As you’ll probably have realized by now, I spent last week in Vietnam, managing to take in everything from debating industrial policy with the IMF in the Hanoi Hilton to discussing survival strategies with lottery ticket sellers in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City (working for an NGO can be amazing sometimes).
Everywhere you go, the ‘American War’ hangs unspoken over a foreigner’s experience of visiting Vietnam – the historic names like Danang and Dien Bien Phu; the Mekong Delta and Saigon are now holiday destinations, NGO project locations or people’s homes, rather than battlefields. ‘What did you do in the war?’ is the question you dare not ask whenever you talk to anyone over 45, because no-one ever mentions it, scarcely even to long-term foreign residents. Even when they are married to them – our country director in Vietnam, Steve Price Thomas, could not work out why his Vietnamese wife Hoa was so anxious when they were stuck in a traffic jam next to Heathrow, until she described the Hanoi air raids of her childhood.
But then we visited the ‘War Remnants Museum’ in Saigon, renamed from ‘The Museum of American War Atrocities’ after the normalization of US-Vietnam relations in 1995. Room after harrowing room record the deaths of some 3 million Vietnamese (vs 58,000 Americans), and the maiming of countless others by Agent Orange – malformed babies are still being born due to the Dioxin dropped on the country 40 years ago. I’ve chosen the least upsetting photos, believe me. Foreigners and locals rub shoulders at the museum, there’s no security – are Vietnamese not angry, or is the trauma so deep that only psychic burial can allow the country to bustle forward? In an individual, my psychotherapist wife would probably say that level of repression is bound to do them damage, but maybe as a country it is necessary to function.
Gangs of bubbly Vietnamese schoolkids were industriously photographing the exhibits and far from confronting me, they came up to ask what I thought of the exhibition, and if they have their photograph taken with me, in front of the grainy images of their country’s purgatory. I didn’t know what to say to them. Disturbing end to a brilliant visit.