written by Todd DePastino

Officially, it’s Ho Chi Minh City. But no one calls it that. For residents and most Americans, it remains Saigon, the former capital of the defunct Republic of Vietnam and, today, the dynamo powering Vietnam’s Tiger Economy.

We landed at Tan Son Nhut International Airport–another one of those American-developed properties since reclaimed by Vietnam–and felt the blast of heat when we de-planed.

Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon

After lunch it was off to the former Presidential (now, “Independence”) Palace, the seat of South Vietnam’s government and home to President Nguyen Van Thieu during the Vietnam War.

It’s an elegant and graceful building, beautiful but not grandiose. The palace is modernist architecture as its best, balancing East and West, indoor and outdoor, horizontal and vertical. It’s not anything like the Baroque French buildings that had served the imperial court with ostentation.

And yet, it says something of the Communist Party’s spartan taste and Vietnam’s austere past, that the government treats the palace like some kind of exposé of South Vietnamese autocratic decadence.

It’s as if they want you to imagine President Ngo Dinh Diem’s sister-in-law and unofficial First Lady, Madame Nhu (look her up if you don’t know who she is), as a latter-day Marie Antoinette.

Unofficial First Lady, Madame Nhu, with cartoon caption saying 'Let them eat Banh ngot!'

While they may have a point about Madame Nhu, I think casting the beautiful Independence Palace as akin to one of Saddam Hussein’s golden-walled follies is misleading. The building in Saigon is not excessive, but a worthy home for an aspiring state.

My favorite part of the palace is the basement bunker, where everything is as it was on April 30, 1975, when an NVA tank crashed through the palace’s front gate and ended the Vietnam War for good.

By that time, Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu had fled to Taiwan with 30 tons of luggage, handing the office over eventually to former ARVN General Duong Van “Big” Minh.

Minh reportedly greeted his conquerers by saying, “We have been waiting for you so that we could turn over the government.”

The ranking NVA officer replied, “You cannot give up what you do not have.”

You can almost feel the terror and confusion in the sweltering war rooms as the NVA moved ever-closer to Saigon in mid-April. Stacks of American radios and other communication equipment line the walls, as do telephones and large maps of South Vietnam.

Vietnam era NVA war room in Saigon, Vietnam

Line up of old Vietnam era rotary phones in Independence Palace museum

After Independence Palace came the War Remnants Museum. I always dread this place, despite its importance. The museum was founded almost immediately after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 in the building that had housed the US Information Agency. Its original name says a lot: “Exhibition House of American and Puppet State War Crimes.”

VBC tour group in front of the War Remnants Museum, Saigon, Vietnam

Our travel group in front of the War Remnants Museum before we entered.

It’s a museum of war crimes. It’s ghastly and gruesome, humanity at its worst on three floors, two rooms per floor.

I lingered outside among the courtyard collection of US guns, planes, helicopters, tanks, and bombs–the best assemblage I’ve seen. Andy Glaid and Jerry Augustine instructed me in the differences between the M41 and M48 tanks and the comparative virtues of the 155mm and 105mm howitzers.

Jerry Augustine and Terry Choate in front of the BLU-82B

Vietnam Veterans Jerry Augustine and Terry Choate in front of the BLU-82B “Daisy Cutter” bomb display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

Most arresting is the bomb display, anchored by a giant barrel-shaped shell–the BLU-82. At 15,000 pounds, it remains one of the largest conventional bombs in the world. It was developed for the Vietnam War and first used there in 1970.

At the War Remnants Museum, the signage correctly identifies the weapon and details its destructive capacity. What it doesn’t mention is that the BLU-82–nicknamed the “Daisy Cutter”–was used primarily to clear landing zones and fire support bases. Dropped from C-130s by parachute, they were designed to explode outward three-feet above the ground so as not to create a crater. They could be, and occasionally were used as anti-personnel weapons during the Vietnam War, but that wasn’t their primary purpose.

That kind of nuance is absent at the War Remnants Museum, whose purpose is to show how the United States harnessed its technological abundance to devastate a country and its people. Anything that might seem like exculpatory evidence is excluded. Also absent is any reference to the US-backed South Vietnamese government as an independent or autonomous entity. It is simply the “puppet.”

