Tuesday, March 14, upon disembarking near Saigon we were greeted by our driver and our guide, who drove us into town.
This time our guide was not so sweet. He was quite professional, but after a while and some conversation you could see the influence of wild capitalism and Chinese imperialism, in subtlety aggressive attitudes and misogynistic comments.
On the way he told us about the history of the country, the French occupation, and the War (they call it the American War, Americans and Europeans call it the Vietnam War, and officially it is the Second Indochina War). You can tell Vietnam has moved almost as quickly (if not as powerfully) as China away from a real communist country into a “single-party officially-communist but capitalist-market” country. Economic activity is everywhere.
Visually speaking, there are some French buildings, from their 100-year terrible occupation, like Notre Dame Cathedral (for which every single element, from bricks to windows, was brought in from France), some high-rise buildings, and some old buildings. But there are two things that stick out and make Saigon unique: scooters (there are 7 million scooters in Vietnam, a country with 10 million inhabitants), and Áo Dài, the gorgeously flattering and practical traditional garment many women still wear today.
The first stop in our tour was the Reunification Palace:
It was the former presidential palace, and it served as a historical context to understand the Vietnam conflict better.
In a nutshell, the South of Vietnam was ruled and controlled by a corrupt president supported by the French, who by the way was Catholic and repressed Buddhism… in a country where a large majority of people are Buddhist! In the meantime, in the North of Vietnam peasants gave their support to left-leaning Ho Chi Minh. Since it was the middle of the cold war, Russia and China took an interest in helping the North, which radicalized towards communism, while the French asked the USA to support them in “defending” the South. At first (First Indochina War) the USA provided weapons and money for the French to fight. But the French were defeated and humiliated. The USA decided to send its own troop and eventually formally declare war with the catastrophic consequences we all know: 58,000 US soldiers and millions of Vietnamese dead.
The Northern troops won, and took over Saigon a day after the Americans retreated. The puppet president in the South, having survived a bomb dropped into the presidential palace, fled to a nearby church, and after having negotiated safe passage out of the country, the CIA arranged (or “allowed”) its murder on the way out of the church.
All that we learned in the Reunification Palace, as we walked through its bunkers and hidden corridors.
The next stop was the War Remnants Museum:
It’s one of those destinations you go not because you want to, but because you HAVE to. We should all learn what horror is, so we don’t let charlatans and demagogues, egomaniacs and psychopaths, lead us into hell again. And again.
The museum is quite humble, without fancy electronic displays or museistic fanfare. But the exhibitions are very well documented and put together, in a balanced and not partisan way.
It has a very “human” touch, from the families of Vietnamese farmers, to the clueless American kids sent to an almost certain death, drafted mostly from racial minorities (definitely overrepresented in the first line of fire), you can see the people that participated, suffered, and inflicted suffering, in that horrible war. What you don’t see much is the powers in the shadow, the offices thousands of miles away where the life or death of thousands of people were being decided over a coffee or a headline.
From the war photographers’ (from both sides) exhibitions, to the effects of Agent Orange (and other chemical weapons used by the USA) on both American soldiers and the Vietnamese, and its current long lasting effect on the environment, to the worldwide outcry against the war, to the acts of defiance some American soldiers carried out in order to save Vietnamese lives, to the reproduction of the torture chambers the North used on its own people… it all makes your heart shrink and your head spin. It’s very hard to go through it without shedding tears. I had to hide mine, choking a couple of times. Humanity at its best and worst. It makes you want to run, to escape this murderous and imperialistic “civilization” we are so proud of. But of course, soon you realize there are other ways to fight injustice. Starting with yourself.
To soften the tone a bit, we then visited a lacquer workshop. And then an amazing old Chinese Taoist temple:
After the temple we walked though a couple of dimly lit markets (Tan Dinh Fabric market and Central market):
And had a cocktail at the Sunset at EON 51, a bar on the 51st floor of a high-rise building, the one with the protruding helipad, which had great views of the whole city… even considering the smog:
Back on the ship, we attended a Traditional Vietnamese music and dance show, before going to sleep, docked.