Exploring the Wonders of Vietnam

January 14, 2006
Museums of Vietnam

Yesterday was very historical and political. We toured the National History Museum, which chronicles Viet Nam from prehistoric times to the present, with lots of interesting artifacts—stone tools, pottery, bronze, Buddhas, and more—plus dioramas and other depictions of national history.

This is an amazing city, sprawling and crowded, teeming with motorbikes and street vendors and hundreds of souvenir salespersons who harangue you every time you get on and off a bus and also as you walk the streets.


I've done a lot of walking, some on my own and also with one or two other people. Finding your way around is a little difficult. The street maps don't show all the little alleys, so "go two blocks and take a left" has no meaning here. The main intersections have traffic lights, but the rest are free-for-alls, with much higher risk for pedestrians. The way to cross such a street is slowly. You pick a moment when the motorbike traffic thins out and start across. If you run, you're likely to be hit by the next wave of bikes, but by walking slowly—and I mean slow—they can see you and go around you, zooming by with great skill. It's a little terrifying at first, but I'm getting used to it.

We also went to the War Remnants Museum, which concentrates on the "American War." (It was called the War Crimes Museum until the Clinton rapprochement in 1995.) It is overwhelmingly sad—carefully designed to show the horrors of war visited on this country by the United States, not only to the foreign tourist audience but also to groups of Vietnamese schoolchildren who are brought here. I felt tearful and guilty looking at the exhibits of American firepower to which this small country was subjected. Yet as history, though truthful as far as it went, it lacked what we think of as "objectivity."


After lunch, we toured the former presidential palace, where the French governors and the leaders of South Viet Nam lived and ruled. There were two ironies here. First, after the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, rogue officers in South Vietnam's Air Force (using U.S. planes) bombed and destroyed the old French palace. So, in 1965, the United States built a new one. As Koof observed (http://kooftravels.blogspot.com), it looks like presidential palaces in Brasilia and various African republics. I think it also looks like 1960s government buildings in Washington, such as the Labor Dept—or like Edward Durrell Stone gone imperial.

The second irony is that, after the communist takeover in April 1975, the building was totally trashed. All the furnishings were stolen or burned, the machinery of government dismantled (the communists don't govern from here, but rather from the old city hall), and the building turned over to squatters. Now, however, the government has meticulously "restored" the trappings of the South Vietnamese regime, with opulent carpets, furniture, chandeliers, etc. The point is political—that the ancien régime was decadent, venal, arrogant, and imperial. The government has gone to great expense to make this point, both for historical and propaganda purposes. This palace is not about national pride, but about propaganda.


This is a one-party state, and the communist version of history is the only one being told. I am happy to report that we have completed our 36 hours of re-education about Viet Nam. What we learned at school:

  1. The history of Viet Nam is 1,000-year struggle for control of the east coast of south Asia, from the Red River plains to the Mekong Delta.

  2. The Viet people were not only fierce defenders of their territory against the Chinese, who had dominated the northern plains until about 1,100, but were destined to control central and southern Viet Nam as well. In today's Viet Nam, there are more than 50 groups in a multiethnic society that respects the heritage of all.

  3. The 20th-century struggles against the French and Americans required heroic sacrifice by the Vietnamese people. Millions died at the hands of the invaders, who were thrown off only through the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, who inspired the peasants and workers of South Viet Nam to rise against the imperialists and their puppet regime.

  4. Since liberation in 1975, there have been a few problems, but they have been solved by the central government in Hanoi, which, in its wisdom, encouraged free enterprise and a market economy after 1986. Now, the people of Viet Nam are free to pursue agriculture and industry as part of the world economy, and huge gains in national wealth have resulted.
On their face, these four points appear to be true. But they are a carefully crafted version of history—and of present conditions—that leaves out as much as it includes. Among the things that we did not hear about, but which we also know to be true, are:
  1. The current winners of the 1,000-year struggle got to script the version of history that we saw in the historical museums and sites that we visited yesterday and today.

  2. The party line (more on this term later) that emphasizes the repulsion of "foreign" invaders such as the Chinese, French, and Americans. It hardly mentions the other groups that were themselves pushed out or dominated by the Viets, including the Cham of central Viet Nam and the Khmer, who once held sway in the South.

  3. The reunification of Viet Nam in 1975 also resulted from the military victory of one faction of Vietnamese over another: the North over the South, the communists over the capitalists. A civil war was also taking place alongside the war against the foreigners.

  4. The economy of Viet Nam, vibrant as it is, is not entirely free. All agricultural land is owned by the state and leased to individual families; larger agricultural enterprises, such as rubber plantations, are state owned. Individual business enterprise is quite free—to a point. Any person may set up a small enterprise, and there are millions of such businesses, but private ownership of larger industry is under control of the government and the Communist Party.
Am I quibbling? This is an extraordinarily vibrant place, full of enterprising people who, after centuries of conflict, welcome the peace of the past 30 years and are willing to give up a certain amount of personal freedom—and the whole story of their past—to maintain it.

About This Site

In January 2006, a 40-person contingent of Swarthmoreans is traveling to Vietnam as members of the Alumni College Abroad. The trip, led by Associate Professor of Religion Steven Hopkins, will focus on the history, religion, and the vibrant culture of contemporary Vietnam. A smaller contingent will accompany Hopkins to Cambodia, including a tour of the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

Jeffrey Lott, editor of the Swarthmore College Bulletin, has joined the trip to write about it for the magazine. This site is a series of reports filed by Jeff from Vietnam and Cambodia during the trip. Your responses are invited.

Vietnam 2006 Itinerary

List of Travelers

Respond to these posts

Blog Entries

Leaving Tomorrow: Jan 9, 2006
From 35,000 feet: Jan 11, 2006
Ho Chi Minh City: Jan 12, 2006
Museums of Vietnam: Jan 14, 2006
Temples and Tunnels: Jan 16, 2006
Stories and a Poem: Jan 17, 2006
Skipping School: Jan 18, 2006
Dateline Hanoi: Jan 19, 2006
Three Days in Hanoi: Jan 20, 2006
Winding Down: Jan 26, 2006
Poor Phnom Penh: Jan 27, 2006
Chuc Mung Nam Moi: Jan 29, 2006