Growing up, I was never very interested in history. Important historical events like the American Revolution, the Cold War and the Vietnam War never resonated much with me. Fittingly, I became a journalist – a profession that forces you to care about what’s happening at that precise moment in time above all else.
However, as I realized when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – otherwise known as Saigon – many other people around the world don’t have that luxury. In Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnam War is all around them, everyday.
They walk by what’s now known as the Independence Palace, where a tank sits on the lawn – the same one that crashed through its gates declaring the end of the Vietnam War. They stroll by parents on the street pushing around their deformed children in strollers who were mutilated by Agent Orange while still in the womb. They have lunch at Pho Binh, a nondescript noodle soup joint that was once the secret headquarters of the Viet Cong.
However, scarily, they also aren’t allowed an objective knowledge of what happened during the Vietnam War, from all standpoints. A Communist nation, propaganda fills every museum and point of interest in the country.
While in Hanoi, we visited the Hoa Lo Prison Memorial, which at one time was used by North Vietnam for U.S. prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Throughout the now-museum, we saw photographs of American POWs playing basketball, decorating their Christmas tree and receiving medical treatment from the Vietnamese. In the photos, they laughed and smiled, while captions read, “American soldiers received the best treatment possible from the Vietnamese during their time at Hoa Lo Prison.”
I don’t know how they were actually treated. But I can assume that these guys weren’t smiling and laughing everyday. They were prisoners of war. I noticed that William, one of the members of our tour group who actually fought in the Vietnam War, didn’t say much during our visit to the prison.
In Ho Chi Minh City, we also went to the War Remnants Museum, a graphic and disturbing museum – even for someone with a thick skin – detailing atrocities of the Vietnam War. Explicit images of children debilitated by Agent Orange and photographs of Vietnamese being tortured by American soldiers leave little to the imagination and make the bright sun you encounter when leaving the museum seem just plain wrong. And, as morally wrong as what’s depicted in those images is, it can’t be denied that atrocities weren’t done to American troops, too. However, not even a lick of that can be seen within the museum walls – or any Vietnamese walls, for that matter.
While staying in Ho Chi Minh City, we also visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of thousands of miles of tunnels that the Viet Cong created – often by hand – to house troops, transport supplies, and flee to after attacks. Walking above ground through the tourist area, we saw craters, still free of thick trees, created by landed bombs and air holes hidden in fake termite nests and rocks. I imagined the tunnels themselves to be big, cave mine-like walkable tunnels we could stroll through. Instead, when we actually got to go inside, I crouched down – Mike crawled on his hands and knees at some points – to get through. I couldn’t wait to get of the claustrophobic and nerve-wracking tunnels and can’t imagine what it would be like to stay in for hours, or be in deeper ground or more narrow tunnels, which exist in prevalence throughout the network.
Being so close to war makes you feel grateful that here in the United States, no one has ever bombed your backyard. However, it also made me think – what defines war? Here in the States, we are constantly inundated with stories about shooters who destroy schools, malls, airports, office buildings and other innocent places. For the first time in my life, I feel scared to sign up for 5Ks or to go to any public area with a lot of people. What similarities does this have with people who dealt with, and deal with, war every day of their average lives?
It also made me think about what is reality. In studying journalism, I learned a lot about media literacy, and thus, when I watch a documentary or read a book that’s supposed to be objective but ends up having way too much one-sided opinion (the number one rule of journalism is, after all, “no one cares what you think”) I usually end up dropping it. But what do people do when they don’t realize that what they’re being presented with is opinion, not fact, as it’s packaged to be? And what’s missing from the narrative of what your country is telling you?