Revisiting Saigon

Saigon Skyline

Bus No. 125 was still running from Saigon’s airport to downtown when I arrived recently off a 90-minute Air Asia flight from Bangkok ($84). The airport had been spruced up since I last visited in 2007, and the severe-looking immigration officers in high-peaked Soviet-style military caps had been replaced by more pleasant-looking female officers. Before exiting the terminal I changed some Thai baht for Vietnamese dong, and heard the clerk say “6 million dong.” I heard right: the exchange rate is $1 to 21,000 dong so it’s easy to become a dong millionaire.

 

I managed to say “Pham Ngu Lao” to the bus driver who was looking at me questioningly, and he helped me stuff some dong notes into payment machine. I expect he already guessed my destination since anyone taking his bus would almost certainly be heading for the backpackers area of downtown known by its letters, PNL, an area of cheap hotels, travel agencies, restaurants and shops. Getting off the bus, I passed offers for $3/night dorm beds with fan, and booked into a place I knew from my last visit, the Spring House Hotel, with TV, A/C, elevator, breakfast, which also had a Buddhist prayer room on the roof, for a whopping $15.

 

I was anxious to leave Saigon, (which it is often called for convenience, rather than its post-war name, Ho Chi Minh City), but first I had a couple of errands to do. I wanted to experience again the challenge of stepping off a sidewalk in downtown Saigon into a continuous flow of mopeds, motorbikes, cycles as well as cars and trucks. If you don’t do it, you won’t get across until midnight since there are few traffic lights. So you step off and stride at a slow, even pace across the street. All the traffic flows around you. Do not stop.

 

Saigon looked more prosperous than during my last visit. There were new high- rise buildings downtown and cranes towered over building sites. The markets bustled. The economy was doing fine, growing at 6%.  However, the rainy season was due soon, and most tourists from Europe, China and Australia had gone home. Touts worked the streets in the tourist areas. “Woman for one hour? CDs?” I was asked. “Shoe shine, papa?” suggested a youngster as he swatted my sandals with a cloth.

 

I took a motorcycle taxi to the War Remnants Museum, the Vietnamese display of what they call the American War. The Lonely Planet guidebook author described the museum as unique, brutal, heartbreaking and as an essential stop. He added that it spoiled its story by propagandizing. That was not my impression when I visited in 2007, quite the opposite. Considering the Vietnamese loss of life (two million is the Vietnam Government figure), the effects of Agent Orange and the damage to terrain and property, I felt during my first visit that the display was remarkably restrained.

 

Younger Vietnamese are now one and a half generations removed from the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. The mood of the Vietnamese, mainly younger, visiting the War Remnants Museum was quiet and non-committal. There were no hostile glances at the Westerners. There was more visible sign of emotion in the tearful eyes and tight lips of some of the visiting American tourists. I wandered around the three-story building again. Gentle music played on a keyboard set the tone in the entrance hall, and a painting exhibition of Peace through Children’s Eyes filled an adjacent room.

 

I looked again, but more quickly than previously, at the wall displays on the ground floor, mainly newspaper picture blow-ups of US troops in action, including pictures of GIs posing with enemy skulls, one of a GI holding a shredded corpse, some Vietcong corpses being towed behind a tank. Pictures of war protests in the USA were followed by statements from countries from around the world, opposing US involvement.

 

On the second and third floors, an exhibit titled “Aggressive War Crimes” and a display of Agent Orange victims changed the tone of the display. Then a different display called Historic Truths enumerated US war casualties in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. An exhibition by war photographers who had died in the conflict added further to the message that this war lasted a long time and produced horrifying casualties.

 

My thought after my first visit was that US involvement was a tragic folly. This time, I saw that the display is biased, as the guidebook writer suggested, insofar as no Vietcong atrocities are featured. But, if you consider the imbalance of casualties, it is hardly surprising. I had had my shock from the sickening photographs the first time I visited the museum; but this time the repeated experience was equally depressing. I was anxious to head upcountry for a different experience.

 

My motorbike driver was waiting and I jumped on the back, and headed back to my hotel. Next day I was booked to take a sleeper bus into the Central Highlands, and I couldn’t wait for the mountain scenery and cool air.

Jim Glendinning About Jim Glendinning

I am a Footloose Scot who has traveled to 136 countries. "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Robert Louis Stevenson
Read about Jim Glendinning and his book Footloose Scot: Travels In A Time Of Change

Comments

  1. Great article! I had no idea that the War Remnants Museum was so biased. Keep up the good work.

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