Each weekend, SEAMEO plans trips for us so we can experience as much as we can while we are here. This past weekend we took our first weekend trips outside our comfort zone of District 1 into other districts and outside of Ho Chi Minh City.
On Saturday we had a free day because the planned SEAMEO trip was on Sunday, so we decided to go to the War Remnants Museum. It is a museum comprised of different letters, pictures, artifacts, and documents from the Vietnam War. We had all been warned prior to our trip that the museum would be heartbreaking and graphic and it truly was. Outside of the museum there are tanks, helicopters, planes, boats, and bombs from the war. I didn’t realize how BIG all of that equipment was. We all felt so tiny standing next to them. Also outside was a model of an American prison that held the Vietnamese. It was equipped with tiger traps, which are small coffin-like cages made of barbed wire, small cells, and displayed different measures of torture.
Inside the museum is divided into various sections: propaganda against the war from countries all over the world, Agent Orange and its effects, American war crimes, historical facts, and Vietnam then and now. The mood of the entire museum was somber. As people moved from display to display, no one was talking. I think it was emotionally draining for all of us, but very important to see. It was fascinating to see the war from another point of view. The entire museum seemed to be dedicated to showing how the war affected real people in real ways. The pictures were not just of soldiers but women, children, and civilians. The display that moved me most in the museum was a display of medals that an American soldier won. He donated them to the museum in a box frame with an engraved message in all caps– TO THE PEOPLE OF A UNITED VIETNAM: I WAS WRONG. I AM SORRY.
I think the most shocking part for all of us was the exhibit on Agent Orange. The pictures were so sad to see. Agent Orange is still affecting people today. We see many people on the street who have handicaps. Another relevant effect of the war is land mines. We read that about 50,000 people have died from active land mines since the war ended in 1975 and there are still more out there.
Once we left the museum we were uplifted because we saw a park nearby. It was full of beautiful flowers and people walking. Two children came up to us and asked to practice their English with us. The little boy had a notebook FULL of about 200 questions written in English. Next to the question there were names, locations, and answers from other people they’ve interviewed. We talked about Taylor Swift, Toy Story, what we do in our free time, and what we like about New York.
Sunday was a SEAMEO trip to the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cao Dai Temple is located in a community of monks and followers of the religion. They go to the temple four times a day to pray. The religion itself is a hybrid of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The followers wear white linen outfits with armbands of yellow, blue, and red. Yellow represents Buddhism, blue represents Confucianism, and red represents Taoism. The religion intends to send a message of peace and unity among all different types of people. The temple itself was ornate and beautiful. There were so many bright colors everywhere! There were no seats, just a big open floor plan. Followers enter to pray, men on one side and women on the other. We got to witness a chant, which consisted of vocals and a few instruments. It was such a memorable experience.
– This follower let me take a picture of him!
After the Cao Dai Temple was the Cu Chi Tunnels and crawled in the intricate tunnels the Viet Cong used during the Vietnam war. They lived in them for 13 years and would only come out at night to get supplies. They made small holes to maintain air circulation. They placed American clothing or body parts by the holes to avoid getting detected by American army dogs. They would only cook with a little bit of smoke at 3 or 4am while Americans were sleeping. In order to keep Americans off their trail, they wore tire sandals that were small at the top and big at the bottom to make it look like they were walking the other way. They would also set elaborate traps made of sharpened bamboo. I couldn’t believe the sheer brilliance of the entire tunnel system and traps, especially because these were the days before technology or GPS. You had to think on your feet in order to survive and really know the land. I don’t know if I would be able to come up with something like that (and I hope I never have to find out).
The tunnels themselves are so narrow you can’t do anything but crawl. Even the entrances were small. There were secret entrances with doors covered by leaves. They had to widen them for tourists, so I can’t imagine how small they were before. Myself, Patrick, and Sarah couldn’t make it the whole way through the tunnel because it was SO hot and dark, but Geeta and Matt powered through! We also shot AK-47s whole we were there. It was pretty scary to have that much power in my hands. I couldn’t imagine being a drafted soldier, going to a totally unfamiliar territory, and having to use those heavy weapons with minimal training in the blistering heat.
I had so much fun this weekend and am so grateful I got to see another perspective of the Vietnam War. I am really looking forward to this weekend’s trip to the Mekong Delta!