In Saigon, one of the first activities we participated in was a scavenger hunt with Vietnamese college students. We divided into smaller groups and were handed a list of places to go and items to pick up. We set off on the race, and my team consisted of three of us girls and the Vietnamese student. The student we were with insisted we call her Jane. We each asked her questions as we searched for these various places and items, and she was clearly into the actual scavenging as she had already planned a route for us to save time. We learned that Jane studies English, and and that she is not from a rural town a few hours from Saigon. In return, she asked us about our travels. She noted how different Saigon must be for us, how unused to the traffic we probably were, and how we must be enjoying this change of scenery. She also asked us how many countries we had each been to, and was amazed by our answers. She told us about her dream of travelling, and I remembered how students in Morocco – I went for Winter Study this year – had asked similar questions and reacted similarly to my response. That ‘tourist’ feeling hit me hard at that moment, and I kept thinking about the interaction throughout the trip.  Since we were less concerned with finishing first, we stopped her to ask about propaganda posted around the city. She did her best to translate for us, although she did say that the Vietnamese on the posters had academic jargon that she did not completely understand. When we returned to the hotel, the rest of the students chatted with us until the dinner we had planned as a group. I casually mentioned to one of the girls that there were many fruits I hadn’t tried yet (or even heard of) and that I was looking forward to trying more. After this discussion, we quickly got ready and went to dinner with the students. I had forgotten about the conversation I had with the student about the fruit.

This was the only time we met Jane. We met some of the other students twice more. One night, they – two girls and a boy – took us to Chinatown, but not before bringing me the fruit I had asked for! After exploring Chinatown and having dinner, they dropped us off at the hotel. I thought that would be the last time we would see them, but we had one more dinner together at a restaurant that had become one of our favorites in Saigon. At the end of the dinner, I did not expect them to be so upset at the thought of not seeing us again. They didn’t want to leave and started to get a little emotional. I think we were all touched, albeit surprised. I personally didn’t feel like I had contributed much to their lives; in fact, I felt that they had been so generous to us but as tourists, we couldn’t quite reciprocate. One of the girls continued to stay in touch with me throughout the trip, asking to hear updates and telling me how much she missed all of us. Though I appreciated this about her, it also felt out of place to me. I felt bad for thinking of myself as less close to her as she thought she was to me. But it also occurred to me that her, and my, feelings about this could be due to so many cultural, linguistic, and other factors. For me, meeting these students was an integral part of the trip precisely because it made me think about all these factors.

Of course, in re-telling this story I do not intend to make generalizations about Vietnamese students or even about the students we met specifically. My interactions with the students did, however, make me think about how they must have seen us, and also wonder about what my peers on the trip were thinking about these students and their feelings towards us. Now that we are back in America, I am still thinking about what these relationships mean and what a privilege it is to have traveled to a new country and been taken care of by these students who knew nothing about us. I am truly thankful for their hospitality, and still wrestling with understanding these stories that I have shared.


Tourists’ expectations and responsibilities

Scott Laderman’s Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory prompted a class discussion about the responsibility of travel guides to put forward a certain historical narrative. The brief, one-sided descriptions of the Vietnam War in the Lonely Planet guide seemed problematic, despite our consensus that few people rely on travel guides for more than a list of top sites and restaurant recommendations. The consequence or lack thereof of tourists who do not take it upon themselves to be historically informed could be further analyzed and debated, but I instead want to expand on this more general idea of one’s responsibilities as a tourist.

Although there was the occasional Vietnamese school group at a museum or other historical site, for the most part, the places we were seeing and the things we were doing were almost exclusively for tourists. I was surprised at how nearly every restaurant had an English translation of each menu item, often accompanied by pictures; it seemed as if every shop, restaurant, museum, and attraction was catered towards visitors, not locals. The scale of the tourist industry in both Saigon and Hanoi resulted in an almost uncomfortable experience where I was acutely aware of my imposition on my surroundings. In a foreign country halfway across the world, I should have had a much more difficult time getting around and communicating with others given I arrived not knowing a single word of Vietnamese. Instead, restaurants, storekeepers, and many others positioned themselves to be as approachable and accessible as possible so that I, as a tourist, felt comfortable. The pace of daily life, the foods, the smells, the customs were all still obviously very new and different, but I had trouble moving past the overwhelming hospitality we were shown as tourists. It’s unrealistic to expect every tourist to learn the language and read extensively about the culture and history of whichever country they are about to visit, but the level of accommodation I witnessed in Vietnam towards foreigners must have been in response to some sort of demand for a more comfortable experience. I found myself getting frustrated at street food stands and restaurants when the waiter could not understand what I was saying—an experience that I think Americans are particularly prone to having since we are used to everyone speaking English wherever we go—and would imagine these sorts of experiences with irritated tourists prompted a culture of providing Americanized accommodations and experiences. However, I think it is the tourist’s responsibility to expect these types of difficulties and refrain from expressing their frustrations towards the local population.

