The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is a somewhat harrowing experience. The displays and images are a sobering reminder of Vietnam’s recent violent history and demonstrate what belligerent industrial nations can do to largely peasant ones. They record a raft of human emotion, suffering, persecution and orchestrated destruction from French colonial rule to war with the US.
Vietnam’s journey to independence and reunification has been decades long and costly. Three million Vietnamese died during the war with the US (two million were civilians) two million people were injured, and 300,000 are still officially missing.
Vietnamese losses are all the more breath-taking when considering the thousands who died during the war against the French and the million or so who perished during the famine of 1943-44, when the Japanese stripped Vietnam of its rice harvest for export to feed their own population. The latter two are not featured at the museum, though aspects of France’s colonial regime are. Neither is the role of Britain which, in 1945, sent soldiers to subjugate the Vietnamese.
The museum has several themed sections. The one on chemical defoliants demonstrates the extremes to which nations will go to achieve their aims. The results of this are grotesque and tragic. Siamese twins born deformed are displayed in a large jar next to a baby born with a grossly enlarged head as results of some 80 million litres of defoliant dropped on Vietnam by the US. This was a type of war not waged before in the annals of warfare.
Up to four million Vietnamese were apparently exposed and, it’s claimed, an estimated one million continue to suffer after effects today. Large tracts of this lush and fertile land remain barren and devoid of foliage. In 2004, Vietnam took legal action against Dow Chemicals and Monsanto, the producers of these chemicals, alleging war crimes against the Vietnamese.
The museum displays many of the weapons the US used to fight their war in Vietnam. The museum forecourt displays a bomber’s payload. These included the BLU-82 “Seismic bomb” which weighed 5000kgs, stands two-metres high, and would destroy everything within a 100m radius of impact; the CBU-55B bomb lethal up to 500m; and a 1350kg bomb, powerful enough to leave a crater 20m wide.
There are mortars and howitzers, all with their kill ranges and specifications listed including a huge self-propelled 175mm gun dubbed the “Lord of the Battlefield” by US troops, who deployed over 370 of these monsters in Vietnam. Also seen are one-time military secrets such as the Flechette, an artillery shell filled with thousands of darts; and the “mother bomb” which upon impact released “baby bombs” which shot out to explode only to greater range, thereby magnifying the bomb’s destructive power.
A section is given over to the work of two Japanese photographers, Ishikawa Bunyo and Nakamura Goro entitled “Vietnam – War and Peace” and shows the ferocity of US bombing. One picture shows a crater left by a 1350kg bomb dropped near Hue. A crater in a field full of craters, in a lunar landscape filled with more craters, as far as the eye can see. The crater is so large rain had turned it into a pond. The locals had built a small jetty into the middle and one appeared to be fishing off it.
The main exhibition area displays pictures of mangled bodies and twisted infrastructure produced by the US bombing campaign. Vietnam saw the full demonstration of strategic bombing by the world’s most powerful air force.
From 1965 to 1972, the US dropped 5,382,000 bombs on Vietnam, including almost four-and-a-half million bombs on South Vietnam, to whom they were allied. The architect of this was General Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay who declared himself oblivious to civilian casualties.
Though the Vietnamese survived, they did so at great cost. In the North, the US targeted high density population areas in Ha Noi, and elsewhere carpet bombed huge swathes at a time destroying buildings, homes and infrastructure of any kind.
According to statistics given by the Vietnamese, the US used 14 million tons of bombs and shells in Vietnam, or 20 times as much as used during the Korean War and seven times as much as all the explosives used during World War Two.
There is the famous picture of Phan Thi Kim Phuc taken in 1972, which won the photographer, Nick Ut, the Pulitzer Prize. There is another picture of her taken in 1996 holding her baby, her back still horribly scarred. She is a face of the onslaught as figures appear almost meaningless, but people relate to a name, an individual, and there she is, like she’s in the room.
There are displays of massacres of the civilian population by ground troops, like those in the Mekong Delta as part of the so-called “Pacification Programme” in the first half of 1969, which by UIS accounts killed at least 5,000 non-combatants. Others tragedies were much more publicized such as the so-called “My Lai Massacre” in March 1968 which is given space in the museum.
Part of the museum is dedicated to the repressive rule of the leaders of South Vietnam before reunification of the country in 1975. Between 1954 and 1960 the Diem regime had killed, according to figures at the museum, more than 90,000 in South Vietnam and seized, detained and tortured more than 800,000 people in a network of over 1000 small and large prisons, and detention centres. His longest ruling successor was the pro-military Nguyen Van Thieu (1965 to 1975). To ensure he maintained power, Thieu enlarged the network of spies and informers exploited by Diem and expanded the prison system utilised by the French.
The most notorious were the major detention centres, particularly Phu Quoc Island in the Gulf of Thailand, and Con Son Island in the South China Sea. These days Con Son is a sea turtle sanctuary and tourist attraction for returning Viet Cong once imprisoned there.
Under the French the island developed a sinister reputation. They used its isolation as a major prison for opponents of French colonization from 1862 onwards, earning a reputation for the routine mistreatment and torture of inmates. It was Devil’s Island, only worse and transported to the South China Sea. During the 1940s, the French built the notorious “Tiger Cages”, tiny cells where prisoners were kept manacled to iron bars and deprived of adequate food, water and ventilation for long periods.
The Diem regime took over and used these facilities against communist sympathizers and nationalists who urged the unification of Vietnam. Between 1957 and 1961, nearly 2,000 prisoners were confined in these tiny cages. In all, 120 of these tiny chambers were built with ceilings where guards could watch down on the prisoners like tigers in the zoo. There were other cells with no ceilings at all and open to the hot sun, day after day.
Over the course of four decades of war more than 20,000 people died on Con Son Island. Many prisoners were left permanently paralysed after years of abuse on the island, their limbs broken and twisted, and in some cases, amputated. Le Van Tri remarkably survived 10 years on Con Son. His photo revealed him skin and bone, and looking like an inmate of a concentration camp.
At another of the major detention centres, Thu Doc, outside Saigon, women who refused to salute the republican flag were exposed to phosphorous grenades that destroyed the lungs and ate the flesh off their faces, leaving them hideously disfigured for life. There were also the “oven” cells in which prisoners were packed into impossibly small spaces and forced to stand for long periods without food or water. So small were they, inmates had to take turns at the tiny ventilation grate in order to catch enough air to breathe.
History they say is written by the victors. Vietnam’s road to independence and unification has been brutal. Some visitors have criticised the museum for its propaganda bent or seeming glorification of Vietnam’s victory, though I see little about glorification. Some of these may be US visitors, who have attached a unique mindset to Vietnam, that of a war and not a country. What is clear is that years of almost continuous warfare have, unsurprisingly, left deep and permanent marks on the people and this land. Yet what is remarkable is their desire to move on while paying tribute to the past. A learned man once said those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. If what you know about Vietnam is restricted to Hollywood and Western media, the War Remnants Museum may not be for the fainthearted, but can also be enlightening.
The museum is housed, somewhat ironically, in the former US Information Service building. You can find it on Vo Van Tan, near central HCMC. It’s open from 7am until 5pm but closed for lunch. Entrance fee is under US$1.