Saigon, because it lacks the jumbled-street character of Hanoi: its roads and streets are broader and straighter, isn’t as interesting as the capital city, and doesn’t have its vibrancy. However, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t easier to get around in. It is very like Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, which has its streets made on the grid system.
I strode off towards the light brown-colored cathedral named after Notre Dame. The central area surrounding it is large and the streets are spacious. Water sellers were charging 10,000 Dong for small bottles. It might give passers-by more of an incentive to buy one at 5,000. After taking a picture of two of the church’s interior – it’s not that spectacular, and a stained glass window or two, I paused at the gates of the Reunification Palace. It looks more like an embassy or some other modern administrative building than a palace. Tourists and the public aren’t allowed inside. Apart from a solitary tank stuck in the grounds, there isn’t much to notice, so I headed for the War Remnant’s Museum.
If you want to know more about the Vietnam War and its outcome, then the museum’s the place to visit, not that a visit to Vietnam itself doesn’t tell its own story. I didn’t get there until around 11 a.m. It closes for lunch at 12 p.m., so I would have to return at 1:30 to finish an adequate tour of the building.
Examples of obsolescent fighter jets, tanks and bombs used in the conflict are on display in the courtyard. They’ve not only been put there as historical memorabilia of the weaponry, but also to show a thought: ‘this is the consequence of war,’ and ‘look at what the Vietnamese people have achieved in overcoming aggression by capturing this sophisticated firepower.’ A boast or not, there’s more about an introduction to the War, photographs with text, that decorates the walls of the ground floor as you walk in.
I went into a video room and sat down to watch a documentary about the effects of the chemical Dioxin, otherwise known as ‘Agent Orange,’ used widely during the War and which, to this day, has devastated the lives of many people from village communities. The museum gives over a whole section to the part the chemical played. The rest of the second floor covers what is called the ‘War of Aggression,’ and the third floor, contributions by photojournalists who were killed, and other artifacts.
Despite creeping tediousness – a time-consuming look at all the photos and reading every caption, every picture tells a story, it was interesting learning more about the history of the struggle the Vietnamese experienced, notably French imperialism in the 19th Century, to the end of the Second World War when Vietnam as a socialist republic was founded. It wasn’t until 1954 when a Communist-led nationalist movement known as the ‘Viet Minh’ defeated the French by winning the battle at Dien Bien Phu. A historical convention at Geneva partitioned the country at the 17th Parallel into the Communist north and the so-called ‘democratic’ south. It was in 1975 that the US and the South Vietnamese Army were defeated and the Communist forces that unified the whole country captured Saigon, thus finally ending years of struggle over the rim of Indochina.
The War lasted for about 8 years, although was extended for a further three. Up to four million Vietnamese perished and fifty-eight thousand American soldiers died. Pictures hanging on the museum walls, representing what some of them did, are harrowing.
The whole hemisphere, including Laos and Cambodia, was used to drop as much tonnage of bombs. Presidents Johnson and Nixon ordered four times the amount of TNT to be dropped that was expended during World war Two. Raids on Hanoi, the north and the rest of the theatre boosted the U.S. arms trade, and photos of the B-52 Bombers look mightily impressive. Nixon extended the bombing by trying to bully the North Vietnamese into a peace submission. However, it didn’t have the effect of softening the resolve of the guerilla movement known as the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army. It did just the opposite, and Nixon got world condemnation. When a country has had years and years of struggle against foreign domination and oppression, war becomes a mere appendage in the hardening of resistance.
I was glad to extricate myself from the tedium and the feeling I was getting in everyone else’s way that had just as much right to be in the museum as I had. I took pictures of the plethora of artillery, and later, I bought a photocopied book from a store in the backpacker area called ‘Vietnam – A History’ by Stanley Karnow. It does a prodigious job at chronicling the causes and events of the War. Back in Hanoi, I bought a three disk DVD series entitled, ‘Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War.’
I grew up hearing about it being the ‘big’ event that it was during the 60s and 70s, supposedly against the spread of Communism and about young men dodging the ‘Draft’ risking imprisonment, although little else. However, the ulterior reasons for war: territorial expansion, resources, a need for aggression, to manufacture new arms, no matter who is caught in the crossfire, are denied by those responsible. The current NATO campaign over Libya is a case in point. There’s no such thing as a smart bomb, although those in the histrionic organization like to utilize and show off its latest laser technology, but if any rebel or civilian the campaign is supposed to be waged on behalf of gets killed, then too bad.
What now, though, for Vietnam forty years on? It still feels the effects of the conflict: a struggling economy, rural poverty, a need by local people to sell, sell and sell again, a devalued currency and a marginalized state.
Despite the socialist propaganda on notices, monuments that portray it and slogans bandied about the country, not to mention the emblematic hammer and sickle and lone star on red flags, how truly can Vietnam stick to that ideology today. It is now ironic, that the Communism the country so desperately fought for has ended due to the absence of the Cold War that is replaced by a growing market-driven global economy. If it stuck to its Communism, it wouldn’t be an open state pandering, amongst other things, to western tourism and hard capital. Nevertheless, if the Vietnamese are sponging off visitors, then who can really blame them. After all, the West colonized their country in the 19th century, bombed the s**t out of it and leaves it marginalized today. Money, money, and money again, however grubbily, talks.
I went back to my room and had a shower: feet still sizzling from the sunburn. I ordered a bite to eat. A Chinese guy, visiting from Shanghai, kindly treated me to a Tiger beer.
“Seven RMB here, thirty at home. Vietnam is like China twenty years ago. I like Ho Chi Minh City. Stay for five days.”
He had difficulty finding a cheap room.
I took him to my guesthouse and asked the owner if she had any spare rooms. The ash from protruding incense sticks brushed my trousers.
“He needs a room,” turning towards the Chinese guy.
“Sorry. All full here. I do have one in another place for fifteen Dollars.’
“Okay,” the guy returned.
A female backpacker turned up.
“Are you looking for a room?” she asked.
“No, I have one. He is,” turning again to the Chinese.
“Why is everywhere booked?” she looked nonplussed.
“Can’t say,” although it was late in the evening and the Tet Festival was getting into full swing.
I strolled around the shops ending up buying a few classic DVDs: “Braveheart’ and the 1992 French Film, ‘Indochine’ starring Catherine Deneuve which largely deals with the French occupation of Vietnam.
It was time to batten down the hatches. Local workers emerged clashing symbols and were dressed in red silk costumes wearing facemasks, stopping at each store doorway prancing, dancing, and shaking around in a gigantic Chinese dragon.
Get ready, it’s Chinese New Year, or is it Tet they’re supposed to be celebrating?