I was not aware of one of the most shocking aspects of Vietnamese catering towards foreigners until the last day of the trip when I asked Professor Chapman about the lack of homeless people and beggars on the street. The sad reality of nearly every big city I’ve been to is that each has had a sizable population of homeless people. It stood out to me that homelessness didn’t appear to have a visible presence in either Saigon or Hanoi. I learned that this was largely a result of the government’s beautification campaigns, during which they load up homeless people on to a bus and drop them off in the countryside. So in an effort to make the city more appealing to tourists, the government is actually displacing people rather than addressing their problems. While there are a number of contributing factors to this policy, the fact that the presence of foreign tourists in the country is one of them makes for an uncomfortable realization. I don’t have a good idea for how a tourist should address this more troubling aspect of the tourist industry in Vietnam and elsewhere, but I think the first step is to be aware of and do away with the expectation that traveling should be an eye-opening, yet comfortable experience. Some aspects of being in a foreign country will inevitably be challenging, which is a part of traveling that has become all too easy to forget.

On Vietnam’s Environmental and Ecological Degradation

I was checking the New York Times on my phone in our hotel on one of our first days in Hanoi (the Wi-Fi at the Golden Rice Hotel was much stronger than the Golden Rose’s connection, for those wondering) when I fortuitously scrolled across an article titled “In Vietnam, Rampant Wildlife Smuggling Prompts Little Concern.”

The article provides a bleak overview of the ecological situation in Vietnam, which is one of the most biodiverse and intensely verdant in the world. Despite the intense damage wrought by America’s intensive bombing campaigns (which employed conventional bombs, cluster munitions, and chemical defoliants) from 1965 through the early 1970s, Vietnam has regained some of its forest cover, even if many people and much wildlife continue to suffer the effects of these campaigns. But the greatest threat to Vietnam’s continued Eco diversity appears not to be the lingering effects of defoliants and munitions, but rather illegal logging and illegal poaching. Vietnam’s wild rhinoceros are already extinct, and it does not look good for its wild tigers; even the humble pangolin, a scaly anteater of sorts, has been hunt nearly to extinctions for its meat and medicinal properties.

I didn’t think much of the article after reading, though. I was upset that the Ho Chi Minh City restaurant mentioned in the article, which I literally walked past every single day, so obviously and easily subverts laws protecting endangered and trafficked species. Even worse is the fact that tourists seem to drive much of the business at the restaurant (both western and Asian—the latter group often believing in the homeopathic uses of many exotic organism). Sometimes, it is probably an unwitting participation; on our tour of the Mekong Delta, we stopped at a candy-making establishment that was part local delight, part tourist trap. After viewing how various Vietnamese candies are made, we were led to a room where we could indulge in snacks and tea while browsing a large selection of liquor bottles that had cobras floating in them. Besides the question as to why anyone would want to consume snake liquor (ok, full disclosure, I have had it before, and I still don’t know the answer to this question), cobras are endangered in Vietnam and very illegal to traffic. I didn’t realize this until after returning to the US; in Vietnam itself I was largely unaware of the existence of wildlife trafficking before my very eyes. As the article points out, the authorities simply don’t really care enough about wildlife protection laws to stifle economic activity, and can profit off it themselves. These facts did not come as a shock to me, as it is fairly typical of most Southeast Asian countries.

Anyway, I didn’t think much about the article or the general problem of Vietnam’s environmental and economic degradation until we got to Ha Long Bay. The bay was intensely crowded with pleasure cruise ships, all packed with tourists, and on our couple-hour-long cruise out to the center of the bay where we went on a very nice kayak outing, we passed innumerable trails of trash. Many of us glumly stared at the trash from the deck and noted that most of it were products supplied on our very own ship—it seemed most likely that many of the ships simply dumped their trash in the bay’s waters rather than disposed of it properly. The water unsurprisingly looked pretty disgusting at many points, though we were brave enough to go swimming in it at one point (if only to escape the oppressive stickiness of the air). Our guide told us at one point that the fish in Ha Long Bay were disappearing—she didn’t say why, but it seemed likely that a combination of overfishing, pollution, and warming waters are playing a role.

