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Published: February 28th 2012
CROSSING THE BORDER FROM CAMBODIA into Vietnam was relatively painless. We took a two story deluxe air conditioned bus (pure luxury compared to the Burmese and Nepali buses we took) to the capitol of Phnom Penh, where we spent one night, and then continued on another 12 hours to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in a sleeper bus. At first sight Vietnam did not look much different from Cambodia. I stared out the bus window looking for differences in the landscape but they didn’t really appear until we reached Saigon. Once in the city the differences began to take shape. Here the streets were wide and clean, the buildings were new and modern and the air smelled like flowers. As we got off the bus a crowd of young 20 somethings crossed the street in front of us; the women wore short, skin tight dresses with extremely high heels and the boys had spiky, well styled hair. It had a very up and coming vibe to it. In fact, we didn’t get the sense that people were poor here at all – there were no beggars asking for money, no one sleeping on the sidewalks. You would never have known it
was a Communist country if it weren’t for the large red signs with the hammer and sickle plastered all over the buildings.
Our guesthouse was located in a narrow back alleyway which was crammed full of small hotels and restaurants. As we walked through the alley with our large packs strapped to our backs the smell of savory soups (pho) and grilled meat filled the air. On every corner travellers and young Vietnamese people held golden, sweating beers in their hands. Families were settling down for the night on the floor of their restaurants or guesthouses which they owned. They pulled out blankets and pillows, laid them on the floor and laid down in a row next to their loved ones. Rather than appearing poor, however, this scene exuded an aura of comfort and warmth. It was in these first few moments of this crowded alleyway that my infatuation with this country began.
Upon waking up in the morning we discovered that we had arrived in Vietnam just as the largest holiday of the year, the lunar new year (“Tet”) was starting. Tet marks the beginning of Spring and is celebrated throughout all of Vietnam. While it was
exciting that we would get to experience this huge celebration, it also meant that the cost of transportation was literally double, and that traveling within the country would be more challenging since many Vietnamese people go to visit their families during this period. We didn’t realize quite how big a deal this was until later on in our trip. After purchasing some double price bus tickets (yay) we set out to explore Saigon. Saigon is small enough that you can see the main sights on foot which was nice because our legs were stiff from all of the long bus rides. The one caveat to walking, however, is that you have to cross streets. Crossing the street in Saigon is equally exhilarating and horrifying. Not only does traffic not stop for you, it doesn’t even pause. Getting across safely, therefore, requires some skill. Rather than running across at top speed, you have to cross very, very slowly giving the drivers plenty of time to see you and swerve around you as they pass. Travis was remarkably better at this than me, probably due to his many hours of playing Frogger in the past.
One of the benefits of Tet
was that there were multiple festivals and special events occurring throughout the country while we were there. Saigon was no exception. Almost right away we stumbled upon a large, leafy green park that was having a huge bonsai exhibition in celebration of the coming Spring. We spent the better part of the afternoon admiring the beauty of the tiny, twisted trees. After strolling through sea of never ending trees, we walked around town pausing briefly at an open air market, a few boutiques, the Reunification Palace, and then ending at the War Remnants Museum. Outside on the lawn several U.S. fighter planes and tanks were parked, sitting quietly in disuse, as if they were being punished for their actions. The museum was two stories high with separate wings displaying propaganda posters, images from the global anti-war movement, and a plethora of gruesome images from the American offensive and the effects of Agent Orange. I was immediately struck by how one sided the information was. The message was clear, the United States is the devil. It goes without saying that the atrocities the U.S. committed during the war were disgusting, disturbing, despicable. Yet, so were the war crimes committed by the
Vietnamese. I just didn’t expect a national museum to be so blatantly one sided. At one point I looked around to see if anyone could tell that we were from the U.S., half from embarrassment and half from fear. We didn’t get any rude stares, so I think we were in the clear. I looked up the museum later to read more about it and found out that the previous name of the museum was “The House For Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism.” Yikes. Not the most comforting place for an American to spend the afternoon.
The following day we were back on a bus, headed to the city of Nha Trang on the South Central coast.
To see more pics from Saigon check out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejarvisproject
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