Vietnam: Reminders of war turn into tourist attractions


Part two of a series.

Several of Vietnam’s top tourist attractions are often-graphic and filtered reminders of armed conflict.

Military aircraft, tanks and torture devices tell decades-old stories of strife at the War Remnants Museum, earlier known as the American War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. The repository, both thoughtful and grim, opened 40 years ago in the former Saigon.

Inside are paintings of peace and optimism by children who live on the Con Dao Islands, known until 1975 as a hell on Earth because of brutal prison conditions. A gallery of photos by Goro Nakamura of Japan heart-wrenchingly documents birth defects that are a consequence of Agent Orange spraying.

Dozens of other pictures illustrate the horrors, interactions, tensions and many moods of soldiers and civilians during wartime. That includes the Pulitizer Prize-winning photo of Kim Phuc, the naked My Lai girl shown running after burned by napalm; now she lives in Canada.

Although this riveting image and others represent many photographers, nations and viewpoints, themes of struggle, loss and sadness seem universal to almost all.

“Had it been peace time, they would have been friends,” reflected war photojournalist Bunyo Ishikawa of Japan, to explain a 1968 image. “I love Vietnam, so I agonized over its young people hurting each other.”

Especially chilling in “Requiem,” a tribute to combat photographers, are photos from the last roll of film shot before a land mine, gunfire or other war hazard killed them. Among these unheralded victims: Dickey Chapelle of Wisconsin, who died 50 years ago in Vietnam when hit in the neck with shrapnel from a triggered booby trap.

The native of Shorewood, a Milwaukee suburb, was the first female war correspondent killed while covering combat. The former Georgette Louise Meyer, who died at age 47, worked on the front lines at Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II.

Near the museum is Reunification Palace and its wrought iron gates, imposing interior grandeur and subdued hallways. What opened as Independence Palace and home to South Vietnam’s president was overtaken in 1975 during the fall of Saigon. Tours are possible, if the building is not occupied for other purposes, and on the grounds is a military tank that busted through during wartime.

Within 20 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City is Cu Chi, whose spiderlike network of underground tunnels covered 1,500 acres and were a base for Viet Cong operations during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Open for tours are parts of the complex web that was known for its spiked traps, three levels of excavation and underground city with routes to move food to munitions.

The project turned average people into guerrilla fighters, on land where fruit trees grew and families used to picnic. Travelers are advised to not visit if disturbed by narration from a Vietnamese perspective. In the forested area are life-sized dioramas and an invitation to walk or crawl a few hundred yards underground – a sweaty experience that is not a match for the claustrophobic.

Hue, the country’s long-ago royal capital and near the center of Vietnam, is home to Thien Mu Pagoda, whose seven-story-tall temple is the tallest in Vietnam. Also on the property is a baby blue Austin car that in 1963 carried monk Thich Quang Duc to his death in Saigon; that is where he poured gasoline over himself and burned to protest the government’s anti-Buddhist policies.

In Hanoi, crowds still converge to see the preserved and glass-enclosed remains of political leader Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969. Loyalists refer to their departed leader as “Uncle Ho,” and the massive marble mausoleum is in the center of a large public square.

Also in Hanoi is the former Hoa Lo Prison, which American soldiers sarcastically nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, and U.S. Sen. John McCain was among the inmates. Much of the structure no longer exists, but what remains is a small museum whose artifacts mostly address incarcerations before 1960. On display is a guillotine, because the prison was built by the French. As a nod to more contemporary conflict, photos show healthy American prisoners of war playing basketball and being given medical check-ups by physicians.

Next: Cultural tourism in Vietnam.

Wisconsin Historical Society Press recently published “Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action” ($25) by John Garofolo. The coffeetable book is a collection of the photographer’s work and her personal story.

“You can do anything you want to do if you want to do it so badly you’ll give up everything else to do it,” proclaimed the girl known back home as Georgie Lou. She was confined almost two months in a Hungarian prison. Her work took her to Cuba, Lebanon, the Dominican Republic and Japan.

She is included in “Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina” by Horst Faas and Tim Page, a 1997 Random House photography book upon which the War Remnants Museum’s “Requiem” exhibit is based in Vietnam.