My Lai (Son My)
A massacre site in South Central Vietnam
– here, in a former rural village area happened what is often considered to have been the worst of the war crimes committed by the USA
during the Vietnam War
Figures for the death toll vary, the official Vietnamese figure is 504, and the latest American figure stands at 347. Confusion also arises out of the fact that there was more than one location, My Lai being only one of them, in the larger village area known as Son My.
The motives of the US soldiers are not entirely clear either. Some sources say they were angered by recent losses of their men through booby traps and mines, inadequate leadership is sometimes adduced as an "explanation", sheer bloodlust as another, and it's argued that it was an incident that somehow just "escalated out of control".
An even more disturbing picture emerges from interviews that independent filmmaker Joseph Strick conducted with six of the soldiers who had been at My Lai (an Academy award winning documentary from 1970). While they mostly tried to play the incident down in the actual interviews, one of them revealed the real mindset when the camera was off: unaware that unlike the camera the sound recording was still running, he added after the interview a callous comment to the effect that being at My Lai "he could just as well get some extra target practice in" (heard at the end of the film while the credits run). It's been commented often enough that many US soldiers came to not regard the Vietnamese as humans. This is just a particularly crass example.
The My Lai incident wouldn't even have been known in the West at all, had it not been for US veteran Ron Ridenhour pushing it into the open. It was well over a year after the event that the story started being circulated to a wider public and eventually created widespread outrage. By then the anti-war movement in the USA
and elsewhere had gained momentum, and "news" of the My Lai massacre only fuelled it further.
One (only one!) of the perpetrators, Lt. William Calley, who claimed to have only followed orders (as usual), was tried and sentenced for murder, but released after just a short period in prison. The others got away with it (also as usual).
There were, on the other hand, also a few American "good guys", most notably Hugh Thompson. He was a helicopter pilot who intervened at My Lai, stopped some US soldiers from murdering more women and children and even flew some of the Vietnamese to safety. It took 30 years for this good deed amidst the atrocity to be recognized officially, but now he's receiving the extra honour of a Hollywood film by Oliver Stone being made about his story (title "Pinkville", which was the US code name for Son My at the time).
However, the media and the official remembrance of My Lai, despite all the public outrage, typically fail to mention that the massacre was not really an exceptional bloodbath where US soldiers had somehow spun out of control. There had in fact been scores of similar massacres elsewhere, but these were not picked up by the mass media – which is why many people still think My Lai was a one-off, a slip, a regrettable error … but unfortunately it was not that singular at all. "Search and destroy" missions were quite common, villages were systematically burned down, and more incidents of torture, mutilation and massacre occurred. None of these, even if brought to light for the general public at all, received anywhere near the attention My Lai did.
This is partly also attributable to the Vietnamese themselves not pursuing such issues. Esp. not now that relations with the USA
have improved so dramatically and the country has become Vietnam's major trade partner. So both sides seem to be content these days with leaving commemoration only at My Lai.
For the dark tourist, this means that it's the only actual site of a recognized war crime that can be visited in Vietnam
(but see also the War Remnants Museum
in Ho Chi Minh City).
What there is to see: The memorial site at My Lai consists of a rather socialist-realist-style concrete sculpture, depicting a woman holding up a fist while holding a baby, with other dead family members at her feet. This fist gesture is supposed to symbolize defiance but feels a bit out of keeping with the horrors that really took place here.
The museum on the site displays graphic photos taken of the massacre (by a US war photographer!) as well as some artefacts such as T-shirts, sandals or cooking utensils ... with bullet holes in them.
Outside, reconstructions of (foundations of) burned down huts with plaques of names and ages of those killed try to capture the atrocity and there's also the ditch at which villagers were assembled to be first humiliated and then mowed down. Whether the ditch at the memorial is in fact the authentic one or not, is hardly relevant.
The paths are made of brown concrete with footprints "petrified" in them – both GI boots and Vietnamese naked feet – deliberately amassed to give an abstract impression of the chaos on that tragic day …
about 6 miles (9 km) east of Quang Ngai near the coast in South Central Vietnam
, roughly 130 miles (200 km) south of Hue or 70-80 miles (100-125 km) from Da Nang/Hoi An.
Access and costs: a bit remote and off the principal tourist tracks, but doable; cheap.
Details: To get to the site, if not on an organized tour, the best way is going to the town of Quang Ngai and getting a taxi or moto for the ca. 9 mile (15 km) ride to My Lai. As a longer excursion from the nearest more touristy hubs, Da Nang or Hoi An, you could also have a day return package arranged or simply get a taxi/moto (prices vary widely).
Opening times appear to vary (going by the various information available); to be on the safe side go either in the morning between 8 and 11:30 a.m. or in the afternoon between 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. (museums typically close for a while at lunchtime in Vietnam).
Admission: a minimal fee is charged: latest figures I found said 10,000 Dong, that's only about 0.5 USD.
Time required: at the site about one hour (depending partly on how much time for quiet contemplation you may want to invest).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Combinations with non-dark destinations: