One cannot visit Vietnam without confronting the war. Here they call it ‘the American War’. In reality it also pitched countrymen and women against one another, tearing a nation apart. All within my lifetime. I do not pretend to know enough about the Vietnam war to proselytise or proffer lofty opinions. But I cannot ignore what I have seen and heard in the last few days.
In the past I have chosen not to visit sites involved in conflicts; when we were in Kraków last year we chose not to visit Auschwitz. I allow anyone that choice and feel no need to justify myself. On this occasion, visits to sites commemorating the Vietnam war were provided in our itinerary and I wanted to learn more about this conflict. I have already mentioned the magnificent BBC4 series recently aired and would commend this to anyone wishing a balanced and compelling account of what is a incredibly complex series of events.
We visited the Cu Chi tunnels, the War Remnants museum in Saigon and the Presidential Palace. I will write something of my reflections on each. I took photographs and have thought long and hard on sharing these; where I feel they add to the context I will do so and I trust their content will not offend. It is a difficult task to pitch an article such as this but I wish to have a permanent record of my thoughts and feelings. To those who wish to share, welcome-whether you share my sentiments or feel differently.
The Cu Chi tunnels are north of Saigon in an area where the Vietcong resisted US troops by digging in and fighting a persistent guerilla campaign. The tunnels have been preserved, in some cases enlarged to accommodate our larger bulk, and augmented by a series of mock ups and documentaries. The original tunnels were tiny; it is hard to believe someone could enter and hide in such a tiny space.
The enlarged section is some 20m long. I intended to try to crawl through but the intense dark and heat proved so claustrophobic I turned back at once. It is incredible to imagine people living, cooking and fighting for their very lives in such cramped tunnels, with the fear of being buried alive ever present. They lived on rice and tapioca and could only eat by night to avoid the Americans detecting smoke issuing from the ventilation shafts.
The Vietcong set traps to injure American soldiers, mostly consisting of bamboo spikes in holes into which the unsuspecting g.i stumbled. The macabre range of these was staggering; I have no wish to provide further detail. Vietnamese soldiers also recycled US weapons to use as home made land mines, further damaging their opponents.
Although informative, this site leaves one feeling desolate about man’s seemingly infinite capacity for inflicting suffering and death on one another. The propaganda in the videos, declaring the Vietcong ‘heroes’ for killing Americans was uncomfortable to hear.
The War Remanants Museum is even more challenging. The Vietnamese make no bones about declaring the Americans guilty of war crimes, providing copious written and photographic evidence to support their position. Particularly gruesome are the graphic depictions of the congenital malformations caused by the defoliant ‘Agent Orange’. I have come across much suffering and illness in my work but I had to leave this room as I found the pictures so distressing.
The Presidential Palace in Saigon is, in fact, the place most closely identified with the end of the war, as north Vietnamese tanks crushed the gates and rolled across the lawns. The actual tanks remain parked in the grounds of the palace, which is open and displays rooms which were used both during the war and subsequently by the President.
The reception rooms are particularly splendid, showing how the country sought to present its new unified face to the world.
And here I find myself encouraged by the face Vietnam has shown to us. Here is a country thriving, looking forward with hope and pride, with no apparent sense of bitterness or distrust. Apparently life here is safe and offers real chances to live happily without inflicting pain on others. Many Western countries cannot make such a claim.
And America; what is here role in all this? Most Americans would admit the Vietnam war was a catalogue of errors and perhaps atrocities, to which they were always opposed and of which they feel ashamed. We all make mistakes. It is beholden on us to learn from these and avoid repeating the self same mistakes in the future. I am far from sure that the current leadership in America shares this philosophy. I fear for a country which seems capable of tearing itself apart internally and turning a blind eye to its capacity for violence against its own citizens. How can we expect such a country to peacefully co-exist with others whose views differ from their own. I can but hope for peace.