Field Notes from Vietnam: Chapter 2Jack Cotter
By Museum Director, Greg Waters
In February 2020, Museum Director Greg Waters spent just over two weeks traveling throughout the southern half of Vietnam. The goal of the trip was to gain a better understanding of how the Vietnamese remember and memorialize what they call the American War. Greg visited numerous museums and memorials as well as locations where important events occurred during the war.
Greg planned to continue traveling north to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, but the trip was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. He returned home safely, with plans to get back to Hanoi as soon as possible, when the time is right.
Chapter 2: The War Permeates
Please note: this blog contains graphic historical images
Much has changed in Saigon since the war ended and the city fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Notably, the city’s population has seen incredible growth, from just over 2 million residents during the war to an estimated 12 million today. In recent years, the economy has also boomed, making Vietnam a model of progress in Southeast Asia. This influx of international business and new wealth has led to major changes to the urban environment.
Many of the buildings in the downtown area that witnessed the war are being drastically renovated or torn down completely to accommodate new skyscrapers that dot the skyline. This sense of progress and focus on the future is reflected by the demographics of the country – 70 percent of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 35. This incredible postwar population boom has left only a small minority of citizens who experienced the war firsthand.
I spent three days in Saigon, exploring the city and seeking out places where the Vietnam War and its impact could still be seen and felt. Most of my time was spent in District 1, the oldest part of the city and home to several places with a direct connection to the war: the site of the American Embassy, which was attacked during the Tet Offensive in 1968; The Hotel Continental, where international journalists would congregate, drink, and share stories; and the Independence Palace, the home of the president of South Vietnam during the war and the place where North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates in 1975.
Also located in District 1 is the War Remnants Museum, where the narrative of the war as told by the Vietnamese government is on display. All of these sites are popular stops for tourists visiting the city.
Scattered throughout District 1, and other sites across the country, you will find American military vehicles that were either captured or left behind when the war ended. Planes, tanks, helicopters, jeeps, trucks, and other equipment in various states of disrepair are on display as war trophies, their presence symbolizing the power of the North Vietnamese in the fight against the American invaders.
The largest collection of American military vehicles in Saigon is parked in front of the War Remnants Museum, comprising three floors of exhibits documenting the official narrative of the war as told by the Vietnamese government. Their version of what happened is a David versus Goliath story that focuses heavily on the resilience and ingenuity of the Vietnamese people to overcome the impossible odds of fighting a war against the most powerful military on earth.
The museum also focuses heavily on darker aspects of the war, with galleries dedicated to war crimes committed by American soldiers and the lasting impact that Agent Orange has had on the country’s landscape and health of its citizens.
Perhaps the most striking place that I visited in Saigon was a small park next to a busy intersection in the middle of downtown. Here you will find a large sculpture of a man in Buddhist robes, sitting peacefully on the ground in a meditative pose while engulfed in flames.
It marks the spot where, in 1963, a Buddhist monk named Thích Quang Duc set himself on fire to protest the treatment of Buddhists under the South Vietnamese government. This extreme act of dedication to a cause, and his eerily calm demeanor while being burned alive, became an international news story. The moment was documented by American journalist and photographer Malcolm Browne who later received the Pulitzer Prize for his photographs taken that day.
Another fascinating place I visited was located a short walk from the city center. The Dan Sinh Market is a huge warehouse filled with endless stalls of vendors selling mostly industrial equipment, tools, and hardware. Throughout the market, however, you will find many vendors hawking artifacts related to the war: dog tags, helmets, uniforms, patches, weapons, and other types of military artifacts that can be purchased. The truth, however, is that nearly all of the items being sold here are modern reproductions, but their presence offers an interesting glimpse into both the past and future of Vietnam.
The Vietnam War lasted over a decade but took place within a much larger history of warfare in Vietnam that both preceded and followed it. By the time that the American military left in the early 1970s, Vietnam faced an extremely long road to social and economic recovery. Nearly everything that was left behind by the Americans and their allies was quickly scrapped or repurposed as part of this recovery effort.
Then, in 1995, the United States government normalized relations with Vietnam, and, for the first time since the war ended, Americans were welcomed back to the country as tourists. The first waves of American visitors included those interested in the history of the war and authentic war relics were quickly bought up.
The Vietnamese, being well versed in the finer points of capitalism, quickly realized that visitors were interested in taking home their own relic souvenirs. The result is Dan Sinh and other markets like it, that sold items related to the war. During my visit, I watched a young Vietnamese man in one of the stalls take a cheap reproduction of an American Army helmet and very carefully paint a large white “MP” on both sides, mimicking those worn by military policemen during the war.
My time in Saigon went by in a colorful blur. I visited many of the major historic sites and museums, and I met some wonderful people who shared their personal stories with me. The city is in the midst of an exciting chapter of growth and prosperity, but the lasting effects of the Vietnam War, while slowly fading with time, can still be seen and felt in the city — if you know where to look.
Coming Soon: a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels