22 August 2007

Travel: Saigon, Remembering the War

The War Remants Museum in Saigon provides a stark reminder of the effect the "American War", as it is called, has had on Vietnam over the past forty years. Originally known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, its name was changed recently so as not to offend tourists from those countries (apparently, this was lost on the group that named the new series of golf courses that runs from the north to the south of the country the "Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail").

Aside from an actual U.S. base, I have never seen so much U.S. military equipment in one location. There were tanks, armored troop carriers, howitzers, helicopters, propeller- and jet planes, guns and ammunition. And there was propaganda.

As expected, this is a one-sided exhibition. In reality, you can look at it as a passionate statement on the horrors of war. There were accounts of well-known atrocities, as well as illustrations of the effects of the widespread use of napalm, Agent Orange, and other weapons. Pictures of terrible deformities were bad enough - but the preserved fetuses really brought the message home. There are many there who still bear the consequences of the war today, both physical and economic. After seeing the museum, I wondered if the disabled beggars in the streets were victims of the war. Some surely were. But, there is another group that may still suffer. Apparently, cyclo drivers, the pilots of the bicycle/rickshaw vehicles where the passenger sits in a seat in front of the bike, count among their population trained doctors and lawyers and other professionals who sided with South Vietnam during the war and were unable to find work after. This is a sad story in itself, although one I read about only - I didn't ask any of the numerous cyclo drivers I saw.

There was no mention of the Hanoi Hilton or any practices of the NVA and Viet Cong. There were replicas of the "tiger cages" the South Vietnamese used to house and torture their prisoners. Pretty brutal stuff. And there was even a guillotine, which was used by the French until their ouster in 1954, and that looked all too operational and none too secure (in fact, I'm pretty sure that with a quick turn of a screw, you could have thrown a party like it was 1789 again).

I am not going to get on a political soapbox here, and I knew exactly what to expect, but the museum is very biased. I do have to mention the clever use of a quote from the Declaration of Independence, "...that all men were created equal...", accompanying a pretty gruesome picture of death and destruction. I didn't expect fair treatment of the NVA or Viet Cong. I do wonder this, however. Much is said about the actions of the U.S. during a 10 year war. What about the preceding century and a half of colonial rule that was characterized by systematic oppression, destruction, and abuse of the local population and resources? I guess that is old history.

After the museum, I thought I would skip the Reunification Palace. But, I decided to visit the next day, and I was glad I did. The palace is a grand building that housed the government of the Republic of Vietnam, before it ceased to exist in April, 1975.

The first communist tanks that arrived in Saigon on the last day of that month headed straight towards this building, smashing through its gates with little resistance. This moment was captured on camera and shown throughout the world (I have posted a copy of that picture from the palace's small museum and a picture of those same gates as they look today). A soldier immediately ran up four flights of stairs to unfurl the VC flag from the fourth floor balcony. Meanwhile, in an ornate reception room on the second floor, the head of the Republic of Vietnam (who had been in office for only 43 hours) waited patiently with his cabinet. When the VC officer entered the room, the president said, "I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you." In response, the VC officer said, "There is no question of your transferring power. You cannot give up what you did not have." And with that, the war was over.

The building is preserved pretty much as it was that day. It is open and airy, with spacious chambers, high ceilings and lots of natural light. The first two floors contain large formal meeting rooms that are tastefully decorated in that "modern" '60s style, with offices and a library on the third floor. The fourth floor is the roof, where the VC flag was unfurled. It provides a panoramic view of the city - probably not such a great view to its inhabitants in the Spring of '75.

The basement is altogether different. This was the command center. There are a couple of big maprooms, with maps on the wall that reflect troop positions and movements. I couldn't read the Vietnamese, but they appeared to show the encroachment of the NVA and VC, painting a portrait of imminent defeat.

The palace was known by many different names. The original building, constructed in 1868, was known as Norodom Palace. After the French left, it served as the home for the South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. He was so hated by his people, however, that his own air force bombed the palace in 1962 in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him. He ordered it rebuilt (with a sizeable bomb shelter in the basement), and it was completed in 1966. Diem, however, never saw the finished work, as he was killed by his own troops in 1963. You would think he would have learned a lesson. For the next nine years, the palace was known as Independence Palace or the Presidential Palace.

As I have mentioned before, Vietnam combines an ancient past you find anywhere in Asia with a recent history that is familiar to almost everyone of a certain (youngish) age. I am glad I got to visit these two sites, because they really made that come alive.

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