The Vietnam Women’s Museum is a world-class project, a brilliant and poignant collection of photographs, objects common to village life, depictions of custom and women’s roles in village life, also including a wide array of ethnic textiles. It is a sacred celebration of the role and contributions of women to Vietnamese culture, history and independence. I have never seen a more effective promotion of gender equity.
There is an impressive collection of photo displays and stories of women who rose from obscurity to positions of leadership and military accomplishment during the wars of independence. To see these stories of women who became political leaders, military leaders, counter-intelligence leaders, to read of their heroics, their military accomplishments, their capture, their torture, their release and survival were some of the most moving moments of my visit so far.
On top of that, the masses of women who assumed the responsibilities of men, continued to care for their families and still managed to contribute millions of days of labor in direct support of the military campaigns, over 2 million days in support of the Dien Bien Phu campaign alone, frames the profound endurance and common sacrifice of the Vietnamese people in a much sharper way.
I was reminded of how misguided, how delusional, how morally wrong, how criminal American policy was at that time. We learned nothing from the French losses in Vietnam and should have realised who and what we were truly fighting. But since when has reality ever shaken American hubris.
The Women’s Museum is not solely about war. It does also display the complex and diverse ethnic roots of the people and these few photos cannot begin to convey it all. But I can’t go without mentioning the wall of photos of living women, survivors of the wars who lost multiple family members to these struggles, including the decimation of extended families. Some lost husbands and sons, some lost multiple sons and daughters, up to ten in one case. All of these women were honoured by the government.
At another location, the National Museum of History is two floors in an old colonial era building that must have once been an administrative center. There are about 30 rooms chronicaling the history of the current nation of Vietnam from the turn of the century to eventual reunification following what we call the Vietnam War, but which they would likely call the War of Independence or the War to Throw Off the Imperialist Yoke of the Puppet Government–or something like that.
In any case, the displays are mostly documents and photos from the origins of the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1930 to the victory of the People’s Republic and reunification following the fall of Saigon in 1975. In other words, the story is about Ho Chi Minh, the much beloved and revered (at least in the north) George Washington of Vietnam.
There is weaponry including what appears to be hopelessly inadequate munitions from the 1950s campaigns against the French. There are grainy photos from the 60s depicting US soldiers and aircraft in action. No punches are pulled in describing the government of South Vietnam (“puppets”), the French (colonialists) or the US (imperialists). No photos are permitted in the History Museum.
At the terminus of Dien Bien Phu St. in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, a grand plaza adjacent to his humble former residence on the grounds of what was one the Royal Residence in Hanoi.