Reader Letters: Joe Sciacca

Reader Letters, Veterans, Vietnam

In the latest installment of Reader Letters, I’d like to introduce you to Vietnam War veteran Joe Sciacca.

If you would like to share your story of the war or returning to Vietnam, send me an e-mail at nissarhee {at} gmail.com.

Joe Sciacca embraces two children he helps in Vietnam. (Photo from Ordinary Joe movie site)

Joe Sciacca spends time with children he helps in Vietnam. (Photo from Ordinary Joe movie website)

Joe Sciacca is a US Army veteran who served as an orderly in the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang, South Vietnam from March 1968 to April 1969. After returning to the United States and pursuing a career as a roofer on Long Island, Joe made his way back to Vietnam in 1998.

Joe contacted me earlier this summer and sent me a documentary about his charity efforts in Vietnam. The short film is called “We Do What We Can” — a fitting title for his work over the last 15 years to help poor and sick families in the Southeast Asian country.

Joe Sciacca in Vietnam during the war. (Photo from  Ordinary Joe movie site)

Joe Sciacca in Vietnam during the war. (Photo from Ordinary Joe movie website)

Joe first returned to Vietnam in 1998 as a tourist hoping to visit his old hospital. In the film, he describes how that trip led to his humanitarian work:

“[My friend] and I were down here just on vacation. We were going to take a couple of boat rides, but the weather was bad. We went back to the hotel and waiting for us in the hotel was an old nun. I don’t know how she knew we were there, but she knew we were there and she wanted to us to go visit 500 families in Hue — sick, elderly, poor and lepers. I agreed to go to five and we did. And then I came back the next year by myself and we visited 10 more houses. The year after, because of generous donations from back home, we were able to visit 30 homes.”

He now spends a couple months each year in Vietnam handing out donations he has gathered in the United States. Those who donate can ask Joe to give the money to a particular family or someone struggling with the effects of a certain medical issue, like Agent Orange or leprosy. Joe doesn’t run an official nonprofit or charity for his work; instead, he prefers to facilitate person-to-person giving by carrying money from the US to people in Vietnam.

Joe visits a boy in Hue in 2009 who is struggling with the effects of Agent Orange. (Photo from Newsday)

Joe visits a boy in Hue in 2009 who is struggling with the effects of Agent Orange. (Photo from Newsday)

In 2012, Joe told Newsday, “I live in the United States, but I’m alive in Vietnam.” For this reason, Joe says he will continue to travel to Vietnam for as long as he’s able to.

For more on Joe, check out the feature-length documentary “Ordinary Joe.” You can contact him with questions or for more information on donating at ongjon11@yahoo.com.

The DMZ: Part Two

Humanitarian, Photograph, Veterans, Vietnam
An exhibit of unexploded ordnance in the parking lot of Huu Nghi Hotel, where I was staying in Dong Ha. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An exhibit of unexploded ordnance in the parking lot of Huu Nghi Hotel, where I stayed in Dong Ha. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

After visiting the former demilitarized zone in Vietnam in June, I spent some time with the staff of Project RENEW in Quang Tri Province. RENEW — which stands for Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of the War — was co-founded by US Army veteran Chuck Searcy and works today on the issue of unexploded bombs in the region just south of the DMZ.

Due to heavy fighting in the area during the war, Quang Tri is the province most affected by unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Vietnam today. Project RENEW believes that 60 to 65% of the province’s land is contaminated with UXO. These bombs, which failed to explode when they were first dropped in the ’60s and ’70s, have become de facto land mines and can be incredibly dangerous when discovered.

The US military estimates that 10 percent of the bombs they dropped during the war failed to detonate. Considering that the US dropped more bombs on Vietnam than what was dropped on Japan and Germany combined during WWII — the explosive equivalent of 450 Hiroshima-size atom bombs — this is no small number.

A discarded UXO is used as a flower pot in the garden outside of the Project Renew office. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

A discarded UXO is used as a flower pot in the garden outside of Project RENEW’s office. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

With support from Norwegian People’s Aid, Project RENEW is working to make Quang Tri Province safe by educating the public about the dangers of UXO and systematically finding and destroying ordnance.

To understand more about their work in Quang Tri, I met Nguyen Thanh Phu at the organization’s Mine Action Visitor’s Center in Dong Ha. RENEW opened the center in August 2011 and offers school groups, tourists and visiting dignitaries educational tours on UXO.

Project Renew's Nguyen Thanh Phu shows me the remnants of a cluster bomblet. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Project RENEW’s Nguyen Thanh Phu shows me the remnants of a cluster bomblet. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The center showcases a wide variety of unexploded bombs, including the dangerous bomblets that are packed into cluster munitions. Phu told me that cluster munitions and M79 40 mm rifle grenades cause 45% of the injuries and deaths in Quang Tri today. Both the bomblets and grenades are small and can look like toys to any children who find them.

