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Report 18: Good everything, Vietnam

My first full day in Ho Chi Minh City I walked very purposefully with my excellent tour guide, Anh. First on our list of places was the Reunification Palace. Anh was able to explain to me—or rather—force me to guess (she must have known about my inner college bowl) the purpose and symbolism behind the design and furnishings in each room and every other item on display (yes I’m also rather good at tank origins, having survived the cold war.) And like a good test-taker I rose to the occasion, surprising her with my increasing accuracy (I really do know how to fake my way through tests. For example, yellow as a design color? Aid to digestion was just a lucky guess. But red? I mean there’s blood, power and Communism—pretty much all the same thing, right? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist.)

I would never have gone to this place but for Anh, and in her company, it was very interesting. This was originally a big colonial building and I believe it was the French seat of government here— how quickly this type of knowledge passes right through the brain. This late 1960s architectural feat that replaced that building (which no doubt fell victim to some awful event—since awful events were the name of the game here for most of the second half of the 20th century) is in fabulous shape and quite suited to the site. The North Vietnamese bombed it toward the end of the war (which is called The American War, here)–the act of a hero–who is now the President of Vietnam Airlines. The South Vietnamese government ruled from here and it was renamed The Reunification Palace when the country was reunited in 1975 (April 30—a public holiday.) You can’t walk up or down the main central staircase because of the bomb damage. You can go out on the roof, see the helipad and the marked areas where the bombs hit and enjoy a lovely leafy view of this bustling city.

We went to a charming little place for lunch—sort of like a beat jazz club Vietnamese style. (Very yummy food. These people love to eat and food is terrific, everywhere and extremely cheap. Street eats are very safe and clean. These are the folks who brought Pho to America and it’s amazingly restorative. It must replace all the stuff the heat sucks out of you.)

Then back to touring at the War Remnants Museum. That’s the official name for it but it really is the American War Guilt museum. For all the war and genocide museums I’ve been to, I hadn’t ever been to one where exhibits were labeled “ U.S. Aggressive War.” This was a horrifying and humbling place to visit. While it is a bit propagandistic, it’s hard to imagine any reason in the world that the US should have been involved in this war. It’s always important to remember that war is absolutely terrible. Another US traveler I ran into later agreed that the half floor+ on the effects of Agent Orange is the hardest to take and mind you, there was stiff competition. Not a nice place to be an American in Vietnam.

The French left their Guillotine (much used)


However the Vietnamese are very enthusiastic when I reply “USA” to their “Where you from?” I’ve heard two tales of planned immigrations (papers already in the works with a several year wait) accompanied by their pride in the family members who have already succeeded in their US transformations. The travel agent who booked my Mekong Delta Tour (a pleasant lazy day escape from busy HCMC) was very proud that his mother recently passed her citizenship test at 60. My morning-Pho-friend who showed me the stock exchange was proud of his med school niece. There is still a bit of a streets-paved-with-gold mystique here, but people know it’s hard work.

A bit of a tangent— Cambodians also were excited by my ”USA” answer (USA much easier to understand than America or United States.) Often my questioner was a tuk-tuk driver and whenever one of them heard my “USA” he would spin around and smile broadly, incanting “Obama.” This presidential travel thing really does impress people. Obama was the first US President to go to Cambodia.

The Vietnamese say “Bush” which doesn’t have the musicality of Obama and he’s a lot harder for me to embrace. But Bush/shrub visited Vietnam. It took a few times of running into this “Bush” recital before I “got” the exchange I had with a border guard.

I entered Vietnam by bus from Phnom Penh to HCMC. At the border we had to claim our luggage, give over our passports and walk the stuff through the x-ray machines—no easy matter for me as I was schlepping a load for mailing and had waaaay to much stuff. As I was loading it all up again and bracing myself for the hot hard walk back to the bus, the Vietnamese guard tried out his English with me.

“You from Texas.”

“Yes.” (for those of you who didn’t know this little factoid, my mother moved to Dallas 8 months pregnant. I had forgotten this info was on my passport, which he was handing back to me.)

Big smile: “George Bush!”

And note to the tangent–no tuk-tuks allowed in HCMC—too fast-moving a town with SUPER traffic issues but lanes that actually move ONLY in the direction they are intended to go. More small cars than Phnom Penh (almost no normal cars there) which was headquarters for the Lexus SUV. In Vietnam, Korean-everything is very popular: cars; motorcycles; fashion; pop music; makeup…

Back to my day with Anh: this was such a delightful welcome to a strange and yet familiar place. (Saigon Hotspot—college students that will tour you around HCMC for the chance to practice their English. I’ll arrange a similar tour of Hanoi when I get there.) Familiar in that all huge modern cities share certain things and can look a bit familiar. HCMC has lots of deciduous trees and tree lined parks. Parts echoed NYC; other parts LA; and traffic circles and colonial remnants scream Paris. But it’s always Vietnam!

And in case you were wondering, it’s hot as hell, if anything more humid than Phnom Penh, but with occasional breezes. Even the locals are too hot.