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Vietnam:
A Commemoration of War

Although some of the most popular tourist spots in Vietnam are grim reminders of war, Vietnam is not a country that refuses to put the ghost of the Vietnam War to rest. Instead, what the Indo-Chinese have achieved is textbook implementation of a marketing fundamental. Create a need and fulfill it.

In this case, America's fascination with the Vietnam war is obvious. Hollywood movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter have tapped into this deep-seated interest of the American psyche. And the Vietnamese are milking this obsession to the hilt.

The Reunification Hall, the Exhibition House of War Crimes and the underground tunnels of Cu Chi are not just reminders of a war considered one of the greatest victories an Asian nation can claim over American forces. They also do service as cash cows propping up Vietnam's fledgling tourism industry.

"Hell no, we won't go" was the rallying cry of Americans at the height of anti-war sentiments. Since President Bill Clinton lifted the embargo and formalized ties with Vietnam this year, the new motif seems to be: "Come hell or high water, we will go!"

As a matter of fact, Americans have been turning out in droves in Ho Chi Minh City in the south and Hanoi up north. The nation's two major cities are swamped with tourists bringing with them the lucrative US dollar.


Everywhere you go, people on the street, merchants and even beggars greet American tourists with smiles. Its hard to imagine that less than two decades ago, they would have been aiming rifles at them.

To the casual Asian visitor, perhaps the greatest enigma is the War Crimes Museum. Within the walls of the museum is a shocking collection of pictures depicting the atrocities committed by American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

In particular, an account of the residual effects of chemical weapons such as napalm and agent orange is especially horrifying. Photographs show new-born babies born without limbs, others physically deformed with malformed heads and hare lips.

In the courtyard are US tanks, jet fighters and artillery equipment left behind in the aftermath of the war. Taking centre stage in the yard, a disused guillotine stands as a reminder of the cruelty of war.

Despite the negative focus, American tourists make it a must on their stop-over list. They willingly pay US$4.00 per head (person) to shake their heads over the extent of damage their fellow countrymen inflicted upon the Viets. One wonders just how many Singaporeans would pay good money to see their country being maligned by a foreign nation.

Also in Ho Chi Minh City is The Reunification Palace or Presidential Palace. Built in 1966, Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu's airy and open design for the palace is a sharp contrast to the tense and oppressive period it was built in.

It was here, on the 30th of April, 1975, that communist tanks of the North Vietnamese Army crashed through the palace gates and took over the state, ending decades of North-South conflict which had torn the country.


The four-storey building has numerous large meeting rooms, conference halls and spacious chambers befitting the home of a head of state. In the past, the hall played host to royalties and dignitaries from all over the world.

On the same level, is a display of some rather unusual gifts presented to the president by the villagers of the country. The items include model ships, horse-tails and the stump of an elephant's foot.

The upper floors were devoted solely to the first family's recreation. There is a game room equipped with its own bar. Next door is a private movie theatre, where it is certain, hit movies of the day were screened for the pleasure of a presidential audience. The entire fourth floor is a dancing hall (ballroom).

The uppermost floor presents a breathtaking view of the four corners of the city. Tucked away on the rooftop is a heliport, with two obsolete choppers, once primed for speedy escape should the need arise.

The palace has two hidden basement floors. It was here that the former president, his family and his right-hand men took refuge from enemy fire. These underground shelters are preserved in their original condition.

Various telecommunication equipment and maps are still kept intact. A chart tracks the 58,183 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who died trying to save Vietnam from the hands of the Northerners.

 

Upon leaving the gates of the palace, one can't help but breate a sigh of relief that the 'domino theory' never materialised. According to this theory, the fall of Saigon signaled the start of a communist take-over of the South-East Asian peninsula, including Singapore. The thought of the Istana being overrun by communist forces sent shivers down the spine.

A little distance away from the city is another significant relic of the war. The underground tunnels of the Cu Chi district, now part of greater Ho Chi Minh City, is legendary for its role in the downfall of American forces.



The intricate chain of burrows allowed the Viet Cong to spring surprise attacks - even within the perimeter of American bases - and disappear into hidden trap doors without a trace.

Today Cu Chi has become a pilgrimage site for ex-Marines. Part of this tunnel network - enlarged and upgraded versions of the real thing - is open to public. Dotting the tunnel entrance are souvenir stands that sell souvenir items fashioned from used bullet casings and cartridges left behind by the Americans during the war.

While in the past, Marines indiscriminately sprayed bullets upon the area, now they - and anyone else who cares to - are charged a US$1 per bullet to fire M-16 or AK-47 rifles.

Once again the Asian visitor can't help but marvel at the ingenuity of the Vietnamese. It would seem that twenty years after a famous victory over American soldiers, Vietnam is making another killing - this time on American tourists.

     
     

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