Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Exploring Saigon

Today left me feeling many things, both happy and sad, but mainly it left me feeling a deep respect for the resiliance and perserverance of the Vietnamese people when faced with huge challenges.
My day began with about a 4km walk from my hotel to the War Remnants Museum which documents many of the atocities of the Vietnam War (logically called the American War by the Vietnamese).  Unfortunately the museum closed for lunch just as I arrived, so I had an hour and half to wait before it reopened.
So as I was wondering what to do during that time, I was approached by an old man who was a cyclo driver (3-wheeled bikes following a similar principle to a rickshaw), asking me if I wanted a tour.  So away we went, and it was great.  The old guy (his name was Zhou or Xun I think - I didn't hear it clearly) was as cheerful as he was fit, and the leisurely pace of a cyclo is a perfect way to check out the sights of the city.
After the tour I was dropped off at a restaurant just around the corner from the museum where I had lunch.  The menu included such items as chicken testicles, pigeon, goat fat, pig intestines, fish belly, and sparrow.

After a good feed I finally made it into the War Remnants Museum when it reopened at 2pm.  Parked in the grounds at the front of the museum are a bunch of US military planes, helicopters, tanks and artillery from the war.  It was all very impressive in a "playground for grown-ups" kind of way.  Everyone was having their photo taken in front of a Chinook helicopter or F5 Jet fighter and the mood was light and fun. But stepping inside the museum, the mood changed dramatically.  The accounts, photographs and exhibits in the museum were very confronting and immensely saddening.  The museum almost exclusively details with the atrocities committed by the US, and much of the content unashamedly serves a political purpose, so don't come in here expecting to see a sensitive, objective, balanced assessment of things. But the fact it only shows one side of the coin doesn't seem to matter. War museums the world over show the same kind of bias.
What does matter is that most of the things explained in the museum really did happen, not to mention the many more terrible things that weren't covered by the museum.  No matter which flag you choose to wave, there simply is no justification possible for atrocities like those.
Of particular interest to me was a large exhibition called "Requiem" of news photographs from numerous photojournalists who were killed while reporting on the war at the time.  These include photographs that made the front page of newspapers and magazines around the world, many of them instantly recognisable as iconic and prize-winning photographs.  Seeing them presented together in a context such as this was very powerful.
I couldn't help but think back to Zhou (or Xun?) who had shown me around Saigon earlier in the day.  During our tour he was pointing out certain buildings and indicating their use during the war. He had lived through all of this and was talking from his own experience.

So after spending perhaps 3 hours at the war museum, I needed to go for another walk to clear my head.
Wandering around downtown Saigon is remarkable.  Every time I walk out the door I see the most unlikely things.  Whether it be uber-trendy western shops located beside rickety old eastern dives or men selling live aquarium fish from the back of motorbikes, this city is never dull.   Not only that but there is a sense of optimism in the air that I haven't felt in other S.E. Asian cities, like the city is riding the crest of a wave.  Every time I stop for a drink I meet somebody interesting.  It's hard to fathom how this place could ever be the setting for war.

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