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Aug 05

History lessons in Saigon

If you ask any Vietnamese person from outside of Ho Chi Minh City what they think of it, they will inevitably mention three things: “lots of people”, “busy”, and most often of all, “noisy”. After spending a tiring few days in the stifling Old Quarter streets of Hanoi, the fact that even the residents of Hanoi – Vietnam’s second largest city – were complaining that HCMC was too crowded and noisy caused me some concern. This, combined with numerous stories of drive-by bag snatchers, pickpocketing beggars and other security concerns, did not give me a very good impression of the city before we arrived.

Three days in, and these impressions happily proved to be untrue. HCMC has a population of around 7 to 8 million, about double that of Hanoi. Luckily, the city is significantly more spacious, with the streets being a great deal wider than in Hanoi. There is far less noise than you would expect from the thousands of motorbikes, cyclos, bikes, cars and buses that rumble past every minute, horning included. Sure, it’s chaotic and crossing the road is always somewhat hazardous, but it’s not all that bad.

HCMC used to be called Saigon in the old days, and many Vietnamese, both from the North and South, still call it that. The renaming of the city is one product of Vietnam’s incredibly tumultuous history, a history which I was, regretfully, almost entirely ignorant of up until a day or two ago. (The extent of my knowledge up until then was that the Americans had waged a war there which they may or may not have lost. That and memories of Full Metal Jacket and various other Hollywood films.) Although I came across bits and pieces of information about Vietnam’s past before HCMC, it was only here that I had my first real history lesson. The interesting thing is that being the first time I heard about the Vietnam war in full (known here as “the war in Vietnam” or “the American war”), I heard it from a Vietnamese perspective.

We went on a half-day tour to the Củ Chi tunnels (where Viet Cong used to hide out near Saigon) and had the fortune of getting a fantastic tour guide. Mr Binh was a war veteran with a Filipino father and Vietnamese mother who had served in the US Navy as a 2nd Lieutenant, apparently under John Kerry. He had lived for several years in New York and California before returning permanently during the war in Vietnam. He had been shot two times during it, and he was justifiably embittered by the whole experience. The great thing about him was that he pulled no punches in talking about things. This pissed off more than a few tourists on the bus, but I liked the guy almost immediately.

After welcoming us to Vietnam, he immediately began a patriotic spiel about how great his country was, boasting about its 8% GDP growth and it being one of the largest agricultural exporters in the world (second in rice, third in coffee). He proclaimed Vietnamese cuisine as excellent and denounced American cuisine as terrible. While this may not seem out of the ordinary for a developing Asian country, it is quite significant when you consider that Vietnam has been embroiled in some sort of conflict for the greater part of the 20th century. “Because of all of you,” Mr Binh paused, eyeing everyone on the bus, “Vietnam has suffered aggression up until about 25 years ago.” An Israeli lawyer up the front of the bus puffed up his chest and vigourously shook his head. “Not all of us! Not me!”

Mr Binh ignored him and ploughed on, talking about all sorts of topic at random, including the branding of all caucasians as Big Assed Tourists (“Do you know why you don’t ride motorbikes? Because you have big asses! But don’t worry, we say in Vietnamese so you don’t know.”) Although he initially refused to talk about the war because it was upsetting for him, enough interest had been generated to persuade him otherwise. What followed was a colourful and engrossing thirty minute talk, on the bus, about how Vietnam had been effectively screwed over by one country after another: French colonialism, Japanese invasion during WW2, the splitting of the country into North and South Vietnam which led to American involvement in the Vietnam war, incursions by the Khmer Rouge and a small attack by the Chinese. In a nutshell, the Vietnam war arose when communist North Vietnam (called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) attempted to reunify with South Vietnam (called the Republic of Vietnam) which was under the control of a nepotistic government, which was really a puppet government controlled by America. Because of the fear of Communism and the Domino Effect theory floating about at the time, America saw fit to get involved and stop the Pinkos from claiming another country. America failed, and after losing tens of thousands of troops and generating significant international dissent, withdrew its forces. Today Vietnam is one of five socialist countries left in the world.

