Ho Chi Minh City

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September 8th 2013
Published: September 12th 2013
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I can say with confidence that one of the first things anyone will notice when venturing out in a metropolitan area of Vietnam is the roads and, more specifically, the traffic on them - by far the most prominent feature. Having dealt with the traffic firsthand in Hanoi, and, to a lesser extent, in other cities, both as pedestrians and as motorists, Klaudia and I became adept at crossing the street by the time we’d reached Ho Chi Minh City. We also learned to notice any newcomers. Almost as a rule, people will begin their Vietnam tour either in Hanoi and head south, or in HCMC and head north, and we could tell who was heading north: stopped at a curb, the newcomers stared at the oncoming swarm of beeping motorbikes - atop which sit not only people, but also some of the most amazing products possible, like living produce and other animals, stacked to unbelievable heights – with uncertainty and a hint of panic in their eyes, awestruck by the idea of crossing this particular street without a traffic light. At one point, a couple standing next to us, looking out at the expanse of the chaos, exclaimed, “How the f--- are we supposed to cross this street?!” Well, through experience, we learned that the way to cross is to make the sign of the cross, regardless your religious or non-religious views, and simply make a leap of faith out into the street…just step off the curb. Then, begin walking steadily – the speed at which you walk is not as important as the fact that your gait be a steady and determined one, with the goal being your feet on the other curb on the other side of the street. At times you may need to slow, or speed up, so keeping your eye on the events unveiling before you is of absolute significance, but, in the middle of this hectic swarm, the motorbikes and cars whirring by will somehow swerve left and right out of your way, out of the way of anyone else crossing and even other vehicles. It can be an exhilarating phenomenon. Again, the main rule is: don’t ever stop. Although the traffic is daunting, I have come to view Asian driving as some of the best: it’s a race course out on those streets, and the drivers are professionals with an uncanny sense of distance and adroitness behind the wheel.

And so, on the last leg of our Asian tour, we began to feel somewhat at home in HCMC, never of course completely assimilated, but able to move about with ease and confidence. There were no new tricks, no new lines, our behavior and that of others understood - perhaps at a superficial level, but understood nonetheless, even anticipated. We were going through the motions of travel as well: it had become an existential truth as routinely executed as a nine-to-five, but so much more interesting. In truth, we were going about our motions so as not to think about the inevitable.

HCMC is an interesting place. The capital of the former South Vietnam, the city most vividly epitomizes the aphorism, “History is written by the victors”. Not only did the Communist regime rename the city in dedication to its greatest hero, it took great lengths to instill its propaganda at all levels of the city. As we visited the sites, many of which concerned the portion of history we call the Vietnam War, but which the Vietnamese call the “American War”, I felt at times, from a historical perspective, shame and incredulity, sentiments most felt at the “War Remnants Museum”, once called the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes” until friendly diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam were established.

It is an indubitable truth that the stance of the museum is from a Northern Vietnamese one – and no doubt much of the propaganda needs to be taken “with a grain of salt”, especially when talking about the Southern “puppet regime’ and the “evil Americans” - but one fact is just that: the US military used Agent Orange and endeavored, in the words of Curtis LeMay, to “bomb them back to the stone age”. (LeMay repudiated ever making that statement, claiming to have instead used the modal “could”. I am not quite sure how much of a difference that makes).

The exhibit on the current effects of Agent Orange is difficult to swallow. It portrays pictures and stories of individuals suffering from debilitating physical and mental deformities in areas where Agent Orange was used extensively. Forty years later, 3rd generation children are still being born blind, deaf, and bed-ridden, with physical deformities that must cause untold misery. Children suffer dementia and distorted reality, in areas of the country that are poor with no real healthcare provided.

Agent Orange, used in the US military’s chemical warfare program called “Operation Ranch Hand” from ’61-’71 to destroy the environment under which the enemy could hide, is a herbicide and defoliant mixture and received its name from the orange containers in which it was shipped to Asia. The US military sprayed nearly 20 million gallons of the chemical in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, while the Vietnam Red Cross estimates that nearly a million Vietnamese have been affected. I was aware that Dow Chemical was involved in its production, but was not surprised to learn that Monsanto was as well. Of course they were, and that is probably a main reason behind the American government’s insistence that the Vietnam Red Cross’s estimates are inflated.

On the first floor of the museum, as we were leaving, individuals affected with physical deformities caused by Agent Orange were selling museum souvenirs and several were playing music. We saw the effects directly. To me, it is an insufficient response to simply feel empathy.

The prior day we visited the Reunification Palace, once known as the Independence Palace and the home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. In 1975, a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through the palace gates, signifying the end of the war. Visitors walk through the palace, visiting various rooms like the president’s office, the banquet hall, war rooms, and so on. It is a usual palace visit except for the front, where stands the tank that ended the war.

We booked a tour to visit the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Cao Dai is a monotheistic religion incorporating the beliefs of Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and some others of which I’m not certain, established in Southern Vietnam in 1926. The temple in Tay Ninh, not far from HCMC, was built in 1956 and was, from what I understand, the very first Cao Dai Temple, of which there are now several. Like the religion, the temple blends many geographical motifs, while the inside contains statues of Buddha, Brahman, and Jesus standing side-by-side. The interior is ornately pastel-colored, as were the worshippers we observed from the balcony during their ceremony. Per our usual, we committed a cultural faux pas once outside again by stepping in front of the temple during the ceremony, which is not allowed. We were yelled at and, in Vietnamese fashion, ordered to return the way we came. Ah, religion… What would I do without it? How about cross the street in peace?

Our tour bus then drove us to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, an expansive tunnel system used by the Viet Cong during the war. The tunnels in Cu Chi are part of a larger tunnel network that extends throughout the country which was used as hiding spots, supply routes, and living quarters, among other things. These tunnels provided the Viet Cong with an immense tactical advantage. Entrances to the tunnels were often rigged with traps such as bamboo spikes, which the museum demonstrates through various exhibits. One section of the museum allows visitors to crawl through a cramp 500-meter tunnel.

Most of our remaining time in HCMC was spent taking walks around the city’s various districts and doing some souvenir shopping. Klaudia had been entreating me to attend a cooking class for the previous six months, so we finally took part in one, learning to cook morning glory, fried spring rolls, chicken with lemon grass, a Vietnamese pancake, and a vegetable soup. We also learned to make plate decorations like flowers and swans from vegetables. It all tasted pretty good, but I left room for Pho for the later evening.

Our final day in Asia, I drank some Saigon beer while Klaudia completed some last-minute shopping. Later, I got myself cleaned up at a barber shop, receiving the royal treatment: included in my haircut and shave was a facial, an ear cleaning, a head massage, and then a back rub with a hand-worn massage machine. I had a manicure and pedicure too.

It began to rain as we exited the salon; we quickly ran across the street for our final bowl of Pho. Then, beard shaven, I returned to our hotel, where I wasn’t recognized while picking up our bags. And, just like that, we got in a taxi and headed to the airport.

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