The garbage floating in the bay—Pringles tubes, Bia Hanoi cans, Oreos wrappers, etc.—seemed more than anything else to represent the difficult situation Vietnam finds itself in, at the place where necessity and apathy intersect on the road to economic development. Many pangolin hunters likely have no other source of income or opportunities to support themselves; perhaps the government hasn’t provided easy and cheap methods of garbage disposal for ships that trawl Ha Long Bay. The economic boom brought by tourism and the Doi Moi reforms have obviously exacerbated and accelerated Vietnam’s ecological and environmental degradation. It’s not particularly unusual that the country has sought to prioritize development at the cost of its environment, but it strikes me as odd that, having lost during the war so many of the natural resources that once made the country so ecologically rich, Vietnam—rather than celebrating and protecting what remained and what it has regained—has instead relegated its exceptional ecological diversity as something of a war relic itself: best worth forgetting about and moving on from in favor of modernity and development.



Lecture at Hoa Sen University: Dr. Bui Tran Phuong

In Saigon, we sat in on a lecture by Dr. Bui Tran Phuong, president of Hoa Sen University. She is a progressive-minded activist who today focuses on the history of women in Vietnam’s wars. She began the lecture with a brief history of Vietnam which extended beyond the traditional narrative that typically describes French and US involvement in the country. In her history, she explained Vietnam’s lengthy and tenuous history with China – a history which seems to be characterized more by war than by peace. From this long-standing history stems the Vietnamese mentality that war is accepted as a price willingly paid for independence; war is intrinsic to survival and sacrifice is accepted as sometimes being a necessary part of life. The nature of existing as a small nation alongside the massive force of China instilled a source of pride in “standing alone” and maintaining the cultural legacies that have defined Vietnam for centuries. Dr. Bui seemed to credit this mentality with giving Vietnam its strength and persistence in fighting off colonial invasions during the 20th century.

Dr. Bui spoke of some of the cultural changes since the conclusion of the war against America in 1975. For example, she spoke of the reconciliation between Vietnamese through the Doi Moi reforms as indispensable for the healing process within the nation as well as being required for international reconciliation. However, there still exist today cultural divisions between the north and south in Vietnam. From her perspective, corruption is rampant in Hanoi, an area that is morally unsafe. She gave the example of schoolchildren being handed grades not based on merit but on parental bribery. Hanoi was characterized as a socially conservative, corrupt city, while Saigon was presented as a socially progressive and morally accountable city. Having personally spent even less time in Hanoi than I spent in Saigon, and less than two weeks in Vietnam total, it is difficult to discern whether or not this statement is an overgeneralized stereotype, in which case this would reflect the presence of prejudices between the north and south; or if this is an accurate depiction of increased corruption in northern Vietnam, which would then reflect more discernible cultural differences between the two regions.

Working with women, Dr. Bui spoke of the progressive changes that have occurred in Vietnam, particularly in Saigon, regarding cultural attitudes towards women. While she is one of only two women in Saigon to occupy the position of president out of over one hundred universities in the city, the student population reflects greater gender equality. One of her own changes that she has been working towards is installing a greater perception of social equality in relationships between colleagues, faculty, and students. There is the ingrained perception that one must be polite by using titles of inferiority when describing the self to higher-level colleagues, but this serves to detract from one’s legitimacy and qualifications. Instead, she theorizes that by using titles which reflect equality, relationships will be more comfortable and therefore allow for increased communication and progress.

Describing a pervasive mentality in Vietnam that is reluctant to adapting traditional cultural mentalities, she referenced a children’s book that ends in the poignant line, “And everything restarted the same…” This line describes the dangers of not learning from the past through continued tragedy, lack of progress, and repetition of mistakes: the acceptance of war as a way of life that is necessary for survival is at once admirable and tragic. As such, Dr. Bui advocated for a “new Vietnamity” which respects the historical and traditional culture of Vietnam but is manifested in a new, dynamic way.

