The War Remnants Museum, the History Museum

Today it’s sunny and a sweltering 30°C again! Now I finally understand why so many people are out the door by 6AM, get stuff done before the sun’s high in the sky, then take a break until it goes down again. I didn’t do it, mind you, but I get it.

I had the hotel call me a cab and I went to the Jade Emperor’s Pagoda, as recommended by my LP guide. It’s 3 km away from the city centre, which came down to 51,000 VND (€2,15). It was… not what I expected. For one thing, I didn’t see any pagodas. It’s a shrine, built in the early 20th century in honour of the highest Taoist god (the Jade Emperor). It was dark and filled with statues and incense urns. It’s very much a place of worship and not geared for tourism, as evidenced by there being only one word in English in the entire place -“Exit”. I know how to catch a message. On the outside, there’s a tiny pond with dozens of turtles sunbathing lazily over each other.

Since I’d got all the way there, I walked a few blocks over to the History Museum. It has two main collections; one was about prehistoric findings, and frankly I can’t muster any interest in prehistory, so I walked briskly past these rooms and into the next section. This one was much more varied and attractive: they have a rather nice collection of Cham artefacts and statues, Hindu gods and mythological creatures in what looked like ancient sandstone. There were even some stelae with ancient writings on it. I took my time with this section, but even then the visit didn’t take me very long. There’s only the one floor, as far as I could see.

The Pagoda visit had taken me minutes, so I was ahead of schedule and made use of the extra time to walk over to the War Remnants Museum, despite the heat. In my efforts to avoid sunburn I’m walking like a crazy vampire person, stepping from shadow to shadow and hissing at unwanted beams of sunlight. It burns! It occurred to me that all the training I’ve done to learn to jaywalk sixteen-lane highways is going to get me killed in Paris, unless I untrain myself fast!
The War Remnants Museum is very close to the Reunification Palace, and also occupies a very Cold War building. Like many museums in Vietnam, its courtyard is filled with captured American fighter jets, reconnaissance planes, and tanks. Like the History Museum, the ticket costs only 15,000 VND (a mere €0,65!), but unlike the History Museum, the War Remnants Museum has plenty of content to occupy you.
I was surprised to find that, despite the name, the War Remnants’ collection is mostly photographic. The exhibits showcase the ravages of the Vietnam war using extremely graphic photographs and descriptions, all flawlessly translated to English. There is a section about the war of destruction, with shelves of landmines and rifles used by the American troops as well as historical accounts and pictures. There’s an entire, specially harrowing section on agent orange, one of the defoliating chemicals the Americans used to destroy the jungle in Central Vietnam that the Vietcong used to hide, and which was extremely toxic to humans as well as plants. The exhibits mentioned in passing that the US troops who sprayed it suffered its effects as well.

Special mention goes to a photography exhibit on the top floor dedicated to war correspondents, which gives faces to the journalists and photographers that covered the war. It also showcases some of their work (the sadly famous “Napalm girl” picture is here, for example; a donation from the author). Everything else in the museum is very clearly exposed from a North Vietnamese perspective, as you would expect, but this exhibition honours correspondents from all backgrounds, and as such here you can also see photographs of American soldiers and their own struggles.
After a very cultural morning, it was time for more earthly concerns, and I went for lunch at Nha Hang Ngon, a restaurant build around a courtyard with stalls making different dishes. The food was good, but I have to say at this point of my trip I’m all noodled out!

I came back to the hotel via the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was closed, but I did peek into the adjacent Post Office, which also looks frozen in time. I assume it’s a French colonial building because of its style and yellow colour (you can see it in the picture above), despite the giant portrait of Ho Chi Minh inside!

From there it’s the now familiar Dong Khoi back to the riverbank, except I took the time to poke my head into a couple of stores on the way. What? I have a lot of people to bring omiyage to! I had a great rest as well as a much needed, refreshing swim at the hotel’s rooftop pool overlooking the Mekong river.
I’d better head out for dinner now and turn in early… Tomorrow I have to get up at SCST for the tour to the Tunnels of Cu Chi!

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