A child's drawing shows the discovery of UXO in a field. Students who come to Project Renew's Visitor Center are asked to draw something that they learned on their field trip. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A child’s drawing shows the discovery of UXO in a field. Students who come to Project RENEW’s Visitor’s Center are asked to draw something that they learned on their field trip. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The Vietnamese students who visit the center learn how to identify unexploded ordnance and what to do if they find any wartime bombs. The education program seems to be working: RENEW runs a hotline for reporting discoveries of UXO and has seen calls substantially increase in recent years.

A diorama at the Project Renew Visitor Center shows how UXO is cleared near people's homes. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A diorama at the Project RENEW Visitor’s Center shows how UXO is cleared near people’s homes. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Visitors to the center also learn about RENEW’s bomb disposal work, which is led by their explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams. When a piece of UXO is discovered, one of the teams is dispatched to the area to assess whether the ordnance can be safely removed. If they decide it is too dangerous to touch, the team will destroy the ordnance on site, as depicted in the diorama above. If it appears relatively stable, however, the team will move the ordnance to their central demolition site where it will be destroyed at a later date.

Old and new prostheses are displayed at the Project Renew Visitor Center. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Old and new prostheses are displayed at the Project RENEW Visitor’s Center. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Since it was founded in 2001, RENEW has also worked with the survivors of bomb explosions to regain their mobility and financial independence. RENEW provides survivors with 2,000 to 3,000 prostheses each year. The organization also started a mushroom farming program that gives survivors the equipment and skills necessary to grow mushrooms at their homes. The mushrooms are later sold at market.

Project Renew's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team Leader Mai Van Viet shows me a map of the detonation site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

Project RENEW’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team Leader Mai Van Viet shows me a map of the central demolition site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

After visiting the Mine Action center, I went with Phu to RENEW’s central demolition site to see the work of an EOD team first hand. Last year, RENEW’s EOD teams safely removed and destroyed 2,882 UXO in Quang Tri and cleared ordnance from 133 acres of land.

At the site, team leader Mai Van Viet showed me the many precautions the team takes before a demolition. All visitors must sign in when they enter the site and provide the team medic with their contact information and blood type. An emergency response vehicle is on hand in case there are any problems. And all cell phones must be put in airplane mode in case the cell signal accidentally triggers one of the old bombs.

Viet shows me the dump where they store conventional UXO before they destroy it. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Viet shows me the dump where they store conventional UXO before they destroy it. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

All ordnance brought to the site is stored in a dump until they are ready to be destroyed. Conventional UXO are stored in a dry dump, while phosphorous bombs are stored underwater to prevent any accidental explosions.

Phosphorous bombs must be stored in a special water-filled dump to prevent them from exploding. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

Phosphorous bombs must be stored in a special water-filled dump to prevent them from exploding. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

Once the team is ready to destroy the UXO, they move the ordnance from the dump to the center of the demolition site.

When an EOD team is ready to destroy ordnance, they move the bombs to a special sand-filled staging area. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

When an EOD team is ready to destroy ordnance, they move the bombs to a special sand-filled staging area. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Multiple bombs are destroyed at once. On the day I visited, the team was detonating several naval artillery shells and white phosphorous bombs (like napalm) — all of which were launched by Americans during the war.

Sandbags are then placed on top of the UXO to prevent debris from flying when they are detonated. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Sandbags are then placed on top of the UXO to prevent debris from flying when they are detonated. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Sandbags are used to muffle the explosion and prevent debris from flying when the bombs are detonated.

Finally, the EOD team lays down the explosives that will destroy the ordnance. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Finally, the EOD team lays down the explosives that will destroy the ordnance. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

While I was there, the EOD team set up two detonations — one for conventional bombs and one for phosphorous bombs. The phosphorous bombs in particular require a lot of high explosives, since the teams must destroy both the bomb’s casing and booster.

Once the explosives have been laid, everyone moves to the set watch posts which are 500 meters away (1/3 mile) away from the planned demolitions.

The detonation of the phosphorous bombs releases a cloud of dust and fire. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The detonation of the phosphorous bombs releases a cloud of dust and fire. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Even from such a distance, however, the demolitions are impressive. When the phosphorous bombs are detonated, they shoot clouds of fire into the sky.

