It’s not the glamorous, beach holiday you will find in Ha Long Bay or Phu Quoc, but you may walk away with a deeper understanding of not just the Vietnam war, but war as a concept, just as I did.
Anybody who knows anything about travel has floated a trip to Vietnam at some point. Whether it be the contagious buzz of Hanoi, or the emerald waters and limestone islands of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam has something to offer everyone. But, I’d like to offer you a journey through history, one that will educate you on the hardship Vietnam suffered, and still suffers to this day, due to the tragedy that was the Vietnam war.
WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM
After touching down at Saigon Airport the night before, I awoke intrigued the next day to visit my first war landmark in HCMC, the war remnants museum. I arrived in the foyer of the main building, which was littered with various military vehicles, such as fighter jets and tanks. As someone who had barely any interest in war, or museums for that matter, this surprisingly appealed to me right away. To think that these types of vehicles played a part in the demise of so many, immediately put the whole war into perspective for me, and just like that I was engrossed.
Upon walking into the building, I was greeted by large graphic portraits on each wall. There was no escaping it. The light throughout the museum was bright, white, and confrontational. The sad, helpless faces of chemical affected children and the ironic orange colour of the walls made me feel uncomfortable and unnecessarily guilty. For the first time, I was struck by what war really means; it’s more than just a political or geographical indifference, it is a genuine form of pure hatred between mankind.
THIEN PHUOC ORPHANAGE
Hungry for more, I had planned to visit an orphanage called Thien Phuoc. After a short car ride, I arrived at a small, white house that was the Thien Phuoc orphanage. Upon walking in, I was greeted by white walls and white floors. A cross watched over the household, and the innocent children, who were undeserving of the challenging lives they had been given. I had entered through the “garage” of the house, and there I saw the first 10 or so of the 30 or so kids I would be seeing. Some of them were strapped in at desks, unable to properly balance without them. Others sat on the floor, some even crawled. I was shocked when a British volunteer told me that these were the “BEST” of the disabled children. I walked up a steep flight of stairs, and what I saw I couldn’t have been prepared for.
There were two rows of children, maybe 10 in each row, laying on sleeping mats. All had very visible facial and bodily deformities. I spent a very enjoyable 45 minutes interacting with the kids. It was incredible how such little things made them smile. I felt shocked and nauseous when I found out that these children were bedridden for life. None of them could walk, most of them couldn’t even talk. I was baffled that these severe physical deformities were the result of poisonous chemicals from over 40 years earlier. The war was still ruining lives to this day.
CU CHI TUNNELS
In the Ho Chi Minh district of Cu Chi, I explored the immense and infamous Cu Chi tunnels. The area above the tunnels was very tourist friendly. Being able to inspect the interactive displays, such as traps and tunnel entrances, while walking through the Cu Chi forest kept me engaged, and helped me to empathise with what it must have been like to tread the same grounds 42 years earlier. Maybe it was the outdoors, but unlike the war museum, what I felt in Cu Chi was a feeling much closer to fascination than sadness.
I couldn’t help but smile to think that such seemingly simple concepts, like handmade traps and underground tunnels, could work so effectively against a powerhouse of modern technology such as the United States. I was even able to go through a section of the tunnels myself, albeit just for 60 metres—more than enough for me to feel scared, claustrophobic and bewildered at the fact that soldiers would do what I was doing for days at a time. I left with a lot of admiration for the soldiers, for what they had managed to create here in the Cu Chi forest, and what they had to go through both physically and emotionally.
There’s really no point in glorifying the war-torn aspects of HCMC, but I truly believe that this experience will expand your knowledge and compassion towards war. Being able to associate stories, photographs and videos of an event with real people and places truly creates a better understanding of the suffering that Vietnam as a nation endured during the war, and still endures to this day.
So while it may not be your swimsuit-clad beach holiday, if you’re eager to enrich your knowledge about an important historical event, come and visit the encyclopedia of a city that is Ho Chi Minh.
Text Joseph Duffy. This article is originally from paper. Read NOW!Jakarta Magazine April 2018 issue “Money and Finance”. Available at selected bookstore or SUBSCRIBE here.