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Published: November 4th 2017
Homage to Thich Quang Duc
June 1963 a Buddhist Monk sets himself on fire.
In the late sixties I was living in Canada and knew several US citizens who had come to live in Canada to escape the draft. In the west we all knew this as the Vietnam War but i find here in Vietnam it is known as the American war. It may be a cliche to say that no one wins in a war and I am sure that holds true for all those on all sides who suffered terribly. My understanding is limited and the situation was obviously extremely complex but recently there has been an excellent 10 episode BBC documentary about the war with much original footage so if you get a chance to view this please do. It seems that at time of the Cold War when the US was trying to stem the tide of communism in Asia , Ho Chi Min, with backing from China and USSR, was trying to reunify the country and there was a very corrupt government in South Vietnam this was a ripe situation for a bloody confrontation. I couldn't say how many tonnes of bombs were dropped not only in Vietnam but also in Cambodia and Laos, tonnes of chemical agents for
deforestation as well as napalm and agent orange which today is still affecting births a couple of generations down the line. I believe the death toll was about 3 million Vietnamese ( 2 million of them civilians) and 58,000 US personnel.
So there we were in Ho Chi Min City ( formerly Saigon) and our first encounter with the War was right around the corner from our hotel ...the spot where the first Buddhist monk set himself on fire in protest about the South Vietnamese government's persecution of Buddhists.
On our itinerary was a walk about in the city to the Old Covered Market, and a few other landmarks like the old Post Office and the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral all remnants of the French colonial rule of Indo-China from the mid 1800s. We passed several very nice green parks where students and school children seemed to be doing their PE lessons! It was great to escape the noise and bustle of the street( with the millions of motor scooters) and walk among trees and even to find some beautiful sculptures. There was lots of pressure to buy in the market but a polite smile and no thank
Vietnam is now a very big global coffee producer
you was the order of the day.
An early morning start and a drive out to see the Cu Chi tunnels was next ...initially there were about 50KM of tunnels with armed resistance to the French occupation but as the war between North and South escalated the Viet Cong developed the system of tunnels and there were about 250KM and tunnels at 3 levels ..these included workshops to make armaments, clothing and the famous Ho Chi Min sandals made from old tires and also kitchens to supply all the food for the fighters. They certainly were very ingenious... holes in termite mounds above ground provided air ventilation and smoke from the kitchen fires was channeled away to escape in the jungle foliage as early morning mist. Some of the more ingenious horrible things we saw were the traps which were set for US soldiers who ventured into the tunnels or on the jungle trails.... positively medieval contraptions. We know that there were many atrocities on both sides and it made me shudder to think how many young men and women were killed horribly. If you are brave enough you can go down a tunnel and see what its like
... well we weren't being shot at or having bombs dropped in us so it was quite safe apart from being claustrophobic... so the 4 Brits in our group ventured down a tunnel and I suppose it was about 1 metre high, so we didn't have to crawl but it was quite frightening as you went down the first level and turned a corner in the dark and was very hot too... put my phone torch on at that point and it was a relief to clamber out at the other end. We then adjourned to receive some Viet Cong hospitality , some tea and cassava which was a staple diet available when you were stuck our in the jungle. The surprising thing for us also was that we didn't see any mossies even thought we had sprayed ourselves with Jungle Formula as a precaution. So then back to the city and the Reunification Palace as it is so named now ... built after the French gave up their colonial designs in the 60s it was then the Liberation Palace. A very modernist building with some amazing architecture and furnishings as befits the ruling class of course!!! They always manage
to get themselves a very nice place to live ...even when the politics is saying "equality" . Helicopters landing on the roof and tanks smashing through gates and the fall of Saigon signaled the end of this horrible war.
I will finish this rather historical and political blog with a move to the North of the country to Hanoi where we visited the Ho Chi Min complex with his mausoleum guarded by soldiers in their white uniforms and big yellow lines painted on the road which you must not cross. Nice wide empty boulevards around the area ... i suppose that is handy for the tanks to roll in if there are any protests or am i being a bit cynical? Then there was the grounds of a big house which we weren't allowed near but we walked in the garden past a lake and saw simple houses where uncle Ho ( as he liked to be called ) lived and saw his cars ... were we being followed by one of the soldiers in uniform? well we thought so even though he was discreet. It was a peaceful place with the rain softly falling until we saw the
giant rat inside a bucket and then Jenny, armed with her umbrella, gave us her version of Gene Kelly Singing in the Rain...boy I wish i had had my camera out then !
Our experiences in the past 2 weeks had left me and Jenny with an appreciation of our rights to free speech ... we can basically say what we like , criticise and satirise our governments and we are not looking over our shoulders . It didn't feel to us that people here have those same rights.
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