The War Remnants Museum, found in the heart of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, houses a fascinating selection of exhibits, mainly related to the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Its former names have included the lengthy The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government, later shortened to the Museum of American War Crimes and then the War Crimes Museum. Despite changing its name to promote friendlier relations with the USA, anti-American feelings are still strong within the museum walls.
Several buildings house different exhibitions, ranging from displays of propaganda posters, military equipment and machinery, anti-war artwork, details about the effects of Agent Orange and other chemicals used during the war, many personal accounts of those affected by such chemicals, and replicas of prison cells used by the South Vietnamese government to confine political prisoners.
The museum provides a very one-sided picture of the war, condemning only the horrific acts committed by the South Vietnamese and American forces during the war, omitting any negative information about the activities and war efforts of the victorious North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong resistance forces.
On entering the museum grounds, you are surrounded by machines of war, including planes, helicopters and large tanks. All the bold US Army lettering painted on various vehicles really made me think I had been transported to the scene of M*A*S*H, and I had to try hard to resist the urge to start humming, or even worse still, singing, the catchy theme tune, Suicide is Painless. I also had an internal battle to prevent myself from yelling out “Good Morning Vietnam!”
The front of the building presented a rather uninspiring sight; a drab grey and glass rectangle with rows of red Vietnam flags on top.
Entering the museum, it was quite a sterile area, with an area dedicated to bright propaganda posters. I spent some time looking at them, particularly drawn to one showing the serious face of a young Vietnamese girl. There were posters depicting the allegiance between Vietnam and Cuba, others with forceful slogans, some newspaper clippings and photographs. The different languages used in the display pieces was interesting, with Vietnamese, Japanese, English and German being some of the languages I was able to make out.
Continuing up the stairs we came to the exhibits surrounding the use of Agent Orange, Napalm and other chemicals by US forces during the Vietnamese War. I found this section particularly harrowing and disturbing, and my earlier light-hearted mood quickly vanished. I learnt more about how chemicals were dropped on not only opposition forces, but also on civilian areas as well, causing total devastation. The most shocking thing that I learnt though was how these deadly chemicals continue to impact on the Vietnamese people today.
There are many many photographs on display, showing people with various deformities caused by being affected by toxins whilst still inside their mothers’ wombs. Large protruding heads, missing or deformed limbs and digits, and missing eyes are all examples of how the chemicals can affect an unborn baby. Babies are affected when their parents lived in area sprayed with Agent Orange, but the harmful effects continue along the generations, with babies still entering the world today suffering because of the acts from yesterday. This for me was the most horrifying thing, that a war long since ended can still be creating innocent casualties.
The museum makes no attempt to sanitise the displays, with gruesome images on display to achieve maximum impact. And, in my opinion, this is by far the best way to educate people and help them to fully understand the devastating effects borne from chemical warfare. Even my mother, who is generally quite hard-hearted when visiting such places, was sickened and saddened by what she saw.
Perhaps worse than the photographs though are jars of deformed foetuses on display. Grotesque and almost frightening, it is hard to believe that these monstrous creatures floating about in formaldehyde could have been born to human parents. The sub-human shapes in the bottles could have been born to live within society. I could not help but feel revulsion and nausea, both at the things in front of me and at the knowledge of what had caused them to be how they were.
Other displays housed many black and white photographs of people involved in the war, as well as information about and personal accounts from various people, including wartime photographers. Information is provided about the mistreatment of civilians, and there are photographs of conditions in the country at war. I almost wish I’d visited these displays first, as then I may have taken more in and had a better recollection about them. As it is, my most lingering memories from the museum are of the Agent Orange displays.
There are also some reconstructed cells, known as Tiger Cages, which show the conditions in which political and other prisoners of war were kept and tortured. Imagining being put in one of those tiny spaces left me feeling a bit queasy. Outside, there are also examples of instruments of torture, including a guillotine. These, to me, highlighted the extreme acts of cruelty that man is willing to commit in the name of war. Living in a time of relative peace in a relatively peaceful country, it is really hard for me to imagine people being possible of doing such things.
Leaving the museum through the same courtyard as I had entered, all urges to sing, hum or shout had long diminished, and it was with a sense of sadness and deep emotion that I went to continue my adventures in Ho Chi Minh City.
The War Remnants Museum is both fascinating and horrifying at the same time, providing a very vivid account of one side of the Vietnamese War. Despite the heavy bias, it is well worth a visit. People should never forget the sins of war, and this museum tries to ensure that the Vietnamese War sins and atrocities are never forgotten, and tries to show the world the horrors that the country suffered and indeed, the horrors that are still being suffered today.
The museum is open from 7:30am to noon, and again between 1:30pm to 5pm, with the last admission being at 4:30pm. It is within easy walking distance of the Reunification Palace, another interesting sight in Ho Chi Minh City. The War Remnants Museum is probably not recommended for young children, due to the disturbing images on display.
What other war museums pack an emotional punch? Where else provides unrestricted information, without trying to dilate the impacts of war? Have you visited any other museums or war attractions that have really left their mark?