated casus belli, the incompetence of military leadership, the shortage of discipline in the ranks, the blatant disregard for the laws of war, the tremendous economic damage and general human misery of engendered are all well documented. As much as I’m a lefty pacifist, I think it’s a pretty well accepted fact amongst Americans that the Vietnam War was a giant, shameful mistake on the part of our country.
The other attraction is the Cu Chi tunnels, more than 100 km dug with hand tools by the Viet Cong in the area northwest of Saigon, a critical part of their guerilla war. There are exhibits on booby traps, an opportunity to fire an AK47, and of course the tunnels themselves. The parts that are open to tourists have been widened and had lights installed and they’re still terrifyingly claustrophobic. I cannot imagine being down in the deep bunkers (9m underground) for extended periods hiding from an American bombing run.
The focus on the VC experience was a nice counterpoint to the War Remnants Museum (which focused on the American side), and really showed the desperation and determination of the North Vietnamese fighters. I guess that’s the difference between fighting an unjust war on foreign soil and fighting to defend your homeland from invaders. For them, there was no such thing as “do your tour and try to make it home in one piece”.
From these two war museums, I have two conclusions. The first is that war, or at least a war of aggression, is unacceptable – it’s ruinous for everyone involved, except perhaps for whoever owns the weapons factory, and there is no end that justifies such a terrible means.
The second is that standing up to tyranny works. Whether it’s a group of scrappy guerrillas fighting back against the world’s most powerful military, or a group of concerned citizens protesting against the world’s most entrenched military-industrial complex, you have more power than you think.
In case you’re curious what I’m doing, I have left Ho Chi Minh City and traveled about 300 km northeast by bus to the town of Da Lat. Known as the city of flowers, Da Lat is a smallish town way up in the hills (elevation 1500 m) and so has a much more temperate climate than the cost (I even wore a sweater this evening). It’s a hub for outdoor sports, including hiking, canyoning and white water rafting. I’ll spend a few days here before heading back to the cost and continuing north toward Hanoi, where I intend to arrive by the first of November.
As cool as Saigon was, with a vibrant energy and fantastic food, I was ready to leave after just a few days. Staying there was exhausting. I am ready now for a relaxing stint out in the country.