The War Remnants Museum in Viet Nam

A Drawing from the War Remnants Museum

A Drawing from the War Remnants Museum

There are different ways to travel. Some prefer a full itinerary or a tour package that takes them from locale to locale as quickly and efficiently as possible while others don’t. To me, squeezing as many sites as possible into my trip is to ensure that I experience none of them thoroughly. It’s like reading Cliff’s Notes rather than the novel. While the former may get you through your exam, the latter (assuming the right story) will change your life. And I prefer walking most of all to help me understand an area. Riding in a taxi, bus, or even motorcycle, while occasionally necessary, deprives me of so much that I experience while walking.

As I continue to travel, I’m discovering more and more that each city I visit has a specific attraction that stays with me. The massage school at Bangkok’s Way Pho has had a tremendous impact upon me, as has Wat Rachaburana in Ayutthaya, the cave shrine in Kanchanaburi where I walked through a dragon’s mouth and up into the mountain to gain entry, and now the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

The War Remnants Museum tells the Vietnamese side of what Americans call the Vietnam War*, and the Vietnamese refer to as the American War. As I walked through the entrance, I was immediately met with captured American equipment including tanks, a “shit hook” helicopter as we called them in the Army though more properly known as the CH-47 Chinook, Air Force planes, tanks - gear of all sorts that’s been maintained in extraordinary condition, particularly considering that it’s more than 50 years old.

As I wander past the equipment to enter the museum proper, I find that the ground floor is full of visitors and quickly ascend the stairs to the first floor. Here’s an exhibition about Agent Orange and its continued effects on the Vietnamese people. While I’ve been aware of the problems that Americans veterans still have with Agent Orange, and exposure to other defoliants deployed during the war, I haven’t considered the current effects that the citizens of Viet Nam are still experiencing, including congenital disabilities. Not only are there photographs but also an exhibition of paintings and drawings by children. But Agent Orange is not the only danger. Viet Nam is littered with unexploded bombs from the war, which are still killing and maiming people 40-plus years after the end of the war.

As moving as I found that exhibit, it was the photography exhibit entitled Requiem on the second floor that engaged me the most. This exhibition is of the work of photographers who died during the war and here I found images that I was often familiar with from books and magazines being exhibited, along with many pictures that I hadn’t seen before. Robert Capa, Larry Burrows, and other well-known war photographers as well as correspondents who I hadn’t heard of including Dickey Chappelle. The exhibition is extraordinary, overwhelming, and exhausting, and I’m glad that I saw it. At one of the nearby shops, I’m able to buy notecards of many of the images to keep with me as I travel.

Nick Ut’s  Napalm Girl

Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl

Perhaps most important to me was Nick Ut’s The Terror of War (also known as Napalm Girl), the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the young 9-year old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running naked and screaming down the street after her clothes have been burned off). Ut’s following photos, which weren’t exhibited, showed how badly Phuc was burned. Not only was the picture controversial when Ut took it, but it remains controversial today. The Wikipedia entry notes that President Nixon wondered if the photo was a fake, and 45 years later in 2016 Facebook censors banned it temporally for nudity.

I visit and revisit the photos hanging on the second floor, taking them in. These are photographers and images that, as a young photographer, I grew up studying. They’re even more moving in person.

* I’m relying on the spelling suggested by American scholars of Vietnam War literature, which is to spell the war “Vietnam,” and the country “Viet Nam.”