My first full day in Vietnam was filled with real life frogger, intoxicating and repulsive smells, feeling like a lost child, failed attempts at napping and an impromptu motorbike tour. When the sun set, my fun continued as I met up with an old friend from Korea who's now teaching in Saigon. We grabbed dinner and a few drinks before meeting up with his friends for a birthday celebration. We shared old memories of Korea (coincidentally half his friends used to live in our town in Gumi) and a few drinks before I decided to call it a night, catching up on my overdue sleep. I was up early the next morning and set my sights on the War Remnant Museum, one of the only tourist attractions in HCMC that I had any interest in.
The museum was only about a 15 minute walk from where I was staying so it provided a nice introduction to the city, along with plenty of harrowing roads to cross. I navigated the streets successfully and arrived around 10:30, giving me about an hour and a half to tour the grounds (the museum is closed between 12 and 2). Admission to the museum is a mere 15,000 VND (< $1) which I had no problem paying. Outside the entrance there are numerous army vehicles and airplanes but it was too hot for me to take much time looking at them. The museum consists of three levels and is laid out in an idiot proof manner with arrows 'suggesting' which way you should travel through, although you'll still find those that prefer to do it their own way, or stand right in front of you when you're trying to read a sign.
The first floor is filled with information about the history of the war and a load of propaganda from war time, including pictures and information from others countries anti-war movements. It was a bit eye opening to see so much 'anti-american' fill the room, it seems that our textbooks and history lessons only ever paint us as the hero. Although the first floor is very anti-american it pales in comparison with what is in store for you on the second and third floors.
Probably the most difficult to take in is the second floor which displays gruesome details of the brutality that was inflicted on the Vietnamese people during the war, including the horrific effects of agent orange. While touring the museum I couldn't help thinking of my grandfather who spent just over a year in Vietnam during the war, stationed in Da Nang.. I wondered just what kinds of things he witnessed or what he may have been forced to do. I was suddenly more curious about this period of his life (and history for that mater) than I ever had been before. It's like I've said before, history in the books is just words on paper but when you see the effects it's a whole different story.
Not only was I seeing pictures and stories of those effected by the war but you could see it in the country. When I was on my tour of the Mekong Delta my guide pointed out a field of coconut trees that were destroyed due to bombing but then began to regrow after the fact. Across the country you can see the pain and struggle on so many faces, it only leaves me to wonder, what would this country have been like without the war? I've confessed before that I hated history in school, considering it useless to present day lives, but my travels just continue to throw that in my face. I'm constantly learning new things and having my eyes opened to issues I previously ignored, for which I'm grateful. I haven't been to the north yet but I'm interested to see how it contrasts to the south, as my guide said, "There are unhappy people there" and others warned me they're still "Anti-America", I guess I'll soon find out.
Despite thinking two hours would be plenty of time I was one of the handful of tourist being asked to leave as we finished our tour of the third floor. I was just able to speed through the remaining exhibits which showed more of the damages from war, as well as an overview comparing the Vietnam war to others in history (Korea and WW2). A visit to this museum should be, in my opinion, high on your list of things to do in Vietnam, not only is entrance cheap, but it's highly educational and eye opening. I would suggest however to prepare yourself beforehand, not all of the images and stories you'll read are easy to take in.
I was warned that I'd either love it or hate it. For some Vietnam is a food and adventure paradise while others just can't seem to find their grove. With a turbulent history and remains of division between north and south, it's an interesting place to say the least.