This was a day of remembrance and to simply be grateful for a good, safe life and the sacrifices of others. I’ve said in the past “I won the life lottery”, having been born to a loving family in America, after today, I say it again with tears in my eyes.
After breakfast, the Loyola MBA study abroad group, 23 eager-to-learn students, were led by our beautiful Vietnamese guide, Quyền, to the Reunification Palace, a unique example of 1960’s Vietnamese architecture (and quite literally is like walking through the lair of Dr. No, or some other James Bond villain).
It was a beautiful and sunny day (just like all the days we spent in Southeast Asia). On the front lawn, workers maintained the spacious grounds while we listened to our guide explain why this building is such a prominent symbol of the country’s political history.
It was toward this building that the first communist tanks charged through the gates on April 30, 1975. A solider ran up to the 4th floor balcony and hung from it a Viet-Cong flag, thus liberating Saigon and ending the Vietnam War (or the American War to the Vietnamese).
The rooms are so well-preserved, I almost felt as though I was thrust back into the mid-1970’s when South Vietnam ceased to exist and the country unified under one government. Still hanging in the deserted basement command bunker are maps of the region and military strategy plans. Walking through the halls to the military operations center is very eerie…the radio transmitters and old phones are a reminder of the history of this place and the conversations that only the walls can now tell.
Upstairs, in the President’s living quarters on the 3rd floor is a beautiful Asian courtyard garden that President Thieu had made for his wife.
Also on this floor is a movie screening room, dance floor and large game room complete with bar. On the 4th floor, there is a heliport where there sits a retired United States Army Bell UH-1H helicopter.
The Palace, and the history which took place there, was very interesting, however the highlight was having heard Quyền share her own story in the ground floor conference room.
Born in 1971, she was just a child during some of the most difficult years in this country’s history. With strength, she talked about the 50 people in her own family who, with enormous risk, boarded ramshackle refugee boats in 1979 to escape the country. Boat people, like those in her family, had little supplies, and the vessels were ill-equipped for bad weather conditions. The waves capsized the crafts and 17 people in her family died. Quyền’s father was a refugee for 5 years, forcing her mother, the oldest of her family, to care for her grandparents and her siblings alone. They were very poor, so Quyền worked many jobs as a young girl: selling second-hand clothing, working as a maid, and other jobs which paid little money. She, like many Vietnamese women her age, had no childhood; “I never even had chocolate until I was 18 years old.” She saw death, hardship and sadness all at an age when many American children see cartoons and fairy tales. Hearing her story was necessary because it is the story of many Vietnamese. “We forget it and just keep moving,” she said. “We keep living.” I think many of my fellow classmates were touched by her story and impressed with her strength and ability to press on and look to creating a better life. With smiles, the Vietnamese seem to look at the bright future rather than horrors of the past.
To be born in the U.S., never having come close to enduring such pain and suffering, never having witnessed firsthand the horrors of war or poverty is a jackpot in the lottery of life. This day was quickly turning into one I’ll never forget.
We next went to the War Remnants Museum. Formerly known as the War Crimes of American & Chinese Museum (and changed not to offend visitors), our professor was sure to warn us in advance of the grim details recorded here, as well as a perspective most Americans will never see. My father reminds me that history is written by the victors, so I need not explain the apparent one-sidedness of the exhibits. Most of the atrocities shown at the museum have been seen by most Americans, I would imagine, but to see the way US military action was recorded here was disturbing, angering and horrific. At times I wondered ‘how many people go through here believing that the North Vietnamese army had nothing to do with this “American war”‘ Among the most disturbing exhibits is the picture gallery of a Japanese photojournalist who captured images of deformed children and civilians as a result of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants used during the war. One large photo shows formaldehyde filled jars containing fetuses with different deformities…something only seen in horror movies in the states. The fact that during this war, most people died by hands of the North Vietnamese soldiers is devoid from this Museum.
Many pictures, on another floor, captured the My Lai massacre, and even messages used to warn GIs: “The war will make you crazy if you allow it to” (a caption under soldiers posing behind decapitated Viet Cong heads). Despite the propaganda, the museum, and the photos found within, are a gut wrenching reminder that war is horribly atrocious and many innocent fall victim. Many soldiers, including my father, had to endure horror the likes of which most of us (God willing) will never know.
I write all of this, not to be a downer, but to explain why this was the most moving experience I had in Southeast Asia. Understanding why my father rarely discusses his time in Vietnam in the late 60’s, finding new gratitude for his bravery, to feel a connection to the Vietnamese never felt before filled me with great sorrow…I sobbed. I couldn’t control myself and found a place to sit, alone, and reflect. It was an overwhelmingly emotional experience I was glad to have.
As we left the museum, Quyền said to my fellow students and I, “The Vietnam war was tears and blood. Don’t you worry about the propaganda you see, we know what is true, we are thankful for you.” After seeing everything we just had, I think we all felt some relief in hearing that there is an appreciation for the sacrifices of America and its armed forces.
“We love you!” she said, putting her arm around me; now how could I not smile at that?