Vietnam Vacation: Learning about the American War

28 04 2012

As we planned for our vacation to Vietnam, I knew a significant part of the trip would be devoted to history of the Vietnam War. First, I am always interested in seeing a completely different perspective than I’m used to. Second, seeing where my Dad served and learning more about the Vietnam context in which he served was important to me. Lastly, I expected the war to be fully on display due both to its impact on the country and because of the communist/socialist tendency to focus on “the struggle.”

As we started in Saigon, we booked a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi is a town about an hour outside of Saigon and was a Vietcong staging area for much of the war. As such, it is home to one of the largest tunnel complexes in the country. Going with a tour group had its predictable annoyances, but the entire atmosphere of the tunnel complex was one of a theme park and not a historical site. As we walked along the footpaths, stopping occasionally to see a tunnel entrance, the sounds of rifle and machine gun fire reverberated off the hills. Halfway through the tour, attendees are given the opportunity to fire Vietnam-era weapons, presumably to encourage PTSD flashbacks for visiting veterans. Simply said, this wasn’t my favorite part of the trip.

At the Cu Chi Tunnels

That afternoon, we went to the War Remnants museum. Due to scheduling changes, this all happened to be on Katie’s birthday (thanks for putting up with me). She was a good sport about learning about death and destruction all day. The museum was incredibly well organized and told a much more balanced story than I expected. In terms of language, the war was called the “American War” and the phrase “the American aggressors” was prevalent. There was little to no mention of the South Vietnamese or Russian materiel support for the NVA. The war was very much framed as a united people repelling a foreign invader, with careful wordplay to avoid any impression that a civil war had ever occurred. There was a war crimes room, which made a less than compelling argument for charges against the US. Perhaps most poignant was the Agent Orange room. Even those with the most skeptical eye would have had a difficult time arguing with the pictures of decimated landscapes, blistered skin, and birth defects. Lastly, there was a display given by the commonwealth of Kentucky featuring American journalists’ work who were killed in the war. All of the displays were informative, factually accurate (as far as my knowledge goes) and no more slanted than any museum in the US. Most bias that could be drawn from the experience was from the information that was not presented rather than the information that was.

I still don't know how they get in the air.

As we worked our way up north, we stopped in Nha Trang and headed off for a day trip to Cam Ranh Bay where my Dad was stationed in 1969. We saw the deep water port where supplies were offloaded, the landing strip turned domestic airport, and the amazing cliffs that led to the blue-green water below. There wasn’t much left from the ‘60s, but it was still amazing to see such a historical and emotional, but beautiful place. It filled me with gratitude that I was able to be there because I wanted to be.

Sure was a beautiful place to fight a war.

We stopped not too far north of the DMZ in Dong Hoi as a base to go to Paradise Cave. Dong Hoi was heavily bombed during the war and had the demolished church to prove it. With only a steeple remaining, the sign reported that this was proof of the “American aggressors’ war crimes.” We kept walking.

After we arrived in Hanoi after Halong Bay, we headed off to the Hoa Lo Prison, more commonly known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Where Saigon’s War Remnants Museum featured a foundation of truth with creative storytelling, the Hanoi Hilton didn’t even try to be evenhanded or factual. Room after room showed evidence of Vietnamese political activists tortured by the French in subhuman conditions, until the 1960s, when apparently the accommodations were just lovely. Photos of American POWs attending church, cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and playing volleyball adorn the walls, desperately insisting that this was indeed a wonderful place to spend 6-8 years in captivity.

John McCain's flight suit.

From there, I went to the Vietnamese Military History Museum. This is when things really got weird. It featured lots of captured US aircraft, bombs, and tanks. It also featured a bolt action rifle that apparently shot down an American fighter jet. Also, it included the wreckage of American planes that were shot down during the war; a few of 33,068 American planes that were shot down. Once again, that’s 33,068. I had expected some inflation of the stats, but this was a little more than the 2,000 that the US military reports and still considerably more than the 3,100 that the other Vietnamese museums claimed! Another interesting part of the museum was the display about 1975 onward. A small part was devoted to the Vietnamese skirmishes along the Cambodian border in 1975, but not a word was written about the full scale invasion and 10 year occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese. Despite the fact that they toppled one of the most brutal regimes on the planet, the message that Vietnam would invade another country didn’t seem to fit the independence, self-determination narrative and was left out.

Despite some statistics and war stories being utterly ridiculous, this trip had it all: beautiful beaches, enormous caves, and a whole lot of interesting history lessons. Some lessons were taken with a grain of salt, but all of them gave a better look into the politics of information and into the Vietnamese psyche.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: