Saturday, 21 January 2012

Saigon, Vietnam

Like most men my age, I've watched a whole raft of films about Vietnam: the boot-camp brutality of Full Metal Jacket; the intensity of Apocalypse Now; the aftermath of Born On The Fourth Of July and The Deer Hunter. None of these movies shy away from the demonstrating the desperate futility of the conflict, but all have a focus firmly on the American victims.

Despite having studied the war at school, it took a trip to the War Remnants Museum of Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, as we ought to call it) to fully come to terms with the effect of war which Hollywood has largely failed to capture. Here, the immediate impact of the toll on the Vietnamese people became apparent. Just as horrific was the price which is still being paid in the aftermath of the chemical warfare which rained down on either side of the Seventeenth Parallel.

The Vietnam conflict is widely regarded as the first 'televised' war. For the first time, pictures of warfare were beamed directly into the homes of a worldwide audience. The horror could not be dimmed by distance. Intrepid reporters risked and lost their lives to ensure that some of the most poignant and harrowing images ever committed to celluloid made it back to the western world.

At the museum, blown up versions of many of these photographs were accompanied by stories of utter barbarism from the US troops who committed atrocities such as the massacre of My Lai, where over a hundred innocent villagers were slaughtered. Some of those killed included children, one of whom was disembowelled. This was no isolated incident, with many other villages sacked and burned, leaving raped and dying Vietnamese behind.

Large scale deforestation aimed to flush out the hidden Viet Cong, and the use of Agent Orange and other chemicals to achieve this has left Vietnam counting the cost to this very day. Some of the saddest images in the museum were those which showed a whole generation of children born with deformed limbs, cleft palates or co-joined twins: victims of a war in which they played no part. America is still paying the price of a war which cost them 58,000 men: every year they are forced to repay over a billion dollars in reparations.

Tears pricked the eyes as black and white images of those affected gave way to some happier stories of triumph in the face of adversity: none more so than the celebrated story of Kim Phuc (who we once dedicated a five-a-side team to) the 'poster-girl' for the war. She was famously pictured running naked down the road having been struck on the back by napalm - an image which lingers long in the memory. Now living in Canada she is an ambassador for UNICEF.

Unfortunately, the Cu Chi Tunnels failed to match the excellent War Remnants Museum. Cu Chi was a strategic target for the Americans, and South Vietnamese guerrillas fought alongside the Viet Cong to prevent it falling to the enemy. Much of the resistance came courtesy of a network of underground tunnels - over 250km of them. The network enabled the Vietnamese to take refuge from bombing raids in tunnels which were barely big enough for them to fit through (smaller tunnels are stronger and more able to resist the shelling above them). They also enabled them to undertake spying missions, as some of the tunnels crept into US territory. The guerrillas even washed in American soap so that sniffer dogs would be unable to identify them. In response, the area was bombed, shelled, gassed, bulldozed, napalmed and defoliated - but never captured.

Unfortunately, a visit to the area fails to give a real picture of what occurred forty years previously. Replicas of the booby-traps which were laid are garish and fake looking. Animatronic dummies clumsily emulate the movements of the VC, but have little impact - they look like the shop-dummies which Macauley Culkin brings to life in Home Alone. A sprinkling of bomb-craters give an indication of the levels of bombing sustained: many of the tunnels have now been destroyed. As the original tunnels are far too small for Westerners to fit down, an enlarged stretch has been manufactured and this did give some indication of the claustrophobic and sweaty conditions which the guerrillas suffered. Sadly, the site was so utterly without gravitas that I gave in to the temptation to buy some bullets and unload an AK47. You could argue it's in bad taste, but then so is the half-arsed attempt to bring a flavour of the hardship suffered at one of the most significant sites in the recent history of Vietnam.

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