Yesterday Jo and I visited the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants museum. I was told to expect a very anti-American stance in these places, which I duly found, but to even more of an extent than I was anticipating. I spent the whole of my last year at uni studying the Vietnam War and also wrote my dissertation on it, but it felt like I was learning about a whole other war after hearing the Vietnamese side of things. Of course we think the western way we’ve learnt is the ‘right way’, the objective way. But history is stained with perspective and this was so evident during my visit to these places. We had a free tour around the Palace, where first off the tour guide gave a brief history of how it was used by the ‘puppet government of the US imperialist forces’ and the president who was ‘installed by the US military’. Both these things are basically true but the language she used to describe it all was so entirely different from everything I was taught and everything I read in England. Of course this was to be expected, but it’s so difficult to pick out the truth (if there is such a thing, which I don’t think there is) between a slightly more balanced western perspective (yet by no means entirely accurate) and a very biased Vietnamese account. The way the war was portrayed in both the museum and the palace was basically thus:
The Americans were invaders who disobeyed the Geneva Agreement, the Vietnamese people all wanted the country to be one unified place. Diem and his government, installed by the US, were evil and going against the wishes of the people of the South. Everyone in the South wanted to be unifed with the North and to be communist. The great northern liberation forces were good and kind and helping the people against US murderers. The US army tortured peasants and forced them into concentration camps. The great liberation forces of the North defeated the US supported South Army and the US military fled. All other countries in the world supported the North and were against America. (This sort of language was accompanied by hundreds of photographs of US war crimes and victims of torture and agent orange)
Now, to be honest, once you strip away the emotive language, this is all sort of true. But there was no mention of the North Vietnamese atrocities, of the torture tactics of the Vietcong, of the thousands of people in the South who didn’t want to be communist or unified. It was so black and white. For example the tour guide said that the US personally murdered the first South Vietnamese President, Diem. Whilst the US did perhaps encourage South Vietnamese generals in their coup plotting against the incredibly unpopular Diem and they did essentially turn a blind eye allowing him to be murdered, they did not outright kill him themselves (arguably, however, allowing it to happen is just as bad!). Of course this does not excuse anyone, but just illustrates the different ways this episode is told. Overall I really enjoyed it but I found myself wanting some balance, some partiality. However, once again this is to be expected in such a venue! Also I think history is always going to be inescapably subjective and so it was really interesting to hear ‘the other side’.
Here are some photos to bring the place to life a bit more:
A model of the one of the tanks that entered to palace gardens on 30th April 1975.
I didn’t take many photos in the actual War Remnants Museum because most of the photos were so shocking and disturbing it seemed disrespectful to photograph them. If you google My Lai massacre you’ll get the idea. There was also a room dedicated to victims of Agent Orange and dioxin. A truly awful biological weapon used as defoliants to wipe out jungles to prevent the guerilla forces hiding. There were photos of children who had been born as late as the late 1990s who were still victims of this. Parents had been exposed to Agent Orange and other defoliants and so their children were born extremely deformed. This was one of the most upsetting rooms. There was also an excellent exhibition of war photography with pictures and captions from famous war press such as Dana Stone and Henri Huet.
I’d definitely recommend these two places to any one visiting. If anyone comes over in the next year I’d be glad to go again.
On an unrelated note, I still haven’t been sleeping! I have my first work induction tomorrow and really really need to get some sleep!