The EOD team and I stand behind the crater that formed from one of the detonations. (Photo by Nguyen Thanh Phu, June 2014)

The EOD team and I stand behind the crater that formed from one of the detonations. (Photo by Nguyen Thanh Phu, June 2014)

After the demolitions, we wait for the all clear before moving to the center of the site. In the distance, I can hear the booms of other explosions. RENEW’s Colonel Bui Trong Hong tells me that it’s the Vietnamese military practicing nearby at one of their bases. With the recent fracas between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea (or as the Vietnamese call it, the East Sea), the military is preparing for the possibility of an armed conflict.

“The Vietnamese are peace lovers, but we are always ready to fight,” Hong says with a grin.

Hong is the most experienced deminer at the site today — he is certified to level 3 in the International Mine Action Standards and replaced RENEW’s international technical advisor. He is also a veteran of the Vietnamese military and fought with the North Vietnamese military near the DMZ during the war.

When Saigon fell in 1975, Hong was one of thousands of people recruited to clear land mines and bombs from much-needed farmland. Their methods were primitive by today’s standards: often they would just stand in a line and use long bamboo poles to poke the land in front of them to find ordnance.

The difference between those early efforts at clearance and the work at Project RENEW is stark, with everything from the technology to the people involved changing.

“Today at Project Renew, we have North Vietnamese veterans working alongside the children of Viet Cong vets – like myself – and an American veteran,” RENEW’s Phu tells me. “All of us are working together.”

Do Thien Dang and I pose in his front yard. Do lost both of his legs when he stepped on a landmine in 1980. (June 2014)

Do Thien Dang and I pose in his front yard. Do lost both of his legs when he stepped on a land mine in 1980. On the left is one of the bamboo stands he built for floral arrangements. (June 2014)

After the demolitions, I go with Phu and Hong to visit a UXO victim who was one of the first people to receive help from Project RENEW. Do Thien Dang lost both his legs when he stepped on a land mine in 1980 while gathering thatch in a field. Dang says that he was traumatized by the accident, which occurred when he was just 20 years old, and it took him a full three years to recover. He eventually got married and got a job selling lottery tickets on the street, but it was difficult work because he had to travel everyday.

Then, in 2003, RENEW gave him a “hanging house” to grow mushrooms on his property. The house has given him some financial independence and he can now work from home. RENEW has provided 194 families with hanging houses since they began their mushroom farming program.

Last year, Dang was able to bring in 5 million dong ($236) from his mushroom-growing business. In the dry season — when growing mushrooms is not possible — Dang builds bamboo stands for floral arrangements, which he sells at $1 a piece to local florists.

Do Thien Dang's hanging house, where he grows mushrooms during the wet season. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Do Thien Dang’s hanging house, where he grows mushrooms during the wet season. It was the dry season when I visited, so Dang was storing his bamboo stands there are the moment. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

When I ask Dang if he remembers meeting US veteran and RENEW cofounder Chuck Searcy, he smiles and nods.

“I really appreciate and am thankful for what Chuck as a vet has been doing here for our country and especially Quang Tri,” Dang says. “Chuck brings support for me and for others who are very much in need in Vietnam.”

Chicago Public Radio interview

Poetry, Press Coverage, Vietnam

WBEZ screenshot

I was on Chicago Public Radio’s “Worldview” program this past Friday to discuss my research on veterans. American veteran Don Blackburn joined me on air to talk about his own experiences returning to Vietnam and to read some of his poetry. You can listen to and download the audio from the show here.

Stay tuned: Interview on WBEZ Friday

Press Coverage, Veterans, Vietnam

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I’ll be interviewed on Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview program on Friday about my research on American veterans in Vietnam. You can listen live to the program at noon CST on 91.5 FM if you’re in Chicago or on their website: wbez.org.

In keeping with the Vietnam War theme, Worldview did an interesting segment yesterday with the authors of Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American bombs in Laos. Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern described how bombs dropped during the United States’ covert air campaign in Laos during the war are still killing and maiming people in today. You can listen to their interview here.

Painful Past, Promising Future

FIlm, Veterans, Vietnam

Life Reimagined has produced a nice, short video about three American veterans living in Vietnam today. If you’ve been following this blog or reading my magazine articles, you will probably recognize their names. You can read more about Chuck Searcy and Chuck Palazzo’s work in Vietnam here and here.

Vets working together in Israel/Palestine

News, Veterans, Vietnam

In this blog and the book I’m working on I look at how veterans from both sides of the war in Vietnam have come together to work for peace. These Americans and Vietnamese who once tried to kill each other are now working hard to address the legacies of the war, like unexploded bombs, Agent Orange, and PTSD. Their transformation from soldiers to peacebuilders is a glimmer of hope in this world where war often looks more like the norm rather than the exception.

