Travel Report: War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh.
War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh.
Please note: You may find the story and images presented in this article deeply upsetting. Thus I wouldn’t blame you for sitting this one out. For those of you who do proceed, I’m guessing this is going to be as difficult to read as it was for me to write.
Well folks, here we are again. After a mercifully extended break from such articles, I find myself back in the depressing territory of appalling war sights. As regular readers may recall, I have published a number of posts about the Cambodian genocide years. These are in addition to similarly horrific sights in China, Poland, Thailand and beyond.
I can only repeat that I have never gone seeking out these sights. Rather, they stand as unavoidable components of what makes the city/region/country tick. Indeed I have always believed that you can’t ignore such places. Not if you want to truly understand the culture and its people.
In Vietnam I had rather enjoyed (for want of a better word) the fascinating war sights of Hanoi, despite the often grisly narrative. However, in Ho Chi Minh’s unwaveringly grim War Remnants Museum, I was left with knots in my stomach.
Established in 1975 by the Ho Chi Minh city government, The War Remnants Museum stands as testament to the devastation caused by The First Indochina and Vietnam Wars. Moreover, it serves as one of the country’s biggest displays of military equipment. If you’re really into tanks, helicopters and fighter jets, you could easily spend an hour exploring the museum’s vast courtyard.
War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh.
Photo courtesy of Vyacheslav Argenberg.
I’ve always been a bit lukewarm on such collections. Furthermore, I had just over an hour until closing time that day. Thus I found myself entering The Vietnam War exhibit, very much the centre of my interest. This part of the museum is split into different segments, such as the archive photograph gallery.
Here, some of the Vietnam War’s most acclaimed photographers, including Bun Yo Ishikawa, showcase their work. For the most part the images are very hard to absorb. “Don’t kill my father!” cries a little girl, in one. In another, a U.S. solider tortures a farmer in Bac Lieu Province. Once again, for the umpteenth time, I am staggered by the acts human beings are capable of.
In another shot by the award-winning American combat photographer Dick Durrance II, a weary looking American soldier sits outside his tent. Above him, grimacing into the air, is the skull of “a Vietnamese patriot”, as the caption puts it.
Elsewhere, a strip of images show how people protested against The Vietnam War around the world. One that really caught my eye was a photograph called The Ultimate Confrontation: The Flower and the Bayonet by Marc Riboud.
It shows an American high school student, Jan Rose Kasmir, attending a protest march to The Pentagon on October the 21st 1967. Kasmir holds a chrysanthemum in her hands as she faces a wall of glaring soldiers, all bearing bayonets.
Jan Rose Kashmir.
Next, I came face to face with what is arguably the most iconic photograph of The Vietnam War. Its name is Napalm Girl, taken by the Vietnamese-American photographer Nick Ut. It captures a naked nine year old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running in agony down a country road. Just moments earlier she’d suffered severe back burns in a South Vietnamese napalm attack in the district of Trang Bang.
After taking the photo, Ut took Kim Phúc, along with several other children, to a hospital in Saigon. There, doctors told him that the girl was unlikely to survive, due to the severity of her burns. And yet, following 14 months in hospital and 17 surgical interventions, including a skin transplant, the girl pulled through and returned home. Ut, meanwhile, won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography.
How wonderful it was to learn that Phan Thi Kim Phuc is still alive today. In fact, she is 58 years old and married with two children. What’s more, she has befriended presidents, studied medicine in Cuba, become a citizen of Canada and received the Dresden Peace Prize for her activism with UNESCO. According to the War Remnants Museum, the photo on display is the original Napalm Girl, donated by Nick Ut himself in 2013.
War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh.
In another room, there is an arresting presentation of propaganda posters. Some are solidarity prints, such as the poster pictured above. It carries a message of support from the people of Budapest, Hungary.
One of the most harrowing parts of the museum was the section presenting the unimaginable horror of Agent Orange. This was the deadly herbicide mixture The US Air Force sprayed over large chunks of rural Southern Vietnam between 1962 and 1970. The idea was to destroy forests and crops, depriving Viet Cong forces of both food and vegetation cover.
