It’s usually against my religion to travel domestically by air, but in Southeast Asia they make it so easy and cheap to fly that this time I sprung for the flight from De Nang to Ho Chi Minh City, 1/20th of the time it would take on the train or bus and almost the same price.
Landing in Ho Chi Minh was as expected, tons of traffic. However, I always enjoy the ride from the airport to my hotel. First impressions are everything. Other travelers had warned me that it’s contested and more modern than Hanoi, and it is. I ended up having a nice time the three days I spent in the city. My hotel was unsurprisingly in the budget backpacker district, close to everything and all modern conveniences, overpriced lattes, beer and manicures all at my fingertips, literally.
Strangely I was in the sightseeing mood and the first day I was there I visited the Reunification Palace. This is one of the main tourist attractions in Ho Chi Minh as much for its usual and progressive-at-the-time architecture as for it’s obvious political importance. The building is very square, laid out with much thought to lighting (and feng shui no doubt) and as my guide book described, something straight out of a James Bond film. I found the kitchen and eery basement particularly interesting. One of the main attractions is the roof which gives an amazing view of the wide French inspired boulevards of the city and the surrounding gardens.
After the Reunification Palace, I found my way to the War Remnants Museum. I knew this was not going to be an easy wonder through the exhibit, but I felt I could handle it. They start you off soft with the outer grounds packed with parked tanks, aircraft and even boats. Ok, easy enough. I’m sure that would be fascinating to a motorhead, but to me once you’ve seen one camouflaged fighter jet you’ve seen them all.
The first room off to the left is where they exhibited the “tiger cages”, low to the ground cells surrounded by rusted barbed wire. The prisoner only had space enough to crouch or lay down, all I am sure, in sweltering Vietnamese heat. Behind you are large posters of prison camps, gruesome torture tactics and impossible to look at photos. I am starting to doubt if I really can stomach this.
As I enter the main building I see an adult woman on a tricycle. Standing, she may only come past my knees. Some of the staff at the museum are victims of severe birth defects caused by Agent Orange and other highly toxic defoliants used during the Vietnam War, or as referred to in Vietnam, the American War. In other parts of my trip through Vietnam, I have visited workshops and artists co-ops that employ mentally and physically disabled people, again, many who are victims of war.
Some of the indoor exhibits of the War Remnants Museum consist of guns, ammunition and explosives. Most are detailed accounts of the misery of the Vietnam War, beginning with the history of the north and south divide, later the introduction of the Americans. This is a visual museum. Granted, there are title cards to read, but they are just aids to the intense images on the walls. Almost one whole room focuses on opposition rallies from all over the world, from Budapest to Rome, from Amsterdam to Delhi and of course from all over the US. A whole movement in the States was sparked from this war and you could see images of young men burning their draft cards, protests in the streets and even self mutilation in the name of peace. I found a picture of one young man named Roger Laporte. I don’t have a common last name, so seeing his surname and image was striking. As many Buddhist monks did to bring attention to the struggles and injustices, he doused himself in petrol and lit himself on fire.
However, the hardest room to walk through was the one displaying large photos of children and adults who are victims of Agent Orange and Napalm. It brings back the phrase “once you see, you can’t un-see” and these images will most likely be branded in my mind until I die, or get Alzheimers. Some of them were so difficult to look at that I would just look between the pictures. I could go on and on to describe the horror and gruesomeness, but I won’t. All I can say is that, I can’t believe the world let this happen, that the US government must have been so desperate to have resorted to this beyond evil war “tactic”, that this was straight up genocide and that sadly there are still people being born with severe deformities even today. These deadly toxic chemicals got into the land, into the water, into the DNA.
The rest of the museum shows journalistic photography of both American soldiers and Vietnam soldiers in the trenches, of the inexplicable misery of war and of course the people who suffer most, the civilians.
Leaving the War Remnant Museum feels like walking out of hell.
With the idea of cleansing my pallet and hoping to restore a little of my faith in humanity, I wanted to stop by the Xa Loi Pagada. I’m a Gen X-er and the cover of Rage Against the Machine’s self titled first album cover has always intrigued me. I remember thinking “that can’t be real”. How can someone sit there and let themself burn, without screaming or moving or stop, drop and rolling? The monk in the photo looks so peaceful and at ease. It’s otherworldly.
This is the famous image of Thich Quang Duc, a 66 year old monk from the Xa Loi monastery who in 1963 at the intersection of a busy Saigon road, dropped into deep meditation while fellow monks doused him in petrol and set him on fire. The act was in protest to then President Diem’s repression and murder of Buddhist monks. The image went around the world and even ended up on an “eF the establishment” rock band’s album cover. His photo is found in a small shrine in the temple.
There were small stools on the floor with books and as I sat there, the only tourist in the place, I watched as the congregation grew. Everyone dressed in a light grey robe. Me, I sat on the floor in my little black dress, trying to cover as much as possible. It was laundry day and this was what was clean. People stared inquisitively and one lady even gave me a green orange. I stayed and listened to the melodic prayers and chanting. It started to downpour outside. The scene was set and everything felt at peace. Such a contrast to my feelings and hour earlier.
After 45 minutes, I made my exit in the rain, miraculously catching a cab with the help of another foreigner and headed home to backpackerville for the night.