Ha Long Bay “Secret Cave”

Walking through the ‘secret cave’ in Halong Bay was a simultaneously breathtaking and somber experience. Breathtaking from its sheer expanses made somber by its transformation into a highly commercialized, unsustainable industry. It is an unsettling paradox: the very process that brought me to experience this spectacular place, the industry that has made this otherwise inaccessible place available to so many people, is at the very least diminishing its majestic qualities and at worst contributing to its ultimate destruction. This reality was inescapable to me: the warnings by the tour directors of “strenuous activity” as they stuffed fat, over-eager tourists with food every two hours, the stairs with lights guiding the path throughout the cave, and the snack and merchandise tents around every corner in the cave and on the water in little boats. Not to mention the evidence imprinted on the cave itself of this enterprise including the scattering of cigarette butts at the entrance, the graffiti decorating the cave walls, and the price stickers that littered the mountainside below the vendors.

On one hand, it is laudable how refined and professional the experience seemed. The overnight trip was well-coordinated, organized, and a fun, awe-inspiring experience. I was struck by how similar this was to the apparent resources made available to the other museums we visited – in Saigon the War Remnants Museum, the Cu Chi Tunnels, the Reunification Palace; in Hanoi the Hoa Lo Prison and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum. All demonstrated a conscious, deliberate attention to professionalism through signage and pamphlets through exhibits and captions or translations of texts. The structure of the museums and their overall appearance generally also reflected this attention to presentation and the impression that lots of time, money, and effort had been spent to construct these national attractions.

However, particularly at the Cu Chi Tunnels and Halong Bay I was unable to shake two disconcerting thoughts: 1) the flagrant and somewhat distracting effort to cater to tourists and 2) the apparent overlooking of the harm to the environment. Distracting when during breaks from the shuffling between hourly activities we would be approached either by snack boats selling crackers and soft drinks or alternatively by the ship’s captain inquiring about the quality of the stay. Harm to the environment through both pollution associated with industrialization and also the harm of human foot traffic. The physical environment of the cave is not designed to support thousands of tourists annually; I was unimpressed by the efforts (or lack thereof) to maintain the integrity of the cave itself. It makes me uncomfortable to imagine what the cave first looked like upon its discovery, before it became widely accessible to the public, and what it will look like in another twenty years. This raises the question of priorities: immediate profits through heavy tourism or long-term sustainability in order to enjoy the benefits of tourism for a long time to come? How can these two ideas be married to provide high profits and allow many people to experience the region’s natural beauty in an ecologically sustainable way?

Vietnamese Women’s Museum

During one of our free afternoons in Hanoi, I visited the Vietnamese Women’s Museum with two other classmates. The museum had just reopened in 2010 following a four year renovation period, and it was clear from the quality of the exhibits that it had received a large amount of funding. Of all the museums I had visited on the trip, this one was by far the best designed, and the presentation of the various exhibits was excellent.

The museum was divided into three sections: Women in Family, Women in History, and Women’s Fashion. I spent the most time in the history exhibit, which focused on women’s participation in the revolutionary struggle from 1945 to 1975. The museum put the tens of thousands of women who fought in the wars at the forefront, highlighting those individuals who made extraordinary contributions to the national cause and who served in leadership positions. Women comprised a large proportion of the soldiers who fought for the North Vietnamese, and the exhibit recognized many of them as war heroes on par with their male counterparts.

The inclusion of these women’s narratives was a welcome change from the other museums and monuments we had visited, which only peripherally gave attention to the high level of involvement of Vietnamese women during the conflicts, but the depiction of women left me feeling very ambivalent about the museum’s message. The Women’s Museum’s website contains a short but accurate description of the general tone of the exhibits: “Visitors have the opportunity to learn and understand traditional culture, marriage customs, childbirth and family life, traditional women’s clothing and the role of women in the defense of the nation”. The family and fashion sections associate women with the traditional and with domestic life, and while recognition of women’s lives is important, these exhibits limit topics important to understanding the Vietnamese woman to restrictive gender roles.

In the history section, women are presented simply as actors in the broader fight for Vietnamese independence. They are heroic and important to the struggle, but their stories do not deviate from the government’s official narrative of Vietnam rising up against foreign oppressors and their domestic puppets. These women are important because they embody the revolutionary ideal, not because they advanced women’s status or advocated for change. In the entire museum, I found only one reference to women’s rights in a short description of a female political leader’s past accomplishments, which included work with a women’s rights group. The Women in History exhibit did not portray women’s history, but rather Vietnamese revolutionary history as carried out by women.

