Vietnam is full of many amazing things: beaches, temples, recently appointed wonders of the world (even I voted for Halong Bay, sorry Bay of Fundy). But North Americans (and just plain Americans in particular) associate the country with a war.
It was a long war that used lots of resources, lots of casualties were inflicted (on both sides) and lots of tragedy was witnessed. But for the Vietnamese, there are two ways of looking at the war: through the abuses that the Americans committed and the fact that they won.
If you go to Ho Chi Minh City, there are two main attractions directly relating to the War. The first is the War Remnants Museum. It is a plain building in the middle of downtown.
Outside there are examples of various helicopters and tanks. On the first floor are displays and pictures about Vietnamese foreign relations (they get along really, really well with Cuba).
But it is the second floor that is the most moving. It is full of displays recounting the tragedies suffered by the Vietnamese people.
Photo displays cover massacres by American troops, some of the horrible injuries from bombing and the effects of Agent Orange. I will forewarn that if you have a weak stomach, these displays might be too much to handle. They are very graphic, to the point that I found myself skipping some of them.
The second attraction is the Cu Chi Tunnels. They are located about an hour outside of the city.
A decade or two ago, they might have been very genuine, but they are now filled with robotic mannequins and the tunnels have been expanded to fit your average North American/European (versus the original for your average Vietnamese). It was kind of disheartening to see how the tunnels have been corrupted from their original form for the sake of white tourists and economic gain.
Likely the most interesting thing about the tour was the fact that if a Vietcong troop was good at killing Americans, they were dubbed American Killer Hero. Let's just say that didn't sit to well with the only two Americans on the tour.
But here's the thing about the Vietnam War.
It isn't something that has been forgotten. The Vietnamese are still proud of their victory, but just as importantly there are still tangible effects on the people. A Canadian friend of mine is currently working at an orphanage near Hoi An.
In discussing the children she works with, the recurring theme was that many of them are still born with birth defects from the use of Agent Orange.
And that's when the war becomes real. It changes from just being some abstract event, or some tunnels in the ground, or some pictures on the wall.