How many Vietnamese films have you seen about the war? How many Vietnamese albums or songs about the war have you listened to? How many books have you read that were written by soldiers of either North or South Vietnamese persuasion? How many ten-part documentary series about the war have you watched made by a Vietnamese director? Even away from the war, the narrative of Vietnam held in the west is one that has been penned by America. It is a country that still remains viewed through the skewed gaze of the west.
If you wade through the annals that have been written about the Vietnam War, you will likely find more mentions of The Doors, Stanley Kubrick and LSD than you will of Agent Orange, the My Lai massacre or the William Calley trial. This is not merely an issue of geographical location or even propaganda for that matter, but a welter of influences that pertained, largely, to the war coinciding with the rise of pop culture. And pop culture, in all of its guise, is a medium that requires an angle.
Now that time has provided a buffer from the combat, the images of Napalmed jungles and beleaguered soldiers in ‘War is Hell’ helmets conjure the rock ‘n’ roll sounds of ‘The End’ or ‘Gimme Shelter’ more so than the harrowing atrocities beneath the surface. However, at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the stark realities of 20 years of savage combat are laid bare without any soundtrack or cinematography. Therein you will find fused foetuses preserved in formaldehyde owing to biological deformities induced by the American’s spraying crops with Agent Orange and a slew of other horrors often masked by the cultural discourse of the war.
This article does not aim to reappraise the conflict whereby a moral high ground is unobtainable for all parties involved; because away from the eye-opening experiences to be had at the War Remnants Museum and other such places, Vietnam is a country that has long since assessed its own past, moved on and celebrated the kaleidoscope of riches that it has to offer. Sure, the Huu Tiep Lake in Hanoi City still displays the imposing sight of a B52 wreckage protruding from the green waters, but this is a relic of the past and a statement of fortitude, not an underpinning monument of the city itself.
Far from merely bustling cities with bullet holed buildings and endless sweltering jungles, the diversity contained within Vietnam is profound. Nowhere is this more apparent than the stunningly quaint village of Hoi An. Situated roughly halfway up the Vietnamese coastline, this is the side of the country that the western view has glossed over in favour of the gaudy war-torn image of the past.
In this former French outpost, the timeless crooked streets with wobbly buildings tumbling over themselves like old friends staggering home on drunken heels, crops of greenery sprouting in streets like tufts of bed hair, and chic cathedrals of la Replublique are met with the zest and colour of truly Vietnamese surface. The result is a dreamlike tropical Bruges where bustle and slumber live side by side. Nothing has been westernised or tainted by commercialism or the horrors that once beset the region and peace and passivity seem like the only actions possible.
In the big cities of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, the pace might be so frenzied that uninitiated westerners could spend days waiting for the right moment to cross the road, but even this frenetic buzz proves absorbing as dull sights remain a world away. This hive-like swarm of life is also another sign of a country that has long since moved on and reclaimed its identity. In Vietnam, history has had an unmistakable stamp, but if you venture there, you should not expect a homily on a hexed existence — you should expect a region that bares its scars, and greets you with open arms, both in terms of its alluring vibrancy and its amazingly friendly denizens high on the boon of their life-affirming cultural landscape.
Sadly, however, for those who have never visited or sought to peek beneath the surface of the image projected onscreen, the country, and often tragically the war itself, remains a movie and not a reality to be addressed. This notion of culture colouring discourse is one that continues to be a talking point to this day. Hollywood has a seeming determination to tell tales of conflict through the emotional narrative of troubled American soldiers, in doing so the context of the war itself can be lost. When you leave Vietnam, you do so not only having had an unforgettable experience, but the reality of how much our views are underpinned by the stories told to us in culture also comes to the fore.