Spike Lee’s Netflix film Da 5 Bloods continues to draw viewers and rave reviews having been released at a time when its fresh perspective on black American soldiers in the Vietnam War is more pertinent than ever. The film offers an alternative view of a conflict which, from the start, took place under a cloak of propaganda and misinformation.

US troops officially fought alongside the South Vietnamese government against Communist North Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. In reality, US intervention lasted more than two decades in terms of military support and supplies.

When I visited Vietnam several years ago I had little knowledge of the war beyond Hollywood films and the travel guide glued to my palm. But what really struck me was the unfamiliar perspectives on war and nationhood I heard as I travelled.

Why were they unfamiliar? They weren’t being told from a Eurocentric, Western or white point of view.

Impressions of Vietnam

In 2015, like most millennial backpackers, I was desperately in search of authentic experiences and finding the ‘real’ [insert country name here].

Ho Chin Minh City, formerly Saigon and capital of South Vietnam, was my first stop. In the space of a frenetic evening I could hurtle past old French colonial facades and Chinese temples on the back of one of the ubiquitous motorbikes, eat banh mi (baguettes) by the roadside and hike up the Bitexco Tower. This was the ‘real’, 21st century Vietnam, I was sure.

But what of its past?

Cold War stories

In the tense days of the Cold War, American involvement in Vietnam was originally sold as a moral battle against the threat of Communism, fought for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, the security of the US and the safety of the rest of the world.

People in America began to protest against the conflict during the years of conscription, which unfairly targeted lower classes and ethnic minorities, as well as the peace and civil rights movements of the late 1960s. There was further opposition when President Nixon drew neighbouring Cambodia into the war in 1969, but by then there had already been covert CIA campaigns in Laos for several years, carried out without the knowledge or approval of US Congress.

In the end, North Vietnam was victorious and the US withdrew. Fears about a so-called ‘domino effect’ spreading Communism through South East Asia did not come to pass, although years of turmoil for Vietnam and its neighbours characterised the years following the war.

It’s now common opinion that the cost – human and monetary – of the American intervention in Vietnam far outweighed the benefits. But that’s still only one side of the story.

History by the victors

Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City
Image: Laura Gavin

No-one could survey the brutal photographs of civilian deaths and first-hand accounts of destruction in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and come away thinking either side was blameless.

But I also couldn’t help notice the unflinching bias in the way the story was told. Americans were ever the “aggressor”, “obstinately flouting the UN convention”, while North Vietnamese troops were eternal “patriots” and “martyrs”. The museum’s previous name, the Museum Of American War Crimes, says it all.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. History is written by the victors. We’ve seen that in the statues that have caused such debate in recent weeks. Figures such as Edward Colston, who until recently had their involvement in colonialism and the slave trade swept under the rug in favour of their philanthropy.

The version of history presented in the War Remnants Museum was simply more blatant in its partiality. Although the US and Vietnam resumed diplomatic relations in the 1990s and were no longer enemies, it was clear who were meant to be the good guys and who the bad.

The legacy of Agent Orange

Ho Chi Minh Trail, Central Vietnam
Image: Laura Gavin

My journey through Vietnam’s history took me northwards, from the highland outpost of Da Lat along a small section of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the old supply route for Viet Cong rebels fighting in South Vietnam.

A local guide told me huge swathes of the forest I saw consisted of imported, hardier species. These trees were planted in the decades after the conflict as Agent Orange had poisoned the soil so much the native vegetation couldn’t grow.

The chemicals in Agent Orange, which was sprayed across South Vietnam by the US army to destroy foliage and crops and flush out the Viet Cong, continue to affect the health of the Vietnamese population and US war veterans to this day.

In search of Ho Chi Minh

Image: Laura Gavin

Still further north, a Vietnamese student I met in Hue kindly offered to show me around her home town.

Between conversations about her English studies, the beauty of the old Imperial city and which bean curd dessert to try, she spoke with affection about ‘Uncle Ho’. Many still see Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader who died during the conflict in 1969, as almost single-handedly responsible for the birth of an independent Vietnam.

When I eventually made it to the capital Ha Noi, I went to see the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh himself. Guarded by stern-looking militia in pristine white uniforms, a conveyor belt of locals and curious tourists paid their respects. As a cultural phenomenon, it was fascinating and spoke volumes about the enduring image of ‘Uncle Ho’.

Nationhood and independence

Travelling by truckload, Central Highlands Vietnam
Image: Laura Gavin

By the time I left Vietnam I knew what I had experienced in the museum in Ho Chi Minh City was not merely the triumphalism of the winning side.

It was also about nationhood and the culmination of the 30 years of war it took for Vietnam to gain the right to self-rule. First from the French colony of Indochina and later from the anti-communist crusades of the US.

In Western narratives, and our school curriculums, we’re often taught about the successes of Europe and its diaspora. We aren’t often taught with sensitivity to other cultures or given access to sources from other points of view.

Vietnam was probably the first time I’d seen history standing in someone else’s shoes. Of course, that doesn’t make that person’s account any more valid or accurate than any other. History is formed by context, and a plurality of different experiences.

The War Remnants Museum should ultimately be viewed as anti-war. There were huge atrocities on all sides of the conflict. An estimated four million civilians died. The US figures state between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and 58,200 US soldiers died or were declared missing.

That the war was a tragedy is, at the very least, something everyone can agree on.

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