So far in Saigon…

… I have been to a lot of museums and done a bit of random encountering and wandering around. Three days ago the bus pulled in from Da Lat. The trip took nine hours when I thought it would take five – time to get new books! They may not be free, but they are easy to get cheap. Believe it or not there are book vendors plying the streets, going into the tourist bars well into the night hawking their pirated literary wares. 50,000VD ($2.50) later, The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi was added to my collection. I have some more travel coming up in the next couple days, so getting something else may be wise.

But for now, I am continuing to dig Vietnam. When I got off the bus in Saigon, a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City, it was later in the afternoon. The bus dropped everyone off on De Tham Street, which is in the heart of the tourist section. Excellent! Even better was the fact that the hostel I found (but didn’t book) online in advance was on the same street. Another solo young lady on the bus heard good things and was going to the same place, which is always a good sign.

So here I am at the Backpacking Club Hostel, address 269/19 De Tham, District 1, HCM City. Finding it was a bit of a trick. 269 indicates its location on the street, which happens to be an unnamed alleyway, while 19 is the building number in the alley. Thank goodness there was a sign!

I got checked in, dropped off the bags, and set out for a wander. Saigon is a bustling city, vibrating with mopeds/motorcycles and endless in its capitalist nature. Everyone’s got something to sell, just like in any other area full of tourists. It is convenient, as in the case of the book ladies, and one gets used to it in time. So I walk past, smiling, and seek quieter spaces.

There are plenty of parks here. Not quite on par with Singapore, but the green spaces are nice. The first night, I ended up in a park next to the Notre Dame Cathedral (remember the French colonized practically this whole region – the Vietnamese fought a war for independence from France in the 1950s before they fought a war against the U.S.) and sat for a spell, watching local people doing the same thing. Young people sat in groups, snacking and talking and texting and laughing just like anywhere else in the world. One girl was celebrating her birthday, complete with cake and candles. No song for her, but there were people singing. Some peers with ponytails had a guitar and a drum box and were taking turns jamming out, singing local pop music. Security guards off duty sat on a bench. lost in their phones. People carrying wicker baskets tried to sell the nibblicious contents therein to park patrons. An old man and woman went through the trash bins, digging for bottles, cans, and paper to recycle. The lady was kind enough to relieve me of an empty 1.5L water bottle. Men play Chinese checkers. Women sell beverages. In other parks I passed, young and old practice their dance moves in groups under pavilions. Elders do slow, deliberate stretches. Children run around, generally in good temper (Vietnamese children aren’t as bratty as kids from the West). Couple sit close together, smiling and occasionally exchanging playful touches.

Later on, I ended up at the central night market. There they sell sweets, shirts, bags, hats, and all the other goodies that the central market sells by day. Beyond that, a few blocks away, I discovered that the frozen yogurt bar craze has reached Vietnam. Yogurt Space, right across the street from a suspiciously familiar-looking Startup Coffee, was bursting with local teens and twenties out for a night with their friends. At first I went in just out of curiosity, to see what flavors and toppings were available in Vietnam. Going into an ice cream shop just to look? Yeah, right. The durian yogurt was what sold me. For some reason I am not a fan of the fruit itself (though the smell is no longer so repugnant — now I actually find it to be rather pleasant) I love it in ice cream form. Durian, avocado, and a little pomegranate to round out the flavors. That with some coconut shavings and roasted cashews… life is good.

~~~

Since then, I have been to a number of museums:

– The Independence Palace which has a cinema, gambling room, dining room for ladies, helicopter pad, and dance floor on the top story à la James Bond. In the basement there are bomb shelters and tunnels. There is apparently a rumor that the tunnels go all over the city, which the tour guide assured us is not true. There are, however, many tunnels in Vietnam. I go to the popular Cu Chi tunnels tomorrow. The basement was also the communication headquarters during the American War, and there are still machines from the 1960s filling the rooms. I thought a) how much did American taxpayers pay to put these here? and b) how hot it must have been down there, with a bunch of other bodies and all the machines running and no central air conditioning and everyone smoking. I can’t even imagine.

– Ho Chi Minh City Museum, the highlight of which was the currency collection of Vietnam through the years. First coins with holes (so that they could be strung on a string to be transported), later French paper currency, then some currency that was used during the decades of war, and finally the Ho Chi Minh banknotes that are in circulation today.

– Ho Chi Minh Museum. There is one of these in pretty much every major city. I kind of wish I had made it to the one in Hanoi (which is actually the capitol of Vietnam. I didn’t learn this until I got here. Someone needs to do their homework next time!) by his mausoleum,  but this one was nice enough. What a man! He traveled all over the world and meant so much to the Vietnamese people.

– Fine Arts Museum. Pretty nice and gave a bit of insight into Vietnamese culture. The highlight for me here were the hand-drawn propaganda posters from the American War. They would be more poignant if I knew what they were saying, but the point gets across all the same.

– Women’s Museum. Not really any new information here that hasn’t already been covered by the Women’s Museum and History Museum in Hanoi, but it was free and they gave me a free book of postcards depicting country life on the way out.

– War Remnants Museum. This was, by far, the most intense museum I have ever been to. I cried a bit at Hanoi’s Hoa Lo Prison museum (where John McCain was interned during his pilot days), but this was on a much larger scale. For three and a half hours, I walked and read and cried. I was amazed to see protest pictures from every continent and many countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe people were protesting the war. Even the people perpetuating the war were protesting the war. Shouldn’t a world of outrage (literally) indicate that perhaps the actions being taken should be reconsidered? The documented ongoing horrors of Agent Orange were nauseating. Now I understand why there are an unusually large number of deformed people here. On the way to the museum I passed by a man walking down the street on his hands, his stick legs folded into his shirt, with his whole being coming no higher than my knees. What happened here was horrible, and the echoes will be heard for generations to come. The war correspondent/photo journalism collection also left me stunned. It was hard to look at every picture, to read every caption, but I got through it. At the end I was numb. So much horror, all captured on film with the photographer’s comments. It seemed endless, but one in particular sticks in my mind. It was a picture of three generations of family: a mother clutching her children with the grandmother behind. The caption was something along the lines of “I saw this family being herded up by soldiers and asked them to wait a minute while I took a picture. When I turned around, I heard gunfire. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see the bodies falling, but I didn’t turn to look.” And there were so many others…

Of course there is a bit of a political slant given the geographic context of the museum, but it wasn’t anything outrageous like some other small museums here. After all, they aren’t making this up. The war happened, and there is overwhelming evidence for the horrors that were perpetuated. It was so well documented and has me wondering what we may learn about the current wars we are in a few decades from now. Just one burning question: what can I do to help make “never again” a reality?

~~~

Whew. Some heavy stuff here. On the brighter (and more pro-world peace) side of things, I am back into couchsurfing! I went to a meet-up in Hoi An and at the Independence Palace I met a guy who was staying with a local via https://www.couchsurfing.org/ this weekend. He had a preliminary meeting with his host on Thursday night, so I tagged along and got back to check things out through my own account. What a genius idea! Wish I had used it more (or at all) during this trip, but it’s not over yet! Cambodia has some couchsurfing action, and I have met other travelers who had wonderful experiences with local hosts in India. ‘Tis a thought and is back on the radar for sure.

Okay, it is Saturday night in Saigon. Time for spring rolls and a fresh fruit smoothie. I found a stall in an alley that must be a local institution. People flock here and I have waited thirty minutes for a smoothie. But with fresh fruit chunks thrown on top, it’s worth it!

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