When I tell other backpackers in Vietnam that I’m American, a common response is “Oh, you’re not going to say you’re Canadian? That’s what many Americans do.” After seeing the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum, I understand why an American might lie.
When visiting Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City*), everyone should place the Cu Chi Tunnels & the War Museum at the top of their list. Both give tourists a fuller understanding of Vietnam’s history, and as an American, I gained an entirely new perspective since everything was presented from the other side (and it became glaringly obvious why an American might not want to be associated with the US when visiting Vietnam).
*Note: Though Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh in 1976, I noticed that many of the southern Vietnamese people still call it Saigon, so I tend to call it by it’s original name as well.
My first stop in Saigon was the tunnels, where we learned about all the traps they used, saw physical evidence of dropped bombs, and got to try out the secret entrance as well as crawl through the tunnels if we wanted to. While many people (especially tall people) turned back upon seeing the small dark tunnel, I was able to make it through, though I wouldn’t want to stay in it for more than a few minutes.
It’s incredible not only that they built so many tunnels (spanning around 200 km in total length), but also that people lived in them… for years. The Cu Chi Tunnels were essentially an underground city where people worked, cooked, slept, and even where babies were born and raised. After even just crawling through one of the tunnels, I can’t even imagine spending an hour down there… much less a year! Seeing the tunnels makes you really understand the strength and determination of the Vietnamese people and gives you a new respect for them.
Another thing at the Cu Chi Tunnels is the shooting range, where tourists can shoot anything from an M16 to an AK47. Though it’s dark tourism and probably something we shouldn’t be supporting as it trivializes the tragedy of war, my friend Cammi and I couldn’t resist and went ahead buying ten M30 bullets to share between the two of us. As an American, one of the questions I get asked most by foreigners is, “Do you own a gun?” No, I don’t own a gun (and never will), but at least now I can say I’ve shot one, so I guess I fit the American stereotype a little better now… right?
Next we went to the War Remnants Museum, which, though not as bad as the one in Hanoi, was still very one-sided. Every photo would say something like “Here’s (country) supporting Vietnam’s resistance against the United States,” or “This bomb killed (#) women and children,” and the statistics were only about how much harm the US caused, never the other way around. While walking around, I overheard an English guy say to his friend, “You know, out of the 235 years that the US has been a country, they’ve been at war for 214 of them?” “Yeah, they just jump at every chance of war, don’t they?” his friend replied. Then in the guest comment book I noticed many hateful comments such as “America sucks.” But other visitors would realize the bias and I overheard one group talking about how there are two sides to every story and that they’d like to see things presented from the opposite perspective.
Visiting the museum and seeing all the photos, war artifacts, and tragic statistics is definitely not easy, but the hardest part by far is the Agent Orange section. The walls are covered with photos of deformed people and facts about how America’s use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War is still causing birth defects on newborns today, as the chemical has been passed down ancestral lines. Even as an American, it’s hard to see the other side to that story…
After a day of history in Saigon, I understand why many Americans say they’re Canadian. But in one month of traveling Vietnam and telling the truth about where I’m from, I only ever received positive responses such as “That’s a great country!” and “I really want to visit there someday.” They sell American flag bikinis and t-shirts in shops, and I even saw a mother cradling a baby wearing “I ♥ USA” pajamas. Though I’m sure there are still certain people who do hate Americans, I found the Vietnamese response to Americans generally very friendly, and I felt no pressure whatsoever to lie about my citizenship while I was in Vietnam.
My day of history in Saigon was far from a “vacation” as many people misunderstand traveling to be, but it was very eye-opening and much more memorable than any history book I ever read in school…