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What is the Message Being Told Here?

Two Museums in Ho Chi Minh City

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After an uneventful transfer day from Hoi An to Danang to Ho Chi Minh City, our travel party is fully together for the first time this trip. Tra arrived from Hanoi last night, so we are now a traveling group of four. It should be a fun next couple of days--students and faculty experiencing Ho Chi Minh City and its museums. Tra and Huong will give us a good idea about a students perspective on the museums and Richard and I can concentrate on figuring out what is a "must" at the museum and what we can do without. Two museums which were on our itinerary were the War Remembrance Museum and the Reunification Palace. The question I asked myself before seeing either museum is whether these museums will work for our class?
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Our first stop was the War Remembrance Museum, and this museum was everything I hoped for and more. We have been discussing among ourselves about whether the course should start in the south and move north, or vice-verse. I think this museum suggests we must start in Ho Chi Minh City. Divided into three floors, with an important story of how political prisoners in South Vietnam were treated on the outside of the building, this museum begs you to spend more time than you think you can at it. Floor One was a divided into a section on the 60th anniversary of Vietnam's victory at Dien Bien Phu, a recurring theme on this trip. The images of how the war was viewed from around the world completes the first floor. What was most interesting was a small section on an officer (E. Thomas?) who worked with Vietnamese guerrillas in fighting the French. Although there is little analysis here, it would be worth calling the students attention to it because it marks one of those "what if" moments. What if the U.S. had remained a committed partner of Vietnam rather than a committed friend of France? How different might our countries relationship today? I also saw an interesting picture that had an American soldier questioning America's involvement in the war, That soldier, though not named in the translation, was John Kerry, currently America's Secretary of State.
Students and faculty were agreed that the the second floor was the heart of the museum, and one that should really be seen by all visitors to Ho Chi Minh City. Broken into sections, and showing a number of Life Magazine issues, the pictures document America's increasing involvement in Vietnam. In the midst of the narrative special attention is given to My Lai and a operation conducted in 1969. The latter operation involved a future Senator of Nebraska--Bob Kerry. Unlike the museums in Hanoi, this narrative though clearly anti-American in tone, was not as strident in its interpretive presentation. Students might find it difficult to read and/or see, but we are not in the United States. The tone matters; it tells students that there are many ways to look at America's presence in the world at large, and not just in Vietnam. How students will respond to the notion of "War Crimes" will be interesting. It will likely require some serious discussion afterwards.
The third floor took the American conflict beyond the battlefield and into the present. Sections on "Agent Orange and its Aftermath" and "historical truths" show how the impact of the dioxins on Vietnam continue to influence whole regions of the country. Assuming we can do it, this section will give students some inkling into what they will encounter when we visit Friendship Village outside of Hanoi. The historical truths section raises the question of proportionality and warfare. We would likely have to point out the charts of the exhibition concerning soldiers, munitions dropped, etc. Most students tend to gloss over those types of facts.
What is missing in the museum, and I understand why, is any discussion of the South verse North Vietnamese aspect in the pictures. Many of the photos shown are not American troops, but S. Vietnamese soldiers. That fact is ignored by the narrative. It is too early for a true discussion of the civil war that was part of the Vietnam War to occur.
This is not to suggest that the violence done by S. Vietnamese officials/soldiers to those who supported the North goes untold. The pictures that accompany this posting are from the exhibit on that topic. In many ways the recreated jail on the grounds of the museum mirror what we saw at Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. What is different here is that the S. Vietnamese replace the French as the imperialist/colonial lackeys.
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The theme of colonial puppet was subtlety on display at the Palace of Reunification. Whereas a visitor to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum are repeatedly told of "Uncle Ho's" modesty, the Palace is displayed in its formal luxury. Every room suggesting that Diem and Thieu were removed from the average Vietnamese citizen. Perhaps they were, but so too are American presidents. One walks through the Palace-even its name suggests an imperialistic undertaking--and is asked, not told, to consider the luxury one sees with what one knows of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The Palace stands in stark contrast to what one sees in Hanoi. Any visitor to both museums will recognize the different message each museum exudes.
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This message is driven home when one visits the Palace's "bunker." Anyone who has visited the British War Museum will recognize what the bunker is, but here the story is one of cowardice. Especially when one remembers Ho's "Stilt House" in Hanoi. Despite, maybe because of, the message one does think about the disconnect between what they are seeing and what the countryside looks like. In case one does not see the disconnect, the tanks parked outside the Palace, but on the grounds, including tank 390, remind the visitor that the Palace was overrun, just as the Versailles came under the influence of the Revolutionaries during the French Revolution. Perhaps this is why most exhibits start modern Vietnamese history in 1975, just as Robespierre declared a new calendar when the Jacobins came to power in 1793. Today's visit confirms that the two museums are a most stop for our emerging course. The question is whether our students will understand that message from the beginning, or only after they have visited the North?
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Posted by MJMullin 01:33 Archived in Vietnam Tagged palace city vietnam museum war chi ho minh remembrance reunification

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