They sprayed over 45 million litres of the stuff across the Vietnamese countryside, destroying millions of acres of forests and farmland. Parts of the operation were executed at 20 times the concentration recommended. This was especially bad news because Agent Orange contained a highly toxic chemical called Dioxin.
Consequently, thousands of people exposed to it went on to develop cancer, leukaemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Exposed women went on to have children with severe birth defects. Seeing pictures of those children and learning about their lives was absolutely heartbreaking.
And yet somehow the Agent Orange stuff wasn’t the most disturbing exhibit I saw that day. When I think back on the War Remnants Museum, as I do from time to time, my mind always drifts to the stone sewer pipe display, taken from the unspeakably awful Thanh Phong Raid of February 1969.
This is when 25 year old Bob Kerrey led a team of elite Navy SEALs into the village of Thanh Phong. Their mission was to wipe out a high ranking Viet Cong leader and his unit of soldiers. What happened next though, has been the subject of vicious debate for decades.
Kerrey and (all but one of) his team have always maintained they came under fire upon entering the village. When they then returned fire and the village fell silent, Kerrey and his team discovered that they’d killed over a dozen women and children. And that there was no sign of The Vietcong.
In contrast, a young girl who survived the attack reported that Kerrey and his men had deliberately murdered the villagers. A number of children, she said, had been hiding in the sewer pipe now housed in The War Remnants Museum. These kids, she insists, were dragged out and shot, one even disembowelled.
War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh.
There was further controversy when one of Kerrey’s own SEALs claimed the team had been instructed to execute the villagers. In order, he claims, to stop them from alerting the Viet Cong to the SEALs’ presence in the area.
Nevertheless, Kerrey went on to receive a Bronze Star Medal for heroic achievements in combat. He later became the Governor of Nebraska and was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination of 1992. Of that long ago night in Vietnam, Kerrey says: “You can never, never get away from it. It darkens your day”.
There was finally something to make me smile before I left the museum that day. Even if for just a moment. On the top floor, I found a tiny gallery home to Vietnam War inspired artwork. All the artists were children affected by the war in some way. Some lost fathers and grandfathers. Others were second generation Agent Orange victims. All the images were bright, colourful and hopeful.
The War Remnants Museum opens daily from 07:30-12:00 & 13:30-17:00. Entrance tickets cost 40.000 VND (£1.30/€1.30/$1.60).
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It is a shocking reminder of how long and brutal the Vietnam War really was. The graphic photographs on display are quite grisly, I believe that a visit to this war museum can be a disturbing experience for most people. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva
Thanks for reading Aiva. Despite having visited so many of these sites across the world, they never fail to shock me all over again. How such things could happen remains beyond me.
Been there at Ho Chi Minh! It was very historic & reminds us of the chilling effect of war.
Hey Abegail, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. It is, as you say, a chilling place and a reminder of how we should do everything we can to repeat the mistakes of history.
Such a sad reminder of that time in history. My father spent two tours in Vietnam. Whatever he saw was pretty horrific. He never spoke about it. I can assure you, however, he did not parade around with human skulls!! I remember looking at his old war photos when I was a kid….he had hundreds of photos taken of him. I haven’t seen those in over 40 years. Unfortunately he passed away before I was old enough to try and dig information out of him. He was also in Korea which I remember him saying was even worse. We couldn’t watch MASH growing up. He didn’t see humor in war comedies. So, so sad.
Oh lord Pam, thanks for sharing your own personal connection with The Vietnam War. I can only imagine what your dad went through and how that must have affected his later years and indeed his relationships with friends and family. Thanks for reading and for such a meaningful contribution to the thread.
My dad is a veteran and like you we weren’t allowed to watch shows like MASH that made light of the tragedy of war. My dad always said that he was a man of peace called to serve in a time of war and how heartbreaking it was to be in that position. Sounds like your dad was of the same heart.
This is very moving Meg, I cannot imagine being in such an awful position.
Thank u for sharing. This is really sweet. 💕
Thank you so much for sharing this!
