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A block north of Cong Vien Van Hoa Park, the War Remnants Museum is the city’s most popular attraction but not for the faint-hearted. Unlike at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, you are unlikely to be distracted here by the building that houses the heart-rending exhibits – a distressing compendium of the horrors of modern warfare. Some of the instruments of destruction are on display in the courtyard outside, including a 28-tonne howitzer and a ghoulish collection of bomb parts. There’s also a guillotine that harvested heads at the Central Prison on Ly Tu Trong, first for the French and later for Diem.
Inside, a series of halls present a grisly portfolio of photographs of mutilation, napalm burns and torture. Most shocking is the gallery detailing the effects of the 75 million litres of defoliant sprays dumped across the country: beside the expected images of bald terrain, hideously malformed foetuses are preserved in pickling jars. A gallery that looks at international opposition to the war as well as the American peace movement adds a sense of balance, and makes a change from the self-glorifying tone of most Vietnamese museums. Accounts of servicemen – such as veteran B52 pilot Michael Heck – who attempted to discharge themselves from the war on ethical grounds are also featured. Artefacts donated to the museum by returned US servicemen add to the reconciliatory tone.
At the back of the museum is a grisly mock-up of the tiger cages, the godless prison cells of Con Son Island, which could have been borrowed from the movie set of Papillon.