Good morning, Vietnam!
What a contrast to China! Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is crazy noisy, chaotic, independent, and full of life. It is dirtier, shabbier, and less wealthy that the three cities I visited in China. And in my first day here, I definitely liked it better than China. Maybe because it reminds me a bit of New York, my benchmark city.
After a budget flight on VietJet Air (tiny seats, no food, and advertising on the overhead luggage rack covers) I arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airport, which, during the Vietnam War was one of the busiest military airbases in the world. Both the American military and the South Vietnamese military used the airport for its operations across the war zone. Unlike China, there is nothing flashy about Tan Son Nhut. As soon as I landed I had to get in line for my land visa to get into the country. That’s when I discovered how many Americans were visiting. In my travels in Southeast Asia so far—Singapore, Hong Kong, and China—I have rarely seen an American. But there were lots getting those land visas with me, and many of them looked like college students. Could this be a ‘cool’ place for them to visit on spring break? Walking around the city the next day, I saw them everywhere—along with a lot of Germans and French tourists.
But walking around the city---now that is a challenge. There are thousands and thousands of motorbikes and scooters, and when you attempt to cross the street anywhere, you can be sure that you will be dodging them as they come at you from every direction. Your first attempt can be daunting, and you may be frightened to even attempt to cross (like me!). But I have followed others into the fray, figuring that they will know how not to get killed, and somehow, miraculously, no one hits anyone and I am safely on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. For some, just taking a walk around the block can be grounds for a heart attack!
I discovered that my hotel is very close to two important sites that were relevant to Vietnam’s recent history: the presidential palace (now called Reunification Palace), and the War Remnants Museum. The palace was the home to South Vietnam’s leaders until the fall of the South on April 30, 1975. It was effectively South Vietnam’s White House. After crashing through the wrought-iron gates – in a dramatic scene recorded by photojournalists and shown around the world – a soldier ran into the building and up the stairs to unfurl a Viet Cong flag from the balcony. In an ornate reception chamber, General Minh, who had become head of the South Vietnamese state only 43 hours before, waited with his improvised cabinet. According to the story I read, Minh said to the Viet Cong officer who entered the room ‘I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you’. ‘There is no question of your transferring power’, replied the officer. ‘You cannot give up what you do not have.’ The building is fascinating. You can roam around freely on every floor, viewing diplomat receiving rooms, offices of the President and Vice President, and the private living quarters of the President and his family. Imagine being able to tour every room of the White House, including the President’s bathroom and the war room bunker deep below ground, where he and his cabinet conducted the war in conjunction with the Americans.
The American helicopters, planes, tanks and huge guns that were on the exterior plaza outside the War Remnants Museum were a dramatic advertisement for everything that was within the museum. It was so strange to see these captured and abandoned properties of the United States military, and of course the plaques beside them which explained how they were used to bomb, blast and torch so many sites in the country. There was a recreation of the famous “Tiger Cages” of Con Dao prison, which were used to detain and punish prisoners from the North or the Viet Cong. It was tough to look at the photographs of the people who were tortured there with waterboarding and other techniques, and even more frightening was the French guillotine that had been used to execute hundreds of victims. Inside the museum were extremely descriptive details and photographs of the brutality of the war between the Vietnamese and the French, and then later between the United States and North Vietnam (they call it the “American War”). The museum, of course, only provides the victorious North Vietnamese version of the wars, and in some ways it is very propagandistic. They never mention, for instance, how brutal their army was to soldiers from the South or the Americans. Most of the captured American airmen like John McCain were housed, tortured and interrogated at the Hanoi Hilton .
But notwithstanding the fact that the museum was one-sided in its depiction of the war, it was nonetheless disturbing to see what barbaric things nations do to win a war. To be honest, I found myself getting emotional as I looked at the photographs of mothers and their children who were severely burned or incinerated by the napalm bombs dropped on them, or at the victims of Agent Orange, a chemical that was used to defoliate the landscape to find the hidden Viet Cong locations. At one point I was just overwhelmed by it all and my eyes began to tear up, so I left the building to get some air. The last time I had an experience like that was at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
I left the museum and ventured out to the rest of the city. I visited an endless market full of hundreds of little stands; several Buddhist temples and shrines; and walked alongside the Saigon River. And in all my travels I found the Vietnamese to be extremely friendly and welcoming. One author I read, Barbara Crossete, who wrote the Great Hill Stations of Asia, said that the Vietnamese are "warm, inquisitive, generous people who want to draw an outsider into whatever activity is at hand." That has been my experience thus far. It is hard to believe that were such tough fighters during the Vietnam War.
This nation has endured foreign invasion for over a thousand years—by the Chinese, the French, and for a relatively short time (10 years) by the Americans. I am rooting for them that in the coming years they will finally live in peace with their global neighbors and with their own brothers and sisters.