I have no pictures of Quang Ngai. Booked into the room, arranged my few possessions, and dropped the camera again. It came on briefly, then died, a useless lump of expensive glass and impact-resistant plastic.
Let me be frank: you do not go to Quang Ngai for the sake of the town itself. It’s a fairly typical, straight up-and-down town, slightly grimy at the edges and without much in the way of sights. There are no Cham towers, no shimmering beaches, no mountain bike scenery. Hotels are cheap and honest, but resorts? Look elsewhere. No, you go to Quang Ngai for one reason alone, and that is Son My, because Son My contains the small hamlet of My Lai.
I’m not going to go into the history of the massacre, because it is so well known. I chose to go to to My Lai for the impact it had had on me as a teenager still learning about the world. Even now, when researching the history of Vietnam, that single small event in the overall scheme of things still makes me angry, and upsets me. I lost a lot of faith in human nature learning how supposedly civilised men would follow an order to massacre and entire village of unarmed civilians, and do so without questions or regret. There were two semi-heroes, the soldier who shot himself so he couldn’t take part, and the helicopter pilot and crew who tried to save at least some amongst the carnage. I cannot understand how humans could unquestioningly do such things, let alone live with it afterwards.
I also cannot understand how someone could be party to the cover up, nor how the planners and perpetrators got away scot free. Of course, once it became known, the impact did much to speed the end of the war, and lost the US Army support for a long time, just as the US government lost any remaining support it had internationally for the war which they already knew they couldn’t win and were searching for a way out.
Son My is some way out of town, and is a village consisting of smaller hamlets. The authorities decided not to rebuild My Lai, so all that is left are the foundations of the houses that were destroyed, the memorial and the museum. It is well-tended, and, when I was there, empty. The photos in the museum are both striking and harrowing. The image that sticks in my mind is of the US soldier assisting a bewildered old man leave his house. A few minutes later, he was shot.
I left Quang Ngai with mixed feelings the next day. The more I thought about it – and what else can you do on a nondescript train journey – the more it seemed, for me, anyway, a worthwhile deviation.There was also the nagging feeling that I’d missed out on seeing much of an interesting area, so much so I’ll go back next trip. Of My Lai I did not want to think. It remains a cruel blot on the history of the human race.