22.05.2012 - 31.05.2012 97 °F
War is awful. The Vietnam or, American War as it is called here was awful and the impact it had and still has on the Vietnamese people and their country is truly immeasurable. As a 24 year old American girl who was not alive during the war and by no means is an expert on the topic I am choosing to blog about what we have seen, heard, done and felt related to the War as we have traveled through Vietnam.
First of all, Swhite and I were a tad worried about how we would be received in Vietnam once people found out we were American due to comments made by other travelers. Of course it's not right but people are constantly blamed, singled out or harassed for an association they have absolutely no control over and we had no idea if that could be the case for us in Vietnam. Granted, most of the people who told us to "be careful" or "watch out, they really hate Americans" were not American themselves. We were still a bit cautious so we looked up some blogs/forums from other travelers and didn't read about any hostility other American backpackers/travelers have experienced which made us feel much better. Vietnamese people are friendly and have greeted us cheerfully and treated no differently than any other travelers so far. Even so, I find myself holding my breath when any possible war reference comes up after it has become known that we are American. For example, I was on the back of a motorcycle on a 8 km ride and the driver was quite chatty and spoke excellent English. He asked me where I was from and I told him then I asked him where he learned to speak English so well and he said, "from my Australian mommy." I asked him if he lived in Australia and he said, "No, my parents died in the American War and I was put in an orphanage. But I was very lucky to get a second mom to adopt me." He then continued on to say how he really wished he had an American accent instead of an Australian one when he speaks English so he is going to keep working at it. I found that to be amazing. No hate or blame for all that happened because of MY country and MY government less than 50 years ago. Somehow the Vietnamese people have learned to forgive much quicker than other nations/cultures seem to, including my own. The Vietnamese people seem to truly understand the phrase, "Only lay blame where blame is due." much better than others and therefore do not punish me for the mistakes the US Government made years before. All of this instantly reminds me of how American people and the US Government have treated people of middle eastern decent after 911. We could learn a lot from the Vietnamese people.
We flew into Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) from Bangkok and visited the War Remnants Museum our second day. The museum was split into 6 themes spanning three floors. The themes were, Historical Truths, Requiem- collection of war documentary photos, Imprisonments Conditions, Aggressive War Crimes, The World People in Support of Vietnam's Resistance and a Children's Education room.
The main entrance had exhibit for The World People in Support of Vietnam's Resistance and we were shocked at how widespread the protests were. It seemed as if the exhibit had pictures or examples of protests from EVERY corner of the world. How could the war have raged on for 20 years?
The exhibit started like this:
Here are some examples in support of the resistance efforts around the world:
Newspapers clippings about the "Pilot Who Said 'No'":
An excerpt from the Minutes of a Congress meeting in 1969 by Rep. William Clay:
An excerpt from a declaration signed by 1,000 American university professors and lecturers:
As we worked our way upstairs to the Imprisonment Conditions and Aggressive War Crimes exhibits what we saw and read made us sick to our stomachs. The shame, sadness and guilt I felt walking through these exhibits was almost unbearable. Although I am fully aware it's misplaced, I cannot separate the fact that Americans did this damage and I am American too. I can't possibly say enough great things about the USA and being American and how fortunate I feel all of the time but it's very hard to feel that same pride when reading quotes like this:
And then to see a quote from former Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara years later like this:
If you can't read it it says, "Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."
We saw many pictures like these:
And spent time trying to comprehend statistics like these:
One of the most heartbreaking exhibits of all was the one about Agent Orange in the Historical Truths section. How could this have possibly happened? How could someone approve a strategy like this? We learned that the Viet Cong in the South worked and lived as farmers so they blended in and no one could identify who they were but it just doesn't make sense that spraying such a dangerous chemical over everything would be a solution. I just don't understand. Even worse, we read information about how the chemical plants who provided Agent Orange claimed they were not liable for the effects of the chemical and refused to provide compensation to the Vietnamese people. There was also a letter written to Obama in 2009 from a young Vietnamese woman affected by Agent Orange congratulating Obama for having two healthy daughters with endless opportunities to be the best they can be and asked him to help the children of Vietnam affected so severely by the lasting impact of the war to be afforded the same opportunities. I haven't done my research to find out how Obama responded but a part of me feels like nothing would ever be enough.
Here is the distribution of the chemical and the effects on the land:
But the most difficult to look at and incomprehensible were the effects on people's bodies and the bodies of the innocent children born to exposed parents.
The war documentary photos were pretty incredible as well. It's hard to imagine someone taking pictures during a war but they are so powerful.
Swhite and I left the museum feeling sad and disgusted and speechless. Swhite put it perfectly when she finally said, "I feel like I can't complain about anything ever again."
As we made our way north to various other cities along the coast we stopped in Hue to see the Demilitarized Zone and civilian tunnels. We had a great guide who spoke English really well and was a wealth of knowledge. She told us that the US government along with three other countries funds a program on TV that educates locals on how to be safe in areas with landmines or bombs that could still explode. These programs air regularly along with information at the schools to help people become aware. I am unsure of how much the US is doing or not doing to help get Vietnam on their feet again. Effort is effort but like I said before, it just seems like nothing will ever be enough.
We visited some of the civilian tunnels that whole villages would hide in to protect themselves from bombs for SIX years. Since the War was fought on land in the south and by air in the north, the people were relatively safe in the tunnels because the entrances were covered by trees and not visible from the air. Our guide said no one ever stayed underground for more than 5 days/5 nights at a time but we were ready to get out of there after 10 minutes!
Here is the room size that is supposed to house families of 4 people:
17 babies were born in this tunnel over the 6 year period. Can you imagine??
At the museum we learned that people tried to make life as normal possible down there. We saw pictures of kids in school, town meetings and even musical performances.
The rest of the afternoon we visited the head of the Ho Chi Minh trail, a small military cemetery for the North Vietnamese soldiers where almost all of the headstones read, "unknown" and a mountain top US base with lots of conflicting information. We read a few guestbook entries and many US veterans who had visited wrote about how the museum at the base was not depicting true information about particular battles or events. No one will ever know I guess except the people who fought. It was awful to read how many US veterans say they were sent on a suicide mission and didn't even know what they were fighting for and used terms like "sacrificed by our own government." One summed it up by saying, "both sides fought with courage and bravery" and some focused on how much they like visiting and how wonderful the Vietnamese people are. The entries were quite varied and we didn't really know what to make of them.
I am glad we visited the museums and sites and learned more about the war but I cannot even begin to explain how shocked and saddened I was to learn all of the things I learned. Like I said in the beginning, war is awful.