Perhaps more than any other country, Vietnam’s self-identity over the last century has been defined by war. First, it was ejecting the French colonials. Then a brief repulsion of the imperial Japanese. Then the Americans.
As tragic and destructive as that history of war is, it is also both important and rich. The Vietnam Military History Museum doesn’t do it justice. It was set up in 1956, just two years after the French were defeated in dramatic fashion at Dien Bien Phu. And it has all the hallmarks of a 1950s museum designed by a bureaucratic committee of a cash-strapped government. It has none of the provocative flare of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.
A newer building focuses on the war against the Americans–the American War, as it’s known here. There’s a tank, a jeep, a life-size jungle diorama, and various random artifacts.
But it’s outside where the two highlights of the museum are. First, there’s the large stone tower–Flag Tower–that stands tall over the surrounding countryside. Built in the early 1800s, it now serves as a giant nationalist flagpole. A Vietnamese flag has flown at its top day and night since October 1954.
At the tower’s base is a courtyard of large-scale war souvenirs–tanks and planes and helicopters–captured from the Americans. And looking like the makings of a giant bonfire, the wreckage of a B-52 bomber–that symbol of American military superiority–stands on its nose surrounded by the crumpled wreckage of other planes like and F-111 fighter-bomber.