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Published: September 30th 2012
Ben as art
HCMC Fine Arts Museum
Our first impressions of Vietnam were not favourable. We’d taken a by now customary six hour bus journey, this time from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We arrived in mid-afternoon, in the pouring rain. When it pours in the tropics, it really does pour, like a million buckets of rain being emptied at once.
Unfortunately, the Cambodian bus drivers could not tell us where precisely we were, and we could barely see through the sheets of rain. So we placed our faith in handily placed taxi. Alarmingly his meter accelerated even quicker than his car, and the fare quickly increased as he took us around winding streets to a hotel we’d seen in our guidebook.
The sympathetic hotel manager, ever alert to tourist scams, came out to berate the driver and negotiated a discount, which was all the more difficult as we didn’t know where we’d started the journey. Later, we discovered it was less than five minutes walk away! Many travellers had told us stories about being ripped off in Vietnam, and we’d fallen victim immediately.
Thankfully, things improved from there, and the friendly locals we met in the park that evening were far
Outside the Fine Arts Museum.
more interested in practising their English with us than robbing us. Vietnamese is a tonal language, with the meaning of words changing entirely depending upon how they are pronounced. There’s much potential for comedy and unintentional insults. Asking for directions to a museum could be misconstrued as comparing someone’s mother to donkey. We generally stuck to the safety of the basic greetings. Perhaps it’s this lifetime of speaking a tonal language that means the Vietnamese tend to mangle English, their pronunciation rendering even simple words unintelligible. This would not be so remarkable were not it for one young local insisting that the Vietnamese speak English better than anyone else in South East Asia. We beg to differ, but we can’t fault them for trying.
Vietnam is still a single party state, albeit an increasingly prosperous one. Saigon appears a decade further along the road to modernisation than Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. But whereas Cambodia faces its tumultuous past head on, through museums and courts, Vietnam seems to prefer the cloak of propaganda. The War Remnants museum tells the story of the Vietnam war from a military and personal perspective, including the My Lai Massacre and the ongoing tragedy
The congregation sits among ornate pillars at Cao Dai temple.
Those in the middle sit in hierarchical order, the most senior the furthest forward. Only through years of devotion can they advance.
of chemical warfare in Agent Orange (coming to an Olympic Games sponsorship near you!). However, it’s largely presented as a US invasion of Vietnam, with little or no mention of the South Vietnamese forces fighting the Viet Cong insurgency. It’s a great museum, but not much of a history lesson.
The Cu Chi tunnels, over an hour’s drive away, largely missed the opportunity to provide an historical record of the Viet Cong’s creation and use of an immense network of tunnels in favour of more propaganda, including a grainy video that looks like it was created a century ago. Video interviews with the protagonists would have been more interesting. There were, though, opportunities to crawl through a slightly enlarged tunnel (we did) and fire an AK47 or M15 (we didn’t). This is a corner of the world that has already heard too much gunfire.
Shortly after visiting the colourful Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh, Ben read ‘The Quiet American’, by Graham Green, which features a visit to this headquarters of this strange religion that worships God and Buddha, and to a lesser extent, Tolstoy and Victor Hugo, among others. The strangeness of this church-like temple almost does
Da Lat's Crazy House
The view from one of its balconies
justice to this peculiar religion.
Back in Saigon, the motorcycled masses pulse like a single living entity and swarm like bees, engines buzzing, ranks swelling and squeezing through gaps, filling every conceivable space in the road. Arguably the best way to cross is to check there are no large vehicles coming, step out and proceed at a steady pace, with eyes closed. The heaving masses of motorbikes will gently swerve around you. If you see what’s happening, you may think too much about it, stutter or stop, which could be fatal.
We escaped the traffic and heat of Saigon by heading first to the rain and rough seas of beach resort Mui Ne and then inland and 1500 metres above sea level to Da Lat, a popular spot for holidaying and honeymooning Vietnamese. It was established by the French little over one hundred years ago. Their most enduring legacy seems to be the proliferation of bakeries, which provided a tasty alternative to more delicious indigenous fare.
Da Lat is home to a few quirky tourist attractions, including the ‘Crazy House’, a Gaudi-esque guesthouse, where twisting staircases appear to grow in and around a living building. Each room
Vietnamese food is great! It's varied too.
is unique and feels like a carved out inside of a tree. The architect is a local woman who studied in Russia, and presumably had some mind-altering experiences while there. We spent a fun hour or so there and spent a couple of days enjoying the relative cool weather, ticking off some of Da Lat's other novelties - the summer presidential palace and the ornamental flower garden. We climbed the steep slopes of the local mountain, only to discover that the top was shrouded in cloud. The cool weather has its drawbacks, but as we left Da Lat, we knew we'd miss it soon.
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