No matter where you grow up, you’re always going to hear a slightly skewed version of historical events. As an Australian, I learned briefly in high school about the trauma Aussie soldiers – and their American allies – experienced during Vietnam War.
But travelling to the country itself gives you an entirely new, and often thoroughly biased, perspective on events.
Vietnam’s museums provide quality displays and fascinating stories you often don’t hear back home. But many of them do portray an interesting version of events.
Here are three Vietnamese museums that display a more obvious inclination towards Vietnamese propaganda, sometimes to the point of hilarity:
War Remnants Museum – Ho Chi Minh City
Type ‘Vietnamese propaganda museums’ into Google and the words War Remnants Museum dominate the page. Nestled away in a leafy downtown suburb in Ho Chi Minh City, this museum is dedicated to the Vietnam War – or, as it is more suitably called in Vietnam, the American War.
It is a first-class museum, an imposing grey concrete structure that makes you tremble just to look at it.
And perhaps that’s the museum’s point, because as I wandered through the well-presented exhibits, I got a sense, as an Australian, that my country had done something rather wrong (Australian forces joined U.S. forces in the Vietnam War) and that I must personally pay for it by enduring the grim displays.
There is truth to the museum – there’s no doubt about that.
But as you make the rounds of the themed rooms outlining the damaging effects of the chemical Agent Orange on the population even today and the horrible matter of the My Lai massacre, you start to notice a bias in the story-telling.
You’ve got to keep in mind that at its inception in 1975 this museum was called rather cutely the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, and then more grimly The Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, before finally adopting its tamer title after improved diplomatic relations with the United States in 1995. The museum is still owned and run by the Vietnamese government.
I’ll admit, at first I was taken in with the images on display. I found myself fuming that little investigation into U.S. war crimes in Vietnam was ever pursued. It rankled that no real justice had been sought for the My Lai massacre. And I thought it unfair that the Vietnamese still battled with the after-effects of Agent Orange.
But slowly, when the realisation seeped in that the Vietnam War, or the American War, wasn’t a single story as it was depicted here, I began to view the displays with a more critical eye.
And that’s a shame, because what is on display is all true and deserves attention. But it is not the whole truth.
Regardless, the museum is a worthwhile visit. The appropriation of American tools of war – machine guns, fighter jets, helicopters, and tanks – are fun to admire in the courtyard, and the exhibition on war journalists and photographers killed in action is touching. It is even worth learning ‘the other side’ of the story, whether its telling is skewed or not.
Cu Chi Tunnels – near Ho Chi Minh City
This bizarre strip of land near Ho Chi Minh City has become an unnerving playground for war tourists. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a network of – you guessed it – tunnels the Viet Cong built to shelter themselves from bombs, house troops, transport communications and supplies, and launch attacks, after which they could disappear underground without a trace.
The notion is pretty cool – these tunnels stretched for hundreds of kilometres and made combating the Viet Cong difficult indeed.
But today, the effect is dulled; the tunnels have been expanded, sometimes by over 50 percent, to accommodate the rather more rotund foreign visitors, and large groups of visitors swarm over the site.
War propaganda here is rife. Tour groups are first ushered into bunkers to be treated to a sensationalised black-and-white video that outlines the interesting history of the Cu Chi Tunnels and applauds the bravery of ‘American killer heroes’.
After hearing about the hardships of the Viet Cong and the Cu Chi villagers during this time, groups are then shown – with disconcerting enthusiasm – the clever spiked booby traps designed to skew unsuspecting American and Australian soldiers in any number of gruesome ways.
And if all this isn’t enough, the piece-de-resistance of the showground is the opportunity for tourists to launch a bazooka or release several rounds of ammunition into a shredded field. The pa-pa-pa of gunfire echoes across terrain for kilometres.
Oh, it’s fun.
Particularly when you’re given the chance to slither through a forty-metre section of enlarged tunnel and get an idea of what it would have been like down there for the sly VC soldiers.
But all this really serves to do is diminish the truly horrifying truths of war and to make a sport out of it.
Hey, it’s drawing in piles of dosh for the locals, and I suppose there’s a certain eloquence to their cashing in on a taxing history, but I would hate to think what war vets – Vietnamese and foreigners alike – would make of a place like this.
Hoa Lo Prison – Hanoi
Better known as the Hanoi Hilton, the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi comprises the remnants of the original prison used to house first Vietnamese prisoners of war against the French resistance, and then American prisoners of war.
The entrance to the prison is a tasteful archway inscribed with Maison Centrale. Inside the few rooms are displays on the treatment of ‘patriotic revolutionary soldiers’ held by the French. Their cells are damp, dank cages. In larger rooms, men in tattered robes were shackled together at the ankles.
Progressing through the museum, the final rooms display how captured American soldiers fared under the treatment of the Northern government.
They had twin rooms and came together at Christmas to erect the festive tree and make decorations. They even had time to revive their basketball skills and their chess tactics, as we can see in the rather forced photographs of the prisoners at play.
Vietnam has a fascinating history. And it’s worth sussing out the country’s museums while you’re there.
They may not always provide a fair representation of events – although they all have uncomfortable truths I might otherwise not have known.
It’s good to be humbled; to realise that there are multiple ways to view shared histories and to receive insight into other perspectives.
But in visits like this, you can discover something about a country not just in learning its past, but in the way it chooses to convey it.
I’ve got plenty of Vietnamese adventures where this came from. Check out some of my other related travel stories: