We pulled into the station in what used to be the capital of South Vietnam at four thirty in the morning, half an hour after another stop had me awaking in a panic, trying frantically to remember when we had to get off and if Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) was the last station. The family that had come in in the middle of the night, turned on the light, and talked loudly throughout their journey tried to calm me down and reassure me that I had not missed the stop. When we did arrive, the cool air and walk to our guest house did me good, reviving me somewhat from a night of poor sleep. Our three day visit, like those of other tourists, was to focus on a fairly small area in the city, and we spent much of the time walking loops from the central park, past the central market, the Notre Dame Cathedral and along the fences of the Reunification Palace.
On our second day we took some time to visit the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The Palace used to be the President of South Vietnam’s office and home. The top floors were all reception rooms, living quarters and entertainment centres with glitz and glamour. Wall length curtains and bright colours matched soft tapestries and armchairs in varieties of styles, some which looked uncomfortable enough to be decadent torture devices. The “meditation hall” which had been designed on the roof as a place of reflection by the architect was turned into a bar, and hosted cold drinks and overheating tourists.
There was a strong contrast when you got downstairs, to the bunker. The temperature rose even further as more and more tourists packed themselves into the small spaces, while the metal walls gave off a cold, barren feeling, framing metal desks, metal cabinets and endless metal machines. These old machines, mainly communication equipment that had served the southern army during the civil war in Vietnam, were in great condition and fascinated us.
The War Remnants Museum on the other hand was a haunting place. It was brutal, filled with images and objects of suffering and torture, of emotional and physical warfare. The exhibits are unrelenting, a clear condemnation of other forces intervening in Vietnam, of Imperialism, and even of the Southern communists resistance to the North. I very quickly found that I could not handle it. The images in particular, of chemical warfare, mutilation and death, were too much for my ‘softie’ heart. These exhibits touched me more than those we had visited in Hanoi, even though the historical content was similar. Many museums in Hanoi have large galleries of carefully labelled items (weapons even have a recording of how many people they killed) which are placed in some sort of chronological or thematic order. You can enter a room and find bomb shells, guns, a basket (used for keeping decapitated heads, we are informed), and you gather that this is an image of French Imperialism. However the focus is on the perpetrators of violence, the objects that brought about harm or secured victory.
In contrast, the War Remnants Museum focused on giving the victims of violence a face. The images gave viewers portraits of pain, of war and conflict and the human cost. This was I felt, more effective.