Sweet child in time you’ll see the line / The line that’s drawn between good and bad

The Realness International has begun! Oh yeah, our favourite Scarberian is in the SGN. And with the excitement and celebration came the sobering experience of visiting the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. 

(It also happens to be my cousin Mitsuo’s twenty-fourth birthday today so a shout-out is in order! Gone are the days of playing reckless games in the pool and lake or running around Nonie’s lawn with refrigerator boxes on our heads. Enjoy your big day and I hope you get to connect with your roots on this side of the world very soon – preferably while I’m still here 😀 xo)

Our good friend K-To, on his return to Oz from Christmas in Canada, decided to make a detour to visit his lovely ladies for about ten days. He landed on Friday, I worked all day Saturday while he and Bagheera explored our neighbourhood market and I joined them over the lunch hour for a lovely spread on the rooftop of our building. What better way to acquaint someone with this great city than a meal with a birds-eye view.

Last night, we showed him a good time and took him to one of the nicer lounges in town, Blanchy Tash’s, to meet some of our lovely Vietnamese girlfriends. After a bottle of Belvedere, we moved the party to a club aptly named Apocalypse Now. Yeah, it had a bunker motif which we laughed about this morning. It was a paaaartay!

This morning, we decided to smarten up, strap on our serious boots and visit a real bunker: the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum.) With that original title, you can probably already imagine a little bit of what this experience was like for us.

The entrance to the War Remnants Museum

The entrance to the War Remnants Museum (photo courtesy of K-To)

Most comments on travel blogs that describe the museum will say two things: (1) it is a sobering experience and (2) it’s a biased account of the American-Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s. Both of which are true, the latter needs some justification.

As a history major at McGill I had numerous professors lecture on the role of bias in arriving at a “reality.” It is true that the “winners” of wars are the ones who write the history books. So it is always necessary to look at both sides of the conflict to arrive at a better understanding of the reasoning and outcome of such a war.

Spending a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon roaming around the prison cells and torture chambers as well as leafing through photo after photo of the Vietnam War was an interesting mix of unpleasantness and marvel for me. As was to be expected, I felt uncomfortable during the entire ordeal but I also felt a deep sense of responsibility and duty especially as a student of history to gather as much information as I could while pushing through the waves of nausea.

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These "tiger cages" held up to 4 prisoners at a time.

These “tiger cages” held up to 4 prisoners at a time.

One of the most overwhelming realisations I made was that people’s creative abilities were exploited to perform unspeakable and inhumane acts of torture. If someone could think of something horrible and debilitating yet still short of death, it was applauded and used as a tactic of war. To a certain extent, those “creativities” are still being acknowledged and for lack of a better way of putting it, revered, as they are displayed on the walls of this museum for all to see.

His eyes seemed so real. I was drawn to the exhibit from across the museum.

His eyes seemed so real. I was drawn to the exhibit from across the museum.

I was not sad for any particular side. I was just devastated for the state of humanity. The Vietnam War was an awful display of what humans can do to one another as members of the human race but by no stretch of the imagination do I think that these kinds of atrocities are not going on in the Middle East, especially now that modern warfare employs inhuman droids as a killing agent.

As I walked through the museum, I felt like I was walking in a fog. I wanted to feel every sensation I could as I walked through taking it all in. This is going to sound crazy but as I was ambling through the exhibits, I kept feeling a slight tug on my right sleeve. It was the most bizarre thing. I’m so used to people here having no sense of personal space so I didn’t think much of it the first couple of times, expecting that it was just someone brushing past me.

But finally I had to turn around because the coincidence of being “bumped into” time and time again was far too uncanny. I turned around on multiple occasions to find no one even remotely near me. No oblivious adults brushing past me, no children tugging on me to get my attention, neither of my friends was even in sight.

I can’t explain what happened this afternoon but it is a realisation, in hindsight, of how deeply affected I was by my experience today. Studying history in books and going to an incredibly graphic museum after living amongst the survivors of the war are incomparable.

Bagheera, K-To and I spent a silent, sombre afternoon at the museum taking in exhibit after exhibit. If nothing else, it helps me to understand my new, fellow countrymen better. I have recognised since my first weeks here the devastation that the war caused through the faces of that generation: sallow, hollow cheeks, empty eyes, and missing appendages. But I now see the rampant deformities in the now-adults who were born during or after the Agent Orange attacks.

More than 500,000 children were born with defects due to the aftermath of Agent Orange, the code name given to the mixture of herbicides and defoliants used by the US during the war

More than 500,000 children were born with defects due to the aftermath of Agent Orange, the code name given to the mixture of herbicides and defoliants used by the US during the war

Those were just the visible signs of the toll the war took on this population. It also helped me understand my generation and the generations younger than me. Many people my age (who also happen to be my students) were born into families still picking up the pieces that the devastation of the war caused. Many of them were not really parented due to the fact that other pressing matters (rebuilding homes, businesses, etc.) overtook the importance of the role of parenting.

Anyone who says that visiting the museum is not worth your time because the content is “biased” doesn’t have a clear understanding of how much bias exists in any museum or exhibit in any country in the world. Nor do they understand the importance of discerning when walking through the exhibits. It is important to remember that there are two sides in every conflict and no, the Americans should not be seen as the only wrongdoers but there will never be a winner in wars such as the Vietnam War and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that are going on right now.

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For those who insist on passing up the opportunity to see the museum, I quote the now-clichéd words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Although there was an attempt by the museum curator to put a spin on the content so as to make it seem as if the Vietnamese did not fight in vain, the overwhelming sense I had reconfirmed today was that the war was a failed power struggle for democracy that certainly changed the lives of the Vietnamese for generations to come.

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