In other words, there’s a lot about the US war effort in Vietnam left out. And there’s no explanation about why the US fought the war to begin with.

Visitors are instructed to start at the top and work their way down so they can ease into the trauma. The top floor exhibits are “Historical Truths,” a broad overview from French colonization through the American War, and the expertly-crafted “Requiem,” about photographers killed in Vietnam. The next floor down focused on the work of two Japanese photographers, Ishikawa Bunyo and  Goro Nakamura, who captured some of the American War’s destruction.

The gut punch comes the next floor down with two exhibition rooms labeled “War Crimes” and “Agent Orange Aftermath.”

“War Crimes” tells stories of atrocities mainly through gruesome photographs of charred bodies and severed body parts, some being held up by American service members as trophies. There are descriptions of flame-throwers and cluster munitions, mines and napalm.

Jerry Augustine in front of an M60 machine gun display at War Remnants Museum in Saigon

The “War Crimes” exhibit contains many small arms, including the M60 machine gun, which Jerry Augustine used in Vietnam. I preferred chatting with Jerry about the artifacts to gazing at the horrific war photos on display.

One alcove is devoted to the infamous Thanh Phong Raid led by Navy SEAL and former US Senator Bob Kerrey. Kerrey’s account differs from those of other witnesses, but everyone acknowledges that up to 20 non-combatants, including women and children, were shot and stabbed to death by Kerrey’s SEAL team in the remote Mekong Delta village. Here’s how the museum describes the action there:

From 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. February 25th, 1969, a group of SEAL Rangers (one of the most selective rangers of U.S. Army) led by Lieutenant Bob Kerrey reached for Hamlet 5, Thanh Phong Village, Thanh Phu District, Ben Tre Province. They cut 66 year-old Bui Van Vat and 62 year-old Luu Thi Canh’s necks and pulled their three grandchildren out from their hiding place in a drain and killed two, disemboweled one. Then, these rangers moved to dugouts of other families, shot dead 15 civilians (including three pregnant women), disemboweled a girl. The only survivor was a 12-year-old girl named Bui Thi Luom who suffered a foot injury. It was not until April 2001 that U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey confessed his crime to the international public.

Thanh Phong sewer pipe on display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

The Thanh Phong sewer pipe in which three children allegedly hid before being killed is on display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Schwede66 via Wikimedia Commons)

The My Lai Massacre also gets ample treatment, as it should. It’s the best-known US atrocity of that war and just about any war. The museum makes lavish use of Ron Haeberle’s infamous photos of the March 16, 1968 event, when as many as 504 non-combatants were meticulously executed (and several raped) by two infantry companies of the Americal Division.

As if these atrocities weren’t enough, across a courtyard is a graphic menagerie of human deformities caused by Agent Orange, the herbicide used by US forces to defoliate suspected enemy hiding places, rice paddies, and infiltration routes.

The dioxin in Agent Orange continues to afflict those exposed to it, including US service members. More controversial is whether and how dioxin damage can be inherited. Scientists haven’t been able to confirm that dioxin alters DNA of those exposed in ways that can affect the genetic material passed to their children and grandchildren.

But the War Remnants Museum expresses no doubt: Agent Orange continues to impair those born in Vietnam.

Photos of grotesque disfigurements and disabilities litter the Agent Orange exhibit. There’s also two large jars containing stillborn fetuses in formaldehyde, one having two heads.

One of our travelers said she broke down crying in that room. She wasn’t the only one to shed tears.

Museum visitors end up staggering through “War Crimes” and “Agent Orange Aftermath” as if in a daze. Most of the tourists there are European, and it’s hard, as an American, not to feel their glances as slightly accusatory.

The unstated founding purpose of the War Remnants Museum is to justify Vietnam’s one-party Communist rule.

“This is why we fought the war,” the exhibits seems to say, “and why Vietnam needs us for protection.”

With Vietnam’s economy prospering and living standards rising, the Communist Party relies less on the War Remnants Museum’s story of the Vietnam War to justify its rule. Perhaps the day will come when the museum will smooth the jagged edges of its Chambers of Horrors and present less shocking displays.

As we sat at dinner at the Star Anise Restaurant in Saigon that night, a few of us expressed relief that we’d be escaping the war, at least somewhat, on our trip to the Mekong Delta the next day.