Vietnam is a country that has spent hundreds of years involved in one war or another. Originally China was the protagonist having invaded the country and holding reign for a thousand years. The Vietnamese managed to kick them out in the 1400’s and reclaim their country. Tribal loyalties split the country into north and south through the following period of history with many domestic wars fought between the feuding regions. The French invaded and took over in the mid 1800’s and held power until 1954 when the communist lead Viet Minh armies of the north forced a surrender. The time of the French occupation was a brutal period in Vietnamese history and the conditions for political prisoners was horrific.
The country was split into north and south with the signing of the Geneva peace accords. North Vietnam was communist and Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh) was the supreme leader of the region. It was his belief that Vietnam should be joined into one unified communist nation. In 1959 the campaign to unify north and south began. This war is what we, in the west, called the Vietnam War but here in Vietnam it is called the American War due to the contributions of the USA (and allies) in the conflict.
Militarily and politically the USA had been in Vietnam for many years, from the time the French were struggling with the Vietnamese. Initially they supported the French however after their ousting they turned their support to the south Vietnamese government/royalty. As such they were involved pretty much from the beginning of the war until they were pressured by the world to get out in 1973, the year in which the Paris Peace Accord was signed by USA, north Vietnamese, south Vietnamese and the guerrilla Viet Cong of the south.
This war is the most prominent feature of every museum we have visited. The information I have given above was never represented in a complete manner in any of the museums we visited, it has been gathered from various sources both in country and online.
In Hanoi the message was very much that the north were trying to bring the country together into some glorious communist collectivisation for the good of the people, and that the American forces were unwelcome invaders who deserved to be beaten. The emphasis was very heavy on the international condemnation of America’s involvement and room after room was filled with photographs and petitions demanding that the US leave Vietnam. I have never been to museums that tell such an obviously biased story of a historical event. I would not suggest that they were not welcome to present the information in any way they saw fit but it was quite strange to see a war painted in such blatantly propaganda filled language. We figured that perhaps we might find a more balanced view when we got to the south.
In Ho Chi Minh City there is a War Remnants Museum that we had heard was very good. We were hoping to find a different view to the vision presented in the north. We certainly got that but it was not what we were expecting. The whole museum is made up of photographs, most images taken by international photographers who were here covering the war. The images themselves were graphic and often hard to look at but the information presented with them was a lot more unbiased. Ok, yes it was still “the Americans are bad people, see what they did to us the poor Vietnamese people” but it was a lot more factual.
The things that shocked me in the end was the facts of Agent Orange. I had heard about this chemical being used and I understood that it was a defoliant used to clear the land so that the Viet Cong (southern supporters of the north) and the North Vietnamese Army were a lot more visible. What I had never really considered was just what that actually meant. It was mind boggling to read the statistics of Agent Orange and how much damage it has done to the country and the people. It is a truly evil chemical that was known to be incredibly toxic to the water supply, the land itself and to anyone exposed to it. 2 generations on there are many families who suffer from terrible birth defects because of the spraying.
I found it heart wrenching to see the images and read the stories. But more than anything it made me mad. I was profoundly angry. I understand that power and politics are part of the reason that wars are so fiercely fought and that allies (which the USA was, sort of, to the south) are called upon to help out in times of war, but to allow anyone to knowingly use such a lethal chemical and just walk away from it in the end made me sick. I know that this blog is not a place to rant, and I also know that my knowledge comes from a rather tainted source but sometimes I just want to speak my mind and this is just one of those times.
It was a rather shocking experience to go to that museum and see it laid out in a hard light but for me it was a valuable lesson in the biased nature of all information, especially when the information is only being represented by the victors (the north Vietnamese). That said, just goes to show, what we think we know, what we are told, is so often not the whole truth from either side.
Onto our last war experience though, and we went to a place called the Cu Chi tunnels just out of Ho Chi Minh City. It was the strong hold of the Viet Cong and they built a 250km network of tiny tunnels from which to run the war effort. They had hospitals down there that could care for the wounded, rest stations and safe havens in times of bombings as well as being a way to bring weapons and soldiers into then Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). We were so lucky. Our tour guide was a 67 year old veteran who had actually lived and fought from Cu Chi. Therefore we literally got the whole experience firsthand from someone who had been there. And not only was he interesting and quite excitable but his accounts were generally well peppered with humour and sound effects. He was delightful and I think that for me it certainly gave me yet another perspective of a war that until we arrived in Vietnam I knew very little about.
I hope that in no way have I offended anyone with this blog. I am a believer that all wars are terrible, many horrific things happen on all sides in a war and that no matter how much I dislike them they are a part of our history and have lessons for us all. I could not write about our visit to this country without including something about such an important part of their history.
And do you know what the best bit is…. Nowhere have we seen, heard of or felt any animosity toward any tourists from any country. Truly, Vietnam is amazing!!!!
This is an aerial shot taken in Binh Phuoc province in 2009 in the dry season showing the level of ground cover laid out in the bombing runs. Estimates are that there are still 600,000 tons of bombs left from the war.
A US tank that had been destroyed by a mine in 1970.
Mangroves after the use of agent orange. Nothing survived in the aftermath of the chemical bombing.
Me, emerging from a secret entrance to to the Cu Chi tunnels.
Ok well, not really. There was no way I was going into those hands-and-knees hot dark holes in the ground (Dave did) but I did get to drop into the hole from the top for the obligatory tourist photo op 🙂 The tunnel construction and the inventiveness and determination of the Viet Cong was truly mind blowing.