Our first stop was the highly recommended Military Museum. I was keen to see more detail about the military side of Vietnam’s history and specifically the US and French involvement and I was not too be disappointed, but we were also surprised and blown away by the museum. Unlike museums and other venues further north in the country, this museum seemed to have struck the balance between reporting the history of the conflicts and the facts with a lot less propaganda than in the North, it was still there but very toned down. Arguably Saigon was never a communist city, pre 1975 it had always been west-ward looking towards the old colonial masters, it has never really ceded to the party far away in the north. Politically maybe it had but culturally it was very different compared with Hanoi. NO Propaganda Tannoy in the streets here!
The museum gardens have a good collection of left over US planes, tanks and aircraft which were a good show, it also housed a exhibition on the Prisoner of War Camps around Vietnam and most notably Phu Quoc Island which was very sad but interesting.
But what we did not expect were two exhibitions, one I had seen before in London some 7 years earlier, Requiem and an exhibition celebrating and documenting the lives of Photojournalists who had died in the line of duty during the conflict put together by Tim Page and Herzog Hess. The Exhibition includes some of my favourite war photographers; it was great to see again, a devastatingly brutal and honest exhibition depicting the ground war. Even second time around it brought home the futility of war and the innocents who are inevitably affected. I have mentioned in many times as I have written traveling about mans inhumanity to man. One thing it did invoke was anger, as I have been for most of the time on this trip about Syria, but I digress and that is another story…
What else was on show was a exhibition talking about the chemical war and the side effects that are still being felt today a generation after the US has left. Again it was a factual based exhibition talking about the amount and types of chemicals used during the war and the impacts on the local communities. Accompanying the work was beautifully curated collection of portraits of people with disabilities, powerful black and white images that had the audience stunned into silence.
A cause that needs a voice if ever I had come across one, the Western audience among the crowd was stunned into silence and guilt almost hung in the air over the room. One of the most poignant items on display as well as the photographs was a letter a 23 year old Agent Orange victim had written to President Obama! Very Moving!
Dear President Barack Obama!
My name is Trần Thị Hoan, 23, born in Đức Linh District, Bình Thuận Province, Việt Nam. I am a second generation victim of Agent Orange, one among the plaintiffs, representing millions of Agent Orange victims, in a lawsuit against 37 U.S. chemical manufacturers in the U.S. Federal Court, two richest of which are Dow and Monsanto.
They manufactured deadly defoliants sprayed in the Vietnam wars containing dioxin—it has not only killed living people during the war, but gradually kills their children generations, like me, and goes on to kill the next ones.
It damages my country and other nations beyond imagination.
I have read your letter to your beloved daughters, especially this excerpt: “These are the things I want for you—to grow up in a world with no limits on your dreams and no achievements beyond your reach, and to grow into compassionate, committed women who will help build that world. And I want every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive that you girls have. That’s why I’ve taken our family on this great adventure.”
I was deeply moved by the love you have for your daughters and the dreams you have for children of other countries, and I dream that certainly you meant also for Vietnam. I dream that when you were on the campaign trail, and when you were writing those lines, you had some ideas about Agent Orange and its devastating effects on human and environment. I dream when you wrote “And I want every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive that you girls have” you were actually thinking about innocent children slowly killed by dioxin, and their sufferings, their education in a very poor country like Vietnam will be the same as your daughters in the U.S. I dream you had in mind what to do to help every child to have the same chances to learn and to dream and grow and thrive like your daughters’.
May I say something about myself: when I was in junior high school, I studied hard to become a doctor to help people in my home town because they were so poor. But this dream was taken from me. I was suggested in college not to follow medicine because I was born with no legs and no left hand. My parents were consumed with grief when I was born and when I started school. I was suggested not to dream about raising a family for fear that my children would be born deformed like me, and the poison might even take their lives. You may have guessed from my personal story, one among three million victim stories, what happen to other parents victims of Agent Orange.
You are a father of two beautiful daughters, and you know how parents love their children. As you might have known, the U.S. Vietnam veterans, sick from Agent Orange, have gotten remediation for their illnesses, but their children have not. How do their children live a decent life like your daughters?
In the case of my poor country, veterans of the U.S. war and their children and grandchildren have not received any justice from the U.S. courts: they refused to hear our case against the U.S. chemical companies without explanations. This denial of justice may have rendered void your dream for every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive. When I toured the U.S. cities last October, I found the American people deeply concerned about the problems of Agent Orange, including lawyers. I was totally disappointed with the U.S. Supreme Court running away from this question of justice.
I understand that you are very busy with the urgent matters that face your country, I hope that you would consider the poison from Agent Orange and the lives of its victims with as much a matter of urgency because what they mean to the future of humanity. I hope that you, a symbol of hope not only for the United States, but also for the world, a father who love his children dearly, and a man of humanity, spare a little time to resolve this forgotten problem.
Thank you! Trần Thị Hoan