Recent days have brought increased fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. What began as revenge killings over the deaths of children on both sides has quickly escalated to an all-out war. Yet, even in this dark time there are groups of Israelis and Palestinians working hard for peace.

One of these groups is Combatants for Peace, which brings together former soldiers and combatants from both sides to encourage reconciliation and understanding. You can learn about their programs in the video above. In recent days, they’ve been holding demonstrations against the violence and talking to the press about how the conflict hurts both Israelis and Palestinians. As with Vietnam, the vets in Israel/Palestine are proving that former combatants can play an important role in ending cycles of violence.

My Lai: Part 1

Photograph, Veterans, Vietnam

Note: This post contains some graphic descriptions and artist renditions of the My Lai massacre.

The biggest memorial sculpture at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The biggest memorial sculpture at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

While in Vietnam, I visited the My Lai massacre site in Quang Ngai Provence, central Vietnam. The site is now home to a large complex of gardens, sculptures, graves, remnants of homes, and a museum.

Along with the Tet Offensive and battles at Khe Sanh and Ia Drang, the My Lai massacre is one of the most well-known events of the Vietnam War. On March 16, 1968, a task force of the Americal Division of the US Army marched into Son My Village and killed between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians.

Much of what we know about the massacre today comes from helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson who, along with his crew, tried to stop the killing and saved the lives of at least 10 civilians. While Thompson reported the massacre to the US military, it wasn’t until November 1969 that the American public learned about the atrocity through the reporting of Seymour Hersh. The village was marked as My Lai on US military maps, so the atrocity became known as the My Lai massacre.

In their excellent investigation Four Hours in My Lai, writers Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim describe the importance of the My Lai massacre as such:

The massacre at My Lai and its subsequent coverup stand in the history of the Vietnam War at the point where deception and self-deception converge. If the Tet Offensive of 1968 had mocked America’s complacent expectation of an imminent victory, My Lai’s exposure late in 1969 poisoned the idea that the war was a moral enterprise. The implications were too clear to escape. The parallels with other famous massacres were too telling and too painful. My Lai had been on the same scale as the World War II atrocities at Oradour in France, and Lidice in Czechoslovakia, outrages which had helped diabolize the Nazis. Reports now suggested that, if anything, the behavior of the American troops had been even worse. Americans, who at Nuremberg had played a great part in creating the judicial machinery which had brough the Nazi monsters to book, now had to deal with a monstrosity of their own making. (1992, pg 23)

 

A detail from a mosaic at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A detail from a mosaic at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The different manner in which Americans viewed the World War II and Vietnam “monstrosities” was apparent in the months following Seymour Hersh’s articles. While the media focused on the “very normal young men”  — average age 20 — who had been transformed into heartless killers by the war, not much attention was given to the Vietnamese killed in the massacre. As journalist Jonathan Schell explained in the The New Yorker in December 20, 1969:

When others committed them, we looked on the atrocities through the eyes of the victims. Now we find ourselves, almost against our will, looking through the eyes of the perpetrators.

 

Today, the My Lai site in Quang Ngai looks at the massacre through the eyes of its victims. Walking past the foundations of homes and the famous ditch from Ron Haeberle’s photograph, you can almost imagine what the village looked like immediately before the massacre took place.

The ditch from Ron Haeberle's famous My Lai photograph. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The ditch from Ron Haeberle’s famous My Lai photograph. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The foundation of a house owned by Mrs Truoung Thi Le that was destroyed in the massacre. Three of her family members were killed in the massacre, ages 8, 17 and 64. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The foundation of a house owned by Mrs Truoung Thi Le that was destroyed in the massacre. Three of her family members were killed in the massacre, ages 8, 17 and 64. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An example of the kind of houses which used to fill My   Lai village. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An example of the kind of houses which used to fill Son My village. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A museum at the site showcases some of the belongings of the villagers who died and dramatic dioramas of the massacre. The Vietnamese claim that 504 civilians were killed (the US Army says 347), and a marble plaque near the museum’s entrance lists each and every victim’s name, age, and gender.

A memorial plaque in the My Lai museum lists the names of those killed in the massacre. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A memorial plaque in the My Lai museum lists the names of those killed in the massacre. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A life-size model of the My Lai massacre at the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A life-size model of the My Lai massacre at the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A sweater owned by one of the massacred children that was recovered from the My Lai massacre site is displayed in the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A sweater owned by one of the massacred children that was recovered from the My Lai massacre site is displayed in the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The My Lai site is not solely focused on the past, however. Outside the museum sits a large bonsai tree donated by US Army veteran Mike Boehm. The tree hints at the recent work of Boehm and his organization MQI to improve the lives of Vietnamese living near My Lai and to build friendships between Americans and Vietnamese 46 years on.

