The War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is one of the most interesting exhibitions I have ever been to, and one of the most disturbing.
It is obviously an ongoing exhibition, rather than a temporary show, having been established in 1975 as The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government (of South Vietnam).
This catchy title was later changed to the Museum of American War Crimes, before segueing into the War Crimes Museum until the 1990s when relations thawed with the American government and the less spiky moniker of War Remnants Museum was introduced. Interestingly, it is one of the only museums in the world that actually encourages you to take photographs of everything on display during your visit. The museum is a major tourist attraction and has more than 400,000 visitors annually.
The museum consists of eight themed rooms in different buildings inside a large courtyard. It also showcases military equipment used during the Vietnam War, such as a Huey helicopter, bomb casings and even an attack bomber. They all look as if they have just come off the set of a Vietnam War film, which sadly demonstrates the level of commercialism which this period in history has undergone over the past twenty years.
Inside, the exhibits are a mixture of photographs and actual items, including jars of preserved human fetuses deformed by dioxin exposure. There is also a guillotine on display which was used by the South Vietnamese and French to execute prisoners and a gruesome mock-up of the tiger cages, used as prison cells of Con Son Island. Implements of torture and coercion are also on display with accompanying texts describing their exact usage.
The most noticeable thing about the museum overall is that you are seeing history from a different viewpoint. The war is termed The American War rather than the Vietnam War, and the propaganda (which is almost gleefully included) is very much against the Americans. In fact the propaganda is one of the highlights as it makes you realise how desensitised we have all become to American style propaganda. All the photos have captions and explanations accompanying them, all in English as well as Vietnamese. There are comments about imperialist dogs and photos capturing the horrifying effects of Agent Orange. Some of the pictures are distressing, but all are a fascinating insight into this bloody period of shared history.
Outside, opposite the souvenir shop is a water puppet theatre which has two performances daily if there are a minimum of five people attending. This perhaps offers some light relief to those who need a break from the horrors of war, but when I was there I gave the puppetry a miss and went for a long, invigorating, mind-clearing walk instead.
The museum is in no way presenting an unbiased view of the American-Vietnam War, but it does shed further light on atrocities committed by both sides, demonstrate the particular brutality of war for civilians and allows you to see the war from the cultural perspective of where the conflict actually took place. Although an unsettling experience, it is also an unforgettable one.Address: 28 Vo Van Tan St., Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Open daily : from 8am to 11:45am and 1.30pm to 4:45pm
Entry : VND10,000