Vietnam has a long history with war and occupation. The French colonial era began in 1861, and the country did not become free until 1945. A mere 10 years later, in 1955, the Vietnam War began, and lasted for a whole 20 years. Often seen as a proxy of the Cold War, the Vietnam War remains one of the most significant in history. The war, while officially between the pro-communist north, and the anti-communist south, also featured heavy involvement from the US Army. Today, that same war is fuelling Vietnamese tourism.
Tourism is a huge part of Vietnam. In 2018 the South-East Asian country received 15.5 million international visitors, and the tourism industry contributes a whole 6.6% to the country’s GDP. People often come to Vietnam not only for their beautiful beaches and amazing food, but also for military tourism (alternatively known as dark tourism). One popular attraction is the Cu Chi Tunnels built by the VietCong Guerrilla Forces during the War. While some may find it sinister, I believe military tourism can be an important part of maintaining a country’s history, much like visits to concentration camps and 9/11 Ground Zero can serve an educational purpose. However, what did shock me during my recent trip to Hanoi was the military memorabilia sold on every street corner.
Alongside the bog-standard local beer merchandise and the t-shirts saying ‘made Pho each other‘ there were Vietnamese military hats and other war memorabilia sold all over. Throughout the Vietnam War, it is believed that anywhere from 1-3.8 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed, which is not something that should be celebrated as a souvenir or a funny slogan. Not only were there Vietnamese military costumes – sold besides the Halloween masks may I add – but t-shirts with the slogan ‘Good Morning Vietnam!’ could also be found throughout the city of Hanoi. The acclaimed movie of the same name is hugely pro-American, and focuses on the suffering of the American troops, with little attention to that of the Vietnamese. Every movie has its own angle, and the US fought alongside South Vietnam, but the American troops were nonetheless responsible for mass-bombings in the country.
As I strolled down the streets of Hanoi, it made me sad seeing the heavy influence of Western culture on the way the war was remembered. Obviously, these t-shirts and caps were marketed to tourists, but it does make you wonder what importance is placed on remembrance when there are t-shirts sold all over the country, spouting the words of their former adversary. Rather than blaming the Vietnamese for trying to make a buck in a struggling economy, we need to re-think the way we think about the commercialisation of remembrance. Yes, you might have to pay for entry to a museum or historical site, or even buy a poppy, but when we make memorabilia out of real suffering, that is when we have a real problem on our hands. In capitalism, everything can be monetised, but sometimes we need to stop ourselves and ask who this is really benefiting.
Remembrance for the US soldiers who passed away during the Vietnam War is incredibly important, but it is just as important for the Vietnamese. Ask any Vietnamese veteran and I’m sure they’ll tell you they don’t want you to remember their country by looking at those who played a huge part in its darkest hour.