Before I visited, I had read lots of reviews of the War Remnants Museum, so I was expecting a particularly harrowing and one-sided affair. It wasn’t quite like that, perhaps because I was already interested in military history so had already been horrified by Calley and Medina at My Lai (and had some faith in humanity returned by Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta), had already looked into the disgrace that was Agent Orange, and had already visited many war museums like the resistance museum in Amsterdam. I’ll return to these thoughts later.
After paying 15k VND per person, the recommended route takes you to the top floor and the room of ‘historical truths’ (on reflection, that implies the other rooms aren’t), which is a collection of photo displays setting out the history of the country from French colonisation through to the Vietnam war. Requiem is the next room, subtitled “Photo collection of the US aggressive war in Vietnam” which is a disappointing name as it’s actually a haunting and thoughtful collection of photos taken by correspondents who were killed or ‘disappeared’ in the conflict. It seems to use the original captions from whichever agency or journal they were written for, so is arguably the most truthful exhibit; it was certainly my favourite. This room blends into two more which contain photos from Japanese photographers.
On the next floor are perhaps the most difficult exhibitions – the war crimes section containing details on My Lai and other atrocities committed (or alleged to have been, some are unverifiable while others are clear) by Americans and South Koreans, and the Agent Orange room. This, cleverly painted in orange and black, holds photos of genetic defects in children, some now grown up, others more recent, which are probably the result of dioxin poisoning in their parents. It is hard to look at, particularly the glass case of preserved deformed stillborn babies.
The ground floor has propaganda posters from many countries against US involvement, and currently has an exhibition of the north Vietnamese treatment of American prisoners of war – all rather jolly, apparently. There is even a picture of US Senator John McCain smiling, with no mention of how he can’t lift his arms above the shoulder due to the torture inflicted on him during his time in captivity.
Outside is the recreation of jail conditions for some political prisoners and those suspected of supporting the north or engaging in terrorist activities. These people were tortured by their South Vietnamese jailers, and the displays here are gruesome. Finally there is a display of captured US jets, helicopters, artillery and boats.
Is the museum one sided? Yes, but I think that is to be expected from a museum formerly called the US atrocity museum (or war crime, depending on translation) – it would be more accurate to revert to this, as that’s what it mainly covers. As I said, some of the displays are better at balance than others. There is also no mention of the North Vietnamese massacres and torture, nor is much made of the same committed by the South Vietnamese government. Weirdly, very little at all is made of the efforts of the North Vietnamese army or the Viet Cong. I don’t think many such museums with bias and omission would last long in the West.
Does this make it a bad museum? I don’t think so, provided you have the means and motivation to research the rest of the story, and for most this is possible. The museum is well laid out, and well curated, with a lot of interesting exhibits. I’d certainly recommend a visit for foreigners. On the other hand, I could say that for the people of Vietnam it could be a bad museum, reinforcing their indoctrinated views, and not encouraging independent research. For me, it was worthwhile.
Address: 28 Vo Van Tan, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Telephone: 0084 8 3930 6664
Directions: Just down the road from the Independence Palace – turn left and then left again.