The Vietnamese Women’s Museum failed to portray women as independent actors with their own aspirations outside of traditional gender roles and outside of the state’s political agenda. This type of exclusion of alternative narratives was a recurring theme in museums and official commemorative sites throughout our trip in Vietnam, though; the Women’s Museum was not the only manifestation of this tendency to ignore competing ideas. These omissions, of course, cannot solely be attributed to the particularities of Communist Party rule in Vietnam. Gaping holes in official narratives exist everywhere in the world, including the United States. Visiting a country with national memories I have not been habitually exposed to just made the ideology and strategy behind the museums and monuments easier for me to see.

Ho Chi Minh City Museum – The Difficulties of Reclaiming Space and History

As I walked through the gate of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, I was awed by the grand French classical Baroque architecture. An elaborately decorated façade with Greek motifs and floral patterns confront the viewer. Symmetrically placed columns focus the audience’s eye on the entrance, a semi circular, roofed area at the center of the two-story building. This lavish building has been controlled by a number of different governing bodies. It was built by the French, then passed to the State of Vietnam, the Republic of Vietnam, and now, present day communist Vietnam. Under the various leaders, the building has served a number of different functions from the Museum of Commercial Trade to a palace for the Premier of the State of Vietnam and Republic of Vietnam. (*Note: None of this information is given in the museum, but was researched following the visit.)

Today, the Vietnamese flag, with the communist red and yellow colors, dangles off the second floor balcony in front of the entrance. The symbolic flag reclaims the space – declaring the building once and for all a part of Communist Vietnam. In doing so, Vietnam reasserts its dominance over the imperialist rulers of the past. The building, functioning as a historical museum, offers the opportunity to tell a history of Vietnam from the Vietnamese perspective; just as they have taken back the building from foreign invaders, they take back their history through this narrative. Exhibits include information on the struggle for independence, archeological artifacts, ceramics, old city maps, and the city as a center of trade.

However, as much as the building works to reclaim the history and the space, the effort seems incomplete. It would seem that the extravagance of the building would work to elevate the information and history inside the museum; but instead it exposes the contradiction between the triumph over the past and the problems of modern day. In the lobby atrium, a chandelier hangs from the second floor ceiling and a wide central staircase with smooth, varnished banisters invites visitors upstairs. But when the audience peels off to one of the side rooms where the exhibits are, paint chips off the wall, the rooms are poorly lit and the floors are dirtied. When I was there, there were only five other people in the museum. The Vietnamese had reclaimed this French space to celebrate their own history, and yet it showed the signs of decay. The space completely loses the sense of triumphant glory that the lavish façade with flag and atrium portrays.

The crumbling interior is also a metaphor for the unresolved and multi-narrative history that the exhibit on Vietnam’s independence tries to plaster over with nationalistic and triumphant tidings. The room that catalogues the American War focuses on the heroic North’s efforts against the Southern “puppet” regime. They tell the story through a military history with artifacts like the uniforms that soldiers had worn or cans they had eaten out of. It highlights the heroism of the troops – without any mention of the dissenting views that have more recently surfaced about the war effort amongst Northern soldiers. The exhibit celebrates the success of units from Cu Chi winning battles and photographs of the liberation of the Reunification Palace. While the museum is located in what once was the capital of the Republic of Vietnam, the only mention of this state is its role as a “puppet government.” There is no mention of Southern Vietnamese people who did oppose the Vietcong or what happened to them post Vietcong victory. Instead of confronting this difficult history, the museum’s narrative ignores and supersedes those stories. It silences the people and history of the city that the museum is supposed to be about.

This choice to leave out certain parts of the story echoes the neglect that the interior of the museum faces. While there may be an exterior portrayal of dominance and unification, a closer look inside will reveal the severely cracked history that is slowly starting to surface in other parts of Vietnamese society.


Hoa Lo Prison

Maison Centrale, Hoa Lo, the “Hanoi Hilton” (or the “Hanoi Hilton Hotel”, according to the museum’s typically humorless placard description)—Hanoi’s most important historical prison complex has gone by many names since it was built beginning in 1886. Today it is known as the Hoa Lo Prison museum, and is best known to western tourists as the place where US POWs, John McCain being the most famous of the cohort, were held during the Vietnam War. But if one arrived at the museum expecting the prison’s role in the Second Indochina War to be the focus, as many do, I imagine, they would be disappointed. The museum rather focuses on the prison’s genesis as a place where the French colonial authorities could imprison, torture, and execute Vietnamese anti-colonial resistors.