Soldiers are trained to hate the enemy. They are not always told who the enemy is until their country decides who they will battle next. At that point they are told to go forth and do their country proud. Without the press around, they can act with impunity and say it was self defense. It is deplorable that one person can treat another in such a fashion. And yet it continues. These foreign wars are seldom about helping the people, they are about protecting interests. Sigh. Thanks for this sobering look at attempted annihilation Leighton. Allan
Strong words Allan, and sentiments that I find it impossible to disagree with. When I visit such places I just end up with a very flat feeling pondering the futility of it all. Thanks for reading and for your considered thoughts.
You share places like this with incredible grace and compassion. Though difficult to see, these places really are an important part of understanding the people. I was surprised and very glad to read that the little girl who experienced such pain and trauma survived and went on to have a family.
The Napalm Girl story is one that fills you with hope. It reminds us that people who survive appalling situations are not necessarily doomed to a life of misery. What she has achieved is incredible really. Thanks Meg for ploughing through this (mostly) depressing piece and for putting in your two cents.
The war was filled with massive hypocrisy when you remember that the US had conducted war crimes trials against both the Germans and Japanese. Later information suggested that Kerry’s seal team was on an assigned mission to kill the families of multiple local villages’ vietcong leaders when the leaders (men) would hide in the jungle. They were after the women and children. So glad they (and you) included the children’s art. It adds a note of hope for the future.
This sends a shudder down my spine. If this really happened like that it’s just beyond my comprehension that those men were able to follow such orders. There wasn’t much positivity at the museum that day, but Napalm Girl and the art lifted my spirits a touch. Cheers Memo.
I’m not sure I could have spent even an hour there Leighton, although I realize how important these museums are at making sure we remember. This was a very thoughtful tour of the museum. Maggie
Cheers Maggie, as important as I believe it is to see these sites, I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for skipping it. I just saw it as something I had to do. Even reading it is enough I think, thanks for your comment Maggie.
A chilling reminder of war and of the horrendous atrocities inflicted on mankind. Although utterly gruesome museums such as this should exist for future generations to learn about what happened as pieces of history. Very well documented Leighton.
Exactly, well summarised Marion! Hope you’re well and enjoying the milder temps. Can’t believe we’re off to London on Friday.
Have a brilliant time, has Sladja been there before?
No, first time. I’ve taken a week off work and have a packed seven days planned.
This is so heartbreaking. I’ve never actually learned how brutal the Vietnam war was. As you said, we can’t ignore the pieces of history that are unpleasant. Thank you for bringing attention to this museum and the history within.
Thanks Diana, for putting yourself through this difficult read. I saw a number of Vietnam War sites across the country, but this was the most hard hitting.
I read the disclaimer, yet I still read your article. Very disturbing stuff; I’m at loss for words at how humanity (even my own people, in the US) has been responsible for such harrowing acts of destruction. I’ve seen the infamous Phan Thi Kim Phuc photo, and it breaks my heart that US soldiers would commit such heinous acts against the innocent (especially the child). Honestly, fuck Kerrey: based on how the museum portrayed him, he’s no hero in my eyes. Thanks for sharing this sobering experience, Leighton.
I’m surprised by the amount of feedback this article has gotten, especially with a few people sharing how the war affected their own families in the U.S. Appreciate you ploughing through this dark narrative Rebecca.
I saw this post yesterday evening … and thought it’s better to wait and read this once the sun is up this morning. I found it so hard to read (and did scroll quickly pass the photo’s), but you’re right, we need to see and read this to understand where the people of Vietnam is coming from. And, as always, thank you for writing it with such empathy.
I applaud your dedication Corna. I think reading this in the day (and one with sunshine no less) was a smart move.
This blog post is an engrossing read Leighton, the subject documented and written with such sensitivity to events seen through the lens of history.
Cheers Rich, like others I appreciate you putting yourself through it. Take care.
