The War Remnants Museum, Saigon
Anger and guilt in Ho Chi Minh City
I visited Vietnam in 2018, travelling from the capital, Hanoi, in the North, to the former capital, Ho Chi Minh City, in the South before heading to Cambodia. HCM City was formerly called Saigon, and in truth still is by many Vietnamese, whether they live in the city or not. There are even beers called Hanoi and Saigon, but no beer called Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam is a fascinating place, filled with industrious, energetic, friendly, polite, and resilient people. I asked one guy I met who’d told me everyone was welcome in Vietnam. “Why is there so little resentment against Americans?”
“China has been attacking us for over a thousand years,” he told me. “The US has barely started.”
Such an attitude tells us much about the spirit of the Vietcong. Don’t forget that they won the war. They defeated the Americans. They defeated the military might of the US. Think about that. A nation of peasants and farmers defeated a massive, heavily armed, well-funded army of modern forces who took to deploying illegal and untested chemical weapons against a rural, unarmed population forced to re-purpose the unexploded ordinance they recovered.
While in Saigon, I spent half a day at the War Remnants Museum. It was both terribly upsetting and deeply moving, and I’m left with extraordinary grief for these noble and inoffensive people. What the absolute holy fuck were Americans doing here? Killing farmers, killing children, testing chemical weapons. The US should still be paying for what they did to Vietnam. I feel outraged on their behalf. The atrocities… Oi Joi Oi! Oh my God! The madness of it all. The dislocation of those making the decisions.
Americans administrations seem to me to be characterised by their dislocation. They appear to lack empathy except within a very limited sphere. Subsistence farmers being tortured and interrogated as they attempt to protect what little they have from over half a million heavily armed foreign invaders. My God. The horror.
Possibly the most shocking exhibit is the sewer from which three children were pulled by US GIs and killed. Can you imagine? Can you imagine being a child and being told to hide in the fucking sewers by your frightened grandparents? What kind of abomination is this? How does mankind get to these places? Children hiding in the fucking sewers? The heat, the stench, the fear. Not knowing, not understanding what’s going on. Aware only of a raw, naked, instinctual fear as death at the hands of a predator looms. The will to live commandeering all senses. All actions overlaid with the stark reality of cowering in a sewer with your frightened, crying, distressed siblings.
After a short while, you hear the hopeless pleas of your grandparents silenced by gunshots from angry intruders shouting in a language you cannot comprehend. And then they come for you, and just when you thought couldn’t ever be more afraid, you feel even colder chills down your spine and hot urine running down the inside of your thigh.
More shouting and you see them. The men. Angry, ugly, grabbing, hurting, hauling you from the rank safety of your now failed hiding place. Your brother and sister screaming. You, too, now hysterical, frightened by the intensity of your own fear. The screaming on the outside drowning out the screaming on your inside. Soldiers arguing. The focus, one who seems to be trying to interrupt the actions of the others. My God, they're fighting among themselves.
Suddenly, the one with the red face grabs your older sister by the arm, tugs her away from you, and, placing a handgun on the back of her cowering head, pulls the trigger. Her hair parts instantly to reveal a crater of black, red, white, and angry flesh, some of which splashes on your face. He drops her and, like a sack of rice, she hits the ground and rolls over to reveal an exit wound where her face was. The shock has rendered you mute. The shot has rendered you deaf. Gasping through the mucus, the heat, the filth, the chaos, and the shock, you look up to see the twisted face of her killer stepping towards you.
I was left with two overriding emotions: the first is anger and the second is guilt. The anger is understandable. The guilt though… it’s not just mine. It belongs to all of us. Where were we? Where were the UK in the midst of the madness? Where were our protests? What did we do? And me? What did I do?
I came to this place and photographed subsistence farmers and fishermen, knowing nothing about them or their lives. I saw the drunken young Brits hanging around with an unearned sense of entitlement and a complete disregard for the Vietnamese people. I’ve displaced my own guilt with Vietnamese Dong, as if somehow spending some money can justify the pornography I will disseminate via Social Media. “Look at my picture,” I’ll say.
“What an eye!” they’ll reply. And in the meantime, those farmers and fishermen will continue to till the soil and cast their nets in the heat, the sun, the rain.
What’s the best I can hope to achieve? Will I encourage more tourism? Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Or is it just “what it is?”
I had an uncle. He died recently. An uncle through marriage, he married my aunt after the second world war. She'd emigrated to Canada from Scotland, he'd gone there from Germany. His father had been a High Court Judge in Nazi Germany. My uncle, as a boy, in the Hitler Youth. He only mentioned it once. "Countries don't go to war," he said, "governments do."
It occurred to me that we are so cross with the Nazi's and, in my case with the US army in Vietnam, not because of what they did, but because they showed us what we are capable of. What ordinary human beings can do given extraordinary circumstances, whether it's gassing children in camps or pulling them from sewers to shoot them.