History Lessons in Saigon

“History is a myth that men agree to believe.”



Our collective history is the story of mankind by mankind and, as such, it has been fixed in mankind’s flaws.  It’s non-fiction full of fiction.  The histories I learned in school may differ from yours.  To know the truth of history is to recognize its ultimate fantasy.

I was nervous about traveling in Vietnam, about the truth of its history.  Vietnam is a country I’d heard a lot about growing up but knew very little of, aside from the ubiquitous images of war films.  I was careful to avoid questions of my nationality, hoping to navigate around our nation’s sordid histories – to avoid those topics from Hollywood movies.

I’d read about the battles and the retreat, but rarely the aftermath.  In the States, we learn a skewed history.  We focus on the protests and political unrest at home but not the details of the war.  We stew in the general disapproval of the American public but blow over My Lai or Agent Orange.

In Saigon, I sought to confront these histories and learn new ones written by a different author.  I was prepared for condemnation of my country on a massive scale, but I was not prepared for some of the histories I’d learn.

Saigon’s War Remnants museum was a morbid reflection on the war and its tanker-filled patio set the scene for a somber afternoon.  Its three floors housed a comprehensive collection of machinery, weapons, photos, and documentation of both the French and American wars, though the focus sat heavily on the latter.  Previously known as the “House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government (of South Vietnam),” then simply “War Crimes Museum,” the halls reverberated with understandable anger and a propagandist bent.  Yet, more than a stern lecture, the museum was a call for peace.

Floor one’s photo exhibit, Agent Orange, explored the lingering effects of chemical weapons on the Vietnamese people.

“According to US Defense Department data, from 1961 to 1971, the US Air Force sprayed 72 million liters of Agent Orange containing 170 kg of dioxin.  In a study by scientists at Columbia University published in Nature magazine, the total volume of toxic chemicals that the US sprayed over Vietnam amounted to approximately 100 million liters and the content of dioxin reported was double that of previously announced figures.  According to the study, 3,851 communes suffered direct chemical spraying and the chemical directly affected between 2.1 and 4.8 million Vietnamese people.”

Welsh Photographer Phillip Jones Griffiths spent years traveling through southern Vietnam documenting the aftermath of chemical exposure.  His jarring exhibit profiled the horrific birth defects that plagued the Vietnamese in the post-war years and the lasting effects these chemicals have had on ordinary citizens.

The US dropped Agent Orange to kill vegetation.  The dioxin was an accidental by-product that acted like a hormone, entering the cells of a developing fetus before the normal hormones and directing the cells to do bizarre things.  Many of the babies photographed suffered from encephalitis, with bulging alien heads and beady eyes.  Others, born with missing or deformed limbs, were photographed at orphanages, abandoned by their families.  The photographer argued that what happened after the war ended was more horrific than anything on the battlefield.

Phillip Jones Griffiths was the first Western journalist to enter Vietnam after the war finished and came back every year to further his research.  His shocking book of photos, also titled Agent Orange, spent years unpublished because it documented the extent of the damages in a way that was never previously acknowledged.  The exhibit opened in November, two years after his death, and will remain a permanent part of the museum collection.

The museum’s second floor paid homage to the international journalists who covered the battlefields.  This was the world’s first televised war and it was the heroic efforts of these journalists that put the grim realities of Vietnam into living rooms across the globe.

Further along, another room held the museum’s account of American war crimes complete with wall-sized photos of the My Lai massacre.  This exhibit was eerily quiet, especially around the jars containing preserved human fetuses deformed by dioxin.

The third floor’s photo exhibit documented the structural damage to the country with before and after style photos but I barely caught a glance before the five o’clock closing time when all lights were cut and visitors summarily kicked to the streets.  History lesson over.

In certain parts of the world, there is a slight shame in being an American.  We’re a big, bold country with enviable ideals of democracy, but we have made regrettable mistakes in the name of that very word.  The fear of communism blinded our leaders into supporting dictators and corrupt schemes and commencing wars which were not ours to commence.

Us Americans are not the most liked lot.  Any trip outside our borders will reveal that.  We have a bad reputation, not always unwarranted, but a bit unfair for the everyday traveler.  We’re thoroughly unexotic and terribly overrepresented by the trashiest elements of Los Angeles and the fear of Washington (a city whose layout bears a striking resemblance to circle-heavy Saigon).  I can understand why were not liked.  In Vietnam, I held back, assuming the people would hate me simply because of the country I was born into.  Yet, nobody did.  Nobody in Vietnam said a word.  When they asked where I was from (as they always do), most rolled off the names of relatives in the States or places they wanted to go.

The intervening years have not been easy.  Relations between our two nations normalized just fifteen years ago when the US embargo on Vietnam was dropped and diplomatic relations were restored.  In fact, in 2000, Bill Clinton became the first US president to visit northern Vietnam.

These days, Saigon is the city of the past, of the colony, and of the war.  Ho Chi Minh (as the city is now known) is the city of the future.  It is the commercial capital of the country and the site of rapid development.  As buildings burst skyward, the streets below grow textured in the way one expects of a major 21st Century city.  The scars of the past are everywhere, but so too are the signs of the future.  If the recent meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are any indication, a new, gentler history is destined to be written.

24 Hours: Border Crossing – Laos to Vietnam

4:00am:  I wake up in a sketchy guesthouse that, with crooked floors and hexagonal dimensions, better resembles a funhouse.

4:30am:  A gang of saber-toothed street dogs chase me through the dark alleyways of charmless Muang Khua all the way to the river.

5:00am:  Standing with two backpacks (big and small, front and back) I balance on a rocking canoe as I cross the Nam Ou in the pitch black of night.

5:05am:  The boat captain’s friend pushes me as I’m balancing, demanding money.  Am I buying into some illegal crossing?  Are we about to storm the Alamo?  I give him what he wants.

8:00am:  It’s light out and we stop, waiting for the dirt road to open in our direction.

8:10am:  I squat over a hole for my usual, early-morning bout of diarrhea while cursing myself for the mystery meat I ate the previous week.  Knees trembling, I vow a strict vegetarian diet.

8:17am:  I am invited to join four Vietnamese men for breakfast (Beer Lao and some rice whiskey).  We drink and smile while watching psychedelic music videos on the television.

8:30am:  I feel dizzy.

9:00am:  I get back on the bus and squeeze into a seat where I (small and thin) can barely fit.  To my right, men laze atop piles of rice as if on bean bags while, up front, women plopped on a mat primp each other’s hair.  The bus cum party chugs along.

11:00am:  On a dusty road that looks destined for the moon, the bus loses its traction, sliding backwards.  I scream, everyone laughs, and we continue forward inching closer to China than Vietnam.

12:30pm:  We reemerge above the clouds at the alpine border with Vietnam.  The guards are on a lunch break.  We will have to wait.

12:31pm:  But while we wait, a prim comrade leads us to a statue of the great leader Ho Chi Minh.  Do we know about him?  Do we know about the American War?  Are there any Americans here?  Would I like to know more about Ho Chi Minh or some destinations in Vietnam where I can learn about the atrocities of the war?

1:00pm: Everyone’s visas have been processed… except mine.

1:15pm:  I am free to enter Nam.

3:00pm:  I arrive in Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam after ten hours of travel.  We have gone approximately one-hundred kilometers, averaging an astonishing ten kilometers an hour.

6:00pm:  I catch an overnight bus to Hanoi sharing a pink bed with a mentally retarded man.  He smiles a lot.

4:00am (the next day):  I arrive in Hanoi, Vietnam with zero stampable pages left in my passport.  (I will be stuck here for a while!)