I should have braced myself for the grand entrance into a communist nation, not to mention a nation that doesn't exactly call Americans friends. Perhaps it's because the Cold War is over and the communist era has taken a backburner to other international issues, I expected Saigon to be alive with all modern conveniences, industry-ready, and tourist friendly. After all, they are opening a Hard Rock Cafe–Saigon this month!
Though modern in many ways, this former South Vietnam stronghold seems to exude sadness. Few smiles are seen on the street; billboards display the hammer and sickle conspicuously alongside Vietnam's flag; and Saigon's main attraction (the Reunification Palace) stands as a daily reminder of communist presence (now reality) in Saigon. But what I saw on the streets did not prepare me for what I saw in the War Remnants Museum.
Formerly know as the Museum of American War Crimes (need I say more), its galleries bear names such as "Aggression War Crimes" and "Historical Truths" gallery (hmmm...can history really be considered "true"?). Within the walls of this museum were photos, captions, stories, and accounts of the atrocities committed by American soldiers during the American–Vietnam War.
True, there are always two sides to every story. But what disturbed me most wasn't what I saw. After all, American soldiers don't have the best reputation for playing fair during wartime. Rather, it was what I didn't see that upset me. There was no mention of South Vietnam as its own sovereign country. There was no mention of civil war. There was no mention of the fact North Vietnam killed their Southern counterparts, too. There was only mention of "liberating" the South from the hands of "the aggressor." It's as if the roots of the war were erased, South Vietnam never existed, and the reality for South Vietnamese was that of complete oppression by the United States.
The artifacts and exhibits themselves I found troubling as well. Captions for many photos created a picture of torturous, violent American soldiers injuring and killing innocent Vietnamese soldiers. At the risk of sounding pithy, this was war, people would die, and it wasn't just the Vietnamese who were dying. Also, many of the photos on display could be left open for interpretation. And with unattributed captions, could we really be so sure that the child was "begging the American soldier to not kill her father."
In content as well as presentation, the museum focused on grains of truth turning them into generalizations and reality. It amplified the actions of the "oppressor" while almost erasing North Vietnam's own participation in wartime activity. It didn't record history, it created history...a history that generations of Vietnamese will now come to know, learn, and believe.