Monday, December 3, 2007

Oh right... there was a war.

In school, I never learned much about the Vietnam War (called the American War there). My school district made time for the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, a brief snippet of the World Wars, and a quick, off-handed reference to the Vietnam War. Maybe it was too close for comfort. Maybe some of the district planners were there, or lost family there. Hopefully, Ken Burns will make a documentary so I can fill in the parts I don't understand.

It's hard to avoid the War in Vietnam. The main tourist attractions in Saigon and Hanoi center on it. We duly played tourist and went to the museums and landmarks.

In Saigon, I had a quick lesson from the winner’s point of view at the War Remnants Museum. I felt awful being an American. I am not a flag-waving American, but I am happy to be one. Looking at the pictures of the defoliation destruction, the birth defects caused by Agent Orange and the devastation that the war caused made me sick. Recently, I watched Ken Burns' documentary on World War II (it's amazing if you haven't seen it), and in it, veterans talk about how during the war, they did things they are ashamed of. Because of that documentary, I felt I better understood the savagery of war, but still, it’s awful. And whoever thought we could beat the Vietnamese had never spent time with them. Small, strong, stealth and proud - I couldn’t imagine battling them.

The Cu Chi tunnels only furthered my thoughts on that. Over 20 years, hundreds of miles of tunnels were dug that went down 3 and 4 stories. They included rooms for meeting, making weapons, sleeping, hospitals and cooking with the smoke vented far from the actual kitchen. It was ingenious - and hellish. The tunnel openings were about 12”x8” and completely camouflaged by leaves. They created escape routes and, in places, made the tunnels narrower to prevent the larger American GIs from crawling through. (They've since widened the tunnels for the tourists.) We went though about 40 meters of tunnel. Crawling through, I put my hands on the wall in front of me to feel where I was going (or used the light from my camera). It was pitch black and hot. Sometimes, they stayed underground for weeks. I was happy to be out after 5 minutes. How do you win against this?

Where's the opening?
The opening we went into was dramatically larger and had stairs.
It looks bright only because of the flash. It was pitch black. Note my wide-open psycho eyes.
At one point of the tour, there is a rusty skeleton of a bombed-out American tank. The tour stops, with the tour guide telling us that it is a defeated American tank. Since litigation isn't as popular there, people are allowed to climb all over it. I've never been in or on a tank so I took the opportunity to climb on it. While I was on it, I couldn't stop thinking that someone's father, brother, son or husband died here, and now I'm climbing on it like it's part of an amusement park. It was haunting.

The whole thing was kind of creepy: laughing and posing for pictures in tunnels (snapping away blindly and hoping the camera is facing the right direction) that people hid in, climbing on tanks, seeing traps that ensnared Americans, shooting guns (we didn't because we decided that was something we could do in the US with safer, newer guns), and making sure to stop for ice cream. And despite all of that, it's interesting and I'm glad I went.

We also went to the Reunification Palace, which was taken the day the US evacuated (April 30, 1975 for those who, like me, had no idea). I still don't know all the details of the Palace other than the "puppet" leader (so called because they say the Americans were really in control) lived there until they assassinated him. Then, the new regime moved in and redecorated the place (and the 60s decor remains to this day). There were two stories underground that served as a mission control. But apparently, I was paying more attention to the 60s sofa than the lecture because I don't remember the details.

Cruising the halls of mission control 2 stories down. Much more comfortable than Cu Chi.
By the time we were in Hanoi, I wanted to avoid the war stuff, but again, it is the main stuff on the tourist map. After wandering the French Quarter and walking around the lake, we decided we needed to check out some more history. Unfortunately, Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh) was on vacation in China getting a little work done. Otherwise, we would have gone to see him at his mausoleum. I mean, how often do you get to see a dead person?

We decided to go to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison (a.k.a. Hanoi Hilton). The Vietnamese don't mess around. They put mannequins into the racks that people used to be in just in case your imagination went on hiatus with Uncle Ho. My personal favorite was peering into small cells, and getting the crap scared out of me because a life-like mannequin was chained-up inside. For years, the French used this prison to house Vietnamese, and that is the main focus, but the part that most interested me was that it was used for POWs during the Vietnam War. John McCain was in the “Hilton” from 1967 to 1973. I had no idea he was there for so long. From the photos and information, life in the “Hilton” was pleasant and full of comforts. I haven't done my research, but I find this hard to believe. I mean, it was a WAR.

After all the war sites, going to the War Museum was overkill (and I wish we had skipped it for the art museum). Although it covered all of the Vietnamese wars, there was a large portion dedicated to the American war. It was interesting to see information on the American anti-war protests in support of pulling out of Vietnam. I never would have thought those would end up in a museum in Vietnam. Outside, they had the requisite US Army helicopters, tanks and planes they recovered during or after the war.

All in all, it was a lot to process. The death. The hand my country had in it. The rebuilt country. The bad curating. Someone needs to tell them to unfold the uniforms and put them on mannequins. I could only handle so much before I needed to sit outside with a coffee, and the Vietnamese definitely know how to make a good coffee. But more on that another day.

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