Postcard from Vietnam – Part 1: Ho Chi Minh City
Time for a momentary break from politics, not that I can resist writing about the idiots on both sides of the Atlantic for too long.
This is the first part of a travel journal covering a three-week trip to Vietnam. Normally I would have posted updates as we went along. But not knowing the extent of the authorities’ tolerance of blogging, I decided to save these words until I returned home. The photos are mine, which explains why some of them are not exactly stunning.
For my kids’ generation, Vietnam is just another stop-off on the Asian trail – Cambodia, Thailand, Bali, Borneo. The war that ended in 1975 is history to them, just as Hitler’s war is to me. The Vietnam they visit is a place to party, to do extreme sports, to eat weird stuff, love the scenery and take selfies. Country sampling, basically. Visit, taste and leave.
Not for us. “Going to Vietnam” had an entirely different meaning forty-five years ago. Saigon, Da Nang, Hue and Hanoi were names that dominated the nightly TV news. I remember the Tet Offensive, the My Lai massacre, General Westmoreland and the frantic flight from Saigon as the North Vietnamese tanks approached the American Embassy almost as if they were yesterday.
Now the quagmire – bombed, mined, napalmed and saturated with Agent Orange – is a tourist destination. To misquote Paul Simon, how would we be received in Graceland? I am of the same generation as the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who went there to fight. To a casual observer, I could be one of them.
From everything we’d heard, the answer was that we would be received with kindness. Just as in 1985, forty years after World War 2, as a British visitor you would have received a warm welcome in the rebuilt cities of Germany. So it worked out in modern Vietnam.
We planned to visit the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, but that was intended to be the extent of our war tourism. I would far rather see the Vietnam that preceded the war – the bits that weren’t blown to smithereens. The country’s Buddhist temples, its Chinese influences and its French colonial heritage. We were not looking for a beach holiday.
After a food-fuelled twenty-four hours early in January during which my shape progressed from emperor penguin to giant sloth and finally grizzly bear, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City.
I’ve developed an instinct for looking at a crowd at arrivals and working out the delay. Visa collection on arrival in any location tends to be lengthy process involving several steps, each involving the passing of money. Not backhanders, just payment for this and that. So many dollars for the photo, so many for the visa itself, and before departure so many for the pre-authorisation letter from the Vietnamese Embassy. People crowded around various windows waiting for their names to be called.
In some countries, this exercise is characterised by arrogant officials herding you from one place to another using the verbal equivalent of cattle prods – either that, or leaving you to figure out where to go. No so in Vietnam. The officials were polite and helpful within the limitations of their command of English.
This is a two-hour scenario, I thought, and I was right. On a scale of one to ten, with Saudi immigration at Jeddah International Airport at ten, this was about four. Bearable, even if a bit frustrating.
Traffic, jellyfish and wandering Wallanders
Finally, out into the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Or should I call it Saigon? Who would I offend by using the city’s old name? Not too many, it seems. Saigon is written everywhere. I wonder at what stage the city will formally revert to its pre-liberation name? Cities named after communist leaders tend to revert after time, as happened with as Leningrad and Stalingrad. So, for the purpose of this post, we’ll use Saigon.
The Majestic Hotel, our base in Saigon, is a colonial-era palace overlooking the Saigon River. It’s full of art deco windows and wood veneer. It has uniformed flunkeys and great service. It’s a bit incongruous being guided to one’s room by a bellboy who would have looked the same before unification, when outside wherever you look there are posters of enthusiastic soldiers of the republic, and red flags bearing the hammer and sickle. Vietnam is a communist state, but as in China, the trappings of the old-style communism haven’t got in the way of doing what’s necessary to attract the tourist dollar.
Now for the traffic. In Saigon, just as in many other cities in the region, the scooter is king. Yes there are plenty of cars and trucks, but the scooter is the people’s transport. Our room had a balcony that looks down on one the major arteries. It was some sight. The scooters navigate their way through oncoming traffic with balletic precision. Pedestrians walk out into the traffic with suicidal calm. The scooters and cars just weave around them.
At night, the rumble of traffic becomes a low roar. It seems that the heavy trucks are allowed to hit the street at a certain time in the evening, but are confined to the outside lanes, thus allowing other vehicles to make their way unclogged. The trucks are like an armoured column, crawling along as scooters race past them like metallic gadflies.
In the evening, we met up with Chuong, who used to work with my company in Kuala Lumpur. He took us to a restaurant that specialises in cuisine from Na Trang, a coastal town about two hours north of Saigon. The first dish was jellyfish. For my wife, this was an experience too far. Translucent strips that looked like worms. I ate some. She didn’t. It was fine, but I doubt if it would be wildly popular among the good people of Surrey.
I was curious to see if the famous deep-fried scorpions showed up next, but no such luck. I’ll try just about anything once, but some things only once. The chicken feet in Hong Kong, for example – chewy and tasteless, but very popular throughout the region. I’m sure there are parts of Asia where you can get battered cockroach or fermented snake entrails, but they might be a mouthful too far even for me. Perhaps my taste buds aren’t properly oriented towards the refined end of Asian cuisine.
