What’s to be said about Ho Chi Minh City that’s not been said before? Described in romantic sentences filled with superlatives in any guide book you care to look at, the city is everything that’s said about it, and more. The Viet Cong toppled Saigon so that Ho Chi Ming City could rise from its ashes. And rise it certainly does.
It’s youthful, energetic, neat and proud. It’s a motor bike/scooter city – buzz bike heaven. Whole families move around on motorized two wheel bikes. Cars are occasional, as are busses and trucks. The city streets flow in rivers of metal, rubber and people. Yet crossing the street is no more dangerous or stressful than walking through a mall on a busy Saturday morning.
Any street you care to walk hosts shops of every description. Restaurants, clothing, travel agencies, electronics, massages and spas … they’re all here. The shops are staffed by young people; their smiling, open faces greet and invite. They’re delicate, tiny, almost fragile looking yet if the history of this city and the country of Vietnam is anything to go by there’s an underlying strength, pride and independence that is belied by the shy, smiling faces.
Here and there, middle-aged women sell exotic fruit and delightfully coloured rice dishes from portable roadside stalls. Purple rice, orange rice … mixed with nuts and other ingredients my uneducated palette can’t decipher.
And like any city in the world, regardless of its commercial status or surrounding poverty the nicest, most swankiest buildings are those owned by the banks.
The War Remnants Museum is a short walk from the hotel. Through the entrance the first sight is of a Chinook, imposing in size yet dusty and time-ravaged it lurks, hulkily inspecting the visitors that stream through the entrance doors. Across from the Chinook, a Huey and an F-52 – now rendered impotent they’re props for tourists posing for snapshots. I pose for a photo too – with the Huey – and immediately feel stupid for doing so. Further along, there are tanks and mortars and river boats and Howitzers with frighteningly large barrels. Welcome to the War Remnants Museum …
Inside, three floors are devoted to photographs and memorabilia that graphically portray the Vietnam saga from the Vietnamese point of view. Sure it’s propagandised, but why the hell shouldn’t it be? Two and a half hours pass as we trawl through the images and narratives that line the wall of each of the floors. History plays out in front of our eyes as we walk wide-eyed and open-mouthed through the themed rooms. The room dedicated to Agent Orange is emotive. Images of deformities and sickness are reminders of the indiscriminate use of chemicals as war tactic. Elsewhere, another room celebrates the bravery and commitment of photographers who chronicled the war from both sides. Iconic images of GI’s, heart-wrenching images of Vietnamese brutalized by war … my girlfriend bursts into tears.
Another themed room celebrates the stoic life-as-normal commitment to education that continued throughout the war. Children were taught first aid, how to build bomb shelters and wore straw-knitted hats and carried straw-knitted shields to hide behind when bombing took place. Propaganda?
It’s overwhelming, an emotional river rapid-run that bounces and dips and crashes and engulfs. But the story that captivates me, shocks me even, is of the Japanese man who self-immolated in front of the Japanese parliament to protest the war. Why this particular story? Why him when three other Americans and a Buddhist monk also self-immolated in protest? What could have possessed this man so deeply that he chose to end his life in such a dramatic fashion over a war that neither affected his daily life nor impacted his country? How strongly do you have to believe in something and how emotionally connected to what you may perceive to be unjust do you have to be to consciously set yourself alight to protest something so far out of your control? Or is it some other deep psychosis as suggested by the learned folk of the workings of the brain?
The walk through Tao Dan Park clears the mood and emotional baggage picked up at the museum. Here, young lovers sit together on park benches while an old man practices Tai Chi. Further along others play badminton and a football version with a specially adapted shuttlecock. The tall, wide-trunked trees deaden the sounds of the city with their branches full of leaves and there’s an oasis of peaceful calm that soothes and nurtures.
Sometime later on, when the sun has set and the city transforms with its bright lights and vibrant street markets we take our dinner. We choose a restaurant frequented by locals and ponder the menu. The waitress helps us decide. Glassy rice noodles mixed with coriander, aniseed, parsley and grated cucumber and topped with crispy fried pork belly with a bowl of fish sauce on the side. The meal is a delight. Two beers and two full meals later the bill arrives – VND 167 200 … about R69.00
To end the day, we walk the local market and take in the sounds, sights, smells and tastes of the trading and stock up on exotic looking fruit for later on.