Inside Vietnam's war museum, some truths are still hard to face

By Thuy Vi, Thanh Nien News

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A foreign visitor sits down to look at two baby bodies killed by Agent Orange in a glass tomb at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City during a visit on March 18, 2015. Photo: Minh Le A foreign visitor sits down to look at two baby bodies killed by Agent Orange in a glass tomb at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City during a visit on March 18, 2015. Photo: Minh Le

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A woman draws her friend’s attention to a photo of a forest that had been sprayed gray and looked barren, shaking her head slightly.
On the other side of the wall, a young couple look at images of people deformed by bombs and defoliant, some still managing to smile while others seem to be in agony.
The man, who has tattoos on his arm, bends to look into a glass box built like a tomb on a platform on the ground.
He sees two curled-up bodies of babies killed by Agent Orange, according to the caption. He rises quickly.
His girlfriend is about to kneel but he stops her.
“It’s too much,” he tells her.
Curiosity, tension and disapproval are palpable in the Agent Orange section at the War Remnants Museum as people come to learn about Vietnam’s war history, but not all of them are prepared for the harsh truths.
The museum, which stands at a busy corner in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, opened in 1975 soon after the Vietnam War ended and was named the Gallery of the US and Puppets’ Crimes.
It was renamed the War Crimes of Aggression Gallery in 1990 before switching to the current name in July 1995, a week before US and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations.
Most of the exhibits are from and about the Vietnam War, except for one section where Con Dao Prison used by the French colonial government has been re-created.
Mentioned on sites targeting foreign tourists like Lonely Planet, the museum has drawn more people of late.
A representative said it used to receive 500,000 visitors a year, but the figure has jumped to 700,000 the past two years, 70 percent of them foreigners.
And it is a place where history is not just for old people.
One steamy afternoon last week, a large group of young westerners were standing outside the main gate, most of them in sleeveless T-shirts and shorts, waiting for it to open after the lunch break.
An hour later every section, from that of anti-war movements to weaponry and vehicles the US used during the war, was crowded.
The anti-war gallery has many photos showing demonstrations in the United States and across Europe. Many of the visitors that afternoon stopped there to see what the world, and pretty much their countries, did about the war.
A couple of visitors kept gazing at boards containing anti-war statements made by politicians at the time, while others spent almost an hour under the baking sun, taking photos of the tanks and helicopters in the courtyard.
Huynh Ngoc Van, the museum director, said as the one in charge of curating the sections, she is equally emotional about all of them. But she spoke a lot about the Agent Orange section, which is usually the most crowded but also quietest.
Opening hours
The museum is open daily at 7:30 a.m. to noon and 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Tickets cost VND15,000 for foreigners and VND2,000 for locals.
Address: 28 Vo Van Tan Street, Ward 6, Dist. 3.
Van said she tried to make it as striking as possible.
She chose black and orange for the room, a combination that is “strong and hits the eyes,” she explained.
The museum used to have the bodies of babies killed by Agent Orange in jars, but it upset visitors who said it did not look good.
Many suggested the museum should bury the bodies, but Van decided to put them in a glass tomb so that people can still see them.
Some people hug the tomb and cry, she said.
Visitors have described the museum as moving, educational, depressing, confronting, even gruesome or graphic.
But all agreed that it is a must-see place.
Van said some foreigners have come back multiple times.
Petra Fladke-Siefent, a German woman who was in Vietnam for the first time, said that she is interested in Vietnam’s history and has read some books about its war legacy, but that the museum offers a lot more information.
“The museum is interesting as it tells an important part of the history of Vietnam. It shows what happened here.”
Who tells the story?
 
Some foreign visitors criticize the museum. Andre Harvey of California, the US, wrote on TripAdvisor after a visit last December that the museum offers an "incredible and complete" history of the Vietnam War, but from North Vietnam's perspective.
Some others say though the museum offers great insight into Vietnam’s history, it is a bit one-sided and sensationalizes certain things.
Cian Reid, 31, an Australian volunteer who is doing a two-month internship as a guide at the museum, has the answer to such questions.
“The museum is about Vietnam and Vietnam telling its story and why it thinks America came and fought a war.
“It isn’t about why Americans think their government came.”
Reid is interested in military history and his father used to fight in what is now Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, which “was some extra incentive to come here and volunteer.”
He said that some foreign visitors want to discuss with him American politics and why America came to Vietnam, but that it is not something the museum can answer.
Van said her museum tries to be fair, pointing out it uses documents from various sources. The Requiem room, for example, exhibits pictures taken by 134 photographers from 11 countries including renowned Japanese war photographer Bunyo Ishikawa and Philip Jones Griffiths from Britain.
“We display everything quite fairly here. We have tried to make visitors look at the war as objectively as possible.”
The descriptions of photos and events are kept to who did what, when and where because it is not about who was wrong or right, she said.
“We don’t blame anyone.
“Our ultimate goal is not to embarrass anyone.
“We just want the world to learn from the lessons in Vietnam to stop wars and make peace.”
  

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