For those of us who are old enough to remember when Ho Chi Minh City was called Saigon the name will forever be linked to the Vietnam war or, as the Vietnamese call it, the American war. It’s been 43 years since the first GIs landed in Da Nang on March 8, 1965 and 33 years since the last U.S. helicopter took off from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon and fled to the safety of an American warship. During that 33 years Vietnam, a divided and war-ravaged country, has rebuilt its shattered infrastructure, resolved its political differences, and emerged as one of Southeast Asia’s most successful economic powers. Except for a scattering of war memorials and museums the legacy of the American war has been largely eclipsed by Vietnam’s surging market economy.
On our 2,800 km journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City we saw only a few relics of the American War, always from the Vietnamese perspective. A plaque beside the wreckage of a B52 bomber in an upscale Hanoi neighbourhood pays tribute to the skill of the gunners who brought it down. The burned out shell of an American tank commemorates the Vietnamese patriot who gave his life to destroy it, and the occasional memorial to Uncle Ho celebrates the ultimate victory of his communist resistance fighters over “foreign aggressive forces.”
As a tourist it would be possible to travel through modern Vietnam without seeing any evidence of that devastating conflict. But the scars are there, just out of sight, and ignoring them is to ignore some of modern history’s most compelling lessons about the futility of war. Any political leader who even contemplates resorting to military intervention in another country should first be required to visit the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Behind the usual array of tanks, fighter aircraft, and ordnance the museum’s eight thematic exhibits focus on the human side of the war as seen by the Vietnamese.
Using photographs, text, and videos the displays document in horrific detail the brutality of the French colonial occupation, the struggle for independence, and the tragic intervention of the U.S. with its state-of-the-art weaponry. The statistics are mind-boggling — three million Vietnamese (mostly civilians) killed and two million wounded. The U.S. used 14 million tons of munitions in Vietnam, seven times the amount used in WW2. Seventy million litres of toxic chemicals, including agent orange, were dumped onto the ground, destroying over 20,000 sq km of forest and agricultural land. Napalm and huge BLU-82 seismic bombs were deployed against both military targets and the environment in an effort to defoliate the jungle and expose the enemy.