Vietnam’s Museum of War Remnants

Robert Capa's last frame, taken just before he stepped on a land mine.

Flag flying war memorials litter the center of Ho Chi Minh City, which is what the Vietnamese renamed Saigon after the American War. Most of these memorials feature captured American war materiel, such as intact helicopters, jet fighters, tanks and artillery pieces. You'll run across them in parks, in the front yards of the aforementioned government buildings, and, of course, at the war museum sites.

American tourists looking at photos of Agent Orange victims.

The most visited tourist site in the city is the War Remnants Museum.

The Museum used to be called the Museum of American War Atrocities.

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The Vietnamese government changed the name to be a little less “confrontational” with the American tourists who tend to visit the Museum, and with the American government, with whom they reestablished relations during the Clinton administration.

The current name doesn't do justice to what's inside the building. If they wanted to be accurate, they should have left it the way it was. There are some “calmer” rooms, such as the one full of posters and photos of the world anti-war movement of the 1960s and 70s. (If you look real close at the demonstration photos, you might see me in one of them.) But the ones that stick are the rooms full of photos of the war itself and of the Vietnamese children (and one American child) deformed by their exposure to Agent Orange.

The execution of a Viet Cong officer in Saigon by an officer of the South Vietnamese national police, by AP photograhper, Eddie Adams.

If you're my age, and some of you are that old, you probably remember the photos from the newspapers of the era, and especially those from Life magazine. (Remember when we had great mags like Life? Sigh.) There are large prints of the two most famous photos from the war: the execution of a Viet Cong soldier in Saigon and the naked burning little girl running from her napalmed village. If you are too young to remember, here they are. Strangely, most of the photos from this exhibit were taken by American photographers, and are testament to the bravery of those people who still risk their lives to cover wars.

In fact, there's an entire wall of photographs and names of photojournalists killed in Vietnam. There were lots of them in the more than thirty years of wars with the French and Americans.

They give an entire section to Robert Capa, one of my favorite photographers, who was killed in 1954 by a land mine while covering the war with the French. Capa had covered the Spanish Civil War and World War II and had made some of the most poignant photos ever there.

The exhibit in the museum here includes the photos from the two cameras he was carrying when he was killed. He once said, “If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough.” He wasn't afraid to get too close.

A girl who had been burned by napalm running from her burning village. Perhaps the most famous photo from the Vietnam War.

One room was full of photos I hadn't seen before–images of the children who suffered horrible burns from the napalm or awful defects from the Agent Orange.

One doesn't really need to say anything about these. Just look and think, “My country did this.”

Note, too, that there were photos and testaments from American soldiers who also suffered from contact with Agent Orange, including photos of a beautiful blonde American girl born without arms–a defect attributable to her father's handing of the deadly defoliant.

An old woman and other villagers just before being shot at My Lai.

Of course, there were photos of the My Lai massacre, including some taken by Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle of a group of villagers just before they were shot and dumped in a ditch.

Another of Haberle's photos shows the bodies of old people and babies.

Bodies of women and children at My Lai.

Critics of the museum's displays point to other well documented atrocities committed by the Vietnamese communists against their own people during the wars. They certainly happened, but you won't see mention of them here.

The victors get to write the history and rename the cities, after all.

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9 thoughts on “Vietnam’s Museum of War Remnants”

  1. Wow… Vietnam looks like such a beautiful place (I’m very keen to go there one day), so it’s hard to imagine that such horrible things took place there, not so long ago. I hadn’t thought of going to the museum but I’ll definitely consider it now… no doubt it would be a humbling experience.

  2. Mark, Vietnam is a lovely place with lovely people, most of whom are too young to remember the war. There are still places you shouldn’t go because of the lingering poisons and land mines, of course, but there is no reason to go there, so don’t. Do like the Vietnamese people do, and look to the future, because the past was indeed horrible. Only the government seems to have an interest in keeping the past in front of the people and the tourists, probably something to do with keeping themselves in power.

  3. We are going to Vietnam in a few months. Our 20 something year old son was there earlier this year and visited this museum. For him, the Vietnam War is history, not current events like it was for me. I won’t be visiting this museum. I was disturbed enough seeing the images in almost real time when I was younger than he is now.

    • I’d go Suzanne. The exhibit about all the photographers who were killed there is worth seeing. There will be a lot of images there you haven’t seen. Be sure to visit the History museum, which is pretty much an homage to Ho Chi Minh, in Hanoi. That’s a much better museum, as far as the professionalism of display goes. Biased, but also comprehensive. The exhibit on the roles of women in the war is striking.

  4. Thank you for this interesting reflection. I’m reading “The Sacred Willow” by Mai Elliott and am finding the account of the war from a Vietnamese perspective to be fascinating. We’ve also met a guide who remembers American soldiers with great fondness. My perspective on this complex and tragic war has been deepened.


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