The Hoa Lo museum is in many ways summative of Vietnam’s approach to publicly memorializing the Vietnamese wars, and seemed a fitting final stop on our two-week tour of the country. The museum is contained in what remains of the prison; most of the complex was demolished to accommodate the footprints of the Hanoi Towers, two mid-rise mixed-use office and apartment buildings. Our tour guide remarked that this was necessary for Vietnam’s development, though it is unclear why such a historically significant site was mostly demolished for the sake of modernity over, say, any number of the many dilapidated French colonial buildings that pepper Hanoi (or, better yet, basically anywhere else).

This preferencing of development and the future over history and the past is common in Vietnam. The Cu Chi Tunnels that remained after America’s merciless bombing campaign of Southern Vietnam are presented to tourists in a Disney-fied complex complete with a shooting range, a model village, and creepy animatronic comrades tirelessly toiling away at various common tasks (i.e. hammering American bomb shrapnel into tools, making food, etc.). Our tour guide at the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City told us that it was preserved in the condition the Communist forces found it when they took Saigon in 1975, which seemed mostly true, yet the ornate main reception hall displayed an Abbott Labs banner—it was conveyed to us at multiple turns that the palace could be essentially rented for corporate events. This impulse to present a certain kind of face for tourists even crept into the allegedly somber War Remnants Museum: directly outside of the distressing and grotesque exhibit about the ravage done to the Vietnamese people by Agent Orange was a prominently-logoed ticket booth for Saigon’s version of Cirque-du-Soleil. The creep of capitalism and development, and tourism’s prime role in post-Doi Moi Vietnam’s economic scheme, was even more insidious and apparent in the state of the country’s lesser museums (i.e. the ones that don’t draw legions of tour groups). The Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum was dilapidated, many of the paintings warped or peeling like the walls of the once-grand French colonial palace it is housed in; the lights in the Ton Duc Thang Museum had to be turned on for a group of us when we strolled in.

Hoa Lo is the clearest distillation of the Vietnamese government’s public memorializing philosophy (or lack thereof). Preservation and presentation are not at the forefront, rather an ideological kernel of resistance and struggle, qualities fundamentally linked to Marxism and the Vietnamese Communist Party, is meant to be conveyed—beyond that, as far as Vietnam’s most potent historical sites and events are concerned, not much else matters.


My hunch that Hoa Lo would confirm this suspicion was all but confirmed by the perverse placement of a “Welcome” mat at the visitor’s entrance to the museum, the implications of which are almost too absurd to explore fully given the word limit on this blog assignment. About 90% of the museum is dedicated to the French colonial authority’s brutal treatment of Vietnamese revolutionary men and women and their brave resistance—indeed, their use of the prison as a revolutionary school of sorts. Fair enough, but the museum’s authority as a memorial for those imprisoned by the French (they even built a shrine of sorts in a former prison courtyard, featuring depictions of emaciated prisoners) was undermined by a number of curious curatorial decisions. First, the almond tree: our tour guide informed us that the solitary almond tree left standing on the site, on the border with the Hanoi Tower development, would have been torn down had not former Vietnamese inmates, for whom the almond tree gave sustenance, medicine and hope, vigorously protested. Secondly, for some reason not even our tour guide could adequately explain, the French’s inhuman solitary confinement prison cells had been renovated by the museum… to include windows. To better let in light for visitors was the official line, but one that lacks explanatory power if the whole point of the museum is to emphasize brutality and resistance.

Who is this museum really for? Could it be that, for the museum’s curators, the only content that actually matters is the textbook placard statements regarding the museum’s history, a few ominous recreated prison cell scenes (complete with dummy emaciated Vietnamese prisoners), and the peace of mind of knowing that most tourists will leave without any confusion as to what they should think about the Vietnamese revolutionary narrative? It seems unlikely that one of Vietnam’s most central and important war memorials could have come together in this curious way by chance.


