The American War, Revisited

The two spots I wanted to visit while in Saigon were the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong guerrillas hid during combat, and the War Remnants Museum. Both sites left a strong impression. I felt guilty though I played no role, ignorant though the extent of the American atrocities were not taught in school, embarrassed though I did nothing wrong, confused though the photographs told a clear story, and depressed though grateful for the exposure. I recognized I was being shown only one side of the story provided by the victors in their own country; however, even when recognizing a strong bias with prejudiced language, many of the truths of the war were evident.

While visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, the tour began with an informational video. In the video I learned of the Vietnam “heros” and the American “angry white devils”. I learned of the Vietnamese struggle for independence, freedom and peace, and of their fearless sacrifices and hardships to achieve those goals. And although it was one-sided, I was able to filter truth out of what was being said. Crawling through these tunnels and realizing how much the Viet Cong suffered from the cramped spaces and high levels of malaria also reinforced their strong will to win the American War.

The American atrocities during the war, however, did not become frighteningly clear until my visit to the War Remnants Museum. Here, among other aspects of the war, I learned much about the American’s widespread use of chemicals including the infamous Agent Orange, which included dioxin. The American’s used Agent Orange as a defoliant to expose areas under the thick jungle canopy; however, the Dioxin has had horrendous effects up to the present time in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government claims overs 4,000,000 victims of this devastating toxin although the US still denies scientific evidence linking Agent Orange and the victims of dioxin poisoning. That said, the list of cancers, diseases, and birth defects caused by dioxin is too numerous to list. In addition, along with the use of Agent Orange, the Americans also used non-targeted bombs such as cluster bombs whose damage spread to both military personnel and civilians.

The War Remnants Museum powerfully told this story through photographs. Photos of children born with birth defects. Photos of people with limbs missing and with faces disfigured. Photos of women and children dead and lying on top of each other.

In addition, I visited the museum with Serhat from Australia who I met at the Cu Chi Tunnels, and with Hoa, my new Vietnamese friend studying in Saigon. An American together with a Vietnamese viewing the photographs throughout the museum heightened the impact of the experience. Hoa was so welcoming and so kind to me, and at the same time, we were both seeing images of how people from my country hurt those from hers. Knowing there was little I could do at the time, I focused on learning as much as I could from the photos and stories presented by the museum. This day forced me to see the American War from the victor’s perspective, and I felt obliged to do so considering it was the least I could do given what I learned.

From The Calm to The City

Getting into Saigon was a shock after my time in central Vietnam. The paddy fields were replaced with buildings and the rivers with roads. However, the bustle of the city was made more manageable as I toured around with my new friend, Hoa on her motorbike. She showed me the post office with its elaborate French architecture, we toured the South Vietnam wartime headquarters, and she helped me haggle my way through the night market of District 1. Saigon is a young vibrant city with parks full of activity and a busy nightlife. Unfortunately, part of the youngness of the city is the fault of the American War in that much of a generation died within those years.

Learning Hoa’s university student perspective on Saigon was a perfect way to end my Vietnam tour. Similar to the other Vietnamese I met, she was both proud of the culture and excited to share it. The perfect example of this was with traditional Vietnamese food. Hoa brought me a special dish along with some ca phe (Vietnamese coffee), which I had ordered at any and every opportunity. In short, the big city of Saigon felt smaller and friendlier thanks to Hoa.

Hoa and me

Later that evening, Hoa and I went to listen to Anh Tuyet sing Trinh Cong Son in a concert to remember this famous composer’s death 10 years ago. The concert was relaxing and I enjoyed listening to Hoa and the others around me sing along with some of the more famous tunes. As a change of pace from the last week, the culture I experienced in Saigon was less of the old traditional Vietnamese culture, and more of the current and live arts culture. Interestingly, at the end of the performance, everyone sang a song recognizing the unification and cooperation of the Vietnamese people. When trying to compare this experience to something in U.S., my first thought was that of my school’s fight song that plays after the performances leading up to our big rivalry football game, the only difference being that our fight song ironically has less of a marching feel.

Attempting to cross the street in Saigon

Again, I thank Hoa and all of the friendly Vietnamese I have met that made me feel so welcome. As I mentioned before, especially in situations such as these, I feel so fortunate to have had the experiences and to have met the people that I did.