Yes – I’ll call it Saigon. Because though my guidebook, my boarding pass, the internet, maps – all recognize it as Ho Chi Minh City (its official name since the end of the Vietnam War and Vietnamese Civil War) – none of the southern Vietnamese people I interacted with called it anything but Saigon. There’s a solidarity – a quiet resistance – that’s still alive and palpable in southern Vietnam.
So though I spent a meager 18 hour layover in Saigon (with the exception of sleep and an unfortunate incident in which I allowed myself to get ripped off on a cab ride from the airport) it was important to visit War Museum.
With limited time in the city and the clock ticking, I woke early, and walked the 2km to the War Museum. On my walk I learned three important things:
1) There’s still a noticeable French influence here – you wake to the smell of baguettes, you pass Catholic churches named Notre Dame Cathedral, and the sidewalks are wide enough to accommodate the French-style “cafe avec terrasse” – the sidewalk cafes.
Notre Dame Cathedral, in the heart of Saigon’s government quarter.
2) Vietnam is into fitness. Vietnam isn’t a country you think of in terms of its fitness prowess – and yet, wake early to find crowds of people, old and young (but primarily, older and female) participating in Tai Chi, aerobics, and general fitness routines in every green corner of the city. Outdoor exercise parks exist everywhere – jungle gyms, bars, and benches, with small stickers of stick figure sequences explaining how to use the machines. I wondered what New York – what Paris or London – would look like with these jungle gyms. What keeps our elderly from getting out there and participating in casual, but daily fitness?
Some interesting fitness routines.
And, importantly: 3) How to cross the street in Vietnam. It’s a skill learned only by experience, by overcoming the fear of getting caught in unstoppable swarm of buzzing bikes, of taking slow steps, some calculated, others spontaneous, and watching uproad as the swarm parts to leave you unscathed. I’ve lived in New York, where jaywalking is the norm – and in Barcelona, where cars and motos alike have a general disregard for speed limits and crossing signs – but nothing could have prepared me for the 4 million motos in Saigon. Overcoming your first street-cross is fear-inspiring and exhilarating all the same.
4 on a bike plus baby not uncommon.
The War Museum affected me deeply. Having grown up mostly in the States, I personally, I think American school curricula include too many years of US History in lieu of world history (and US History is relatively short in the grand scheme of things). Still, though I spent 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 11th, and 12th grades studying US History – I know nearly nothing of the Vietnam War. It always ended up being a rushed week at the end of the schoolyear, packaged with Watergate and the Cold War into a quiz in May or June before the summer. More people could probably tell you about the Battle of Antietam than the Tet Offensive. The war, though, is recent history for Americans – my first boyfriend’s father served during Vietnam, and still many people today have been affected by the Vietnam War. And especially because it influences current foreign policy, and current foreign perception of the US – it’s important to understand this war.
Outside of the museum, there was a collection of massive US military vehicles – tanks and choppers. There was a section that recounted the torture methods employed on Phu Quoc island (a former prison used to retain Viet Cong war criminals). Among groups of Vietnamese school children at the museum for a field trip, I couldn’t hold back the tears streaking down my face as I saw the tiny barbed wire tiger cages that held 2-3 Vietnamese people each. In these cages they couldn’t even sit up, let alone move around. It’s hard to even recount some of the torture tactics used during the war – by both sides. It was important for me to understand that this is told from the Vietnamese perspective, and so I took some of it with a grain of salt. That said, in the absence of very much real formal schooling on the topic, it was also a chance for me to learn about some of the sensitive topics the US may be too embarrassed to put in textbooks.
Take agent orange. Call me naive, but I didn’t know the full extent of agent orange. That a country in which I have the privilege of worrying about first-world problems like LGBT marriage rights – just 40 years ago sanctioned the release of tons of toxins over half of Vietnam – killing vegetation, contaminating drinking water, and creating at least a generation of genetic physical and developmental problems among Americans, Vietnamese, and Lao people alike.
On the other hand, I’d heard from shows, and film, about American atrocities against Vietnamese women and children in rural Vietnam during the war. The museum’s photo gallery told a fuller story – one of atrocities on both sides. Of guerilla groups employing women and children to ambush American troops. And American troops who had to suspect each and every approaching local for fear of their lives.
I’d known there was a lot of opposition to the war as soon as the draft was implemented. That there were protests, and draft card burnings, on the home front. What I hadn’t known was how much global commentary and opposition there was to the war as well. Seeing scores of photos chronicling the opposition was humbling.
It’s difficult to complete my thoughts and summarize my impressions – the war is incredibly complex and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve decided to add 1-2 Vietnam war books to my reading list for 2015 to get smart on it. Regardless, my impression and opinion of the war through the eyes of the museum is hardly a political one (though I have strong and real political opinions about this). But here, in this post, I’m simply looking at war as a human. A human who has a tough time seeing what horrors all sides commit to other humans in wartime.
Grateful for the photographers who captured a human side of the war, from which I had the opportunity to open my eyes, mind, and thoughts. I stand thankful and humbled.