Never let it be said that when there's a will, mountains cannot move. One of the main reasons for this jaunt to D.C. was to see an exhibit on Viet Nam, and that's about all the information we had. As we walked around the Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian, we asked several staff people about this exhibit, and all we managed to get were blank stares.
It was getting quite cold and overcast, and parking was atrocious; we headed for the main building, called the Smithsonian Castle, which should be the starting point of any visit to this incredible compendium of displays. Yes, we got our answer, and we were thrilled! Except, it entailed some more walking to something called the "Ripley" . At first sight, it’s hard to tell if you are going into a museum or a fancy newspaper kiosk in Paris. Where the hell is the building? Go inside, and you’ll see the elevator going down. Yes, it’s all underground, and it even has halls which connect to the Sackler Gallery and the Museum of African Art .
As we arrived, it was not obvious that anything was going on, Viet Nam-wise or otherwise. As we began to walk, a gigantic road sign greeted us on the left with the words "Little Saigon". Please bear in mind that we had been to Viet Nam twice, and we both had a tremendous appreciation of the culture. Seeing this exhibit felt like closing an open-ended loop. Everything we saw was familiar, and yet we learned even more than we thought we could.
The lay out: both sides of the corridor contain a history of the South Viet Namese plight after 1975. Maps designate various camps, which provided temporary housing; sound bytes written by those that escaped, revealing their hopes, fears, despair. Off the wall displays included their national dish, pho, that we know and love so much. A typical refugee shelter is recreated with notes. Menus of area restaurants stand proud; testimonial videos are heard.
Toward the end of the exhibit are the life size images of famous Viet Namese Americans; the only one I recognized was Joy Chen, since I used to watch her on CNN. Below, I’ve copied the writing on the walls for you:
"We came to America not for material gain, but for freedom"
"We can never go back to our happy homes of the past…We can only go forward to build a new beginning."
"Our boat was made of bamboo and with 30 others, we sailed out to sea. Some of us died of thirst, some of starvation. "
"Throughout the green tent city, the sound of weeping was my refugee camp lullaby. "
"Of all my titles, I am most proud of being Vietnamese American. "