MADAME NGUYEN THI BINH in her jungle office. Madame Binh went on to lead Vietnam's diplomatic works and and negotiate peace to end the American War.
Too often when history is written it is all about him and herstory never gets told. But this isn't the case here in Vietnam and last week-end Leanna and Hollis toured the Southern Vietnam Women's Museum. The museum is housed in an older building in District 3, near downtown Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. The museum tells the story of the women of southern Vietnam (the Vietnamese talk about the southern region, central region and northern regions of their country -- food varies and language accents vary) with different displays highlighting the civil life of southern Vietnam and many cultural groups that have flourished here for 4,000 years including stories about such heroes as the Trung sisters, warriors long ago who were adept at fighting for freedom using elephants. On each floor of the museum there were gorgeous sculptures and art pieces celebrating southern Vietnam's women.
Women's prison cell and items about the prison and prisoners.
The first floor's displays focused on the technology used by women over the course of time to create such traditional fabrics and special clothing as cotton and silk. The display of spinning machines and incredibly diverse looms with examples of work in progress also showing traditional and historic versions of clothing really helped explain the many different peoples who are Vietnam. You were left with an understanding of the hard life of labor women lived and the critical role they
Women's personal items.
played in sustaining family while also contributing significantly to the economic welfare of their family and village. The top floor exhibits were about modern working class women in all facets of Vietnam's life: diplomats, the People's Assembly, government agencies, education, factories, etc. and was quite inspiring. The importance of international solidarity was an on-going theme. The hard work of Vietnam's women continues! After carefully looking this are over with our two student guides, two women studying in the Labor Relations and Trade Union Department, we moved on to the second of the three floors of exhibits.
Confrontation of Women and soldiers.
Immediately we were ushered into the history of the three long wars that Vietnam has had to endure during the last century and a half starting with the struggle to force the French colonialists out of Vietnam. The women tended the home fires while the men were fighting --- like happens in most every society --- but went way beyond and became armed fighters, organizers and carried on propaganda and other activities including massive strikes and demonstrations demanding freedom for their peoples. This experience provided some of the back bone for the resistance that eventually won against the French in 1945 when the Japanese who had occupied much of Indochina were defeated.
NOTE: If you'd like a Hollis-review of the history of Vietnam from 1945 until late 1970s, feel free to read final paragraphs of this posting.
The remaining floors of the museum contained powerful displays of the stories of individual and groups of Vietnamese women illustrated with the personal belongings that had been donated by women and their families. The stories which spanned the wars with first the French, then the Japanese occupation during WWII, continued war with France and finally the war with the USA were amazing testimonies to the power of women! Stories included women fearlessly organizing for workplace and economic justice, directly confronting French and USA-puppet soldiers, hand-producing (with VERY BASIC printing and paper materials) leaflets and posters and then at risk-of-death distributing such literature, growing and harvesting and then transporting rice to soldiers fighting for Vietnam's freedom, hiding freedom fighters...on and on and on. To read the names and stories, see pieces of clothing or shoes or water cans or eye glasses used by these women was moving. These women were members of the "long hair army" and many of them sacrificed their lives for freedom. In addition to these important roles, women also served in the military and were important in shooting down USA aircraft carrying bombs and Agent Orange/napalm. Women played an important role in many war battles actually fighting for Vietnam's independence. Even young students (we saw photos of the women students) mobilized at great personal risk.
Although it was a painful part of the exhibit, we also saw displays of how the French and USA treated women prisoners -- horrible tortures, terrible prisons with little or no food (many women gave birth to children or had very young children with them while in prison).
Women at the Rubber Plantation The exhibits both showed the horrible suffering and the inspiring strength and power of the women of Vietnam.
At this point of our viewing the museum, it really struck Leanna that these were the stories and lives of women who lived and worked with their families in the southern towns and villages of Vietnam. What a counter to the myth that somehow Vietnam was a divided people! Diverse, yes. Divided, not!
The top floor of the museum was filled with a beautiful large mural as well as the displays of women actively building Vietnam society, culture and art, business, economy, science and technology today. Again it was great to read and learn about individual women and their contributions. This is a museum where you feel like you're meeting actual people.
As has been the case with other museum visits shared with our students, we had some great conversations about the lessons each of us was learning, what was emotional, what was inspiring. The students explained to us that most of the students who grew up in HCMC had already seen the museum, but since our two "guides" were from other provinces much of what we saw at the museum was new for them as well as for us.
One other interesting note about this museum visit...at the ground floor level there was a rather large meeting room. As we were entering the museum it was obvious that there was decorating going on for some kind of an event. We asked and the students found out for us that a young couple was having part of their wedding celebration there at the museum. Might not have been the hippest location in HCMC, but Leanna especially thought it was pretty great if you were going to get married that you also celebrate in some way the southern Vietnam woman!
Here's Hollis's version/rant of key elements of recent VN history (the American War):
After the September 2, 1945 Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the new nation of Vietnam, the French tried to reassert their colonial hold on Vietnam with help from the US who supplied France with money, weapons, bombs and the other implements of war. This US assistance allowed France to carry on their attempt at re-occupation untill 1954 when they were defeated at Dien Bien Phu by the successful Vietnam peoples war strategy. As history records, the US decided with the support of the Roman Catholic Church to pick up the gauntlet and invade Vietnam after preventing the 1956 elections that were to re-unify the nation. The Church had gotten involved because they wanted to maintain their power base under the dominion of western european power. The Church did not send troops but rather supplied a religious cover for the atrocities of the SVN puppet government --- the Diem regime.
The South Vietnamese people who were organized over the years by the liberation movement [Lead by leaders such as Ton Duc Thang, Pham Van Dong, Madame Nguyen Binh and Ho Chi Minh to mention only a few, yes that is Madame Binh a revolutionary leader, organizer and the Provisional Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Liberated southern VN, and Vn representative at the Paris Peace Conference.] were an unbreakable force aligned against the most powerful military force the world has ever known. These women leaders and woman-next-door-warriors were steel-minded fighters who refused to break under terrible treatment by the SVN government and their US allies who allowed and trained the torturers, troops of the SVN government. Viet Cong liberation force women were not just the fighters who lived in the tunnels but also the women organizers in the hamlets, towns, and cities who organized and demonstrated against the puppet government and the US aggressor forces who killed with Agent Orange, napalm (both chemical weapons), daisy cutter bombs and other weapons of mass destruction --- the weaponry of a military who had no answer to the strategy of people's war and therefore undertook the use of weapons of mass destruction in an effort to gain an upper hand through terrorism and genocide --- a strategy devised by befuddled generals in the Pentagon and inept leaders in the White House directing a subservient officer corps in the field to prosecute a doomed strategy. This leadership and the intelligence agencies of the US destroyed the futures of 4,000,000 Vietnamese and about 55,000 young Americans whose lives were thrown away like trash, not counting the wounded on both sides.
Women at the Barbed Wire
Part of this campaign was also the imprisonment of women, men, children and senior citizens in concentration camps referred to as "strategic hamlets" --- removing the sea in which the fish of the guerrilla warriors swam. Of course this strategy didn't have a chance and those of us in the peace movement knew by 1964 or so because we read and learned from Mao, Lin Piao, Ho Chi Minh, Nkrumah and others including Che, the theory and practice of people's war. Looking back it is amazing to realize that Presidents JFK, LBJ and Dirty Dick Nixon didn't do their homework, declare victory and just get the hell out of Vietnam. If any of them would have even read the book or watched the movie of "the mouse that roared" they might have gotten a clue.
Pictures from the Mural.