The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.
Once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the War Remnants Museum is consistently the most popular museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). By many accounts, the wounds of the war are more painfully displayed here even than in the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi.

The Far Far Side of Vietnam War Museums

Editor’s note: It would be easy to say that no words about Vietnamese war museums should be allowed in a magazine for Vietnam veterans, but that would be too easy and it would be wrong. Vietnamese war museums are often described as one-sided and harsh in their recounting of history, and crude in their display of captured weaponry. But it’s important to remember that the Vietnamese had been fighting against the French, the U.S., and among themselves for over 20 years by the time large-scale U.S. military units came ashore in 1965. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were out-gunned and out-classed in most battles, but they never gave up. And French and U.S. forces killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese during the first Indochina War and the American War. But when the war was over, and the French and Americans had gone home, the Vietnamese were still standing. These museums, crude as they may be, are an important (though unpleasant) part of our own history.


By Brooke Lumsden, VietNow National Magazine Associate Editor

When Winston Churchill supposedly said, “History is written by the victors,” it predated the Vietnam War by a few decades, but it would be hard to find a place where this quote rings more true than in the history of the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, there is no shortage of love for communist leaders on the part of the oppressive Vietnamese government and their supporters. It seems that for every statue of Lenin or bust of Ho Chi Minh you will also find a museum spruiking the “brilliance” of the regime, along with the tools of their success.

Sitting in pride of place, welcoming guests to the Vietnam Military History Museum, is arguably the most famous metal monument of communism. Tank No. 843 was the first one to burst through the gates of the Presidential Palace on April 30, 1975, signaling the fall of Saigon and the country’s first step toward its farcical reunification.

Click any photo or this link to see photo gallery with lots more photos at large sizes. 

Not just the American War

Unofficially known as the army museum, this regal white building is filled to the brim with paraphernalia sure to thrill military enthusiasts. From bicycles to cannons, this varied collection spans several thousand years of battle, and gives an inside look at the armaments used not only in the war against the U.S., but also against the French during their Indochina occupation. These battles are also illustrated in the inside galleries, which use a mixture of relics, photojournalism, and historical information to tell the story of Vietnam’s many conflicts, beginning with centuries-old artifacts from when they were conquered by China.

Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi.

Main courtyard of the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi, featuring shot-down American planes.
 

Life-sized and scaled dioramas provide visual displays of jungle warfare, the Viet Cong tunnel systems, and specific battles of the French era. Propaganda videos from the American-war era are on display, giving just a slice of insight into the bizarre methods the government used to control the minds of the people.

While visitors will browse through the extensive indoor collection, it’s quickly apparent what the people are really here to see – and this museum has it in abundance in the outside courtyard. Whether your interest is aircraft, tanks, or other weaponry, you will find something to satisfy your interest or perhaps evoke some emotion. The large relics have been so crammed into this compact museum back yard however, that visitors could be forgiven for thinking they’ve walked straight into a war zone, rather than a one-sided memorial to war.

For many, it will seem strange to find such a vast display of American power so far away from U.S. soil, but in some ways it is also quite fitting to revisit such pieces in the backdrop of Vietnam. Of course, there’s plenty of communist gunnery to be explored here, but visitors will also encounter American howitzers, self-propelled guns, tanks, and even an APC (armored personnel carrier).

The large relics have been so crammed into this compact museum back yard however, that visitors could be forgiven for thinking they’ve walked straight into a war zone, rather than a one-sided memorial to war.

There’s no shortage of aircraft either, including a couple of single-seat Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, one of which sits alongside a B model of the Cessna A-37 Dragonfly, and both are dwarfed by the Hang Khong Vietnam passenger jet.

The best place to view this collection is from the top of Flag Tower of Hanoi, situated on the edge of the courtyard. One of the few structures to survive the French occupation, this three-tiered tower is part of a World Heritage Site, and contains a spiral staircase, with the outside wall dotted with flower- and fan-shaped windows.

Vietnamese warrior.

Ngo Quyen, Vietnamese war hero who led a victorious insurrection in the year 938.
 

From here you can also get a birds-eye view of the main attraction. Sitting in the center of the courtyard, this mound-like “sculpture” was created by an artist, and is somewhat of a spectacular, if obscure, pyramid. Whether that’s a positive or negative will have to be left to one’s own interpretation of art – but it is undeniably eye-catching. Built with wreckage pieces from an American F-111 fighter bomber and a B-52, along with a French transport plane – all of which were shot down over Vietnam – the mound is capped off by a black-and-white framed poster image of a female Viet Cong soldier dragging the wing of an American plane along a shoreline.

Interestingly and conveniently, for all of the glory and tribute paid to Vietnam’s perceived communist victories and their much-loved past leaders, there are many glaring omissions from this museum’s showcase. Are you interested in learning about the country’s post-Vietnam War battles with China – a source of tension that continues to threaten another war even today? You won’t find it here. How about the bloody battle with the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge – which saw the slaughter of a quarter of Cambodia’s population and a decade-long occupation by the Vietnamese? Nope, sorry. You won’t find that here, either.

Whether it’s because both sides were communist, or because the former allies turned their hostile attentions to each other is open for debate, but for whatever reason, the Vietnamese government has decided not to acknowledge these internationally-renowned conflicts in their museum, nor their own crimes against the people in the south – and of course most notably – not a mention of soldiers who were held as prisoners of war (POWs).  

Saigon

While this manipulation of history is certainly nothing to be dismissive of, it pales in comparison to the blatancy of the communist agenda at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Its former name – the Museum of American War Crimes – is an indication of the collection that lies within its modern walls. And while this museum can be found on the top three places to visit on any tourism list, it’s not for the faint-hearted or close-minded.

The people of what was once the Republic of South Vietnam, when not within earshot of communists or their sympathizers, are quick to prepare visitors for the manipulation of history and the emotional rollercoaster they are about to be confronted by. Visitors are greeted by a group of Agent Orange-affected children who are at the museum partaking in craft activities. Although this manipulation by the communists is a difficult sight for visitors, it is a reminder of the devastating effects of the war that still go on with each new generation – a brutal reminder that this chemical still continues to affect our own health and that of our families.

And while this museum can be found on the top three places to visit on any tourism list, it’s not for the faint-hearted or close-minded.

Beyond the kids, you will find American weapons of war shrewdly set against the backdrop of photos of dead civilians, a re-created tiger cage that housed North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers captured by the south, and propaganda to make your eyes pop and your heart rate rise.

In the visitors book you will find everything from anger at the cruel Americans, to anger at the Vietnamese government’s one-sidedness – to apologies from American soldiers and donations of their own possessions. It’s an emotional experience, and one that often leaves the toughest of visitors shaken and confused. But visitors can take refuge outside in the courtyard, where this museum has even outdone the Hanoi museum – with tanks, cannons, fighter jets, a Chinook helicopter, a Huey helicopter, and a lot more.

Click any photo or this link to see photo gallery with lots more photos at large sizes.

Fortunately, exiting the building will bring you back to a pleasant and modern part of Vietnam, although, still one without true freedom. The fact that these government-run museums contain information so anti-American and distorted illustrates the thinking of the extremists who control Vietnam today.

No doubt Jane Fonda would thoroughly enjoy a visit, and with any luck, the Vietnamese would keep her there this time.

 

Brooke LumsdenBrooke Lumsden is a freelance writer, and is the daughter of an Australian Vietnam veteran. She lives in Sydney, Australia.