I knew that a visit to the War Remnants Museum was going to be confronting. Maybe that’s why we delayed our visit until our last day in Saigon. I’d heard from other travellers that there were several floors of grisly exhibits, descriptions and photos, including some foetuses preserved in jars with horrible deformities allegedly related to Agent Orange. However, as with my shooting range encounter during the Cu Chi tunnels tour, the most profoundly affecting aspects of the museum visit came from unexpected sources.
On entering the grounds of the museum, you’re presented with a range of open-air exhibits of military equipment and weaponry circa the ‘American War’, including tanks, planes and bombs. I wasn’t much interested in these, or in this sort of trophyism, but decided to have a brief wander prior to tackling the museum proper.
Out of nowhere a beggar appeared on a crutch. He was missing an eye and a leg, and before I had time to register the full extent of his incapacity, he was clutching my hand between the soft ends of the two stumps of his arms, which had been amputated above the elbow. My immediate instinct was to withdraw my hand in revulsion. Not an admission I’m proud of but that’s how it was, and worse was to come.
I forced myself to maintain physical and eye contact, as he pleaded for money and told me his story. He said he had been maimed by a landmine and had no way of making money other than to beg. On learning of my nationality, he added that his father was an Australian soldier who had deserted his mother when his period of service was over. I began to walk off. He fixed my arm between the pincers of his stumps and again begged for money. I mumbled that I was sorry, shook myself loose and fled. I did not look back.
I will not attempt to explain myself. There is no justification for what I did, whatever the reasons.
The War Remnants Museum is blatantly propagandist. Before normalisation of relations with the US, it was known as the Museum of American War Crimes, then as the War Crimes Museum. That gives some indication of the skew of the exhibits. There are hair-raising descriptions of the torture meted out to the VC by the south Vietnamese and sanctioned by the US, and no mention of atrocities committed by the north (during or after the war).
The museum delivered in full on all the horrific photos and exhibits we’d been told about, but to be brutally honest, I became quickly desensitised to the imagery of carnage, which went on for wall after wall, floor after floor. The only photograph that cut through and remains with me still is of a helmeted American soldier shooting a baby lying on the roadside during the My Lai massacre.
I found myself rubbernecking to get a better look at a ghastly wound here, a mutilated corpse there, and I noticed many other visitors doing the same. By the time I arrived at the Agent Orange foetuses, I was sick of my inner ghoul and moved past with barely a glance.
A quote from an American mother lamenting the change the Army had wrought in her son packed a greater emotional punch than any of the ghastly images:
I gave them a good boy, and they gave me back a killer.
The ground floor photographs and quotes relating to Vietnam war protests around the world in the 60s and 70s were powerful, also. However, for me the most moving exhibit of all was a small frame on the wall on the ground floor, which contained the medals awarded to an American serviceman during his Vietnam service – including a Purple Heart.
That night, sitting at a table overlooking the street back in the District 1 party-zone, my partner and I had a delayed emotional reaction to the museum visit as we exchanged our thoughts and tried to come to terms with all we had seen. I had kept the beggar encounter to myself until then. As we stared into our beers, I was all too aware that it was of no help to him that I was sorry I had turned away. No help at all. Neither was the bitter taste of self-loathing at the back of my throat.
Soon we would regain our composure, change the subject and order something to eat. I caught the waiter’s eye, indicated two more beers.
I was glad we were leaving Saigon for the Mekong Delta in the morning.
More posts in this series on Vietnam:
Travels in Vietnam 2011: Intro
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: The Cu Chi Tunnels
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Mekong Delta
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Dalat
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Nha Trang
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hoi An
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Sleeper Bus Nightmare!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hue
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Eating and Drinking!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hype vs Reality
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Reflections & Wrap-up