Still Called Saigon

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Flag of Vietnam  , Hồ Chí Minh,
Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ho Chi Minh City was almost a letdown given the warnings- we were expecting Hanoi on steroids and not in a good way. The population of Saigon is nearing 8 million and there are apparently close to 4 million motorbikes and scooters (and none of the 8 million is able to operate any of the 4 million within any commonly accepted rules of the road) and this should result in a chaos far greater than that of Hanoi... but it doesn't. One of the more positive reminders of the French occupation of Indochina are the wide boulevards and sidewalks- unlike Hanoi, there was often times a small pathway to be found in and around the parked scooters and sidewalk restaurants so you weren't forced to walk on the busy roadways- don't be fooled- these scooter maniacs would see these same sidewalk pathways so you would have to be ever-vigilant (it got so bad that we checking both ways as we walked the hallways of our hotels)- even the lounging groups of policemen you would see occasionally weren't safe from a sidewalk-blow-by and a horn honk (we weren't really sure what the police were supposed to be doing but their well-practiced work avoidance was obviously bringing back waves of memories for DH).

Other than traffic dodge-ball, there is surprisingly little to see and do within Saigon proper. We did the mandatory tour of the War Relics Museum- there is a very definite and shamelessly biased perspective offered up here (to the victor go the spoils of war??) and at times the language is almost childlike in it's efforts to paint a clear good guy (Viet Cong & North Vietnamese Army) and a clear bad guy (America & France). There can be no doubt that atrocities were committed on both sides and it is very unlikely that, in this era of mass communication, that such a war could ever be waged again. The numbers are staggering- over 80,000 U.S. troops and close to 3 million Vietnamese were killed over the course of this 16 year long war. The museum has a complete section documenting the effects of the Agent Orange defoliation chemical which continues to result in horrific birth deformities 4 generations later. There was also a section dedicated to the work of a number of photographers many of whom were killed during the war. It was disturbing, but necessary, to read your way through the exhibits and you do come away wondering if the whole thing was completely pointless, orchestrated on both sides by men well removed from the field of battle.

In the same neighbourhood is an equally poignant reminder of the war, the Reunification Palace- for years, the seat of the Government of South Vietnam, this was the site of the famous pictures of Russian & Chinese made tanks smashing there way through the outer gates as Saigon fell to the communists in 1975. Although it does see some use these days, it has been left largely untouched and transports you back it time to the art deco designs of the 60's (like bell bottoms and platform shoes, you hope this furniture never comes back in style although DH is still hoping that the glory days of puffy hair makes a comeback). Even the war rooms with paper maps on the wall and presidential offices equipped with the old rotary phones seem so archaic in this digital age. Numerous references are made to the sense of abandonment and betrayal felt in the south as they were left to fight on their own for two years after the Americans pulled out- the official renditions reference the brutality of the South Vietnamese Gov't and make hero's out of people like the defecting SV pilot who dropped his payload on the palace when the end was clearly in sight for SV. Looking at the palace as a moment frozen in time, while insightful, still doesn't help unravel any reasons that might justify the great sacrifices made during the puzzle of the Vietnam War.

We did wander other parts of the city checking out the high points including the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the famous market (after Bac Ha, even the bigger markets like this one seem amateurish)- we even sought out the riverfront but were met by a water flow that seemed to serve as an open sewer (obviously the tall foreheads of HCMC haven't tuned into the idea of riverfront as parkland and city sanctuary). Saigon exists for the hustle and bustle of commerce and the top thing to do in HCMC is to leave, so after a couple of days of wandering we prepared to comply.
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