On Wednesday (January 21st if you’re keeping track of my calendar days, because I know I’m not), our group took a tour of the immediately surrounding area of Ho Chi Minh City. We visited the Independence Palace aka the Reunification Palace aka the the Norodom Palace, the location of the Fall of Saigon attacks that ended the Vietnam war, and the War Remnants Museum. We also had a quick stop at the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saigon Central Post Office for a photo opp (and ATMs, yay!). Oh and a quick trip through Ben Thanh market as well.
This is not in chronological order because I have additional comments to add on some places and would not like to disrupt my flow.
Notre Dame Cathedral was a beautiful sight. Born Roman Catholic Vietnamese, I was glad I got to see this.
The post office was a huge yellow building. I love how Ho Chi Minh City is so colorful, a remnant of French colonialism. Inside there are a couple souvenir shops, ATMs, and tourist information, as well as actual post office services.
I went back to Ben Thanh market several times after the first time we went on the tour. On the first day was when I realized I could sneak around as a Vietnamese person. Unlike my white American peers, no one grabbed me by the arm and asked me to buy things, although I did hear an endless “Em kiem di? Em muong coi nay?” The vendors here were so much more aggressive than any ones I’ve encountered in Asia.
The Independence Palace was where the president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), Ngo Dinh Diem and later Nguyen Van Thieu, lived and worked between the times of the Geneva Accords and the end of the Vietnam War. After the end of the Vietnam War, the palace was renamed the Reunification Palace. The building as it is now is set up like it was during the war as a center for military commands.
South Vietnamese artifacts.
The War Remnants Museum had mainly photographic exhibits of wartime atrocities committed by the American troops and various wartime artifacts. As a government sanctioned museum, all views portrayed are filtered through the agenda of the communist party of Vietnam. Many of the images, especially in the agent orange exhibit, were horrifically graphic, meant to foster an appropriate amount of anti-American sentiment.
As an American, going through this museum is an eye-opening experience to a side of history that is censored in American textbooks. We watched a portion of a propaganda documentary in which the war was referred to as the Anti-American war. This made me think of how names give meaning to events. Was it the Vietnam War, in which Americans/westerners were fighting Vietnamese? This neglects to address the fact that the American troops were supposed to be assisting one side of the Vietnamese. Was it the second Indochina War? This lumps together the region. Was it a Vietnamese civil war much like the U.S. Civil war, north versus south? This fails to mention the large role the U.S. played. Was it an Anti-American war? The north Vietnamese communists and Viet Cong forces in the south surely believed they were helping their kindred brothers and sisters in liberation from U.S. imperialism.
As a Vietnamese American, going through to museums not just “history” in the old dead white men sense, but a more colorful and jarring depiction of the actual realities of my family and relatives. It was not so long ago that it happened. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. In terms of other wars, it has not been that long. Yet when it has already happened I can think about these things in retrospect and it is easy to expand my perspective, especially because I have both benefitted and struggled because of the outcome. However, when things are happening now in terms of heavily politically charged issues, is it possible to see multiple viewpoints when you are not largely affected by it? This is a question of privilege.
My favorite exhibit, as a burgeoning political activist was the section on third world people of color solidarity for Vietnamese liberation. There were posters and photos, evidence that the Vietnamese people that overwhelming support all over the world from likewise oppressed people. I thought it was appropriate given the proximity of Martin Luther King Jr., Day that I could read these words.
It made me think of today’s struggles for liberation, from Justice for Palestine to Black Lives Matter, that throughout history, people of color and other oppressed people have banded together in acts of solidarity and support. Back to the point I was making earlier, it is important to assess the benefits and harms of a situation and make an effort to be on the “right” side of history. It may not be completely clear what that is now, but with an expanded perspective we can do our best.
I had written in the first post of this blog, that for me, this trip would be a different type of exploration than for my white American peers. It has occurred to me that it is not only because of my Vietnamese heritage, but also because of my immense passion for history, politics, feminism, and activism. Everything I observe are through those lenses. They make me interpret tourist sites differently, even diminishing their enjoyment, but I will speak more about this in another post.