I must admit that I didn’t know what to expect from Vietnam. All I really knew before getting here was that we had fought a long, horrible and pointless war here, and that Vietnam was now one country with a Communist government. I figured we had a complicated relationship, as is to be expected given our history. But I don’t think I was really fully cognizant of how complicated it was until I visited the War Remnants Museum.
The War Remnants Museum was listed as one of the top things to see in Ho Chi Minh City by Lonely Planet. When they described the museum, they said it was informative and grim, if a little propagandized, so I was expecting to be defensive and upset. I wound up being very upset, but despite the obvious propaganda during parts, I didn’t get defensive. Because though the language was a little bombastic and pro-Communism, it didn’t devote its time to painting a negative picture of America. It devoted its time to showing visitors what happened to Vietnam during the war. It was horrible. There’s really no other way to say it. And the country is still dealing with the effects of the war today.
The first floor was devoted to the anti-war movement around the world, including in the US itself. It even showed a few letters that Ho Chi Minh wrote to American protesters thanking them for doing what they could to stop the war. Part of the first floor was an exhibit of artwork from students in HCMC advocating for world peace. The second floor housed some of the weapons the Americans had used during the war and talked about the war atrocities committed by US soldiers during the war. It also had an entire section dedicated to Agent Orange, the defoliant US troops dropped all over Vietnam to prevent the Viet Cong from hiding in the jungles. Really what it succeeded in doing was poisoning millions of people, causing cancer in those directly exposed and then causing birth defects in future generations. The Vietnamese are still dealing with those poisoned by Agent Orange today, and we saw plenty of those people on the streets. The third floor had two sections, one dedicated to the journalists who had photographed the war and another detailing how the war began. That was the best part for us, because I had forgotten much of the pre-war history, and we both thought it took a very balanced approach to the fighting itself and the horror of war.
The museum reminded me of so many reasons that Vietnam has to be mad at America. But the rest of Ho Chi Minh City made me realize that it’s much more complicated than that. Whenever people asked us where we were from, we said that we were from California. We had gotten into this habit in Angkor Wat because the children selling things had a harder time placing it on the map than “America” and so were momentarily paralyzed with confusion, giving us time to get away from the point of sale. We also thought that saying “United States” over and over would just lead to more questions, since it’s a big country, and California was a way to cut to the chase. But in Vietnam, saying we were from California was like saying we were from next door.
“My sister lives in San Francisco!” “I lived in Texas for a few months.” “I have friends in California!” It seemed like everyone in HCMC knew someone in California or somewhere else in the US, and wanted to talk to us about it — in English, by the way.
It’s funny that I had forgotten that there are tons and tons of Vietnamese in the United States. Some of those people came as refugees. But many others have been there for generations. Many who live in Vietnam have visited family in the US, and have positive associations with it. So while the American legacy in Vietnam is one of destruction and imperialism, the American idea of a nation of promise and prosperity is very much alive and well. The Vietnamese we met didn’t see us as enemies; they saw us as friends. And as more and more people travel back and forth, this relationship will only improve.
So, our relationship is complicated. But it is getting less and less complicated every day. And I anticipate that as years go on, as Vietnam’s economic development continues to improve and as more and more people move to or visit the US (and more Americans move to or visit Vietnam), we will be able to leave the legacy of war behind us both and move towards a brighter future together.