Then comes the part of the museum most appealing to American tourists: the bit about captured American pilots. The museum’s two rooms on the POWs emphasizes the destruction their bombing caused to Vietnam’s civilian population and the moral outrage of it all, and then it displays the VC’s deep empathy by showing that the POWs lived relatively cushy lives in prison—they could play sports, write to their families, help with domestic tasks, etc. They were also given good medical care, which must have been a scarce resource in North Vietnam at the time. Should we be surprised by this narrative? No, probably not. Americans were of course tortured at Hoa Lo. But their portrayal by the Vietnamese is ultimately fairly sympathetic; the pictures included in the exhibit, as well as the accompanying video, convey something pretty close to the truth about the POWs: they were young, scared, and did not necessarily represent the same ideology that the American government did (i.e. the museum literature describes the bombings and “sabotage warfare” as carried out by “the United States government,” not by US pilots).

This shows that despite the various bizarre elements of this and other Vietnamese war museums, Vietnam manages to eschew the demagoguery and centricity that has traditionally typified America’s war histories. It is well established that the victors get to determine war narratives, and Vietnam certainly has its own story to tell about its revolutionary struggle, but it also manages to include the enemy in a relatively fair and sympathetic way. Though Vietnam’s preservation and presentation of its historical sites and most sacred places of remembrance is quite unsettling at times, America’s culpability in Vietnam’s hapless rush to modernity and development cannot be forgotten. And, ultimately, these sites are built for us, western tourists, that we might question our preconceived notions of the war. In that sense, though it is focused on the First Indochina War, the Hoa Lo Prison is successful.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

From the various posters and government propaganda we came across in Vietnam, it’s clear that Ho Chi Minh has become a symbol for the ideology and ideals of the country. However, what he has come to represent through the government constructed image of him in many ways contradicts the actual ideas that he voiced. This paradox can be seen at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and surrounding grounds. The complex has cultivated a particular image of Ho Chi Minh to reinforce Vietnamese patriotism; however, it is an image that I suspect Ho Chi Minh would not have wanted.

The design of the Mausoleum works to create obedient compatriots in support of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam and his Communist vision for the country. We were herded through a long line that weaved around the massive mausoleum. The walk provided many angles of this colossal building. Guards with solemn faces and dressed up in fancy white military costumes directed us along the path. As we approached closer to the building, guards directed us to get into two lines and asked for complete silence. It had the effect of turning the tourists into soldiers marching for Communism and Ho Chi Minh.

The building itself gave off an aura of supremacy. We were told that it was designed to evoke a lotus flower, but it felt much too heavy and bulky for that to be the case. It was made of thick dark stone, a heavy set roof held up by sturdy columns. With the mausoleum raised high above the ground, I felt very small in comparison. Both sturdy and imposing, the mausoleum cut across the skyline – the tallest building in the complex. The materials and architecture of the building made it a loud, materialistic presence in a complex full of trees and nature.

Once inside the building, the atmosphere was filled with a sense of spirituality, dignity and importance. The low lights created a somber and powerful mood. Four guards stood at the corners of the box where the embalmed Ho Chi Minh lay; they stood straight and looked unflinchingly forward. In the middle of the square room, the body encased in glass rested on a slab of stone. As visitors walked around three sides of the tomb, it felt like the body was a most prized possession, held at the center of this massive building and intensely protected like a rare gem. With Ho Chi Minh’s actual body on display, it felt somewhat like a shrine. One had the chance to actually be up close with the body of the great Vietnamese Communist leader. Such proximity worked to instill a sense of intimacy and power. He had been deified, his body turned into a relic. I could imagine that all of these design decisions imbued the visitor with a sense of national pride and respect for Ho Chi Minh. The site worked as a propaganda tool by the government to increase a sense of the state’s strength and reinvigorate visitors with the Communist cause.

However, the use of his body for this purpose becomes very problematic in light of Ho Chi Minh’s wishes and ideologies. Firstly, he specifically asked to be cremated. Instead, the government has put his body on display for the country to see, used as a propagandistic tactic. Secondly, Ho Chi Minh valued modesty and egalitarianism. In fact, we saw this later in the complex grounds. Ho Chi Minh believed that the enormous and lavish French parliamentary villa was too extravagant for him to live in. So he settled in much more modest accommodations – a house on stilts which consisted of a simple bedroom, study and dining area. I can only imagine that if he knew the enormous and imposing building where his body is now kept that he would be horrified and ashamed. The architecture of the building promotes elevated importance and power – the opposite of Ho Chi Minh’s ideals of a free society for all. The mausoleum is indicative of the ways that Vietnam’s government struggles to connect the powerful ideas and leaders of the past with a society very much driven by ideas like capitalism and an ever widening socio-economic gap that contradict the founding notions of the country