Just wow. I couldn’t look at that black and white photo with the soldiers and children for more than a second, it affects me too much. War is truly atrocious. This museum is so important so we remember that, and remember we’re all human and deserve to be treated as such. I also think it’s good to see a museum telling a side to the story that sometimes mainstream western media would rather have us ignore. I found the same reading about 9/11 – whilst of course there is absolutely no justification or excuse for that act, the US also committed some pretty horrific acts in the Middle East which seem to be often ignored/covered up in the reporting.
Well put Han, the Kerrey story is a murky one, as we’ll never truly know if it went down the way he and his men said, or as the little girl and rogue SEAL claim. The War Remnants Museum certainly weren’t shy in putting across their thoughts! Thanks for your thoughts on this depressing topic.
Like you we’ve visited many harrowing war museums and reminders around the world. They may be difficult to see but they are a crucial part of understanding local history and piecing together the jigsaw of local culture. How the past has shaped the present, in other words. Our history of the way mankind treats its fellow man is appalling no matter how many of these places you visit. And the worst devil is in the smallest detail: how individuals conduct themselves with such depravity when under instruction or influence. Always shocking. But we should never forget or try to gloss over it, otherwise we have no hope of learning.
Very well said! Thanks for reading this grim report and for taking the time to leave this contribution to the thread. Hope you’re not too cold back in Blighty.
Funny you should say that……
Uh oh, are you struggling with it a bit? We’ve been here for nearly six weeks and… well… it’s a daily battle ha ha.
Well….err…see our next post….
Ha ha you’ve already gone somewhere else haven’t you? I actually had a feeling…
I imagine this would be a difficult place to visit and then write about, but I agree that it’s important to learn about the history of a place, even the dark days, to get a better understanding of the culture and people. It’s heartbreaking to hear about the things us humans can do to other human beings. I hope we learn from our past mistakes and try to do better and be better people.
We can but hope…. I appreciate you tackling this horrific subject when it would have been easier to look the other way. Thanks for your continued readership!
Excellent article on such a horrific subject. I agree that we can’t turn away and ignore such events and that it’s important to learn about our world’s history and learn from it.
Thanks for dropping by Lyssy, I’ll be moving onto much more (for the most part) cheerier subjects for my last Ho Chi Minh post.
A very thought provoking read. Although the content of the museum is disturbing, it needs to stand. It can’t all be swept away and we can’t depend on block buster movies and carefully edited text books to inform ourselves either.
On a different note, I really relate to your comment about not seeking these places out. I visited a lot of museums, prisons and military camps when I lived in Germany exploring the history around the Holocaust and Cold War years. I always felt slightly conflicted about it but if I asked myself, ‘Should I go?’ the answer would always be, ‘How could I not?’
Glad this resonated Helen, these are the hardest sites to visit as a traveller and definitely the trickiest to write up in terms of the tone. And yes, we cannot not go I feel, especially when you are right there within reach of such places. I’m sure you’re overall feeling and understanding of Germany was greatly enhanced by those visits.
It is good to visit these museums for the reasons stated in many of the comments. The atrocities displayed are not only morally repugnant they are counterproductive especially in a war like the Vietnam War. In addition to being ineffective for the intended purpose, Agent Orange harmed many Americans as well as the Vietnamese.
What an appalling aspect of the war Agent Orange was. Thanks for dropping by John, hope you’re doing well.
What a a poignant and sad museum. It’s one of those places where you need to visit, as places like this really make you understand the history of a country. I’ve only heard recently about agent orange and it’s just hideous and so unnecessary 😒 I love the brightly coloured artwork at the end. It’s amazing how people can create something so beautiful out of tragedy. Great post 😁
Lindsay | thetravelvine.blog
Agree with everything you’ve said Lindsay, 110%. Thanks for reading and for your addition to the discussion thread.
This is one place in HCMC we did visit. I feel it’s important not to shy away from the darker elements of the past that helped to shape any country you’re visiting, in order to better understand its present. But I couldn’t bring myself to photograph many of the displays or (as yet anyway) to share them. I’m glad you’ve done so – this is a story that needs to be told.
Totally understandable Sarah. I always go for it on the photography front with places like this. But I never feel comfortable and often question myself. It’s only later on that I feel glad I took the l plunge. Thanks for catching up with some of my Vietnam articles.