I’ve been to countless of museums, but I do not seem to appreciate any of them. Artifacts are mounted in such a way that they are totally detached from their historical context. Sometimes they are used to highlight the supposed superiority of one nation or the absence of these places as a lack of anything we call “history” of that nation; as if a group of people has never existed. Museums are the repository of the achievements of a nation. The more comprehensive is the collection, the more developed is a nation’s consciousness of its existence and the more confident it is in its place in the bigger scheme of things.
Vietnam, being a nation of people with a colorful past, is not found lacking with these edifices that mark its growth as a nation. So last Sunday, I accepted a friend’s invitation to visit Bao Tang Quan Doi or the Armed Forces Museum. Although it is around 20 minutes by bicycle ride from my house, I’ve never visited it during my five months of my stay in the country. It’s located opposite to a square dedicated to Vladimir Lenin, the communist Russia’s founding father who is also revered in Vietnam.
The museum contains collections starting from the earliest years of the organization of Vietnamese armed forces, around the 9th century. I learned that the first street where I stayed during my first month in Vietnam, Tran Hung Dao, was named after one of Vietnam’s famous generals during the war against China. So is my current place in Nguyen Luong Bang who was a general during the war against France.
There was a group of young men, between 18-24 years old, wanting to enter the army, that was being given a lesson on the history of the army. The woman speaking through a megaphone, although didn’t look quite believable, seemed to be enjoying the crash course on Vietnamese History 101 she was giving in front of the fascinated young men.
The picture above is that of the actual bicycle used during the war with France. This can carry 320 kilograms of load ranging from ammunition to rice (as many as six sacks and a half). This was used during the war to carry supplies for the soldiers in the forest. What is more interesting about these bicycles is that they were often used by women as they were less susceptible to being seized by the French Army.
I was reminded when I transferred place and had to use my bicycle to carry my duffel bag which contained clothes, the 20-meter internet cable, and books. It was around a hundred kilograms which I had to divide into two. Carrying the bag around with my bike was already too difficult. I just can’t imagine carrying 320 kilograms of things with a rickety bike on a rough terrain.
This is the watch tower, the museum’s landmark located outside the actual museum building. It was built in the latter part of the 19th century during the campaign against the French and Chinese invaders. The picture below is the view from the top of the watch tower.
Climbing the spiral stair was rather a challenge because aside from the stair being too steep the ceiling is also very low. The height of the ceiling, I surmised, was either because it was built very narrowly to save floor space thereby increasing the height of the watch tower or the Vietnamese people during that time, as in the case of any other human beings, were still not so tall to demand ceiling height required by a modern man measuring 181 centimeters.
This is a collage of debris of American aircraft after they were bombed by the Vietnamese forces and crashed. These remnants will forever remind the world’s only superpower that it did not win the war it waged on the soil of a small Southeast Asian country.
Bao Tang Quan Doi was made to showcase the achievements of the Vietnamese armed forces and like all other kinds of museum, can be quite biased. History is written in such a way that it favors the prevailing power or the writers of history; in the case of the museum, prevailing power is defined as the power that had the museum built to tell the story of a country so proud of its past.