As the day progressed, Mr Binh softened a little and acknowledged that Americans weren’t that bad. He had befriended many Americans in his time in the navy and the general sentiment was that most of them were only there because they had no real choice. During the day we got to crawl through some 100 metres of a tunnel dug 8 metres into the clay ground, and some tourists coughed up cash (US$1.20 per bullet) to fire M-16s, AK-47s and a whole other array of rifles, machines guns and shotguns at the shooting range.

Visiting the War Remnants museum in HCMC was a chilling and intense experience. It used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes (or something similar) before it was decided this was not good for tourism. However, the latter title is probably more accurate. The museum exhibits the nitty-gritty of the war, and the reality is incredibly gritty. The museum is well maintained, and is split into several sections which surround a main courtyard filled with American jets, tanks, artillery and ordnance. One section is a tribute to wartime photographers, who risked life and limb to capture the truth (most of them were killed at some point on the battlefield). Another section shows the effects of the American use of dioxins (such as the infamous Agent Orange, used to defoliate large areas of Vietnam’s land), napalm, nail bombs and other nasties on the civilian population: rows and rows of photos of deformed children and disfigured victims line the wall. Another section is dedicated to imprisonment and torture. I found the pictures of torture victims and exhibits of torture methods overwhelmingly disturbing, a graphic reinforcement in my mind that there can be no justification for allowing the legal use of torture. One Viet Cong soldier was beaten and tortured for several days, before being moved – ironically to a hospital – for further torture. Four amputations, presumably without anaesthetic, were carried out on him over several weeks. Ultimately, he did not reveal any information, quite probably because he did not have any to begin with. The final section remembers the anti-war protests and efforts which occurred around the world in opposition to American involvement.

Also worth a visit is the Reunification Palace – the old seat of South Vietnam’s government, which was then called the Independence Palace and was preserved after the unconditional surrender by South Vietnam’s government to the North. (Take the free guided tour.)

Given that Vietnam has only enjoyed peace for a little over two decades, it becomes clear how much the Vietnamese are now enjoying life. The environment that the Americans devastated is now largely regrown, and Vietnamese farmers are among the wealthier people in the country. The majority of the population is now composed of youth, who have had the benefit of growing up in peacetime.

We passed by a park near central HCMC. During the evening, it is filled with people, young and old, playing badmington, chinese chess, riding skateboards, and kicking around shuttlecocks in a game similar to hackeysack. It’s not quite hackeysack (the rubber base is slightly spring loaded), but the players were the most skilful I have ever seen. Groups of two or four would kick around a shuttlecock – both feet, many times they would kick the shuttlecock as it fell behind them, without looking. As we sat down to watch, a young Vietnamese man (also called Binh) came over to talk to us. He thought we wanted to buy a shuttlecock, but in the end we just had a conversation. He explained that the players we were watching were practising for competitions. They all wore a special leather shoe, with a sole made from car tyre rubber (incidentally, the Viet Cong used to wear sandals made from tyre rubber as well). It turned out he was a recently graduated mechanical engineer taking a short break before looking for a job. He hoped to be able to get some overseas work. In socialist Vietnam, salaries are still largely moderated – teachers, doctors, lawyers, tour guides and social workers alike, all earn from US$100-500 a month. A friend of his in the IT industry got to travel to Finland for some work, but was paid at Vietnamese rates. His friend would finish work, then get a job as a waiter in the evening (which quadrupled his earnings), before returning to Vietnam six months later. Nonetheless, despite the constant flow of tourists splashing around huge amounts of Dong, Binh was quite happy with life.

“Yes, I like it here. I hope to be able to save enough to travel to Cambodia soon.” And that, not so surprisingly, seems to be the attitude of most Vietnamese these days.