A Bonsai tree donated by US Army veteran Mike Bohem sits at the entrance of the My Lai massacre museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A Bonsai tree donated by US Army veteran Mike Bohem sits at the entrance of the My Lai massacre museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Later this week, I’ll describe some of MQI’s projects in Quang Ngai, including building water wells, “compassion” houses, a school, and a peace park.

“I can’t think of two countries that have worked harder, done more, and done better to try to bring themselves together and change history and change the future and provide a future for people which is now very, very different.”

– US Secretary of State John Kerry talking about Vietnam and the United States in Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 14, 2013

Kerry on the relationship between Vietnam and the US

Vietnam

Back from Vietnam

Photograph, Vietnam
The South Vietnamese presidential palace as it looks today. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The South Vietnamese presidential palace as it looks today. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

I just returned from a short trip to Vietnam to visit some humanitarian projects run by American veterans and historical sites. Despite the sweltering hot June weather, I was able to see much on my journey from the south to north, including the location of the My Lai massacre and the former DMZ.

Over the next week, I’ll be sharing some photos and details from my trip on this site, starting today with Saigon. But first … A special thanks to all of the veterans who have sent me emails and videos recently detailing their trips back to Vietnam! I promise that I will share your letters and stories here soon. And if you have a story to share, you can always email me at nissarhee [at] gmail dot com. Thanks!

Saigon is where it all began and where it came to an end. On this trip, I visited the “Reunification Palace” — the former South Vietnamese presidential palace. A New York Times architecture critic once called the palace “the sexiest building in Southeast Asia,” and while I was more interested in the historical importance of the palace, he definitely had a point. Apart from the basement bunkers and war rooms, the palace could easily be mistaken for a playboy mansion with its dance hall, movie theater, and gambling room.

The Vietnam War officially came to a close at the palace on April 30, 1975 when a North Vietnamese tank knocked through the gates of the palace and accepted the president’s surrender. It was here that the North’s Colonel Bui Tin famously told the president and his supporters: “You have nothing to fear. Between the Vietnamese there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over.”

North Vietnamese troops and their tank arrive at South Vietnam's presidential palace on April 30, 1975. (Photo from Reunification Palace in Saigon)

North Vietnamese troops and their tank arrive at South Vietnam’s presidential palace on April 30, 1975. (Photo from Reunification Palace in Saigon)

A replica of the tank used to break down the gates of the South Vietnamese presidential palace, standing in front of today's Reunification Palace in Saigon. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A replica of the tank used to break down the gates of the South Vietnamese presidential palace, standing in front of today’s Reunification Palace in Saigon. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Today, the gates to the palace have been repaired, but two tanks remain on the lawns as a reminder of that day’s victory — or loss, depending on your perspective. The palace now serves as a museum and its furniture has been preserved to reflect the atmosphere of wartime Saigon. On the upper floors, visitors can see the opulent meeting rooms used by the South Vietnamese president and vice president, as well as the entertainment rooms.

Movie theater in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Movie theater in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Gambling room in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Gambling room in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An interior hallway at Reunification Palace shows the facade's bamboo design. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An interior hallway at Reunification Palace shows the facade’s bamboo design. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

On the basement levels, however, the palace holds a shooting gallery, bunker, map room, war room, and communications rooms.

President's desk in war room at the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

President’s desk in war room at the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Old radio in radio room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Old radio in the communications room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A US-made Motorola Motrac in the communications room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A US-made Motorola Motrac in the communications room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Shooting gallery in the basement of the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Shooting gallery in the basement of the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The palace is one of the last remaining reminders of the war in the booming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. Saigonites have worked hard to erase the remnants of war here — tall skyscrapers have sprung up and now even a Starbucks sits across the street from the palace.

Starbucks -- which entered the Vietnamese market last year -- has an outlet across the street from the Reunification Palace, the site of South Vietnamese defeat. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Starbucks — which entered the Vietnamese market last year — has an outlet across the street from the Reunification Palace, the site of South Vietnamese defeat. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

I did not see any Vietnamese visitors at the Reunification Palace, and, like the nearby War Remnants Museum, the palace’s exhibits seem to be designed with Western tourists in mind. When I asked a South Vietnamese friend of mine why more locals don’t visit these historic sites, he told me that many South Vietnamese still feel the sting of the 1975 loss. Visiting the palace would be merely rubbing salt in the yet-unhealed wounds of war.

Coming up in my next post … I visit the site of the My Lai massacre and see some of the humanitarian projects led by US Army veteran Mike Boehm in Vietnam’s central Quang Ngai Provence.