Everything else, including the Saigon beer, was more than palatable. A deep-sea fish with an unpronounceable name, chicken noodle soup and various other bits of protein wrapped around fresh produce including mango stalks, green banana and bamboo shoots. One thing’s for sure – Donald Trump would not like Vietnamese cuisine. Far too much green stuff and not so much flesh. Which is probably why Trump looks like Trump, and why there’s hardly a wobbly local to be seen.
Back at the Majestic, Scandinavians everywhere! At breakfast, every second guest looked like Wallander. Apart, that is, from the two charming Japanese ladies who sat next to us. They had come from Tokyo for a two-night stay, much as we Brits would go to Paris. Saigon is only two hours away, so ideal for a city-break.
War Remnants Museum
Our first trip was to the War Remnants Museum. There were plenty of remnants on view – tanks, aircraft, artillery and bombs in the grounds of the museum; smaller weapons inside. But the human evidence was more compelling.
We was expecting the museum to tell the victor’s story, and we were not disappointed.
No matter. Extensive documentary evidence showed the cruelty of the Americans and the French before them. There was little on show that I hadn’t seen before, except the reconstructions of the prisons in which opponents of the French and the South Vietnamese regimes were kept, tortured and in some cases executed. Those who took part in the war on the losing side would probably argue that atrocities were carried out by all parties. But here, unsurprisingly, only one side’s misdeeds were on view.
Gallery after gallery showed photographs of the destruction of the landscape and of the human cost on both sides. There was a whole section dedicated to the numerous journalists who lost their lives, many of whom were American.
I suppose that as someone who has witnessed several wars from afar, each with its own unique set of horrors, I’ve become somewhat desensitised. The exhibition left me saddened but not shocked. I’m ashamed to say that the strongest emotion I felt was amazement. When I was looking at the weapons of war deployed by the American military, the staggering number of troops deployed and the weight of ordnance detonated, one thought kept coming back. How on earth did the Americans and the South Vietnamese lose?
The obvious answer is that the Vietnamese were fighting on their own soil. But you also have to take into account that Vietnam is almost as large as modern Germany. Much of the terrain was inhospitable to the warfare for which the American forces were prepared. And this was a country whose population at the time was 50 million. America and its local ally were not defeated by a tiny nation.
The other extraordinary aspect of the war was its aftermath. The scars, both human and environmental, are still there if you look for them. Yet modern Saigon is a metropolis of 10 million people. The entire population has risen to 90 million over forty years. The war did not destroy Vietnam, and it doesn’t seem to have created generations of battle-scarred psychotics. The ability of societies to reconstruct and rise again in little more than a generation – as in Germany, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam – is extraordinary. Which I suppose is a message of hope in a dark time for Syria and Iraq.
We decided not to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong created an entire fighting infrastructure over 75 kilometres of tunnels. I would have been too fat to fit into them without having to be taken out again in small pieces. And I had no desire to fire off a few rounds with an AK-47.
So we headed for the gentler pastures of the History Museum. Vietnam has more to tell than thirty years of war.
The experience was enlightening if not wow. It started off well, with an exhibition of costumes from the imperial era. Which era was not entirely clear. But for sure, the uniform of the court lieutenant of the guards (second class) was far superior to anything you would see in Buckingham Palace. And the Emperor’s costume, artfully displayed just beneath a golden statue of Ho Chi Minh, was magnificent.
Moving on, we were guided through rooms full of Neolithic and bronze age artefacts (very similar to European versions) through various eras in which the heroic Vietnamese people struggled to overcome their Chinese feudal masters. The ideological focus of the narrative was as you would expect.
Then came the various native dynasties that eventually gave way to the French colonialists. There were miniature dioramas of battles between the locals and the Chinese, the Mongols and the Thais. In all of them the Vietnamese – of course – came out on top. Which causes one to wonder why they kept on being colonised. A mere technicality, I’m sure.
And that – apart from a rather bizarre mummy of a woman from the nineteenth century, and a beautiful collection of ceramics left to the state by a South Vietnamese gentleman in 1995 – was that.
It was worth the visit, but I left with the impression that the wars of independence in the country since the beginning of the Christian era were as important to the national narrative as the periods of peace. Most interesting was the first one, led by the formidable Trung Sisters. They overthrew the Chinese yoke at around the same time as Boadicea was laying waste to much of Roman Britain. Unfortunately, the sisters ultimately suffered the same fate as their Mercian counterpart, but only after three years of dominion. From which I conclude: never underestimate the women of Vietnam. Charming as they are, they have an inner Trung waiting to spring out when the occasion demands.
Apart from drive-bys past the other tourist attractions – the former US Embassy, where the last helicopters took off as the city fell, the Catholic Cathedral and the Post Office – we were done with Saigon. Were three days enough? Probably not, but it’s not the prettiest city in the region. It has all the noise and pollution of Bangkok without much of the Thai capital’s charm. But whatever its shortcomings, the delightful people we met more than made up for them.
Finally, a discovery. The Vietnamese language only uses words of one syllable. Is that a lesson for the rest of us polysyllabic windbags?
Next stop: Hanoi.