Thursday, October 16, 2008

Saigon Sojourn

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Who would ever have thought anyone would visit Vietnam? Yet, here we are spending a day in Saigon. Now officially called Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon is Vietnam’s largest metropolis which a population of approximately 10 million people. It seemed that each of them owns a motorcycle. Actually, our guide said that were about 4 million motorcycles or scooters in Saigon. They were all on the road today.

We had a little confusion at the start because our guide wasn’t at the dock, holding a sign, as promised. After we walked the length of the dock, D called the agency on his cell phone and was told the guide and car were already at the ship. We got it worked out – apparently she was at the souvenir stand rather than looking for us. This was not a good start.

The drive from Phu My [Foo May] to Saigon is about 70 km but takes almost 2 hours. The main road, the imaginatively named Highway Number 1, is a four lane road with a Jersey wall divider running almost its entire length. It is roughly paved and overwhelmed by traffic. It is crowded with cars, trucks and the aforementioned motorcycles and speeds never passed about 60 kph [36 mph] on the trip. The roadside was crammed with small shops and stalls selling everything to everybody. There were food stands which weren’t really good enough to be called restaurants; every type of commercial venture; and open-air markets selling primarily produce. The life of Vietnam could be seen on the roadside.

We’re still not sure if the guide gave us her name; the four of us agreed that we didn’t know it if she did. She also didn’t tell us much on the drive in. We did learn that the standard, government-approved building size for housing and merchants was now set at 5 m by 12 m [approx 16 ft x 38 feet]. This limitation resulted in the creation of three- and four-story buildings.

Our first stop today was the War Museum. Housed in the former United States Information Agency building, the museum presented the official Vietnamese perspective on their “recent unpleasantness,’” as our Southern friends might say. The people refer to the period as “the American War,” but the displays cast blame on everyone who wasn’t on the winning side. [Editorial: Is there ever really a winning side?] Not only the Americans, but the French and South Vietnamese are portrayed in a less than flattering light.

The first of the five buildings showed pictures and posters from the era. It was the History museum. Outside, in a central courtyard, were captured tanks, aircraft and helicopters while inside were articles damning the opposition participants. The exhibit showed, ironically, that history is in the eye of the beholder. The terms savior and invader depend on whether your side wins.

The second building housed exhibits of pictures by photographers who lost their lives recording the Vietnam conflict as far back as when it was the War in Indochina at the end of the French occupation. The fall of Dien Bien Phu ended one “war” but signaled the start of another. The photographers represented in this exhibit were both American and Vietnamese and included a writer/photographer responsible for Life magazine articles about the conflict as far back as 1964-65. This exhibit drew no overt conclusions but was all the more powerful because of that.

The largest exhibit was in the USIA building itself. There were sections on the combat; sections on Agent Orange and its lasting effects; sections on atrocities and the loss of life; and, finally, an art exhibit featuring pictures by teenagers which echoed the theme of universal peace. One could not be unmoved by the photos and text [which was in both Vietnamese and English]. Mass graves are hideous whether they are in Vietnam, the Sudan or Nazi Europe, and some of these pictures conjured up just that sort of brutality.

The fourth section was a recreation of the “tiger” cages used by the South Vietnamese forces to imprison special prisoners. The cells were small and crowded, packed with more captives in summer than winter. Prisoners were treated as poorly by the South Vietnamese as American captives were by the North. Included in the exhibit was a guillotine used on prisoners.

The last building contained anti-war propaganda from the period – photos, posters and home-made signs from anti-war demonstrations around the world but especially from the US. It was as if the government were thumbing its nose at the US and others for not listening to the protesters.

The guide had simply left us to wander on our own and reappeared an hour later with no explanation or reaction. She was definitely not on the same level as Pho from Hoi An. Our next stop was at an art gallery. We didn’t know why this was on the tour but we soon figured it out. Since the paintings were almost all impressionistic Western-style works, we knew that this was not a chance to see the history of Vietnam or its art; it was an attempt to sell us art work. We challenged the selection and left within five minutes. We drove to the main Post Office, done in the French style, and the Notre Dame Cathedral, which wasn’t open.

It was time for lunch by now, almost 12:30, and we wanted noodles. The guide directed the driver to an eatery which specialized in pho [fuh], the national dish. Pho is a noodle-filled broth which can also contained any kind of meat imaginable. It is served with cilantro, basil, mint, lime, bean sprouts, soy sauce and chili paste, and, ideally, the diner doctors the pho to his personal taste. We were a little leery of the fresh produce and we were relieved when the guide said not to use much of it because it might ot be cleaned to our standards. That was enough to keep us from using any of it although D did add chili paste to his. Ed and Roxanne both ordered pho with brisket, D got his with chicken and MA chosethe vegetarian so she got the most noodles. Ed had a beer and the rest had Cokes – no glasses, just straws. Better safe than sick. Anyway, we all enjoyed the meal. Once again, we were the only Westerners in the place, safely seated on the third floor where the air conditioner was. All three levels were packed, and we got the last table upstairs.

After lunch, Girl Guide reappeared and we went to the Ben Thanh market, a square block of indoor shopping. It was designed as a square-within-a-square. The outer square contained government sanctioned stalls where the prices were fixed. Goods for sale included handicrafts, clothes and textiles. We walked the entire outer square and assumed, later, that the guide had no choice. The inner square was full of private merchants selling much of the same type of products but more aggressively. Here, one was expected to bargain up to 40% off of the price, but we didn’t buy anything. We were fascinated by the produce available here because many if not most items are not readily available in the States. The odor from the produce was off-putting, to be polite, and we saw no meat or fish stalls. Lots of vendors tried to sell us shirts, pants, watches and textiles off the bolt, but we were brave and tired. After a short drive through the heart of Saigon’s European section – home to the opera, city hall and high-end retailers, we headed back to the ship and cold towels.

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