Saigon 3: Political re-education

Thu 11thJuly, 2013

Today we leave Vietnam, by an afternoon flight back to KL.  We have a morning left to see sights.

We breakfast and check out and are picked up by our smiling tour guide.  Today is to be another chapter in our political re-education.  Although our guide book is determined that Vietnam is a country, not a war, there is a fair bit of the latter.  As we drive through the city, we amuse ourselves watching the over-laden scooters and rickshaws with huge bales of goods.  Now we know where they have come from (but not where they are going).  We also see rather gloomy cargoes: cages of song birds which, having been trapped in the countryside are destined to be sold, one at a time, for release from temples by guilt ridden? prayerful? aviophiles. Poor little creatures.  How many of them will survive being stuffed into a cage with a score of so of their companions, let alone the journey home after a day or so of looking pathetic?  We also see a cage of dogs (alive) literally squashed together.  There must be ten it or more in a cage about 50cm cubed.  These chaps are not so lucky being destined, we are told, for cheap meat for the artisans who work as builders and road menders. They cannot afford fillet steak for dinner. So puppy a la lemon grass it is.  They look very sad dogs.  Wouldn’t you?  Scooters are also over-laden with humans.  We commonly see Dad driving, smaller child (a) seated between him and the handle bars, larger child (b) behind him and Mum at the back.  Interestingly the adults wear crash helmets and the children do not.  There must be some logic to that but we cannot fathom it.


We are taken to the Museum  of War.  It is a three storey building dedicated to recording the history of the century of wars in Vietnam and it pulls no punches.  There is a little about the French but it is mainly about the Americans. Outside is a collection of aircraft and military vehicles.  No mystery there. The world is littered with the abandoned hulks of war machines, for they are usually too heavy and grimy to take home afterwards.  I note that the US and Brits are even now cuddling up to the rulers in Kazakhstan who have the only workable railway line out of Afghanistan. Our dear friends and cricket playing allies in Pakistan have seemingly quoted for safe passage of kit out of the theatre of war and rather over-egged the price.  Isn’t it amazing how the value tag of friendship is so flexible?


The museum is a series of collections of war photographs, loaned by their copyright owners – mainly Time and Life Magazines who were voracious consumers of material and which, given the slant of the whole display, is quite generous of them. The overall objective of the museum is supposed to be reconciliation, but it is heavily propagandised and leaves the visitor in no doubt that the innocent party was the Vietcong and the mighty military aggressors and war criminals were the Europeans and the Americans.

It is very well curated – though annoyingly each room has a collection of (now defused or inactivated) American ordnance to provide a constant reminder that the execution of warfare is achieved largely by making holes in people from a long way away.  Speaking of executions, there is a mock-up of a lock-up also outside the museum with barbed wire cages, dreary concrete cells etc. one of which contains a full size (and fully functioning) Guillotine brought out by the French, who didn’t mess about when it came to dispensing swift justice. I had never examined one so closely before.  The sand tray underneath was a sombre reminder of its messy purpose.

There is some brilliant war photography around and in some ways the exhibition is a memorial to the hundred-ish photographers who were killed in action.  Most of it is monochrome – being the most forgiving photographic medium to handle (and process) in either unpredictable lighting conditions (or in the field). You know the press photographer’s mantra “f/8 and be there”.  You will recognise some of the images as being particularly striking – Huynh Cong’s picture of the burning Napalmed girl running down the road towards the photographer screaming “too hot, too hot”, of Eddie Adams famous image of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngok Loan executing, by a pistol to the head, a captured combatant and lots of others.  Many of the images are very moving.  Some are thought provoking. Others are harrowing. For me, however, a question mark always hangs over the veracity of these very dramatic images. When I studied for my A level photography a couple of years ago, (yes I got an A), I formed the view that most images are carefully posed.  The odds of the photographer just happening to be there at some critical moment are vanishingly small and the thought of asking an executioner to “hang on a minute while I focus” fills me with horror.  I would be too tempted to say “Please don’t do that”.

A Japanese contributor has a large display in colour prints which somehow seem much less dramatic, though they are more sympathetic images of the effects of Dioxin.  We learn that the poison developers of the American chemical industry tried to kill leaves with “agent green”, “agent red” and “agent blue” before lighting upon new and improved “agent orange”.  The Vietnamese are particularly cross about the consequences of this stuff on subsequent generations especially as they have sought and failed to sue Uncle Sam for some dosh to help the poor misshapen folk who are the living evidence of this horror.  There is, framed, a very moving open letter to President Obama from a child victim asking him to help them fulfil his (Obama’s) professed dream of a decent future for all children.  Surprise, surprise, it has not received a reply.

We leave the museum as it closes for lunch. Offered an hour, we have been here for two and a half hours and haven’t noticed the time.  To the airport my man and don’t spare the horse power.  Our driver drops us at the departures terminal. We thank and tip our guide, Mr Hoa, who apologises saying that he must say goodbye to us on the pavement as “being Vietnamese I am not allowed into the airport”.  Once again we catch but a glimpse of the autocratic regime that keeps its citizens captive, lest they desert this workers paradise. Never the less, they appear happy in their daily round, and laugh and joke about the same things we do (sex, beer and football – but not politics).  We check in for our one hour flight back to KL.  When we land, we have the impression of returning to freedom. It is just a feeling.  Home to bed.

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